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Who Review: Oxygen

“Space, the final frontier. Final, because it wants to kill us.” Against Nardole’s better judgment, and contrary to the oath he took to guard the vault, the Doctor takes Bill and Nardole for a trip into space. And of all the places he could have chosen, of course, the Doctor picks the one with the distress signal. A mining ship is having problems with its space suits. Designed for best economic efficiency, the suits are programmed to deliver a limited amount of oxygen before the wearer has to buy more. Any unlicensed oxygen will be filtered out of the suit, killing the occupant. However, the suits on this ship have received a single line command: “Deactivate your organic component.” Deactivation involves shutting down the wearer’s central nervous system. When the TARDIS team arrive, there are four of the forty crew members still alive, thanks to their suits being offline when the message was sent. Thirty-six zombie suits are, however, roaming the ship hunting down the survivors. Was this command a malfunction, or is someone trying to kill the crew? Cut off from the TARDIS, and facing insurmountable odds, the Doctor needs to figure out who sent the command and why before they all join the walking dead…

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!

Episode five of New Who Season 10 takes us deep into space, and pits the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole against space zombies. Written by Jamie Mathieson, who brought us “Mummy on the Orient Express,” “Flatline,” and “The Girl Who Died,” this episode is, in my estimation, the best of the season so far. It’s an interesting concept with some foundational science, and plenty of OMyGoodness moments to keep the viewer riveted to the screen. There are some significant plot developments too that will, no doubt, play into the larger themes of the “vault” and the Doctor’s upcoming regeneration. While there isn’t a “bad guy” in the traditional sense, there is at least a malevolent force behind the drama in the form of capitalism taken to an extreme, where human life is expendable for the sake of saving, or making, money. “Profit over people” is, sadly, something we see all to often in real life, and this was a creative way of connecting the other-worldly with the familiar.

The space adventure starts with the Doctor giving Bill the choice of destination. She wants to see reviews, something like online hotel ratings, to find the best place. For the Doctor, however, the universe really only shows its true face when it’s asking for help, which is why he gravitates to where there’s a distress signal. A short while later, when Bill wants to run from the danger, the Doctor puts to her the other side of this: “We show ours by how we respond.” I’ve noted in past reviews how much a Who story is strengthened when the Doctor has clear motive for staying. Here we have the Doctor’s reason for not running back to the TARDIS: there was a distress signal, and it’s not in his character to walk (or run) away from that. He has to help. Of course, they have further reason to stick around when they are separated from the TARDIS by a door that’s vacuumed sealed. But at least we have a credible reason why the Doctor doesn’t just leave at the first sign of life-threatening danger.

When the Doctor and Bill encounter the first corpse, he is just a lifeless body standing in a suit. This introduces us to the idea of the suits having a “life” of their own (albeit robotic). Even when the wearer is dead, they can stay upright, and can keep track of oxygen use. They then come across an unoccupied suit doing manual labor, showing us that the suits don’t have to be worn in order to function, at least on a basic level, and can communicate via synthesized speech. Both of these concepts are important for understanding the situation on board the ship. I appreciate this kind of thoughtful writing, where important plot points are incorporated naturally into the story early on to preclude later questions.

One very interesting scene is when Bill meets the blue crew member. Of course, she is taken aback–this is the first alien humanoid life she has encountered that doesn’t look like Earth humans. His reaction, “Great–we rescued a racist!” is understandable, and ironic, considering Bill has been the object of racism herself. Then, when she talks to him slowly, and Anglicizes his name, he is understandably ticked off. Bill isn’t trying to be racist, but this little interaction shows how easy it is to offend by thoughtlessness, and mirrors the way many people treat “foreigners” in our societies. Especially in the West.

As if being chased by zombies wasn’t dramatic enough, the Doctor seemingly sacrifices Bill when her suit malfunctions and she can’t move. The zombies catch her, and we see her get zapped. The Doctor tells her to trust him, but only later do we find out he had determined her suit didn’t have enough power to deliver a lethal shock. She recovers, but the Doctor spent too long in a decompressed environment trying to get her to safety, with the result that he is blind. Right up to the end, we are led to believe his blindness is temporary. But, as he reveals only to Nardole, it’s not. At least for the next episode, if not longer, we’ll have a blind Doctor!

Finally, the Doctor’s solution to the zombie suit problem is ingenious. Since the computers running the algorithms that determine who is expendable are driven by profit, make it inefficient and costly to kill the life forms. He does this by programming a connection between them and the ship–if they die, the station will blow, and the company will lose its means of making money. “Our deaths will be expensive!”

This is good Who, with not much to fault–at least in my estimation. It was a bit convenient that there were three “offline” suits available to the TARDIS team, so they wouldn’t be affected by the deadly message. But the suits were offline for repairs, which then makes sense of why Bill’s suit would malfunction.

“Oxygen” is well worth watching, and restores my hopes for the rest of the season after last week’s half-good episode.

What did you think?

Who Review: Knock Knock

Bill and her student friends are looking for accommodation, but finding a place big enough for all six of them at a price they can afford is proving harder than they anticipated. So when they are approached by an elderly gentleman offering them a place to live that will more than suit their needs–and their budget–it’s an offer they simply can’t refuse. At first glance the old manor house is impressive, atmospheric, and sufficiently spacious for the students. But when the Doctor helps Bill move in, he senses something odd. More than the antiquated electrical system. More than the fact they can’t get a mobile signal. More than the landlord’s ban on visiting the adjoining tower. The strange noises sound like there’s someone, or something, else sharing the house with them. A suspicion Bill begins to take seriously when her friends start to mysteriously disappear…

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!

After stories in the future and the past, it’s back to present-day reality for Bill. If you recall, Bill used to work in the canteen at St. Luke’s University in Bristol, but the Doctor, who is posing (quite convincingly) as a lecturer at the university, has taken Bill on as his personal student. This means she is now one of the student body, and has joined with five other students to find somewhere affordable to live. It’s a classic creepy house story, but with a Doctor Who twist: the creeks and bumps are the result of alien bugs that have been re-purposing previous tenants to keep the landlord’s ailing relative alive. These bugs swarm on their victims, and suck them into the woodwork. Potentially gruesome stuff, but with some CGI magic it all looks horrible, but nothing to turn the stomach. Unless you don’t like the sight of giant swarming roach-like insects.

The fact that the Doctor is part of the faculty makes for some awkward scenes with Bill and her friends. The Doctor tries to be “cool” with the students, but, of course it doesn’t work very well, especially since he’s not really trying too hard. He just wants to hang around so he can figure out what’s going on with the house. Bill tells her friends the Doctor is her grandfather–is this just an in-joke for the Whovians, or are we to attach significance to it? (Also, we got the season’s first reference to “regeneration,” when the Doctor explained to Bill times when a Time Lord may need to sleep. She asked what “regeneration” is, but he didn’t answer. She’ll find out soon enough, methinks…)

The sinister Landlord is played with charming edginess by David Suchet, who made his name on British TV playing Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” in the long-running series. Suitable casting for what is, essentially, a locked-room mystery. The whole ensemble do well, actually, even the young actors playing the students. One of the hallmarks of New Who is the fact they tend to get high-caliber talent, so the performances are usually top-notch.

As for the effects, they are fairly run-of-the-mill for New Who–i.e., far better than Classic Who, but nothing particularly stand-out for early 21st century television. I will give a special shout-out to whoever designed the wooden person costume for the Landlord’s relative. That particular effect was extremely well done.

The story itself is not the best so far, but it’s not bad. As I said, it starts off as a standard creepy house tale with creaking floorboards, and strange bangs and knocks. But then we see the house sprouting bugs and devouring people, which brings us into the realm of Doctor Who. For all the good acting and great effects, it lacked something truly sinister. Sure, the Landlord was fairly sinister, but in the end all he wanted was to keep his relative alive (yes, I’m deliberately veiling the relative’s exact relationship, for the sake of not giving everything away!), so I suppose we’re supposed to feel somewhat sympathetic toward him. What ended up not happening was a really big climactic finale. It just sort of fizzled. Yes, the Landlord fessed up, and cried in his relatives arms, giving us a high emotional moment. But that was about it. And, to be honest, I really didn’t feel anything for either the Landlord, or his relative. Bill might have been in tears, but I wasn’t with her.

Finally, we learn a bit more about the Vault and what’s inside. No doubt there’s someone in there, since they play the piano, and respond (albeit with music) to the Doctor’s comments. What’s unclear is the relationship this person may have to the Doctor. He seems to have a kindly disposition toward whoever is behind those doors, and yet that person is quite securely locked away. However, the Doctor has no qualms about taking food in to them. Is it Missy? The Master? Or is Steven Moffat going to pull something out of left field and bring back Susan (after all, her picture’s on his desk, and Bill referred to him as “grandfather” more than once during this adventure)?

I enjoyed the episode, and it was a good story. But I’m starting to look forward to the return of some classic monsters, as promised: the Ice Warriors, the Cybermen, the Master/Missy. I just hope they stay bad, and don’t degenerate into the kind of post-modern “not really bad, just misunderstood” mush that, frankly, does not make for gripping sci-fi adventures. I’m not saying this season has gone there totally, but I fear it’s wandering in that direction.

Did you watch “Knock Knock”? If you did, what did you think?

Who Review: Thin Ice

It’s London, February 4th, 1814, and the last ever frost fair. For hundreds of years, the Thames has frozen once during the winter. It has become such a regular event, the city has made a tradition out of throwing a party on the river’s uncommonly icy surface. And this year is no exception. Fair food, acrobats, sword-eaters, games, and even elephants draw thousands out into the snow and onto the Thames for this once-a-year festivity. But something is amiss under the ice. The Doctor and Bill turn up in time to witness a child swallowed up by the river. Both Bill and the Doctor noticed little green lights under the surface, gathering around the boy’s feet just before the ice opened and he was sucked down. Whatever is hiding out in the Thames is not human, but something human seems to be pulling its chain. And this person has plans that could jeopardize the lives of many, unless the Doctor and Bill can stop him.

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!

If there’s one thing the best of the New Who writers grasp, it’s that you don’t need an overly ambitious concept to write a good story. Sarah Dollard, who wrote last season’s Clara finale, “Face the Raven,” this time gives us a tale of human greed, and the lengths to which it will go. The villain of the piece is not the giant serpent creature living in the Thames, but rather Lord Sutcliffe, the compassion-challenged aristocrat who wants to make money from the serpent’s extraordinary excrement. Poop that burns at twice the heat of coal and lasts longer could change the world and make him very rich. For that, he’s willing to sacrifice the creature’s freedom, and the lives of however many “forgettable” people it takes to keep it fed.

Once again, Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts is superb, and if this keeps up we’re both going to get bored of me saying it for the next ten weeks. She draws the Doctor’s attention to the fact that her melanin count might be a problem in Regency England since, well, to put not-too-fine a point on it, “Slavery’s still totally a thing!” Then, when they venture out to watch the shows, Bill notes the variety of people in the crowds. “Interesting,” she says. “Regency England. A bit more black than they show in the movies.” To which the Doctor responds, “So was Jesus. History’s a white-wash.” This is quite a provocative comment, though admittedly quite accurate. This was the first time (as far as I can remember) that Jesus has been mentioned in Doctor Who by name, and the Doctor noting Jesus’s real ethnicity indicates the Whoniverse accepts the historical fact of Jesus. I know, that’s not an endorsement of Christian theology, but it’s better than I expected of a show produced largely by atheists and secularists.

Back to Bill, I really appreciate the genuine wonder and excitement she brings to the show. When the Doctor gives her the decision whether to leave the creature in chains or set it free–after all, it’s the future of her people, human beings, that’s at stake–she doesn’t need to make a speech about the huge responsibility being placed on her, and the mind-blowing idea of acting as representative of humanity. It’s on her face. And again, at the end, when the Doctor reminds her that the change in fortunes for the street urchins was because of the decision she made, the look on her face says more than words could. Excellent acting.

I’m glad we actually had a villain. I was afraid this was going to be another “Beast Below” (see New Who Season 5), where the “villain” was actually a victim of ignorance. Granted, the villain here is not one that will go down in the annuls of great Who monsters, but he gave the story an antagonist, which gives our heroes something to fight against.

The BBC always do a good job with period drama, and this story is no exception. Everything looks wonderfully believable, the effects are top-notch, and even the kids put in good performances on top of being adorable.

Nardole got just a few minutes in at the end, solidifying his role as the Doctor’s butler and caretaker. The “vault” story arc advances a few paces too, with the strange knocking that takes Nardole by surprise. Is it just coincidence that it’s three knocks? Remember the Tenth Doctor’s finale…?

Another great episode of Who. At this rate, this may end up being Capaldi’s best, as well as last, season!

What did you think of “Thin Ice”?

Who Review: Smile

For her first “proper” TARDIS trip, Bill chooses to visit the future. The Doctor takes her to a time when the Earth has been evacuated, to a planet that is to be the future home of the colonists. The place has been designed to appeal to humans, and make them content and comfortable. Emoji-robots monitor the city, making sure everyone is happy, while microscopic robot “Vardies” take care of construction, and agriculture. But happiness is more than just an aspiration–it’s a requirement. As the advance party found out, anything less than a smiley carries the death penalty. And when the Doctor and Bill find their skeletal remains, they realize they must do something before the colonists arrive, or the human race will be annihilated…

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!

I can’t say I didn’t experience some trepidation with the second episode of season ten. It was written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the writer responsible for the season eight story, “In the Forest of the Night,” which was–um–not my favorite episode of Doctor Who. Possibly one of my least favorites. Ever. Part of the problem with that story was the complete lack of real conflict. The Doctor assumed a problem that he set out to fix, only to find out there really wasn’t a problem and the earth was just taking care of its human inhabitants. A nice environmental message wrapped up in some witty dialog and tense moments with tigers and lost children, but not exactly riveting Doctor Who. Even “Time Flight” and “Love and Monsters” had proper antagonists! So, would we get more of the same with “Smile”? Or is there really a monster to defeat and people to save?

Well… sort of. Yes, the Vardies are vicious and will kill anyone who displays anything less than a positive demeanor on their emoji badges. And the human race is in peril–or potential peril–as a result of these brutal bots. But once again, we have the Doctor getting the wrong end of the stick, thinking he needs to destroy the city before the colonists arrive. No, the colonists are already there, in hibernation. And then, when Bill shows him the body of the first person to die (of natural causes), it dawns on the Doctor what’s really going on. The robots are programmed for happiness, so when the first thing happens that causes distress (death), the robots are confused, and seek to eliminate the cause of that unhappiness. And since it is the people themselves who are grieving, they kill the people. Which causes grief for other people, so the robots kill them, and so on. The Doctor’s solution? A re-boot of the system! Pop open the head of an emoji-bot, find the “reset” button, and let them discover a new purpose alongside their new human co-inhabitants.

So, there is some real danger, and a real problem to solve. But the “bad guys” are not really bad, just ignorant, and operating according to programming. And the resolution to the story was, like “In the Forest of the Night,” all a bit too easy. Indeed, the fact the Doctor could hit a reset button and make everything right put me in mind of “The Edge of Destruction,” the third ever Doctor Who story. In that adventure, the First Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan, are trapped in the TARDIS, and everyone seems to be turning on each other, possibly due to an outside force trying to take over. In the end, the strange behavior was the result of the TARDIS trying to warn the crew that something’s wrong with the ship, namely a broken spring on the “Fast Return” switch. So the Doctor fixes the switch, flips it, and all is restored to normal. “The Edge of Destruction” was written in two days as a filler story. I think the Who team could have come up with something better for “Smile.” For example, this could have been a great set-up for an alien invader looking to take over. Set the robots on the colonists, wait for them to be wiped out, then settle down and enjoy everything the people from Earth had created for themselves. Instead, we have something that starts out promising, end up a bit deflating, with lots of messaging about technology, emojis, and colonization.

The story isn’t without its highlights, the first being Bill. Her down-to-earth-ness and curiosity remind me of Sarah Jane, with a bit of Rose’s cheekiness. Peter Capaldi is excellent, as usual, and while the story may falter at the end, it’s a good script with a good premise. It’s easy to see the story as a critique of emoji culture, where emotions are conveyed by means of pictures, and there may well be a bit of cynicism intended. Show-runner Steven Moffat has made no secret of his somewhat-curmudgeonly attitude toward the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, but that’s mainly thanks to leaks, spoilers, and piracy, which obviously get up his nose. I prefer see it as a playful take on something that has become part of early 21st century digital life, with a gentle reminder that an emoji is no substitute for real life contact when it comes to knowing how people feel.

In episode one, we learned that the Doctor is watching over a mysterious vault. In this episode, we learn that the Doctor has promised to keep an eye on the vault, and not leave Earth. This is why he’s at the university. In his brief few seconds in this story, Nardole reminds the Doctor of his promise–right before the Doctor whisks Bill away to another time and place. The Doctor assures a concerned Bill that he will get them back before they left, so it won’t matter. But, of course, that doesn’t happen. I’m sure there will be consequences. We’ll have to wait and see.

I mentioned “The Edge of Destruction” earlier. That story ended with the TARDIS crew walking out into a snow covered landscape, to begin a new adventure where they meet Marco Polo. “Smile” ends with Bill and the Doctor walking out into snow-covered Regency London. With elephants. I presume this leads us straight into next week’s story, “Thin Ice.”

To sum up: “Smile” is a good story with a disappointing ending, worth watching mainly for the chemistry between the Doctor and Bill. While it’s much better than “In the Forest of the Night,” it’s by no means a classic, and I doubt it will be the talk of the series.

Who Review: The Pilot

Bill Potts, canteen worker at St Luke’s University, has a curious mind and a tender heart. Both will get her into trouble when she encounters a girl with a star in her eye. The girl, Heather, is bothered about a puddle that shouldn’t be there, and what she sees inside. But the real trouble begins when the puddle starts following Bill. And who does Bill turn to for help? A professor at the university who has just agreed to take her on as a private student. But he’s no ordinary professor. His lectures are eccentric and popular, he has the strangest looking pens in a mug on his desk, and he has full-sized police telephone box in the corner. The professor, who likes to be called the Doctor, investigates the puddle and realizes something’s wrong. The puddle doesn’t reflect a mirror image; the reflection is the right way around. Something alien is at work, and when the Doctor invites Bill into the TARDIS for safety, she is introduced to a world beyond her imagination. If she survives the girl in the water, she might never want to leave…

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 first episode of the Doctor Who re-boot’s tenth season is, in itself, a bit of a reboot. After saying goodbye to Clara and River Song, the Doctor and his companion-butler Nardole are on Earth, where the Doctor is posing as a university professor. Exactly what he’s a professor of is not mentioned, though Bill says he talked one time about poetry when he was supposed to be lecturing on physics, so I presume it’s something in the sciences. We are treated to a sample of the Doctor’s lecturing–a monologue on time and relative dimension in space, and how life is a series of pictures like frames in a movie. It sounded impressive, and makes sense within the impossible universe of Doctor Who. Mind you, Peter Capaldi could make the phone book sound fascinating.

The title is a bit of a play on both the plot and the purpose of the story. The puddle creature is looking for a pilot, someone to follow. And this episode of Doctor Who is like a pilot episode, introducing the newbie to the world of Who in a way that won’t bore–and, in fact, will please–the seasoned Whovian. There are lots of nods to Classic Who: the mug of sonic screwdrivers, the picture of his granddaughter, Susan, on his desk (next to one of River Song), the “Out of Order” sign on the TARDIS (last seen in the First Doctor story, “The War Machines”), the Movellans (from the Fourth Doctor story, “Destiny of the Daleks”), and there were probably others either I missed, or I’m not remembering. The scene with the Movellans was a particularly nice touch. When the Doctor told Bill and Nardole they were entering a war zone, and we heard the Daleks, my first thought was, of course, the Time War. But no–it’s the war between the Movellans and the Daleks, referenced in “Destiny of the Daleks.”

The basic plot of the story was, I think, a bit weak. The water creature was really just a shape-shifting blob that wants a friend, and while its modus operandi was a bit aggressive, its intentions weren’t malicious. Hence the tears when Bill had to let it go. But new companion stories always tend to be light on plot; the focus is on introducing the newcomer, and getting the newcomer acquainted with the Doctor’s world. This time around, Steven Moffat managed an increasingly difficult task: making it fresh and new. Bill is clearly astounded at the TARDIS, but at first she thinks it’s a “knock-through” (i.e., the wall against which the TARDIS stands has been “knocked-through” to allow the TARDIS interior to extend beyond the parameters of the room), and that the inside of the TARDIS looks like a kitchen. It takes a good while before she gets to “it’s bigger on the inside!” She even asks where the toilet is–a topic I don’t think has been broached before now.

Then there’s the question of why the Doctor is at a university in Bristol. I don’t doubt the mysterious vault has something to do with it. New Who usually has a running theme, or story arc, throughout the season. My guess is that vault will play a central role in season ten, and speculation will run rampant as to what’s inside. Something to do with his regeneration, which we know is happening at Christmas… or maybe sooner? Is it something he has to keep a close eye on (hence the lecturing job, so he can stay close by)? Will the fact he throws caution to the wind and takes Bill on board the TARDIS be a factor in whatever happens with that vault in future episodes? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The performances are top-notch, as usual for New Who. Pearl Mackie is a relative unknown, even to British television viewers, but she gives a solidly genuine performance, owning every line. A very promising start, and, I daresay, a bright post-Who future on television if she keeps this up. I’m looking forward to seeing how her character develops over the next eleven weeks.

In all, this is a good start to the series, despite the story itself being far from one of Moffat’s best. As I said, we can forgive that since it was a great introduction to Bill Potts, and Doctor Who as a whole. Definitely one for the new Whovian to watch.