Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Good Week for Apple

Apple found itself in two different courtrooms this week. One had a happy outcome for the company, and the other… well, we’ll have to wait and see, but the signs look good.

The Early 2000s Called...


The first case dated back a full decade, and involved claims that Apple excluded songs not purchased through iTunes from iPods, and prohibited songs purchased through iTunes from non-Apple music players. As John Gruber (no, not that Jon Gruber, the MIT professor of “speak-o” fame and a big believer in the stupidity of the American voter, but the tech writer) noted, the case was absurd on its face:
[The case] had nothing to do with rival stores’ music files, and everything to do with rival music stores’ DRM [digital rights management].
Gruber goes on to note that Apple used DRM at the insistence of music publishers, and that one could always put music without DRM (i.e., unencrypted MP3s) onto iPods. Furthermore, in an amusing twist, the class-action lawsuit had two named plaintiffs. Apple showed that neither plaintiff actually purchased an iPod during the window claimed by the class. Oops. The judge allowed a last-minute substitution to another plaintiff, but it’s a little embarrassing to not vet your named plaintiff properly.

After the trial, the jury deliberated for a mere three hours before finding Apple not guilty.

Antitrust Overreach


On Monday, Apple and the U.S. Department of Justice presented oral arguments before the D.C. Circuit appeals court in the ebook price-fixing case. On Monday morning, George L. Priest, a law professor at Yale Law School and an antitrust expert, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining why Apple should win its appeal. (The piece is behind the Journal’s paywall, sadly.) Priest wrote, in part:
Yet what Apple had coordinated was hardly a typical price-fixing conspiracy. The publishers had chosen Apple’s terms—including a cap on prices—even though the terms reduced the returns they would receive from e-book sales. The court entirely ignored what really mattered: the platform competition between Amazon and Apple. 
The court sharply restricted from the trial any evidence about Amazon, including its retaliatory practices against publishers who challenged its pricing. In 2010 Amazon deleted the buy option for Macmillan’s e-books and print books. More recently Amazon delayed shipment of Hachette’s books. The court also did not consider the publishers’ desire to increase e-book prices to protect their core print book business. 
In short, the court’s evidentiary rulings concealed the economic motivations driving the industry. All that mattered to Judge Cote was that the publishers’ new agency agreements meant that Amazon had to offer their e-books at non-subsidized, higher prices. 
This is not sensible antitrust policy. Apple attempted to enhance competition, not restrain it—and the court’s decision protects Amazon’s 90% market share in e-book competition.
During oral arguments, two of the three judges appeared sympathetic with Apple’s point of view, one even noting that the trial judge agreed that Apple’s conduct was legal as a general matter, and, therefore, the question of whether the company’s conduct in this instance harmed competition should have been judged under the fairly difficult-to-prove rule-of-reason standard, rather than a more truncated analysis. From a piece in the New Yorker:
On Monday, comments from the appellate judges in New York—especially Judge Dennis Jacobs—suggested that they might be more receptive than Cote to Apple’s line of reasoning. According to Agence France-Presse, Jacobs said, “What we’re talking about is a new entrant who is breaking the hold of a market by a monopolist who is maintaining its hold by what is arguably predatory pricing.”
It remains to be seen whether the reading of the panel’s views is correct, and whether they vacate the decision entirely or remand it back to the district court with instructions to use a different legal standard, but that was a pretty good start for Apple.

Monday, December 15, 2014

(In)civility

People talk about how the anonymity of the Internet permits and possibly encourages some to be uncivil, and that’s true enough. But a related phenomenon is that the Internet encourages social interaction among the like-minded, and the resulting group-think sometimes promotes the kind of discourse that would never happen in a more heterogeneous group.

To wit: author John Scalzi (@scalzi) on Twitter: "As far as I can tell, the Breitbart site is by, and for, people who have drunk lead paint smoothies every single day of their lives."

Now, I don’t read Breitbart religiously, but people do link to it and I’ve seen some good stuff there. Out of curiosity, wondering what might have set off Mr. Scalzi, I looked at the site just now, and here are the top stories:
  • “Oprah Defends Sony Exec Over Racist Comments - But Slammed [L.A. Clippers owner] Sterling"
  • “Police: 3 Dead, Including Gunman, in Sydney Siege"
  • “Aussie Comedian: See? Gun Control Works"
  • “Immigration Activists Bash Boehner at L.A. Amnesty Conference"
(I’m not sure if I should have included Greg Outfield’s “Gutcheck: Why Sony Should Scare You,” so let’s make it five pieces.)

I didn’t bother to read any of the stories. The headlines pretty much speak for themselves. Breitbart is a conservative site, so it’s no surprise the pieces have a conservative slant.

By comparison, let’s look at the first four stories at Daily Kos:
  • “David Koch: ‘I’m a social liberal’"
  • “Lima climate talks: Optimism going in, skepticism coming out"
  • “Vivek Murthy confirmed as Surgeon General"
  • “Fox & Friends uses Australia hostage-taking to justify American torture program"
Seems like a pretty liberal slant. The piece on Koch, for example, notes that he says he’s conservative on economic matters and a social liberal, whereupon the author editorializes
Before you actually seek to take him up on the "social liberal" part, note that he continued by saying "as long as it doesn't interfere with the machinations of Plutus, god of wealth and king of all domains."
Hmm, I’m pretty sure Koch did not actually say those words in quotation marks.

I’m still not sure what Mr. Scalzi was upset about, but I will bet he wouldn’t make the remark he did on Twitter in a general audience - say, to book buyers in Cleveland. On Twitter, however, he felt that this was a perfectly acceptable remark.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Apple, Ebooks, and Antitrust

Interesting article on the Forbes web site the other day about the impending oral arguments at the Circuit Court, which is hearing Apple’s appeal of its price-fixing conviction.

I’m not involved with the case in any way, but I have personal interest in Apple and ebooks and professional interest in competition policy, so I’ve been following the case with some interest. What I never understood was how a conspiracy by publishers translated into price-fixing by Apple. What’s funny about the Forbes piece is that the article, while correctly saying that Apple probably has an uphill battle at the appeals court, points out via a series of parenthetical comments many of the problems with the case.
Apple was breaking into a market then dominated by Amazon, which had an 80% to 90% market share - monopoly power in almost anyone’s book.
While it’s true that market power isn’t a necessary condition for finding a price-fixing violation, it’s pretty odd to think that the entrant into a market dominated by a firm with substantial market power would be interested in elevating prices. What’s unusual here is that Apple, in trying to create its ebooks business, is a middleman and needs to attract attention from both buyers and sellers of books. Buyers of books want lower prices, all else equal, while sellers prefer higher prices - and Apple’s inducement to the major publishers was that they could better control pricing through Apple’s agency model rather than Amazon’s wholesaler model. But Apple is pretty much indifferent to higher book prices. Yes, Apple takes a 30% cut and therefore benefits from higher prices, but not by much compared with its margins on selling additional hardware.
(Notwithstanding the price rise in key categories of books, prices fell overall, its expert testified.)
Seems like a problem for a price-fixing case generally.
Judge Cote later found that when [Apple’s Eddie] Cue showed up at those first meetings [with the CEO of the major publishers], he immediately plunged his company into a price-fixing cabal. ‘Apple's entry into the conspiracy had to start somewhere,' she wrote, 'and the evidence is that it started at those initial meetings in New York City.'
That sounds good, but then we have:
"To prove collusion, the government showed (above) that the publisher CEOs phoned each other while negotiating their contracts with Apple. It couldnít prove, however, that Apple knew of these calls."
Hmm, that’s a problem.

Regarding the agency model:
(Judge Cote acknowledged that negotiating from a standard contract was ordinarily lawful.)
and
(Cote acknowledged that the agency model was lawful.)
In order to ensure that Apple wouldn’t be at a price disadvantage relative to Amazon,
...Cue decided to propose tiers of price caps, tied to the suggested hardback list prices. (Judge Cote acknowledged that price tiers and caps were lawful.)
Finally, regarding the most-favored nations clause that Apple negotiated,
It gave Apple the right to match the price at which any new-release ebook was being sold by another retailer. (Cote acknowledged that MFNs are ordinarily legal.)
And this is, in antitrust expert Herbert Hovenkamp’s works, “an uphill battle” for Apple? He’s probably right, but this case should never have gone against Apple in the first place.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Doctor Who, "Death in Heaven"

I hope everyone has awakened from their post-Thanksgiving stupors, as this turned out to be a long one.

Picking up from the previous week's cliffhanger - Missy is the Master! The dead are being resurrected as Cybermen! Clara is about to be "deleted" by a trio of Cybermen! - Season 8 wraps up not only the story line started in "Dark Water" but also puts the finishing touches on several season-long themes. Well, mostly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've watched the episode twice now, and I still am not sure how much I like it. Some parts are very good indeed, some parts wrap up story lines in a satisfying way, while other parts are... not my cup of tea.

Long Spoiler-Filled Plot Recap Section


Picking up where "Dark Water" left off, Clara is menaced by several Cybermen. She tries to convince them that she should be spared, claiming that she is the Doctor, regenerated into perky Jenna Coleman's body. From there we cut to the title, which, befitting her claimed identity, lists Coleman's name above Peter Capaldi's and shows her eyebrows instead of his. Subtle but effective.

Outside St. Paul's, Osgood (from UNIT) and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart arrive with a number of UNIT soldiers, ready to take on the Cybermen, who evade UNIT by flying away, Iron Man-style. The roof of St. Paul's opens and more Cybermen leave, ready to "pollinate" the world with nano-particles that will create new Cybermen out of dead bodies plus the consciousness, now stored in the Nethersphere, of those bodies. UNIT sedates Missy and, oddly, the Doctor. The two are taken aboard a plane - Missy as a prisoner and the Doctor, now conscious, as President of Earth in order to deal with the Cybermen threat.

In the Nethersphere, with Danny, Seb, and the young Afghan boy Danny killed, Seb explains that they will be returning to their bodies - with a bit of an "upgrade." On Earth, the nanoparticle "rain" falls on a graveyard and in a funeral home, where Danny's body lies. Back in St. Paul's, a rogue Cyberman - Danny - arrives. Clara, not knowing his identity and still trying to save her life, says, "I'm an incredible liar. Ask anyone." Cyber-Danny replies, "Correct," then blasts the other Cybermen and knocks her out.

Missy claims she knows Gallifrey's location. Missy kills Osgood and flying Cybermen bring down the plane. Kate is blown out of the plane's cargo door. As the plane explodes, the Doctor falls, inserting the TARDIS key into the falling TARDIS - cue the James Bond music.

Clara comes to in a cemetery (why?) with Cybermen breaking out of the ground but not attacking anyone. She tells her rescuer that the Doctor is her best friend, the one persokn she'd never lie to - at which point Cyber-Danny removes his faceplate, revealing his identity to her.

Clara calls the Doctor on the TARDIS telephone - Danny wants his emotions removed, but can't activate the emotional inhibitor on his chest by himself. The Doctor implores her not to do it, as Danny will then be a full Cyberman and kill Clara. The Doctor arrives and wants to know Missy's plan, but Cyber-Danny can't tap into the hive mind without activating his emotional inhibitor. Clara zaps it with the sonic screwdriver. As Danny promised, he is able to resist Cyber control and doesn't attack Clara.

Missy arrives a la Mary Poppins, floating from the sky with an opened umbrella. She gives the Doctor her "gift" - control of the Cybermen, "an indestructible army to rage across the universe." She observes, "Give a good man firepower and he'll never run out of people to kill." She tells him, "I need you to know we're not so different. I need my friend back." Although he considers her offer, as he believes he needs the Cybermen to burn away the nanoparticle storm, he ultimately rejects it, telling Missy, "I am not a good man. I am not a bad man... I'm an idiot with a box."

The Doctor gives the control device to Cyber-Danny - who tells the newly-converted Cybermen now under his command that "Today is not a good day," but that as soldiers their promise to civilians is that they will sleep safely tonight. The Cybermen fly to the nanoparticle cloud and self-destruct, destroying the particles.

Missy tells the Doctor the coordinates of Gallifrey, assuring him that she's not lying this time.

Clara tries to kill Missy, but the Doctor, concerned what Clara will become if she resorts to cold-blooded murder, says he'll do it himself if that's what it will take to save Clara. Instead, Missy is zapped by a Cyberman, who then indicates to the Doctor and Clara the still-alive Kate. The Cyberman is clearly the late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart - hey, if you can't save your own kid, what's the point of being a Cyberman? - and acknowledges the Doctor's salute before flying off.

Danny, somehow back in the Nethersphere (we presume - though it's not clear how this happened), has found a way to send one person back to the land of the living. Clara expects him, but instead he sends the Afghan child, telling Clara to find his parents - this was a promise he had to keep.
The Doctor takes the TARDIS to the coordinates Missy gave him, but finds no Gallifrey - she lied again. In a rage, he whomps the TARDIS console.

Clara and the Doctor meet, and the Doctor believes Danny sent himself back to Earth. She lies and agrees with him, saying that the two are together, and he lies that he found Gallifrey, and that this is it for them. She asks him to hug, and he relents. She asks him why he doesn't like hugs, to which he replies, "Never trust a hug. It's just a way to hide your face" - as both look devastated.

The credits roll, but are interrupted by Santa's arrival at the TARDIS. Santa says, "It can't end like this," leading to a guess that clara's story will continue in the Christmas episode.

It's All About Control


If there's one theme threading its way through the entire season, it's about control. At the start of the season, Clara has a neatly compartmentalized life: there's the part where she is a school teacher and lives a normal life, and there's the part where she travels with the Doctor. As she says at one point, he's one of her hobbies. As the season unfolds, that neat compartmentalization unravels, and in an effort to maintain her relationship with Danny separate from her travels with the Doctor, she increasingly lies to him, to the Doctor, and, ultimately, to herself about what she's doing and why. Clara's unwillingness - even inability - to stop her adventures with the Doctor, even when they endanger her relationship with Danny, reflects a loss of her control over her life.

At the same time, the ongoing tug-of-war between Danny and the Doctor also reflects the question of control. Danny, the soldier, views the Doctor as an officer, one of those responsible for getting ordinary soldiers into predicaments without fully understanding the costs of doing so. The Doctor, always one to enjoy being in control of situations, found himself having to or choosing to relinquish control multiple times during the season. In "Flatline," he was unable to leave the TARDIS for most of the episode, and had to rely on Clara, while in "Kill the Moon" he chose to leave at a crucial time, insisting that the three humans had to make the decision whether to kill the creature about to hatch.

Control plays a big role in "Death in Heaven" as well. Missy's scheme involves creating an army of Cybermen capable of dominating any planet, and then gives control over this army to the Doctor in an effort to... well, what, exactly? By taking control of the Cybermen, the Doctor would be acknowledging that he and Missy are not so different. While the Master's schemes involve using power for his own Machavelian ends, the Doctor also uses other people to further his plans. Although those plans involve saving people and generally trying to do right, at some level the difference between the Doctor and Missy is more one of judgment than anything fundamental. When the Doctor gives up the device that controls the Cybermen, he's rejecting Missy's equating the two of them. He even thanks her, saying he's not a good man, not a bad man, just an idiot with a box who tries to do the right thing. (Of course, turning the Cybermen over to Danny, who then uses this force to save the planet only at the cost of destroying all the Cybermen, including himself, might suggest that both Danny and Missy were correct: the "officer" used his soldiers as cannon fodder once again.)

A few other examples: Danny tells Clara he wants to activate his emotional inhibitor, but can't do it himself, giving her control over him. At the very end of the episode, when he can send one person back through the Nethersphere - sadly, with no explanation of why that might be possible, save that earlier we apparently saw Missy travel to and from the Nethersphere - he chooses to send the Afghani boy he killed, rather than resurrecting himself, a last act of self-sacrifice that re-establishes his control over his destiny.

Should We Care More About Zany Plots or Emotional Resonance?


Season finales in Doctor Who seem to suffer more than other episodes in plot logic. The audience is carried along from one whiz-bang moment to the next, and it's not until one stops and thinks about it that one realizes how crazy is the internal logic. Missy seems to go through a lot of effort to make a point. The connection between the Nethersphere and the real world is never clear - why would an uploaded mind feel pain from a physical body, and how is that mind restored to a body that no longer exists as living flesh? Even allowing that Cybermen can create others of their kind, how would they be able to do so via nanoparticles, much less "seed" those particles so that the decayed bodies of humans somehow grow Cyber-armor and pop out of their graves? Et cetera.

But the enjoyment of Doctor Who isn't about rigorous plots any more than it was about special effects back in the days of the classic series. It's about stories, and emotions, and relationships, and the success of an episode, or of a story arc, depends on how deftly writers draw the characters, how the actors bring those characters to life, and how the audience reacts emotionally to the character interplay and development. By those standards, the season finale was a success. I'm not convinced that making Missy the Master was necessary or wise; I think I would have preferred that Missy be a new character, even if her plot was the same. Still, Michelle Gomez made a wonderful and, yes, bananas Master.

One thing I thought worked superbly was the ending. As Erika Ensign of the Verity! podcast remarked, throughout the season Clara lies for her own benefit: to keep Danny from knowing about her adventures with the Doctor, to keep the Doctor from know she's lied to Danny, to keep the Cybermen from killing her, and so on. Yet in the end, in the scene in the restaurant, both Clara and the Doctor lie to one another out of selflessness.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Distractions Along the Way

I’ve been meaning to write up my summary of and reactions to the Doctor Who series finale, but I haven’t quite managed it yet. First I wanted to see the episode a second time, then I wanted to hear commentary on it, then I was procrastinating. It’ll come in good time, I suppose.

In the meanwhile, I’ve been spending far too much time playing Doctor Who Legacy on the iPad. I don’t play many games, and those I do tend to be fairly simple ones, like solitaire, but this one has captured my interest.

The game doesn’t have much to do with Doctor Who. Oh, sure, it has characters that resemble those on the show - Doctors, companions, villains, monsters, good guys, aliens - heck, even the Third Doctor’s Whomobile - and something of a story line, but it’s really Dungeons & Dragons crossed with Bejeweled. Create a team - a Doctor and five allies - and match colored gems in order to generate hit points on enemies. Kill enough enemies before your team runs out of health and you win the level. Repeat. A lot. Over time, other characters and “time fragments” drop, and you level up characters by spending time fragments. The game’s currency is the crystal: sometimes these drop as you play the game, or you can buy them. Either way, you can spend crystals on leveling up characters, buying enhancements to the team (increasing hit points, or increasing resistance to damage, for example), or buying characters. In theory, you can play the game indefinitely without spending a cent, though buying as few as 6 crystals for a few bucks unlocks the “Fan Area,” with access to additional levels and some other perks.

The interesting bit involves tactics within levels and your overall strategy for leveling up characters with different skills in order to form successful teams for the harder levels. For example, some of the enemies might “poison” the team, delivering multiple rounds of damage even after the enemy has been destroyed. Having a team member who can “cure” the poison becomes a necessity.

I’ve managed to complete the first two “seasons” of the game, along with some of the extra material, but the Expert levels are still baffling to me. The enemies have such firepower and other abilities, such as locking gems into place, or “stunning” the entire team (so gem combinations have no effect) for one or more turns, that even advanced teams are wiped out in only a few turns. Well, that’s what keeps it interesting, I suppose.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

In Defense of Gendered Pronouns

In some circles, gendered pronouns have fallen out of fashion. Oh, the debate rages on about exactly *how* to replace them - use a hybrid word, like s/he? use the grammatically-incorrect plural pronoun to replace the singular (“I admired their shoes”)? create an entirely new word? - but, the feeling goes, asserting gender through a pronoun is somehow déclassé.

As best as I can tell, this trend is based on two concerns: one, the very modern concept that gender identity is fluid, and thus no one pronoun necessarily captures an individual’s essence; and two, gender carries with it assumptions about a person that may be unwarranted in any particular situation. Fair enough.

Yet the solution is not to blur or even erase gender lines. First of all, it’s a little silly. Whether describing a real or a fictional person, gender is an important and obvious identifying characteristic. Fine, a small fraction of the population feels that its outward sexual characteristics do not accurately reflect its true gender, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Second, vive la difference. Men and women don’t just look different, or have different equipment for use in the bedroom; they often behave differently, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but in a world that claims to celebrate diversity it’s peculiar to attempt to quash gender differences. I’m reminded of the Ursula K. Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven, in which the protagonist’s mental powers allow him to reshape reality, so he tries to use that power to benefit humanity. By eliminating race, however, he finds that he no longer has a connection with the woman he loves. Whoops.

This is not to say that emphasizing gender is always appropriate. After the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, some commentators observed that the male justices voted one way and the female justices the other way, suggesting that gender overrode judicial wisdom. This was an ugly slur toward all the justices and such sentiments should never have passed editorial muster. But the solution to such things is not to eliminate mentions of gender, but to gently correct these misguided souls.

Long live gendered pronouns!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Doctor Who, "Dark Water"

“Dark Water” is the first part of the season-ending two-part story, and, as such, reviewing it without having seen the remainder would be silly. Instead, I’ll put down a few reactions. We’ll see if they need to be revised come this Saturday.

Lengthy Plot Summary, Filled with Spoilers

When the episode opens, Clara is on the phone with Danny, telling him that there are things she needs to say, not all of them good, but that she loves him - all the while looking at a series of Post-It notes affixed to bookshelves in her apartment. (Most of the notes deal with her adventures with the Doctor. Others, such as “Three months,” are more obscure.*) Suddenly, his end goes silent. A woman picks up and tells Clara that Danny has been hit by a car and killed. As openers go, that one was a doozy.

In her grief-stricken state, Clara hatches a plan that we see unfold: she enters the TARDIS, asks the Doctor to take her to see a volcano, steals all his TARDIS keys,** then, when he wakes up outside the TARDIS, she demands he bring Danny back, throwing one key after another into the lava, which apparently destroys TARDIS keys, every time he says no.*** He won’t budge, she goes through with her threat… only to find that the Doctor had outwitted her and the scene is her dream state. What follows is one of my favorite scenes of the season:
Clara: "What now? Doctor, what do we do now, you and me?"
The Doctor: "Go to Hell."
Clara, after a lengthy pause: "Fair enough. Absolutely fair enough.” She turns to leave the TARDIS.
The Doctor: “Clara? You asked me what we’re going to do. We’re going to Hell. Or wherever it is people go when they die…. Wherever it is, we’re going there and find Danny. And, if there’s any way possible, we’re going to bring him home."
Clara: “You’re going to help me?"
The Doctor: “Well, why wouldn’t I help you?"
Clara: “‘Cause of what I just did."
The Doctor: “You betrayed me. Betrayed my trust, betrayed our friendship, betrayed everything I stand for. You let me down!"
Clara: “Then why are you helping me?"
The Doctor: “Why? Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?"
Despite the Doctor’s apparent indifferent to Clara, occasionally bordering on outright cruelty, over the course of the season, this exchange lays bare his true relationship with her.

The Doctor insists Clara use the telepathic circuits in the TARDIS again, as she did in “Listen,” to take the ship wherever the pair is most likely to find Danny. They land in a mausoleum, filled with skeletons sitting in water - the “dark water” of the title, able to show only organic matter. They meet Missy, who tells them that the bodies have “exoskeletons” that are invisible.

Meanwhile, Danny awakes in the Nethersphere, being processed by Seb, who tells him that he’s dead but that he still maintains a connection with his body. He feels cold because his body is being stored in a cold place, but once he’s cremated… Seb asks Danny if he ever killed anyone as a soldier, then tells Danny he has a visitor. We see a flashback in which Danny’s unit is under fire in Afghanistan, and Danny clears a house using his automatic weapon. Danny’s visitor is a young Afghani boy, whom Danny presumably shot, and Danny apologizes to the boy. Seb provides Danny with an iPad (“You have iPads here?” Seb replies, “We have Steve Jobs.”) and they receive a call from Clara. The Doctor insists that Clara be skeptical, “even if it breaks your heart,” and determine whether it’s really Danny to whom she is talking.

Having missed all the signs - the logo for the 3W Corporation bears more than a passing resemblance to the Cyberman eye-with-tear-drop, and the reference to an “exoskeleton” on the corpses in the dark water might have given up the game - the Doctor only belatedly sees the Cybermen for what they are. And despite having had his hand on Missy’s heart - or, in this case, hearts - he apparently doesn’t make the connection that she is a Time Lady (“I’m old-fashioned.”). As he exits the mausoleum, he finds himself on the steps to St. Paul’s church, in the middle of London, as the Cybermen start marching out (hearkening back to the classic Doctor Who story, “The Invasion”). Missy then gives her Big Reveal to the Doctor: Missy is short for Mistress which is the female version of the Master.

Random Thoughts

From our first scene with Missy, in “Deep Breath,” people speculated that she was the Master, regenerated into female form. Others dismissed that as preposterous. Well, we see who’s laughing now.

That said, did we really need to bring back the Master? And the Cybermen? The whole idea of the Nethersphere was intriguing on its own. Surely someone could have stumbled across Gallifreyan technology, the way the Master used the Matrix, to construct the Nethersphere. The concept of an afterlife (of a sort) in which the mind is still connected to what the physical body feels is very creepy. The Master seems unnecessary.

I’ve seen some commentary suggesting difficulty accepting a female Master. The concept of Time Lords switching genders in regeneration doesn’t bother me particularly, though one has to wonder how the Doctor managed thirteen blokes in a row, and the Master even more than that (as he had run through his regenerations back in the classic series) without a single female regeneration. The new series has dropped a few hints that this is possible, but it still seems… unusual.

Because some people can’t be satisfied, though, the ladies on the Verity! podcast took the opportunity of the Master’s new body both to reiterate their belief that a female Doctor is inevitable at some point and to carp that we haven’t seen a “Doctor of color.” Come on, ladies, Gallifrey seems to be a pretty pasty society. What would produce black Time Lords? Fine, be politically correct about it if you wish, it seems to me you’re retconning the whole idea of changing genders and introducing the whole idea of different Gallifreyan races just to fit some modern conception of what a television show should look like.

Changing topics entirely, it was pretty brave to kill off Danny before the credits, and in such a banal way. Of course, Doctor Who being what it is, we’ll have to wait until the end credits roll next week to see if he stays dead. Nonetheless, this season has really been about two people, the Doctor and Clara, both discovering things about themselves, and to me it’s made for a number of top-notch episodes.

------------

* Someone on Twitter advanced the hypothesis that this means Clara is pregnant. If so, it would be yet another example of how television people apparently have no concept of birth control. They turn up unexpectedly pregnant whenever the plot so demands. Please, TV characters in the 21st century, act as though it is the 21st century and take care of this problem.

** Eagle-eyed Twitter user Sean Blythe (@OmitWords) noted that the book in which the Doctor keeps one of his TARDIS keys is The Time-Traveler’s Wife. Hilarious.

*** We’ve apparently completely forgotten about the Doctor’s ability to open the TARDIS with a snap of his fingers. Also, given the powers the TARDIS has an her proprietary interest in the Doctor, do we really think he needs a key? But read on.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Doctor Who, "In the Forest of the Night"

We’re heading into the final stretch of the season, with only the two-part finale to go after this episode. (Very sad.) Then the long, miserable stretch from Nov. 8 to Christmas with no new Doctor Who episode. (Also very sad.) In the meanwhile, however, we have “In the Forest of the Night” to contend with.

Trying to reach London, the Doctor opens the TARDIS doors to find himself in a forest. A young girl, Maebh, in a red coat knocks on the door and asks for help, and the TARDIS assures the Doctor that he has landed in central London. Meanwhile, Clara and Danny are chaperoning young Coal Hill School students - the “gifted and talented” group, though that’s clearly a euphemism - in an overnight stay at the Natural History Museum. The next morning they open the museum doors to find the same forest. When they realize that Maebh is not with them, they set out to search for her. Naturally, they encounter the Doctor.

With the gang all together, the Doctor tries to understand what caused the forest to appear so suddenly. After a few false starts, and a small chat with the forest, he correctly deduces that a huge solar flare is about to occur, which would wipe out life on Earth. The mystical forest, however, which is impervious to fire, has provided a protective cover for the planet, just as it has done on previous occasions. The children join the Doctor in the TARDIS to send a message across the planet not to harm the trees - in London, the authorities are about to use an exfoliant after the controlled burn failed - and the day is saved.

This episode is clearly in the “fairy tale” classification of Doctor Who stories, from the little girl in the red coat, lost in the forest (Little Red Riding Hood), to her later dropping objects in the forest to lay out a trail (Hansel and Gretel), to the use of the forest as a dark, mysterious, mystical place (any number of fairy tales). Sometimes that works - I thought it worked in “Time of the Doctor” - and sometimes it doesn’t. “In the Forest of the Night” was a less-successful example, in part because having small children on screen for most of the episode is a sure-fire way to kill a story (see “Nightmare in Silver,” “Fear Her,” and “Kill the Moon” while Courtney is on screen), in part because of the heavy-handed environmental message (“trees are our friends, so don’t hurt our friends”), and in part because of the absurd sappy ending tacked onto the episode (Maebh’s missing sister turns up out of the blue at the end).

When Danny, Clara, and the children find the Doctor, Clara has an odd trust that the Doctor will simply figure out what’s going on and solve the problem. She seemed out of character in that scene. Later in the episode, Clara seems all too eager to abandon her charges and go with the Doctor, until Danny reminds her that she has a responsibility for the children’s safety. That scene is no doubt meant to illustrate how traveling with the Doctor has changed Clara - she enjoys and even needs the adventure, while Danny is content to be a math teacher - but seemed odd. Even odder was the scene when the Doctor believes he can’t stop the solar flare from destroying life on Earth. He says he can’t save humanity, but he can save the Coal Hill School children, along with Clara and Danny. Clara rejects that idea, saying that the children would be sad if their parents all died and they didn’t, and thus, in her belief at least, she condemns the children to die. Seems like an unusual choice, to say the least.

The episode did have some good moments. Echoing “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor tells Clara, “This is my world too. I walk your earth, I breathe your air,” and, in contrast with the earlier episode, he doesn’t abandon humanity. When Clara rejects leaving in the TARDIS, and the Doctor doesn’t understand why, she says, “Don’t make me say it. I don’t want to be the last of my kind,” having seen what that has done to the Doctor. And in a comical moment, the Doctor and Clara peek out of the door of the TARDIS as the solar flare engulfs the Earth, after the Doctor has worked out that the forest will save the planet. Looking down at Earth, he tells her, “I hope I’m right. Be slightly awkward if the world was destroyed at this point."

The episode is by no means bad, much less unwatchable. Capaldi’s Doctor and Coleman’s Clara Oswald are always a joy to watch, and seeing the Doctor puzzle out the situation was fun. In a weak season, this would have been a better-than-average episode. In what’s been an amazing season so far, however, the episode falls a little short by comparison.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Doctor Who, "Flatline"

We're racing toward the end of Series 8. "Flatline" is a comic gem that is also scary, and it does double-duty by advancing some of the themes we've seen so far this season.

As the Doctor attempts to get Clara back home at the same time she started (presumably so Danny won't notice that she's still traveling with the Doctor), the TARDIS winds up over a hundred miles off-target. Worse, the exterior dimensions have shrunk. Clara and the Doctor squeeze out and he squeezes back in to investigate what happened while she looks for clues in the area. When the TARDIS shrinks yet again and the Doctor realizes that he's trapped inside, with only his hand able to reach out of the small doorway, he gives Clara the sonic screwdriver and his psychic paper. "Does this mean I'm you now?" she asks impishly. She places the tiny TARDIS in her handbag, communicating with the Doctor through an earpiece (that also allows him to see through her eyes).

Clara meets Rigsy, a graffiti sprayer on a community service assignment to whitewash his handiwork. Rigsy helps Clara, showing her the house where one of the locals disappeared. The two are menaced by something that comes out of the walls. The two, along with the rest of Rigsy's crew, retreat to the subway tunnels, attempting to stay alive while the Doctor tries to understand the menace. He deduces that these are creatures from a two-dimensional world, trying to infiltrate our three-dimensional one. The timely arrival of a train in the tunnel allows Rigsy and Clara to attempt to ram the creatures. While unsuccessful, this gives the Doctor time to power the TARDIS and devise a plan to send the creatures back to their universe.

The episode is very funny, with both sight gags (the tiny TARDIS; the Doctor's hand emerging from the small doorway to hand Clara various items; the Doctor using his hand to move the TARDIS with his fingers, a la Cousin Itt, in order to get the TARDIS off the railroad tracks) and stinging lines. Early on, as Rigsy asks Clara who she is, she responds: "I'm the Doctor. Doctor Oswald." Rigsy replies, "What are you a doctor of?" The Doctor (in Clara's earpiece): "Of lies." Clara: "I don't know exactly. I think I pick the title just to sound important." The Doctor: "Why, 'Doctor Oswald,' you are hilarious." Later on, as Clara and Rigsy run from the house, the Doctor says to Clara: "You really throw your companions off the deep end, don't you?" At another point, Clara tells Danny "I'm helping him [Rigsy] find his auntie." The Doctor replies in Clara's ear: "Nice. Technically not a lie."

The episode brings together several themes:

* Clara emulates the Doctor. The Doctor sees how he sounds. For example, late in the episode, Clara suggests using a train to ram the monsters. The conductor says there’s a dead-man switch and someone is needed to hold the handle. Rigsy jumps into the cab and starts to move the train forward. He tells Clara he knows he will die in the attempt. Clara responds by placing her hair band on the switch, locking it place. “I really liked that headband,” she tells him, “but I suppose I’ll just take it. And every time I look at it I’ll remember the hero that died to save it.” Although that effort failed, Clara has a flash of inspiration that will restore power to the TARDIS: she has Rigsy spray-paint a door onto a poster, tricking the creatures into using their energy in an effort to open the “door” that doesn’t exist.

* Clara continues to learn how to lie. She talks to Danny on the phone while trying to avoid being killed and makes no mention of being with the Doctor or being in danger. She uses the psychic paper to pretend she's with MI-5 and, of course, pretends to be the Doctor.

* Clara learns what it's like to be the Doctor - in particular, the difficult decisions and tradeoffs that he makes. At the end of the episode, Clara says to the Doctor, "Just say it: I was a good Doctor." The Doctor responds, "You were an exceptional Doctor. Goodness had nothing to do with it."

* Clara learns to embrace her abilities as a leader.
Unlike Clara's reaction to being abandoned by the Doctor and being forced to make an important decision in "Kill the Moon," here she understands and even embraces her role as the one in charge during the Doctor's absence. At one point she muses, "Doctor? What would you do now? No. What will I do now?"

In all, another exceptional episode.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Doctor Who, "Mummy on the Orient Express"

(I was out of town for over a week, missing both “Mummy” and “Flatline,” which is why this is later than usual. I wrote it not having seen “Flatline.”)

It’s “one last trip” for Clara in the TARDIS, and the Doctor takes her to the Orient Express - in space. Unsurprisingly, the trip turns deadly when, one by one, the passengers and crew die at the hand of a mummy only the condemned can see, exactly 66 seconds before his or her death. With Clara trapped in a storeroom, the Doctor tries to rally other passengers to determine what the mummy is and how to defeat it, using each victim as an opportunity to learn more.

The episode provided the chance for the cast to appear in 1920s period costume. Clara is cute in a flapper dress. The Doctor takes a cigarette case out of his coat pocket, opens the case, and slides it to a gentleman… only to reveal Jelly Babies strapped in the case. Very cute. Sure, we’ve seen the “historical model of transportation in space” bit before, with the Titanic in “Voyage of the Damned,” and we’ve seen 1920s costume in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” and we’ve seen murderous mummies before in “Pyramids of Mars,” but combining these elements with the cranky Twelfth Doctor was a delight. The revelation that the mummy is actually a soldier with defective gear from a long-ended war fits in with the season-long arc of the Doctor’s dislike for soldiers (including Danny Pink).

We also see Clara’s character continue to develop, and in a surprising way. During the episode, the Doctor asks that she lie to Masie, a passenger, to induce her to come to the Doctor’s makeshift lab. While Clara appears very uncomfortable doing so, by the end of the episode she has become far more comfortable lying. After she talks with Danny - who asks her if she’s had her last trip and has left the Doctor for good - she first lies to Danny, saying she has, and then lies to the Doctor, saying that Danny is fine with her continuing to travel in the TARDIS. One suspects those lies will boomerang back to Clara later in the season.

The Doctor also changes a bit, explaining to Clara at the end that he didn’t know if he could save Masie and was unwilling to give her false hope. While we see his practical side - the Doctor would dispassionately use as many deaths as necessary to understand and stop the mummy - we also get a hint that he still cares about saving lives.