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.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Doctor Who, "Kill the Moon"

In this week’s episode, still on Earth, Clara is chiding the Doctor for not telling 15-year-old Courtney - “Disruptive Influence,” who created her own “spillage” in the TARDIS last week - that she’s “special.” Exasperated, the Doctor abruptly takes Clara and Courtney to the moon, circa 2049. The three discover that the moon has much higher gravity than it should, and that three astronauts in a U.S. Space Shuttle have arrived with 100 nuclear bombs to destroy the moon before the higher gravity wreaks havoc on Earth.

After two of the astronauts are killed by spider-like creatures that the Doctor determines are very large bacteria (in a hilarious scene, Courtney uses anti-bacterial spray on one, stopping it in its tracks), and the Doctor uncovers amniotic fluid in a crevasse, he concludes that the moon is actually incubating a huge creature that is about to hatch. If the moon fractures when the creature hatches chunks of the moon could fall on Earth with devastating consequences. If they detonate the bombs, they will kill the creature, which may be the only one of its kind. As the surviving American astronaut and Clara debate what they should do, and ask the Doctor his plan, the Doctor tells them that it’s their planet and their decision to make, then leaves in the TARDIS.

At the last moment, Clara stops the detonation sequence, allowing the creature to hatch. The Doctor returns, takes all three to Earth, where they watch the creature fly off and the shell harmlessly disintegrate into the atmosphere. Later, in the TARDIS, Clara is furious with the Doctor for abandoning them and allowing them to come so close to making the wrong decision. She tells him not to return and storms out, later comforted by Danny.

Where to start in thinking about this one? The science is more of a mess than usual, so one has to simply go with the narrative flow and not consider the details too much. (For example, how much extra mass would be necessary to create an Earth-like gravity on the moon? Wouldn’t someone have noticed this well before 2049? Don’t bacteria need an atmosphere to survive?) I was more bothered by the Doctor once again taking a child into the TARDIS and into danger. Didn’t the Eleventh Doctor learn (in “Nightmare in Silver”) that no good ever comes of this? And as amusing as Courtney has been in small doses, she can’t carry an episode, and merely comes across like an immature brat, unwilling to stay and help, sulking in the TARDIS, and unable to keep from touching things.

When deciding what to do about the creature, Clara finds a way to poll humanity, which firmly wants the crew to detonate the nuclear bombs and save Earth. Instead, Clara, having asked the question in the first place, ignores their desires and stops the detonation. On instinct? Surely she knows better than any human other than the Doctor’s former companions how dangerous the universe can be. But, of course, in the context of the story her decision is the “right” one.

The Doctor surely knew about much of what would transpire - otherwise, his choice of this moment in 2049 to take Courtney is too much of a coincidence. We can infer that his purposes were twofold: first, to not merely tell Courtney that she’s special but to allow her to do something special; and, second, to give to Clara control over the outcome, trusting that Clara would do the right thing and, in so doing, help propel humanity to the stars.

Did this work? In the context of the episode, the first one did - Courtney seems happier with herself - while the second one didn’t - Clara is very angry with the Doctor. But this is backward: Courtney didn’t actually do anything special, she was merely an observer to an historic moment. (And no one will believe her if she tells them.) Conversely, Clara actually did make the decision with the Doctor nowhere around. For better or worse, she chose the outcome. Yet she complained to the Doctor that he was patronizing her. I don’t see that.

In sum, this was a difficult episode, and not an entirely successful one, although I liked the themes contained in it. I look forward to reading/hearing some of the other commentary on the episode. (I try to write these based only on my reactions to the episode.) One point that keeps coming back to me over the course of this season is that this is a very adult season of Doctor Who, in part because the Twelfth Doctor isn’t an easy person to like, in part because Clara has some difficult parts of her personality, but in large part because of the issues and interpersonal conflicts that keep arising. Doctor Who for adults might not always be easy viewing, but it’s proving to be very interesting viewing.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Outlasted Another Neighbor

My latest neighbor appears to have departed. People come and go in Second Life; that’s nothing new. But I continue to wonder about what drives some folk to invest time (over three months), energy (finding and siting at least two houses), and money (rent on a not-insubstantial parcel), only to abandon it.

Mayfair 10 2 2014 001
Yup, an empty parcel

At this point, though, I’m not surprised. Then again, there are days when I wonder why I hang on to my place.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Doctor Who, "The Caretaker"

Series 8 is turning out to be one of the best, if not the best, of the new series of Doctor Who, and “The Caretaker” earned its place in this season’s episodes. I didn’t care for the episode particularly, but only because its predecessors are that good; in contrast, “The Caretaker” seems a little more ordinary, with at least one plot element that doesn’t ring true; I’ll get to that in a bit.

The opening montage is brilliant: Clara and the Doctor are seen in several adventures, and after each she returns to a date with Danny Pink. But Danny isn’t blind to Clara’s condition after each of these adventures: after one she is sunburned, while after another she’s wet and smelling of fish. This sets up the premise of the episode well. Clara’s life with the Doctor can no longer be kept separate from her relationship with Danny.

The Doctor appears at Coal Hill School as the caretaker - a maintenance man - much to Clara’s chagrin. He needs to pass as human for a few days in order to catch a monster. (Shades of “The Lodger”!) The monster in this episode, a battle machine from another time and place that the Doctor must remove before it destroys Earth, is incidental to the plot, merely a MacGuffin here.

When the Doctor finally meets Danny, who is introduced as someone mechanically competent because he is an ex-soldier, the Doctor’s prejudice against the military rears itself, and he immediately takes a dislike to Danny. The Doctor can’t believe that Danny is a math teacher, insisting that he must each Physical Education. Instead, the Doctor believes that the History teacher, who bears a passing resemblance to the Eleventh Doctor (complete with bow tie!), is Clara’s boyfriend, despite obvious clues (including graffiti that reads “Ozzie loves the squaddie”).

When the inevitable happens, and Danny disrupts the Doctor’s efforts to send the monster through time, he realizes that Clara and the Doctor know one another and that Clara has been lying to him about their relationship. In a comical moment, Danny assumes that Clara is an alien, sputtering “I thought you said you were from Blackpool!"

The Doctor’s dislike of soldiers comes to the fore in this episode. He tells Clara, “You’ve explained me to him. You haven’t explained him to me.” But Danny turns it around on him, accusing him off being an “officer,” and goads the Doctor until he orders Danny to leave the TARDIS, barking the command just like an officer. Inevitably, we also see that sometimes a soldier is necessary to save the day, and the Doctor grudgingly accepts Clara’s relationship with Danny.

The episode is filled with clever lines and wonderful moments with Capaldi’s alien Doctor. (At one point he asks a girl if her name really is “disruptive influence.”) Clara is comically caught between her men, trying to maintain her Earth-bound relationship with Danny while trying to help the Doctor and keep her relationship with the Doctor a secret from Danny, and failing with both men. However, the thing that never clicked for me was the Clara/Danny relationship. Several episodes ago, when the two were meeting awkwardly for the first time, or having their disastrous first date, it was easy to believe that the two were starting out as a couple, getting to know one another. In “The Caretaker,” we’re supposed to believe that the two are well into their relationship, time having passed on Earth since they first met, yet the couple still seems very much at the beginning of a relationship. When Clara blurts out “Because I love him” to the Doctor in front of Danny, it seems forced.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Beyond the Rim

An update from my mid-May post in which I confessed to starting to watch Babylon 5. I made it through: five seasons and 111 episodes of Babylon 5, from the pilot/prequel “The Gathering” to “Sleeping in Light." I enjoyed the series immensely. The overall story arc(s) of the Shadow war, the Narn-Centauri war, and the tensions between Earth’s fascist regime and Babylon 5 (and the alien races) were all interesting. Contained within those longer plots were smaller story lines and a great deal of character development. To paraphrase The Incomparable podcast devoted to the series, in Babylon 5 actions have consequences for the characters as well as the story, and actions often lead to characters reassessing their views. Consistent with that, no major character is purely good or evil; shades of gray abound. Even the “big bad,” the Shadows, turn out to be something less than the embodiment of evil that we initially think they are, and the “angels,” the Vorlons, have their own agenda and, indeed, don’t speak with one voice.

As I had been warned, Season 5 itself was a bit of a mixed bag. When the series was threatened with cancellation after Season 4, creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski wrapped up the conflict with Earth at the end of Season 4, leading to the lack of a big story arc in Season 5 when the show was ultimately picked up. As a result, Season 5 has some minor story lines (the conflict with the telepaths, issues with the Centauri, attempts to hold the Alliance together) and a lot of filler, including, it seemed to me, the last three episodes.

That problem aside, I thought the series worked much better than any of the Star Trek series, all of which had a fairly static universe through which the main characters traveled, but no actions were ever truly consequential – partly the result of self-contained episodes written by a host of writers, rather than the series-long story arc of B5, written primarily by Strazinski.

As a completist, I bought the movies and the short-lived spin-off series Crusade. While I don’t have high expectations for either, I’ll give them a shot.