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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.

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.

Who Review: The Armageddon Factor

There’s only one more segment of the Key to Time for the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 to find. The tracer leads them to the planet Atrios, which is in the midst of a devastating war with neighboring planet Zeos. Despite heavy casualties, the Atrian Marshall believes victory is close at hand. However, Princess Astra, sole survivor of Atrios’s ancient royal family, wants peace with Zeos and for the bloodshed to cease. But her attempts to communicate with Zeos go unheeded. When the TARDIS crew arrive, they are, of course, suspected of being Zeon spies. It doesn’t help that Princess Astra is abducted around the time of their arrival. The Doctor becomes convinced that Astra is the key to finding the sixth segment, so it is critical they find her. But all is not as it seems. Danger is close at hand for the Doctor and his friends as dark forces lurk behind the scenes. Someone will stop at nothing, even to the point of using those closest to the Doctor, to get the Key to Time…

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

The final story in the “Key to Time” arc was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, a writing team whose previous efforts (“The Mutants,” “The Three Doctors,” and “The Hand of Fear” to name three) demonstrate they know how to do the job. While their Who stories are not always the best, most are good, and I think “Armageddon” is one of these better ones. They manage to keep “padding” down to a minimum (which is always a challenge for a six-parter) by making sure all the various story elements contribute to the plot, and they keep a good pace, with plenty of drama and humor in the script to maintain interest.

Episode one starts with what appears to be a scene from a soap opera, or some kind of propaganda film that extols the virtue of sacrifice for the sake of victory. The fact we see this on the television screens in the ruins of the hospital, filled with the wounded and dying, helps orient us to the situation on Atrios. The power-hungry Marshal will bleed the planet dry to win, but Princess Astra sees only death and destruction, and wants an end of it.

Slowly we peel back the layers of what’s going on. Astra’s messages to Zeos don’t ever seem to get through. Not even a bounce-back. The Marshal’s strange conversations with a mirror, and the little black cube on his neck. The way the tracer, the stick used by the Doctor and Romana to find the segments of the Key to Time, is drawn to Princess Astra, as if she is somehow connected to it. Then there’s the “Shadow,” who introduces himself as the Doctor’s adversary. Like the Doctor, he has been sent by a Guardian on a special quest. But as his name suggests, the Guardian he works for is not White, like the Doctor’s. This is all good use of the six parts, allowing the story time to unfold.

When the Doctor finally seems to figure out where the sixth segment is, one might wonder why he doesn’t simply retrieve it and leave. The way Baker and Martin have woven the plot makes it impossible for the Doctor to leave without dealing with the Marshal and the Shadow. The Marshal pilots a ship to launch a missile attack on Zeos. This will trigger the computer on Zeos to self-destruct, taking Zeos, Atrios, and anything else in its vicinity with it. And even if the Doctor manages to stop the computer, the missile strike will ultimately have much the same effect. The Doctor uses the Key to Time, with a fake sixth segment, to hold off the Marshal’s attack, but because it is impure, it will only hold him off for a limited time. By the time the Doctor is sure of the location of the sixth segment, there’s no time to replace the fake one with the real one. For a Who story to work, the writer needs to find a compelling reason for the Doctor to stick around and not just get back in the TARDIS and leave. Baker and Martin do a good job of that here.

With regard to that sixth segment, it appears as if the Doctor understood the secret early on. But later, he still seems uncertain. Perhaps the look of surprise when the Shadow tells him he’s been looking at the sixth segment all along was feigned, though I’m not sure. Romana certainly seems in the dark, though she notices the way the tracer reacts to things Princess Astra has worn. It’s only at the very end she cottons on. Maybe they both didn’t want to believe it, given what it would mean…?

This story introduces a new Time Lord: Drax, who was in the “Class of ’93” with the Doctor (or “Theta Sigma” as he calls him). Unlike the Doctor, Drax failed his exams in the Academy, and ended up traveling the universe as a repair man. He built the computer on Zeos for the Shadow, but was then imprisoned. Throwing Drax into the story in episode five could be seen as “filler,” but he does play an important part in helping the Doctor defeat the Shadow. He’s an interesting character, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing show up in the New Series.

The conclusion to the story, and the “Key to Time” arc is both understandable and unsatisfying. The Doctor sums up the dilemma well in his creepy “there is no more free will” speech that his gives to Romana with eyes rolled back. “I can do anything I want because I have the Key to Time!” he tells her. And he’s right: no-one should have that kind of power. It’s just a shame it took all this time and traveling to figure it out. If it wasn’t for the fact that many of the stories have been enjoyable, and the Doctor and Romana have been a pleasure to watch, one might be forgiven for calling the whole escapade a waste of time.

To sum up, this is a good story, and worth the Whovian’s attention. Possibly the saddest part is the fact it’s Mary Tamm’s last as Romana. Of the two Romanas, she’s my favorite. I like the fact we see her grow from arrogant academic to being a student again, and Mary does such a good job of showing that growth. In the hands of the right script writer, she could have developed her character further for another season or two. But that wasn’t to be.

Who Review: The Power of Kroll

The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 continue their quest for the six segments of The Key to Time. According to the tracer, the fifth segment is located on the third moon of the planet Delta Magna. Surprisingly, the moon’s surface is covered with grass land and swamps, and is inhabited by green-skinned people whose dress and weaponry suggest they are relatively primitive. But they aren’t the only people on the moon. A crew from Delta Magna has set up a methane refinery, and are mining the moon for its large deposits of methane gas. The native inhabitants, whom the crew call “Swampies”, believe this mining activity will disturb their giant swamp god, Kroll, and bring disaster. The Swampies plan to strike back, and a gun runner, hired by an unknown supplier, is providing them with weapons to that end. Not long after their arrival, Romana is captured by the Swampies, believing her to be one of the “dry foots.” They plan to sacrifice her to appease the wrath of Kroll. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds himself an involuntary guest of the refinery crew, who accuse him of being a “Swampie-lover,” and suspect he is an emissary of the group supplying guns to the natives. The crew leader, Thawn, has a particular animosity toward the Swampies, and hence a vitriolic intolerance for those who might be siding with them. With K-9 stranded in the TARDIS (he doesn’t handle water very well), the Doctor and Romana need to find the fifth segment and escape before they suffer the wrath of Thawn, or the wrath of Kroll…

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

This fifth story in the “Key to Time” arc was broadcast over Christmas and New Year of 1978/1979, and was written by the awesome and inimitable Robert Holmes. As we might expect of a Holmes story, there are some vivid characters and an interesting plot. On one level this is a story about racism, since the “Swampies” are not considered of equal worth to humans by the colonists. This story is also about colonialism, and not just the obvious (i.e., British colonialism), but also the co-opting of Native American lands in the United States by the white men. The “Swampies” formerly inhabited Delta Magna, but were shipped off to this third moon by these Earth colonists. When that moon was found to be rich in methane, the colonists planned to displace the “Swampies” yet again in order to mine their land. If that’s not enough, you also have a subtle parody of peace protesters who are not averse to using violence to make their point. In “Kroll,” the “Swampies” are being supplied weapons by a gun-runner who it is believed work for the “Sons of Earth”–a pacifistic organization that promotes equal rights for the “Swampies.” While it turns out this group wasn’t actually supplying the guns (a nice plot twist), the point is made that they wouldn’t be above doing that kind of thing to achieve their ends.

Even with all that story layering going on, this is considered to be one of Holmes’s less-than-stellar efforts. I don’t know that I agree with that assessment. There are a number of things that let the story down, but not many of them have to do with the story itself. The giant tentacle that attacks Harg is profoundly unrealistic, and hearkens back eight years to the tentacles that attacked the Third Doctor in “Spearhead from Space.” The “Swampie” acting is a bit theatrical, and pushes credibility. Helping their unrealism is the fact that their hair is made from strips of dark green thick knitted pads sown together and frayed at the ends. And when the great Kroll makes his appearance (he’s a ginormous giant squid), well, he’s not quite as impressive as I’m sure the production team hoped he would be. Actually, I take that back. Kroll’s very first appearance at the end of episode three is impressive. The shot of Kroll sitting in the water, tentacles slowly waving on either side, and the little boat in front for perspective, is possibly one of the best effects shots of the Classic Series. That does look believable. From then on, however, all the shots of Kroll suck.

And then there’s the scene where our heroes are tied to a rack with vines. The theory is that as sunlight streams through the small porthole in the roof, the vines dry and shrink, pulling on the rack and stretching the victims. It’s a neat theory. I have no clue if it would actually work in real life. Might not the vines in fact become brittle as they dry out? Would they really shrink that much?  As I said, it’s a clever idea, if a bit fanciful. I’m far more concerned with the way they escape: the Doctor singing a high-pitched noted that breaks the glass and lets rain in to swell the vines. This is such a deus ex machina escape, it’s not worthy of a writer of Holmes’s caliber. After all, if the Doctor has had this ability all along, I’m sure there are plenty of times he could have used it to escape tight situations. Why suddenly remember he could do that now?

There are some first-class performances on the story, especially from Philip Madoc. Madoc has played bad guys on the show before (most notably The War Lord in “The War Games”), but this time he is one of the colonists who, while not a “Swampie” lover, doesn’t want to see them come to harm. Unlike his superior officer. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm are excellent (I don’t think Tom Baker ever put in a bad turn as the Doctor). And John Leeson, usually the voice of K-9, gets to act in front of the cameras, which is nice to see.

I like the fact that the “monster” attacking Romana at the end of episode one turns out to be a “Swampie” in a monster costume. I’m sure there were plenty of people watching the cliffhanger saying, “That’s so obviously a man dressed up!”–and it actually is in the story. Nice. I also liked the Doctor’s line: “Progress. That’s a very flexible word. It can mean almost anything you want!” Very true, both in this context, and many others.

I would recommend “The Power of Kroll,” even though it’s not a must-see. Despite its shortcomings, the story is strong and interesting, and there are some good twists and performances.

Who Review: The Androids of Tara

Continuing the quest for the six segments of the Key to Time, the tracer takes the TARDIS to the idyllic, Earth-like planet of Tara, and a country on the verge of crowning a new king. At a designated hour, Prince Reynart must be ready to receive the crown, otherwise he will forfeit the throne to the next in line, his cousin, Count Grendel of Gracht. Grendel’s plan is to hold Reynart’s beloved Princess Strella captive to persuade him not to go through with the ceremony. When the TARDIS lands, Romana goes off to find the fourth segment while the Doctor catches up on some fishing. Romana quickly locates the fourth segment, but encounters a wild beast. She is rescued by Count Grendel, who offers her rest–in fact, he insists. Grendel observes the striking resemblance between Romana and the Princess Strella, and is convinced she must be an android. Romana narrowly avoids being cut up for parts, but ends up in Grendel’s prison along with Strella. Meanwhile, the Doctor has been captured by Reynart’s men and employed to repair an android they hope to use as a decoy to faciliate Reynart’s safe entry into the castle. But things go awry, Reynart is captured, and now the Doctor and Romana can’t leave until they deal with Grendel, and see Reynart installed as the rightful king of Tara.

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

This is the second story in a row from David Fisher, and unusual in that Romana finds the fourth segment of the “Key to Time” at the beginning. However, just as Romana tries to leave with it, she is captured, the Doctor is captured, and they spend the rest of the story trying not to get killed, and saving Prince Reynart and Princess Strella from the evil machinations of Count Grendel.

“The Androids of Tara” is a fairly solid story, unashamedly based on The Prisoner of Zenda, which tells of a prince imprisoned on the eve of his coronation, and the use of a double to impersonate him so the coronation can go ahead. Of course, in the case of the Doctor Who story, all the doubles are androids. In a lovely twist, skill in electronics and cybernetics is viewed as peasant work. Usually in sci-fi, such skills are reserved for the elites and the intellectuals.

It also gives Mary Tamm a lot of screen time since she takes on four roles. Not only does she have her regular part as the Doctor’s companion, Romana, but she also plays Princess Strella, and both Romana and Strella’s android counterparts. I have to say, the android acting in the story is quite good. Especially from Prince Reynart, who we probably see as an android more often than as a real person.

I’m afraid I can’t be quite as generous with regard to the “beast” that attacks Romana just as she retrieves the Key segment. A furry body suit and a solid “monster” mask are hardly going to convince anyone. But I supposed they did what they could with the money they had. To make matters worse, the man in the suit acts like a demented gorilla–I’m not exactly sure what he was trying to achieve.

The setting of the story is interesting. Tara seems to have a Renaissance feel to it, certainly with the castle and the costumes–possibly an homage to the original Zenda story? And yet they use laser arrows and electric swords, so there is a mix of old world style with new world technology.

Perhaps the highlight of the story is the sword fight in episode four between the Doctor and Count Grendel. The Doctor feigns stupidity to begin with, but soon proves himself to be the better swordsman in a battle that takes them beyond the courtroom, out onto the castle walkways over the moat, where the Doctor claims victory, and the Count swims away.

Some of the less-than-stellar moments include the imprisoned Reynart hitting a helmeted soldier with a manacle, and knocking him unconscious, which seems a little far-fetched. Also, when Grendel lays siege to the Doctor in the cottage, he knows the Doctor is unarmed, so why didn’t he send his men in? As it is, he gives the Doctor plenty of time to make good his escape by means of a back door cut by K-9. And then there’s the stunning inability to tell the difference between an android and a real person, most notably when Romana is mistaken for an android facsimile of Strella. Could they not tell by her body temperature, her pulse, her involuntary reflexes (e.g., swallowing), and her breathing that she was not an android? Or are their androids that complex and detailed? It’s also a little annoying that Romana keeps getting captured. She’s not that helpless!

All in all, despite its flaws, this is a good Who story. One to watch if you have the opportunity, but not a must-see.

Who Review: The Stones of Blood

The 100th Doctor Who story finds the TARDIS crew tracking the third segment of the Key to Time to Earth. The tracer seems to think the segment is somewhere in an ancient stone circle, but as local surveyors Professor Rumford, and her colleague Vivien Fay, tell them, there are discrepancies in the records with regard to the number of stones that should be there. The tracer is unable to get a fix on the segment, so the Doctor and Romana decide to investigate further. What they discover, however, digs a little too deeply into things that certain locals would rather are left alone. Those locals make up a druidic cult that regularly holds sacrifices to the goddess Calliach in the midst of the stones. But the stones are not ordinary stones. The cult leader feeds them with blood, and they glow in response, as if they are alive. Is it possible that the stones are not of this world? Might that explain the strange indentations in the ground, and the confusion over how many stones should be in the circle? As the Doctor and Romana get closer to the truth of the cult and the stones, the more they put their lives in danger of powers that even the villagers couldn’t have imagined…

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

Not only is “The Stones of Blood” the centenary story, but it also broadcast during Doctor Who’s fifteenth anniversary week. Quite an achievement for a show that faced cancellation more than once in the Sixties. By November of 1978, it was a national institution with high ratings and widespread cultural recognition. And with Tom Baker in the leading role, it had never had a more iconic and enthusiastic advocate and spokesman. This was, indeed, a great time to be a Doctor Who fan.

The first TARDIS scene has the Doctor pointlessly recapping for Romana the premise of the “Key to Time” arc. Okay, so it’s not entirely pointless. He takes the opportunity to let her know about the threat of the Black Guardian, something he had been told not to mention. But really, this recap is for the sake of viewers who either forgot what the “Key to Time” is about, or are joining late. We haven’t met the Black Guardian yet, but as we will discover, his headgear of choice looks like it’s supposed to be some kind of crow or raven. I wonder if that has any bearing in the fact that cult leader Mr. Dufrese has a crow that spooks Romana? A fore-shadowing, perhaps?

The story starts with some kind of druidic ritual, rite, or ceremony being performed by people in robes in a stone circle at night. It all looks very Dennis Wheatley-Hammer Horror, including the use of blood, though we don’t see an actual sacrifice. I’m inclined to take this as an homage to the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era of the show; it’s certainly the kind of thing they would have done. And I think that’s part of what makes “Stones of Blood” the creepy, atmospheric story it is. But it’s not just another “Talons of Weng-Chiang.” Part of the story takes place in space–hyperspace, to be precise–where the Doctor is put on trial by the shapeless Megara. So the story shifts between the dark and mysterious, to a galactic Perry Mason, where the Doctor plays games with legal technicalities to buy time for Romana. It’s an odd combination, but somehow it works.

This is a great story of strong female leads. Indeed, there are few male parts in the story. I don’t doubt this was at least somewhat deliberate, given the fact the show often came under fire for it’s treatment of female characters. Without doubt, the Doctor’s previous companion, Leela, was an attempt at a feisty female warrior, who was the equal of any man in combat. The new companion, Romana, is the Doctor’s intellectual equal, perhaps even better, and would be the smartest person in most rooms simply by showing up. Thankfully, though, these characters are not just for show, or to satisfy a demographic; they have depth and range, too. They are good characters, and well played. Professor Rumford and Vivien Fay are excellently conceived and performed, strong and forthright without losing a feminine sensibility; they’re not just “men in dresses.”

There are some particular points of interest in this story. First, the episode one cliffhanger doesn’t appear to be repeated at the beginning of episode two. The second part picks up right where we left off. That’s highly unusual for Doctor Who. On the spaceship, the Doctor takes out his sonic screwdriver to open a door, but instead of zapping the door, he uses the end of the sonic screwdriver to physically break the seal that locks it! A nice twist. There’s a scene where a couple of people out camping encounter the stones and are killed by them. While you don’t see anything really gruesome, it is still quite gruesome. I’m surprised the censors let that pass.

The model spaceship in “Stones” is very good, however, the CSO model shots don’t really work well for me. If they had used film, that might have improved things, which is a shame because it really is well crafted. The same goes for the stones. They did a good job making them look stone-y, but once they start moving, they lose all sense of weight.

Probably the biggest surprise is what the third segment is. The story sets you up to think it’s one thing, but it isn’t. It’s quite cleverly done. And I’m not going to spoil it for you. 🙂

This story isn’t on the must-see list, but it is very good and worth your time. Especially if you’re missing the Gothic horror of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes days.