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.