Who Review: World Enough and Time

The Doctor believes Missy really wants to shed her evil ways and become good, so he devises a test for her. The TARDIS picks up a distress call, and responds. Wherever they end up, the Missy will be “The Doctor” and lead Bill and Nardole in figuring out the problem, solving it, and saving lives, just as he would. Bill is not too thrilled about this plan. She doesn’t trust Missy and is afraid it’ll backfire. The Doctor assures her he will be monitoring the situation, and will intervene if things go awry. They land on a colony ship in distress. Missy, Bill, and Nardole determine that the ship is trying to pull away from the event horizon of a black hole, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. Then they are confronted by what seems to be sole survivor of a miles-long ship that was carrying hundreds of people. And he’s pointing a gun at them. The Doctor intervenes, but that doesn’t improve things. In fact, a shot is fired, and someone dies. They are taken to the lower part of the ship where they will be “repaired.” However, the ship is so long, there is a significant time difference between the two ends. But that’s not the only surprise waiting at the bottom of the ship. It seems the crew didn’t all die. At least not in the traditional sense. They too were repaired. And the ship isn’t from Earth, as they at first thought, but from a planet very like Earth–its twin, one could say. For both the Doctor and Missy, the past is about to catch up with them…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

The spoiler-free version of my review is as follows:

OH MY GOODNESS!! You… wh… huh?? Ha! Awwww!!! What?! Oh my! In other words, you will really want to watch this episode, and probably the next one too since it’s part one of a two-parter.

Now the spoilery version:

All season we’ve been promised the return of the Mondasian Cybermen–the original Cybermen from 1966–and John Simm as The Master. Steven Moffat decided to keep us waiting the whole season for the realization of his promise. And what a way to do it! I’ve said before in my reviews that Steven Moffat was by far the best writer of the Russell T. Davies era, but his writing suffered when he took on show-running duties. Some of his stories have been good, but others have been below par. His plots have tried too hard to be clever, and at times his attempts to be unconventional or surprising have resulted in stories that, to some degree, lack credulity. In this story, however, he gives us a Cyberman origins story (itself a daring move to make) that I can buy. On top of that, he throws in at least one twist that caught us all by surprise: Bill getting shot and turned into one of the first Cybermen.

There were other potential plot surprises: the return of the Mondasian Cybermen, and the return of the John Simm Master. If we had not known about these months ago, they would have been truly amazing surprises. The Master’s disguise as Razor is one of his best yet (some of his Classic Series disguises were quite… um… not impressive), and it took me a while before I started getting suspicious. Of course, if I hadn’t been expecting John Simm, I probably wouldn’t have been looking for him under the make-up, and that would have been a surprise of “Earthshock” proportions.

For his final finale, Moffat also took the opportunity to resolve an old issue among Whovians: “Doctor Who.” We know that’s the name of the show, but the title character has always been called “The Doctor,” except for a couple of instances where he is referred to as “Doctor Who.” The one that springs to mind most vividly is in the First Doctor story “The War Machines,” when WOTAN, the computer, says “Doctor Who is required.” So, which is it? Missy solves the problem for us: “Doctor Who” is his real name, or at least the name he originally chose. But it was too “on-the-nose” in the mystery department, so he shortened it to “The Doctor.” I think that’s as good an explanation as any, and probably better than most.

As we’ve come to expect with NuWho, the effects, scenery, costumes are all top-notch. I liked that the Twelfth Doctor’s sonic screwdriver doubles as a marker pen (watch for that in the shops in time for Christmas). The fact he carries a screwdriver around with him, not a gun, is so typically Doctor Who, so it only makes sense that there’s a pen hidden inside, not a knife. We aren’t told if the blue guy on the ship is of the same race as the blue people we met in “Oxygen,” but knowing Moffat’s penchant for arcs and self-referencing, I wouldn’t be surprised.

But what about Bill? Is that it for her? Is she now a Cyberman, i.e., for all intents and purposes, dead? Or will the Doctor do something to bring her back? As much as I’ve enjoyed Bill as a companion, as well as Pearl Mackie’s outstanding performance, I want to say that I hope not. I really do hope this is it for Bill. It was heartbreaking to see her get shot, and to be betrayed by Razor after all the time she spent with him while waiting for the Doctor. I think it would undermine the drama, and ruin the tone of the finale if she were to suddenly be brought back. And please… PLEASE… once she’s gone, let her be gone. All those Danny and Clara reappearances after their demises became really quite annoying in the last two seasons. Let them go, Steven. Kill your darlings and let them go.

This was an excellent episode of Doctor Who. I want to say “Must-See,” but it has a context. For the Whovians who know the show’s history, yes, this is “Must-See.” For everyone else, I would encourage you watch it. And I hope I can say the same for part two, “The Doctor Falls.” We’ll have to wait and see…

What did you think?

“No, Mr. Smith, I Mean… Where Are You *REALLY* From?”

This is a question I’m never asked, despite the fact I am an immigrant. I came to this country 25 years ago, and became a naturalized citizen 13 years ago (which is why I now spell “naturalized” with a “z”… which I still call a zed. What can I say? A leopard can’t change his alphabet). However, I came here from England; I’m white, and I look Western European, and English is my first language (albeit the Mother form of the American hybrid). Which, I believe, is largely why I don’t get asked that question. My original English accent has faded somewhat, but from time to time an astute listener will pick up on my enunciated “t”s, and that unmistakable sound of authority and intelligence, and infer that I’m not American born-and-bred. At that point in the conversation, the person might ask, “Where are you from?” But they often preface the question with a reference to my accent, and they never use “really“. Sometimes they hazard a guess that ranges from Australia to Scotland, with the more adventurous going for South Africa, though most of the time they figure it’s “the UK” or “Britain” (probably hedging their bets, just in case I’m actually from one of those weird sub-genres of English called “Welsh,” “Scottish,” or “Irish”). I don’t mind being asked, and I will talk quite freely and happily about my English-Irish-Scots-Welsh origins.

But not everyone feels that way. Especially if the person asked happens to have a non-English sounding name, and has English as a second, third, or fourth language, and is not white. I have to confess, I used to glibly ask people who don’t look or sound like me where they’re from, and would get a little frustrated when they would reply with some US city. I’m fascinated with foreign cultures and languages, and all I want to do is learn more about them first-hand. What’s the harm in that? After all, I don’t mind being asked about my British background!

To my surprise, there’s a lot of harm in asking. And I’m surprised that I’m surprised. Let me put myself in the shoes of someone who is a first generation immigrant to the US from a non-English-speaking country–maybe even non-white. I don’t look like everyone else, I don’t sound like everyone else, and all I want is to settle down, work, raise my family, and be treated just like everyone else. Then someone asks me where I’m from, and all of a sudden I’m different, foreign, maybe even not welcome. This feeling only intensifies if I’m second or third generation from a non-white country. I can sound like the natives, but I don’t look like them, and my name isn’t like any of their names. Still I get the “where are you from?” question.

Here’s my dilemma (speaking now as the white British-American dude): I want immigrants and their children to feel welcome, loved, part of society… but I also want them to feel good about their cultural roots, and be able to talk freely about being (or their family being) from China, Iran, or wherever, without at the same time feeling un-American. Watch Disney Channel for any length of time, and you’ll see their celebrities and viewers talk about their ethnic heritage, and celebrate cultural diversity. So why does this only seem to happen on television? How can I ask you “where are you from?” without making you feel uncomfortable?

The simple answer: I can’t. At least not when I meet you for the first, second, third, or perhaps even fifth time. The consensus opinion I have heard is that the only context in which I can get away with such a question is one of friendship and trust. I have to befriend you, so you know I care about you for who you are, that you are more to me than just an ethnic identity. Then, and only then, can we talk cultures and languages without anyone feeling judged. And the reason I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about my British heritage is thanks to a thing we call white privilege. That term is a hot potato in American society, but like it or not, in this case, it applies. Let’s be frank: because I’m a white English-speaking person, when someone asks me where I’m from, I’m not afraid they want to deport me, and I’m not afraid they think I’m a terrorist. The UK is a friendly country, and everyone loves the Brits and their wacky sense of humo(u)r and their Queen and Doctor Who and Monty Python, so I’m not going to get asked whether I’m from the “good” Korea, or whether I’m a communist, or what it’s like to live in a free country at last. The red carpet awaits me as soon as I open my mouth. Like it or not, that’s white privilege. I’m not happy about it. Not at all. It makes me boil, in fact. It’s sinful. But it’s real.

But what about my curiosity? People fascinate me, especially people who aren’t like me, and come from places that are strange to me. I want to learn. I want to understand. What’s wrong with that? Here’s what’s wrong with it: it’s fundamentally selfish. Is my curiosity more important than someone else’s feeling of security? Is my desire to learn more important than someone else’s desire to feel welcome and accepted for who they are? Maybe the answer is to treat people as fellow human beings first. When we love and appreciate one another as fellow creatures created in the image of God, maybe then we can celebrate our rich ethnic and cultural diversity without the shadow of fear and suspicion.

Just a thought. 🙂

PS: As I was considering this post, I came across an article on CNN.com by Tanzina Vega on the same subject. Here’s her take on “Where are you really from?”

Book Review: THE LAKE by Lotte and Søren Hammer

The skeleton of a young woman is discovered, tied to a stone, in a lake deep in the Danish countryside. The woman’s identity is a mystery; no one matching her description has been reported missing. After months of fruitless investigation by the local police force, a media scandal brings the case to nationwide attention and is quickly handed over to Konrad Simonsen and his team from the Copenhagen police force. It soon becomes clear that this unknown woman is the key to a sinister world of human trafficking, prostitution, and violence. A world where everything comes with a price and no mistake goes unpunished.

I was sent a copy of THE LAKE by a nice publicity person at Bloomsbury with the thought that I might review it. I don’t consider myself a book reviewer, though I review books… which I suppose makes me a book reviewer of sorts. But I certainly don’t review books simply because someone sent me the book asking me to review it. When people do that, there’s the assumption you’re going to love the book and write a glowing review, and if you don’t write a glowing review, feelings get hurt, you get nasty mail and defamatory Tweets and all that nonsense–I’d rather not go there. But if someone sends me a book, and I deem it worthy of a review, I’ll be glad to oblige.

In the case of THE LAKE, I have to say I didn’t fall in love with the book, but it was good, and had some features that made it worth reading, and of interest for a review. Let me start by saying that it is a translation from the original Danish. I have conflicting thoughts when it comes to books in translation. First, I know that when you translate, you never fully get across the author’s voice. It’s impossible, because you have to take their words and convey them in a language that doesn’t share the same idioms, cadence, grammatical structure, and so on, so aspects of the author’s style are bound to get lost. On the other hand, you don’t want the translator to simply render the whole novel as if it’s set in your culture, because then it becomes a different story “based on a novel by…” THE LAKE is translated by Charlotte Barslund, who is Danish by birth, but has lived in the UK for the past 33 years, so she is fluent in English. Her translation is a little stilted at times, but that was actually a good thing. The book is set in Denmark, and the characters are Danish, so it works that the English feels a bit ESL.

But there’s a twist! The English is actually British English, and the translator uses British idioms, even though this is the American edition of the book (published by Bloomsbury USA). “Of course!” you say. “Ms. Barslund has been living in the UK for the last 33 years.” But I find it interesting that Bloomsbury didn’t try to Americanize her work. Mathematics is “maths,” cell phones are “mobile phones,” colors are “colours,” and there are hundreds more little turns of phrase that reminded me of my homeland and made me smile. This is by no means a negative, but something for US readers to bear in mind.

But what about the story itself? This is the fourth novel to feature Konrad Simonsen, Detective Superintendent of the Copenhagen police. There are, in fact, seven novels in the series so far, but I think they’ve only got as far as translating the fourth, so this one is new to the English-speaking world (the original Danish title is PIGEN I SATANS MOSE, “The Girl in Satan’s Mose”–intriguing, huh?). I have not read any of the previous stories, so I came to this one not knowing any of the recurring characters–I presume the Countess, Arne Pederson, Pauline Berg, and Klavs Arnold have been in previous stories..? In any case, my lack of history with the series didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. The Hammers (a brother and sister writing team) gave as much background as necessary without long “catch-up” passages for those, like me, late to the party. Though I have to say, it didn’t feel as if Det. Simonsen was really the star of the show here. He is the lead investigator, but I didn’t find him and his Copenhagen police team nearly as interesting as the bad guys.

The book starts like an episode of “Columbo,” showing us the crime, and identifying the perpetrators, so we know up-front who did it and how. But there’s more to these criminals than this one horrible act. There’s a whole family business lurking in the background, and all kinds of intrigues and deviousness going on there. The daughter of the family, Benedikte Lerche-Larson, is perhaps the most fascinating character of the whole story. She is both the dutiful daughter, and also the head-strong independent woman, pursuing her education, and making herself integral to the business. She appears cold and amoral, doing whatever it takes to keep things going. And yet she risks it all getting emotionally invested in someone.

All the acts of violence in the story have connections to the main puzzle: the murder of the woman in the lake. And as Simonsen and his team gradually put the pieces together, they uncover something much larger, much more horrific, and more far-reaching than they could have imagined possible. We, the reader, are always ahead of the police, since we are given front-row seats to each criminal act–at least for the most part. The Hammers plotted the story well so all the pieces fit at the end. However, I didn’t find it at all predictable; while the ending is satisfying, it didn’t tie together as neatly as I expected. There’s one major loose end the police weren’t able to knot… and I daresay that will come back to haunt them in future stories.

To sum up, this is a well-plotted detective thriller (though I use “thriller” very lightly–there aren’t any car chases, shoot-outs, or moments of life-or-death tension for the good guys one might normally associate with the genre). There are some sexual situations, but given that human trafficking and prostitution are part of the story, that’s only to be expected. There aren’t any graphic sex scenes. The acts of violence are a bit brutal. With few exceptions, the language is fairly PG-13. Overall, I’d rate the book an R, because of the subject matter and the violence. It’s a borderline 4-Goodreads-stars novel, but I would have liked to have had more sympathy and connection with the lead character, so to be fair I’ll have to give it 3 stars. Nevertheless, a good read, and one I’d recommend to fans of detective fiction.

THE LAKE will be released in the US on July 3, 2017. You can pre-order it now.

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting article on The Invisibility of the Translator by Stefan Kielbasiewicz from Asymptotejournal.com.

Who Review: The Eaters of Light

The TARDIS lands in second century Aberdeen, where Bill wants to prove a theory to the Doctor. The history books talk of the disappearance of the ninth Roman legion, but Bill is convinced they just vanished, or left. The Doctor counters that they were annihilated in battle, even though no physical evidence of their existence has ever been found. However, the missing legion soon comes to light. The Doctor and Nardole find their shriveled remains scattered across a field near the woods. Death by light deprivation. Meanwhile, Bill manages to find the remnants of the army: a small group of frightened teenagers living in underground caves. They rescue her from the mysterious monster that has been tormenting them, driving them into hiding. That strange creature with glowing tentacles wiped out almost the entire legion. And now it’s coming for them. The Scottish Picts are also living in fear. It was they that set the monster on the marauding Romans, but that monster is now loose, and, as the Doctor and Nardole explain to them, unless that monster is sent back to where it belongs, the sun, the stars, and life on Earth is doomed.

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

The big story with Episode 10 of Season 10 is that it was written by Classic Series writer Rona Monro–not only one of the few women to write for the Classic Series, but the woman who wrote the last story of the Classic Series, “Survival.” We’ve had Classic Series Doctors, companions, monsters, and directors, returning to the New Series, but Rona is the first returning writer. I don’t know why there’s been such a hesitation over the last 12 years to bring back Classic Series writers. Maybe they’ve all moved on and are not interested (some of them have, sadly, moved on permanently and are not able), or maybe the New Series production team didn’t think the Classic writers could handle the new style and new format. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see a familiar name, and I hope this is the start of a trend. There were some talented writers emerging in the late 80s, some of whom plied their skill post-TV Who in the Virgin and BBC book ranges. I think they would do well with the New Series. We’ll see.

That said, I was hoping “The Eaters of Light” would be the knock-out, best episode of the season. It’s good, very good, in fact. For a start, it’s an interesting premise for a story: settling a historical argument. After all, Bill just has to produce a Roman soldier to show they lived, and the Doctor just has to find a battlefield littered with bodies. And so they go their separate ways, not a care that they might be walking into danger. Which, of course, they are. The Doctor and Nardole end up with the native Picts, while Bill ends up with the Roman invaders. The Doctor had mentioned before that the Picts liked to tell stories of other worlds, and they created cairns believing them to be portals to those other worlds. Except one of them actually is, and the young Pict leader, Kar, was guarding the cairn, but opened it for the monster to get out and destroy the Romans. The Doctor isn’t shy about making sure she understands the stupidity of what she has done. And that stirs her resolve to make it right.

When Bill first encounters a Roman soldier, she laments not learning Latin so she could speak to him. But then she discovers that he can understand her–she is speaking Latin though it all sounds to her like English. Then later, when Bill and the Doctor bring the Picts and the Romans together, Bill notes she can understand them both, and they can understand each other. Long-time Whovians are well aware of the TARDIS translation capability, and Bill figures out this strange telepathic power is somehow connected to the Doctor. The other eye-opening insight Bill gets is how much a common language levels the playing field. Indeed, when the Picts and the Romans all speak English (to her ears, at least), they sound much more their age. From that develops a plan for the two former belligerents to join forces against a common foe: the monster.

In the end, when they force the monster back through the portal, we expect the Doctor to volunteer as gatekeeper, keeping back the monsters. Of course, he would be there for a long time, but the TARDIS will take Bill home. After all, the Doctor can regenerate, and guarding humanity is what he does. But neither Bill, nor the Picts are having any of that. Indeed, the young Pict leader steps forward and claims it as her duty. The young Roman leader volunteers to stand with her. And indeed, all the Romans and Picts are ready to keep the monsters at bay. It’s all very heart-warming, though I’m not sure how that would work. The Doctor offered his services because, as a Time Lord, he has an infinitely greater life span than all those humans put together. I’m not sure how that suddenly became irrelevant. Granted, time slows down in the portal, so a couple of minutes becomes a couple of days. But that still means the humans will only be able to guard the gateway for a very limited time. Nevertheless, the Doctor is forced to accept the humans’ view of things, and he leaves them to get on with it.

I thought the crow noise was a nice touch. We are told early on how the crows in those days talk. They say “Doctor” and “Monster,” though we hear them say little else. The Doctor laments that the crows got fed up of humans not talking back to them, which is why in Bill’s time they just sound grumpy. By the end of the story, we know the real reason for the sound they make.

So, “Eaters of Light” is a good story, and fits in with the other good stories this season. But it’s not a classic or “Must-See.” Rona Munro lived up to the expectation of giving us a good story, with interesting, well-crafted characters, and a good plot. But it’s not exceptional, which is a bit of a disappointment. However, it’s good enough, I think, to consider bringing back other Classic show writers.

The end tag with Missy is interesting. Is she really remorseful? Was that tear a crocodile tear, or was it genuine? Could it be she’s softening, and truly desires a restoration of the friendship she used to have with the Doctor back in their Academy days? Is this something the John Simm Master will have to snap her out of? Whatever’s going on, Steven Moffat is setting us up for an explosive finale, which begins with the next episode…

Did you enjoy this episode? Are you excited for the next? Thoughts? Theories? Share!

Who Review: Empress of Mars

The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole infiltrate NASA to watch the first pictures sent from a probe orbiting Mars. This probe is equipped with new technology that can “see” beneath the Red Planet’s ice caps. To their surprise, they discover a message spelled out with rocks, a message that indicates humans had already visited the planet. Not just humans, but British humans. The TARDIS team take a trip to Mars, traveling back in time to 1881–the year the message was made. There they find a team of Victorian soldiers, with an unlikely man-servant whom they have named “Friday.” He’s an Ice Warrior, one of the native inhabitants of Mars. But why is this noble warrior willing to trade his freedom for no apparent gain? Indeed, he has not only given shelter to these human soldiers, but has also given them a powerful blasting tool, allowing them to mine the planet for its precious metals and gems. The Doctor smells trouble, and his suspicions are confirmed when the soldiers uncover what appears to be the tomb of an Ice Warrior queen. The tomb is gilded, or possibly made entirely of gold, with jewels set around the edges. Enough to make any poor, greedy Victorian soldier drool. The Doctor fears this may not be the final repose of the dead, but merely a chamber for the sleeping. And if awakened, there may not be just a queen to deal with, but a whole hive of waking Ice Warriors. The Doctor’s warnings go unheeded, and he and Bill can only watch as his fears come true…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

We last saw the Ice Warriors in Matt Smith’s final season when Mark Gatiss brought them back in a story called “Cold War.” In that episode, the Doctor, Clara, and the crew of a Russian submarine encountered a single Ice Warrior, separated from his kin by thousands of miles, and thousands of years. Aways looking for a new angle on old foes, Gatiss pits the Doctor against an Ice Warrior queen on the Ice Warriors’ home planet. Neither of these–a female Ice Warrior, and the Ice Warriors at home–have featured in previous stories. As is befitting a Victorian setting, the Victorian soldiers have come to Mars to colonize and claim it for Britannia. They got there thanks to a lone Ice Warrior who crash landed in the South African veld (sometimes spelled “veldt”–a term that refers to the South African plains), where these soldiers were stationed. In return for helping him fix his ship, the Ice Warrior promised to take them to Mars and reward them with the mineral riches of his world. When the Doctor meets the soldiers, they are mining Mars with the equipment provided by the Ice Warrior. Knowing the Ice Warriors of old, the Doctor is troubled by this, and immediately suspects an ulterior motive. When they eventually stumble upon the tomb of Iraxxa, the warrior queen, surrounded by a hive of Ice Warriors that kind-of resembles the icy tombs of the Cybermen (as seen in “Tomb of the Cybermen” and “Attack of the Cybermen” in the Classic Series), the Doctor’s suspicions are confirmed. The Ice Warrior wanted to return to his hive, and made use of the soldiers to that end. The hive has been frozen for 5,000 years and is long overdue a wake-up call. However, while the hive has slept, Mars has become a desolate wasteland, and no longer suitable for their habitation. All this comes as a shock to the queen, but the Doctor hopes to use the Ice Warriors’ situation to bring about a peaceful end.

This was a good story, though not one you want to spend too long picking at. If you take it all at face value, it works well enough. But you don’t want to ask questions like:

  • Why was this lone Ice Warrior away from his hive, while the rest of them slept for 5,000 years?
  • How could Victorian soldiers help an Ice Warrior repair his space ship?
  • Why did the Ice Warrior need these soldiers to get to his hive? Couldn’t he have used the mining device himself?

Of course, these questions might have been addressed and I wasn’t paying attention. Still, it’s an interesting idea, i.e., Victorian soldiers on Mars. It’s a shame it doesn’t have enough time to develop fully, which is why some of these plot holes get glossed over. I was afraid we were going to get another “non-enemy” story, where the bad guys aren’t really bad, just misunderstood. The Ice Warriors aren’t really bloodthirsty, power-hungry Martians, as their name might suggest. Rather, they’re just another alien species trying to survive in a rough universe. If you’ve read my past reviews, you know I like my baddies to be bad, so I struggle with the idea of this warrior race being so easily talked into peace. But I can give this story a pass since it seems to be a prequel to the 1970s “Peladon” stories (“The Curse of Peladon” and “The Monster of Peladon”), where the Ice Warriors have joined the Galactic Federation, and are now trying to be play nice with the rest of the universe. Gatiss is perhaps suggesting that this incident, where the Martians are forced off their home world, is what precipitated their change of heart.

As usual for New Who in the 2010s, the effects and the acting are exceptional. The Ice Warrior costume was always one of the more impressive designs of the Classic Series (even in the 1960s), and New Who tries to stay close to the original concept, with some enhancements. The empress is a bit screechy, almost to the point of annoying. Her voice reminds me of the Racnoss, the red spider encountered by the Tenth Doctor in “The Runaway Bride.” I guess if you’re a woman trying to do a shouty-hissy kind of voice, it’s hard not to get a bit raspy. Aside from that, Adele Lynch does well as the lead baddie, especially considering she doesn’t have huge TV resume (at least according to IMDB). Another new talent “discovery” for New Who?

I can’t leave this review without calling attention to a couple of particularly cool references. First, did you spot the painting of Queen Victoria? If you’ve been watching New Who, you might recognize the portrait as that of the Pauline Collins Queen Victoria from “Tooth and Claw.” This is only right and proper, since that’s what Queen Vic looks like in the Whoniverse. A great piece of thoughtful continuity. And then there’s a cameo at the end that made my Whovian fan-boy heart flutter. I won’t give it away, but I will note that the voice was done by the same person who did it in the Classic Series. That person is 92 now, making them the oldest returning Classic Who cast member.

When the TARDIS crew first lands on Mars, Bill falls down a shaft, and the Doctor sends Nardole back to the TARDIS for some rope. As soon as he enters, the TARDIS dematerializes, taking him back to the Doctor’s university quarters. Why did the TARDIS do this? Apparently, Mark Gatiss wrote “Empress of Mars” before Nardole became a regular character, so this was how he wrote him out. At first it looks like we’re just getting rid of Nardole to simplify the story. Okay, technically we are. But Gatiss and Moffat use this happenstance very creatively when Nardole then appeals to Missy for help to get the temperamental TARDIS back to Mars in 1881, playing into the broader Missy/Vault story arc. Nardole gives Missy use of the TARDIS, and she successfully navigates it to Mars, where they pick up the Doctor and Bill.

But now Missy is out of the vault. And what’s that look she gives the Doctor? Why does she keep asking if he’s all right? Does she have something to do with the TARDIS going wonky in the first place…?

“Empress of Mars” is a good story, worthy of the season. Not one of the best, and not one that will stand heavy scrutiny, but worth watching.

What did you think?

It Was 50 Years Ago… this Past Week…ish…

Okay, so it doesn’t have quite the same ring as the opening line of the album, but yes, this past week (Thursday and Friday) marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles landmark album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” According to my resources, the official release date was June 1, 1967 in the UK, and June 2, 1967 in the US. Others may say differently, but this is my blog, so we’ll go with what I’ve always known. Don’t mess with my memories, okay?!

Over the past few years of this blog, I have alluded to having somewhat of a preference for the Beatles’ music, so it would be remiss of me to let this moment in history pass without saying a word. One might argue I did let it pass by not posting something last Friday. Well… I’m here now. Better late than never. Man, you people are sassy today!

I’ve been trying to remember when I first purchased the Sgt. Pepper album (as one does when one is trying to be productive). It was the first Beatles album I bought. I remember surveying a number of parents (one, to be precise–my Dad… and maybe a couple of his friends) to determine which Beatles album should be my first. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, my Beatles fandom began with the assassination of John Lennon. But I didn’t immediately run out and buy a bunch of Beatles records. I was only 10, so I didn’t have that kind of money. Also, it was on the Six O’clock News, and the record shops usually closed by 5:30. Rather than make me an overnight Beatles devotee, that event heightened my Beatles awareness. As 1981 unfolded, however, my appreciation for the Fab Four developed.

Have you ever tried to remember when something happened by reconstructing events around it? “I know it was after that time because I didn’t have that…” or “It was before then because we were living here…” Since I have no written record of the day I walked into that record shop (was it Woolworths, or Chadds… or somewhere else?), I have to reconstruct.

Spring-ish, 1981: Trip to the Isle of Wight. This was a class trip that the final year students at my primary school took. Our teacher was the awesome Mr. Jim Cobbett, AKA The Best Teacher I’ve Ever Had. With his awesomeness on full display, he tried getting us into the mood and spirit of the forthcoming trip by having us re-write the lyrics to the Beatles song “Ticket to Ride,” but as “Ticket to Ryde” (Ryde being a port town on the Isle of Wight where, as I recall, our ferry from the mainland would be docking). To assist the Philistines in our classroom of eleven-year-olds, he brought in his copy of “Help!” and played us the original. I’m pretty certain at this point I didn’t own any Beatles records, but thought it cool Mr. Cobbett liked The Beatles.

Spring/Summer 1981: Stars on 45–the Beatles Medley, a single that made a big splash in the UK charts, and even made number one in the US. Recorded by Dutch producer Jaap Egermont and a bunch of sound-alike session musicians, “Stars on 45” was a medley of Beatles songs played to a constant, incessant, beat-clap drum track. It started a medley craze in the UK during the early 1980s, with everything being made into a medley from classical music (“Hooked on Classics”) to the Beach Boys, to Stevie Wonder, to the phone book… okay, maybe not the phone book. But you get my drift. The point here is that those little snippets of Beatles songs only fanned the flame of fandom (see what I did there? 🙂 ). Some of the songs I knew from the fact I was alive, and anyone with a heartbeat in the UK at that time knew at least a couple of Beatles songs. Others I didn’t know at all and was curious.

Christmas 1981: I’m as sure as I can be that this was when “Santa” got me the Red and Blue double-album compilations. On reflection, these albums (which are available on CD and download now) are the best introduction to the Beatles’ music a n00b could ask for. The Red album covers 1962-1966, the Blue 1967-1970, and between them you get all the Beatles singles, plus some notable album tracks. “Sgt. Pepper” is represented by the title track, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and “A Day in the Life.” I recorded all four LPs to cassette (two cassettes, one for each collection), and would play them on my bedside tape player as I was going to sleep. There’s nothing like being half asleep while the middle section of “A Day in the Life” plays. It still gives me warm fuzzies thinking about it today. Anyway, those four songs are all I knew of Sgt. Pepper at that time.

 

Summer 1982: We went to Ireland and stayed with my aunt, uncle, and cousins for a few weeks. At the time of this trip, I had the book SHOUT! by Philip Norman, my first Beatles book (not the most accurate history of the Beatles and their times), and I purchased Paul McCartney’s single “Take It Away,” which was new to the charts. I’m confident I had Sgt. Pepper by this time.

1993: I remember taking a briefcase into school one day that contained all my Beatles albums for a friend to look at. Not only did I have them all, I knew them all well. It was also this year that I started collecting the Beatles singles, ordering them one at a time from my favorite local retailer. Each week I would order a single and pick up the one I ordered the previous week. Oh how Amazon has spoiled us!

In conclusion, after all that rabbit trailing down memory lane, I’m convinced I purchased Sgt. Pepper sometime in 1982, probably Spring or Summer. Of course I couldn’t buy just any old copy:

I did later get the “proper” version:

So there’s my tribute to Sgt Pepper. Some day I’ll talk about the songs. What I won’t talk about is how I bought the CD in 1987 when we were celebrating 20 years since it came out. That’ll just make me feel old…

Who Review: The Lie of the Land

As a result of events in the previous story (see “The Pyramid at the End of the World”), the world has been taken over by the Monks, and all the inhabitants of Earth have been brainwashed to believe that the Monks have always been there. Every significant event in the development of the human race was inspired and encouraged by the Monks. Without the Monks, mankind would have died out centuries ago. At least, that’s what people are being told to believe. And on the basis of this “truth,” the inhabitants of Earth are willing to subjugate themselves to their benevolent dictators. After all, isn’t that how it’s always been? “Truth” deniers are sent away to labor camp, or executed. Yet somehow, Bill has survived, holding out hope that the Doctor will save the day. That the images of the Doctor reinforcing the history of the world as told by the Monks is just a ruse, part of some grand scheme he has to bring them down and set the human race free. He can’t really be working for the Monks. Can he…? Bill is about to learn some very uncomfortable truths. And an unlikely ally will give her the secret to defeating the Monks. But will it be worth the price?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

This episode is the third in the “Truth Monk” trilogy–which is what I expect this will be called. Last time, Bill ceded control of the Earth to the Monks in exchange for the Doctor’s eyesight, which enabled him to escape the exploding test lab. Throughout that story, the Doctor warned people not to relinquish control to the Monks. The price would be too heavy; whatever would happen to the world, it would be worth it not to give control over to the Monks. But Bill ignored him…

Now the world is under the Monk’s control. But they took a sneaky way in, by means of transmitters in every city that fill everyone’s minds with the idea that the Monks have been around from the beginning of time, even though they’d only been around for six months. Bill knew the truth, however. And to make sure she didn’t forget, she created an “imaginary friend” version of her deceased mother to talk to. In the tradition of the best Who writing, this seemingly daft, but touching tribute to Bill’s mum proved to be the Monk’s downfall.

Yes, this is another great piece of Who story telling. It’s a shame Peter Capaldi couldn’t have had two previous seasons as good as this. Season nine was good, but not as consistent, and it suffered from Clara, “the impossible girl who we now totally understand but don’t know what to do with.” (Don’t get me wrong, Jenna Coleman was great, but they should have left the reveal about the “impossible girl” until the end of her time on the show, i.e., last season.) Brilliant writing, and two phenomenally good actors firing on all cylinders, is making this season one of the best of the Moffat era, at least as good as Season Seven–Matt Smith’s last, oddly enough.

I don’t know about you, but I’m warming to Nardole a lot. At first I thought he would just be a plot device, or some useless comic relief. But I think his character truly compliments the TARDIS team. Matt Lucas plays him with just the right amount of comedy: enough to bring a smile, but not too much that it detracts from the drama. And he’s not simply the Curly of the trio. He’s smart, and actually offers ideas and encouragement to the team. In this episode, he makes use of an electronic tracer he found in the TARDIS to help him and Bill find the Doctor. Of course, it turns out this was all part of the Doctor’s scheme to escape from the Monks, so the Doctor may well have told him where to find it. Even so, Nardole sold the idea to Bill as if it was his own, and in his lovably charming way, convinced her to go along with the plan.

And then we have Missy, the monster in the vault. Bill’s reaction to her is great, because she does look like a harmless woman. But I think she becomes convinced listening to Missy talk, especially when she reveals how to stop the Monks. I’m not a fan of the Missy-Master, but I have to hand it to Michelle Gomez for really selling the character as extremely dangerous without having to argue the case; just by the way she talks, and her mannerisms. Superbly done. But the tears at the end, when she and the Doctor are talking–is she really beginning to regret her past? It’s hard to believe, but maybe she does start to turn good, which is where the John Simm Master comes in…? We’ll have to wait and see, I guess. 🙂

Two thumbs-up from me for this story. I hope the season continues on this roll.

What did you think?

By the way, have you noticed the retro posters I’ve been using for each New Who story over the past few years? They’re designed by Stuart Manning, a freelance graphic designer based in London. The “Truth Monks” poster used in this story, and featured above, was actually commissioned from Stuart by BBC Worldwide! For my indie writer friends, Stuart also does cover artwork. His is top-quality work (as you can see), so I imagine he doesn’t come cheap. But I bet your books would look awesome with one of his designs. Worth an inquiry…)

Who Review: The Pyramid at the End of the World

The world is in crisis. A 5,000 year old pyramid has suddenly appeared in the Asian desert, at a disputed border where Russian, Chinese, and American troops are stationed. The Secretary General of the United Nations calls upon the Doctor to find out who is in control of the pyramid, and what they want. It doesn’t take long for the Doctor to get some answers. The monks from the Vatican vault, the ones who have been running a simulation of the planet in preparation for an attack (see “Extremis”), have come to set a countdown to doomsday. The Doctor, Bill, and the leaders of the Russian, Chinese, and American military enter the pyramid, where the monks invite them to glimpse the Earth in a year, according to their model. They see a picture of desolation; all living organisms wiped out. And, the monks explain, it will be by their own hands, their own doing. But the monks can prevent it happening. All they want is for those in authority to ask for help, to consent to the monks intervening, and to do so with pure motive. The Doctor smells a rat, a devil’s deal. No-one knows what this “consent” will entail. And yet there seems to be no other choice. With the world powers ready to cede control to the monks, the Doctor has to find out what will bring about the Earth’s demise and stop it, before it’s too late…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Last time, Bill’s attempt at a date was thwarted by the Pope. This time, it’s the Secretary General of the UN, who needs Bill to help him find the Doctor. A fun piece of continuity, and not inappropriate since this episode continues on from the last. It’s not a “part 2” however, since the last episode didn’t really end on a cliff-hanger. Unless you count the Doctor vowing to fight back against the monks as a “cliff-hanger.” Though he doesn’t take the fight to them in this story; they bring the fight to Earth, and the Doctor has to deal with it. So, let’s call it a new story, intimately connected to the previous story. Maybe part two of a duology (though I think the next episode is connected too, so part two of a trilogy!) You don’t have to have seen “Extremis” to follow along, but it helps.

I have to say, I was a little wary at first. When Doctor Who brings in world leaders, the military, and global politics, you can almost smell a message in the air. And it’s usually a message of the “why can’t we all get along?” and “love wins” variety. In itself, that’s not a bad thing, but it gets to be predictable, and invokes stereotypes (American aggression being the most popular), and can be hopelessly simplistic. However, this story doesn’t do that. It’s not the military leaders who vote for a show of strength, but the Doctor. It’s on his command that they send missiles and war planes. All to no avail, of course. And faced with the prospect of a desolate Earth, it’s the leaders who agree to accept the monks’ offer, despite the Doctor’s protests. However, they give the Doctor time to find the cause of the impending disaster and prevent it. But if he doesn’t find it soon, they will consent.

This situation creates another ticking clock, so we have both the countdown to “midnight”–doomsday hour–and the countdown to the leaders’ submission. The Doctor races against the odds to find a laboratory in Yorkshire where a lab worker recovering from a rough night makes a critical error with a decimal point, creating a lethal bacteria, resulting in a shutdown of the lab to try to contain the disaster. However, the air vent system is due to go off in twenty minutes, which will release the bacteria into the atmosphere. Another ticking clock. This is how you build tension. Three ticking clocks. And let’s not forget, the Doctor is working blind. Literally. And that will prove to be his downfall. He successfully plants a bomb that will destroy the virus. But he can’t escape from the air controlled environment without entering a number sequence into the lock. And to enter the correct sequence, he needs to be able to see the numbers. He has a little over a minute to escape before he goes down with the bacteria.

This is how you turn a story where you think you know what’s going to happen into a story where everything you thought was going to happen gets turned on its head. And right when you think the Doctor’s going to save the world at the last minute, he doesn’t. Bill does. And she does it by doing exactly what the Doctor has been saying all along no-one should do. And she does it for love, for the Doctor. Which sets us up nicely for the aftermath of Bill’s actions, which I presume we’ll see in next week’s thrilling adventure.

Another good episode of Doctor Who, worth watching, even if I’ve given away most of the plot (sorry–but good storytelling is worth talking about). And though there is a resolution to the story, it’s one that leaves us with a lot of questions. What will happen to planet Earth now? And what will become of Nardole, who clearly is suffering from having inhaled some of the bacteria? Will the Doctor regret getting Nardole’s lungs “on the cheap”? Is this the cost alluded to by the Doctor last time with regard to getting his sight back? And who are these menacing monks who want to wipe out life on Earth and take over? I guess we’ll have to wait to find out…

Did you enjoy this story? What did you like best or least? Let’s talk…

Who Review: Extremis

Deep in the Vatican vaults lies an ancient text, in an ancient language lost to the ages. Called “Veritas,” it’s a dangerous text. Those in times past who could read it have taken their own lives, a mortal sin in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. What could be so terrible that people would put their souls in jeopardy, would prefer hell, than to go on living after discovering what the text says? In more recent times, a team of people managed to translate this short document. And one by one, they all killed themselves afterwards. But before the last man ended his life, he emailed the translation. Now the deadliest written work known to mankind is out in the public. And the Vatican is scared. So scared, they call upon the Doctor. Can the Doctor read the text, discover its secret, and save the world? How can the Doctor refuse? There is, of course, the fact that he’s blind. To the Doctor, not being able to see is a mere hindrance when the stakes are so high. But he doesn’t yet realize how devastating the truth is, and the price he may have to pay to save the universe…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Steven Moffat gives us an interesting brain-twister of an episode as we hit the mid-way point of New Who Series 10. It is, in fact, two story strands that join up at the end. The first reveals the mystery of the vault that the Doctor’s guarding in the basement of St. Luke’s University. At some unspecified time in the past, the Doctor is called upon to execute a fellow Time Lord convicted of capital offenses. That Time Lord is Missy. And the execution device will stop her hearts, stop brain activity, and rob her of the ability to regenerate. But she’s a Time Lord, and one who has been known to cheat death on numerous occasions, so the Doctor takes an oath to guard her body for 1,000 years–just to be sure. Of course, the Doctor has done some rewiring, so the device doesn’t kill Missy. However, the Doctor, true to his oath, puts Missy in the vault, where she remains.

The second strand is the main plot of this episode: the mysterious “Veritas” text, and why it is causing people to kill themselves. The premise isn’t new to sci-fi, but this is an interesting setting for it, with an interesting twist. What if reality as we know it isn’t real, but a simulation, and because we don’t know any better, we carry on as if it’s reality? Now–what would we do if we found out the truth, and were given a way to demonstrate that it’s true? Many people, thinks Moffat, would be driven to rebel by killing themselves. Some would carry on regardless. And some, like the Doctor, would fight back. Especially when they discover the purpose of the simulation.

Why the Vatican? At first I wondered if Moffat was getting all Da Vinci Code, and maybe Dan Brown’s novel was partly influential. But, to be honest, the Roman Catholic Church sets itself up for this by the very nature of its own bureaucracy and secrecy. I don’t take this as a slam against my faith because, as a Christian of the Reformed persuasion, the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t represent my beliefs. There is no secrecy to the gospel. And the Doctor’s quip that religion is like the Vatican vault, where “the layout is designed to confuse the uninitiated,” is perhaps true of Roman Catholic tradition, dogma, and ritual, but that’s not Biblical Christianity. Suffice to say, I took no offense from the “religion” content in the story.

I think Moffat did a good job here. There’s credible, witty, and thoughful dialog, a strong plot, and plenty to keep the viewer intrigued. I also like the way he made the Vault reveal seem gratuitous, until the end when it’s clear the Doctor’s going to need Missy’s help. I thought he pulled those strands together well, though the next few stories will tell how well they hold. He threw in a couple of things that might come back later as significant (something Moffat likes to do). For instance, when the Doctor hooks himself up to the box that temporarily restores his sight, he refers to it as “borrowed” tech from the future, for which he will have to pay somehow–permanent blindness, loss of regenerative power, or something else… He also brought back the sonic sunglasses, only this time they are of practical value, so no complaints from me.

As far as acting and special effects go, I couldn’t fault this episode. Pearl Mackie continues to impress with her portrayal of Bill. Certainly one of the best New Series leading ladies so far, by my reckoning. I’d be very surprised if the offers aren’t pouring in when she’s finished with Who. Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas also continue to deliver solid, believable performances. I even appreciate Nardole’s comic interjections, partly because there’s a gravity to them. He’s not funny to make light, but because he’s scared and genuinely concerned for his friends. It’s a very human reaction, and it adds depth to his character.

“Extremis” is not Moffat’s best, but it’s a very good addition to a great season so far. Worth watching.

How Cool Is That?!

Someone… well, not just someone, but my writer friend John Frain (who spent the month of April being murdered) pointed out to me that I’m in the current (July – August, 2017) issue of Writer’s Digest. I posted a comment on Twitter about Barbara Poelle’s excellent “Funny You Should Ask” column in the previous issue, and the editors decided to include that comment in their “Spotted on Twitter” section (p. 8):

OK, so it’s not like having a story published, or being the subject of an author interview, but it’s cool nonetheless.

Thanks, John, for drawing my attention to it. And to Writer’s Digest for giving me a few seconds of fame. 🙂