Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (7.2.7)

Nightmare in Silver Poster

BBC Doctor Who Website

The Doctor: Impossible girl. Mystery wrapped in an enigma, squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little too tight.

A family outing for Clara and her two charges, Artie and Angie, in this Neil Gaiman episode. Pity the greatest theme park in the universe is now abandoned, and the Cyberiad is using the place as a recruiting ground, after being almost wiped out in the last battle with the Empire. It’s almost a given that the Doctor never ends up in the place he intends to get to.

But the kids love it, especially the moon landing exhibit with the artificial gravity gizmo. Even the hard to please Angie grudgingly confesses that it’s all right. For a member of his school chess club, though, Artie really shouldn’t have fallen for the Fool’s Mate in his match against a supposedly defunct cyberman. Who is in fact operated by the AWOL Emperor, known as Porridge.

Chess is the metaphor in the battle against the cybermen, who can now run fast and upgrade themselves on the fly. Both players are the Doctor, part of him an upgraded Cyber Planner, held at bay only by the original Doctor’s threat to regenerate and destroy all the nasty implants. Great opportunity to show the Cyber Planner all the previous Doctors. Cyber Planner even tries to do impressions of Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant. He has an engagingly quirky sense of humour, as you would expect from someone sharing the Doctor’s mind.

While the Doctor is making the moves in the meta-game, the pieces are represented by Clara’s rag-tag punishment detail of Imperial troops, and an army of bright, fast, shiny cybermen. They’ve been kidnapping visitors to Webley’s World of Wonders and upgrading them, which has led to its demise as a wonderful place for a family holiday.

The end game is never in doubt. Clara’s army – she took to the whole commanding thing like a duck to water – is picked off one by one. Which is a shame because I was much taken by this bunch of misfits. The Doctor gives up his Queen to release Artie and Angie from cyber control. Then he bluffs Cyber Planner into using up all his computer processing resources to work out why it’s mate in three, thus halting the cyber army in its tracks. I seem to recall a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk does the same thing to a defenceless computer.

All this leaves the Doctor free to zap himself with a hand pulser and knock the Cyber Planner out of his head. But the final mate takes Angie’s realisation that Porridge is in fact the Emperor, with the necessary code to destroy the planet. So they transmat up to his ship, the planet implodes, and the obligatory bit of cyber tech is left behind to ensure the survival of the cybermen for future episodes.

I like these upgraded silver machines. Just as zombies got a needed shot in the arm with 28 Days Later, and daleks learned to fly, so cybermen are now faster and meaner. I think there was even an implied reference to daleks in the episode.

Beautifully written, as you would expect from Neil Gaiman, and chockfull of character. The setting is perfect, redolent of abandoned amusement parks, with a dash of Victoriana in Webley and his eclectic collection of unrelated wonders. Porridge is a brilliantly complex character. He wears the depth of what you don’t know about him on his face, so it becomes entirely possible that he’s an Emperor on the run from the loneliness of power. And It’s great to see Artie and and Angie getting involved, just as Rose’s family and boyfriend were. I think this is indicative of the Doctor’s connection to Clara.

Which proceeds by leaps and bounds. There may be some truth under cover of Cyber Planner’s insincere blandishments. They do share the same mind.

Clara, I suppose I’m the only one who knows how I feel about you right now. How funny you are, so funny and pretty. And the truth is I’m starting to like you in a way that is more than just…

At which point Clara slaps him, as the Doctor hoped, on the the grounds that even if he did feel that way he’d never say it. As a test to see if he really is the Doctor, there’s this later exchange.

Clara: Do you think I’m pretty?
Doctor: No, you’re too short and bossy, and your nose is all funny.

Fair enough, but the Doctor is perhaps too eager to be involved in the resolution of the Emperor’s touching marriage proposal to Clara, as if he might have an interest. And right at the end, when Clara automatically assumes he’ll be there next Wednesday, the Doctor says this to himself. He’s a little shocked at the thought.

Impossible girl. Mystery wrapped in an enigma, squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little too tight.

I’m completely hooked on this story arc of finding out who Clara is, and discovering the nature of their relationship. Looking forward to the big revelation next week, something to do with the Doctor’s real name (which must never be spoken or Silence will fall). I imagine we’ll learn a lot more about Clara as well.

TED Talks: Douglas Adams on parrots, the universe and everything

An occasional post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This is what the internet is made for – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettos and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other. This is not strictly a TED Talk, but is included on their website.

Here is the late, great Douglas Adams, talking about his expeditions to observe endangered species – the Aye-aye in Madagascar is the first – that became a BBC radio documentary, called Last Chance to See, and then a book of the same name. He speaks exactly as you would expect of the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A delight to listen to, and a reminder of the unique mind the world lost when he died in 2001.

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (7.2.6)

Doctor Who Poster - The Crison Horror

BBC Doctor Who Site

Mrs Gillyflower: Join us in this shining city on the ‘ill!

There’s trouble ‘t mill in this splendid romp, written by that aficionado of cinematic horror, Mark Gatiss. Tough as old boots, Mrs Gillyflower is played by Diana Rigg, clearly loving the role of this completely over the top villain. In a stroke of genius her long-suffering daughter, Ada, is played by her own own daughter, Rachael Stirling. In addition, three of of my favourite characters show up to help the Doctor out of his pickle – Madame Vastra and her partner, Jenny, and the still bloodthirsty but well-trained Sontaran warrior, Strax. (“You’re over-excited. Have you been eating those jelly sherbert fancies again?”)

The episode is full of the sort of theatrical northernness you might find in the Fosdyke Saga, mated with cliches from cinematic horror movies, and tempered by a Whovian sensibility. I particularly enjoyed Mrs Gillyflower’s organ, which revolves to reveal the launch panel for her rocket. Touch of the Dr.Phibes there, which would have been even more perfect if Mrs Gillyflower had played something. And special mention for the engaging Thomas Thomas, who gives such perfect directions to Strax, just as he’s about to shoot his fourth horse in a week.

We don’t see the Doctor or Clara until well into the episode, except in the last image captured in a dead man’s eyes – a dead, red man, seeing a red Doctor. Madame Vastra and Jenny travel to 1893 Yorkshire, where Jenny infiltrates Mrs Gillyflower’s chilling cult of moral purity. Only the most perfect survive being dipped into a vat of red Jurassic leech venom. These lucky, petrified people get to live under glass domes in perfect little houses in Sweetville, Victorian values at their most explicit. Clara makes the grade, while the Doctor’s rejected, but doesn’t die like all the other rejects who get dumped in the canal. Blind, scarred Ada takes a fancy to him and locks up her “monster” in a cell.

Until he’s rescued by Jenny, and they rescue Clara, and the whole gang takes on the  evil Mrs Gillyflower and her “silent partner,” Mr Sweet. As well as being the modified descendant of Jurassic leeches, Mr Sweet has thriven on the polluted waters of the canal. Together, he and Mrs Gillyflower are producing industrial quantities of his red venom to purify the world.

Unmasked by the Doctor and his companions, Mrs Gillyflower tries to spread her red venom around the world, in the the form of a rocket (what else) hidden in a factory chimney. Foiled by Clara’s chair-in-the-control-panel ploy, she takes Ada hostage and triggers the secondary firing mechanism in the chimney. Too late! Madame Vastra and Jenny have the vat of red venom that’s the rocket’s payload. Strax shoots the pistol from her hand, she falls to her death, and Mr Sweet crawls off but can’t escape getting pulverized by an irate Ada. Huzzah!

Lots of questions from Madame Vastra and Jenny about Clara. The Doctor appears to be sticking to his conclusion from last week, that Clara is just Clara. But Madame Vastra is having none of it: “I was right then. You and Clara have unfinished business.” If that weren’t enough, there’s the photo of Clara in Victorian London (not Yorkshire), which is among the photos her charges have discovered on the internet. Come to think of it, the Doctor was extremely keen to get Clara to 1893 London, but by then she’d had enough of Victorian values. In any case, now the kids know their nanny’s a time traveller, they want a go in the time machine as well.

Perhaps this was the perfect episode, I don’t know. But aye, it were reet grand.

Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (7.2.5)

Doctor Who - Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

BBC Doctor Who Site

Doctor: Running away with a spaceman in a box. Anything could happen to you.
Clara: That’s what I’m counting on.

I’m a little confused by this episode, written by Steve Thompson. It’s not at all clear how the magnograb thingy, with BIG FRIENDLY BUTTON carved on it, enabled the Doctor to rewind time back to before the Tardis is hauled aboard the salvage ship. But I suppose that doesn’t matter, given that Doctor Who regularly achieves the impossible, with as little explanation.

This week Clara gets to know the Tardis. The Doctor’s concerned that they aren’t hitting it off properly, so he wants them to talk to each other: “It’s important to me you get along. I can leave you two alone together.” That’s exactly what happens, but in exactly the wrong way, as the Van Baalen Bros. snatch up the Tardis when it’s in basic mode and the shield oscillators are turned off.

Clara is trapped inside, with the engine exploded and held in stasis, as the Doctor cons the salvagers into helping him find her. The carrot is salvage, the stick is the threat of auto-destruct in 30 minutes. So we have two journeys of discovery going on – Clara’s and the Van Baalen brothers.

They both discover the immensity of the Tardis, but Clara discovers the personal stuff. The swimming pool and library, the Doctor’s cradle, last seen at Demon’s Run, Amy’s model Tardis, a magnifying glass, and an umbrella, which I think belonged to Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. Can’t place the magnifying glass, though. Clara also discovers the handsomely bound, History of the Time War, which contains the Doctor’s real name: “So that’s who.” The most important secret in the universe because once it’s revealed then Silence will fall. No wonder he’s alarmed, and no wonder time must be rewound so Clara will unknow it.

For the Van Baalen brothers, their greed-driven family dynamics are laid bare, and we discover the android is really human, their dead father’s choice for captain. His brother finds a spark of decency in the Tardis that survives the rewinding of time.

And the Doctor steadfastly pursues the mystery of Clara, even in the midst of disaster. It’s become obsessional. When the fiery zombies turn out to be future memories and echoes of Clara, the Doctor is guilt-stricken, and spills the beans about her past lives and deaths. He really wants to know who she is: “What are you, eh, a trick, a trap?” Clara doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he finally seems to accept it: “You’re just Clara, aren’t you?” But is she? Moffat isn’t going to leave it at that.

The Tardis is the main character in the episode. We find out about her innards, moods, strengths and weaknesses, and the Doctor’s guilt at being unable to protect her from the salvagers. Loved the way he stroked and reassured the console when Clara called the Tardis an appliance. But you can understand Clara’s comment about their relationship: “You’re like one of those guys who can’t go out with a girl unless his mother approves.” It looks like Clara’s winning that approval, with the Tardis sheltering her inside the console room.

This worked as a gripping  action/adventure episode, but it also developed the relationship between the Doctor, the Tardis, and Clara. If there’s a mystery about Clara then it must surely involve all three. The leak in time, with the visual of the jagged break in a wall, harks back to Amy’s split in time.

Plenty to think about, with each episode so far a satisfying one-off.

TED Talks: Elaine Morgan says we evolved from aquatic apes

An occasional post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). The internet is made for this – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettos and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other.

Elaine Morgan is the most well-known proponent of the aquatic ape hypothesis, which says that our ape ancestors didn’t come down from the trees and suffer in the hot, dry savannah. Sensible beasts that they were, they headed for the beach to take advantage of the plentiful food supplies available in an aquatic environment. Hence us, hairless, intelligent, bipedal apes who have sex face to face. Most of the time, anyway. There’s a lot more to the hypothesis, obviously, and Morgan lays it out in this entertaining talk.

Thanks to the Guardian for reminding me. It has an article prompted by a major London conference next week, and the support of David Attenborough. If you’re interested in the subject, here’s Elaine Morgan giving a lecture at UCL: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4.

And here is a BBC documentary on the subject. Not great picture quality, but worth watching.

Doctor Who: Hide (7.2.4)


BBC Doctor Who Site

Clara: To you I’m a ghost. We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.
Doctor: You are the only thing worth solving.

Another brilliant episode by Neil Cross, this one inspired by The Stone Tape, a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale. That was set in a castle and involved a group of scientists deploying all the tools of their trade to catch the screaming ghost of a Victorian servant girl. As in Hide, there was something really nasty chasing her, and it even had the detail of a cache of tinned food left by scared GIs.

Hide is a properly scary ghost story that turns into a love story for all the characters, even the skeletal monster, without losing any of its tension. The writing is as complex as you could wish for, and certainly expect from someone like Neil Cross. He teases out the tensions between that threesome, the Doctor, the Tardis, and Clara, and between Alec Palmer and his assistant, Emma Grayling. Nice in joke, that, making reference to it being 1974 so Emma would not have been his companion. But it also makes an implicit comparison between the Doctor/Clara and Alec/Emma, which is reinforced by Clara and Emma talking about their relationships with the Doctor and Alec, and Alec confiding in the Doctor. It ends with two threesomes, as Alec and Emma are joined by their many times great granddaughter, Hila.

The plot is simple and gripping. Alec is assuaging his guilt about sending agents to their death in WWII by trying to contact the screaming ghost who inhabits the house he’s bought. He’s assisted by Emma, an empathic psychic, who can detect what the spirits are feeling. Their work seems to have some official backing, judging by the Doctor being able to pass himself off as the Man from the Ministry.

The Doctor rescues the ghost, in fact a time traveller, from a collapsing pocket universe that echoes this one. Emma is the lantern to whom Hila is attracted, and she’s hauled in on a rope and winch through a wormhole between the worlds. But that leaves the Doctor marooned with the monster who’s been chasing Hila. So Clara has to confront the Tardis, in the form of her own image as the Tardis Voice and Visual Interface, and persuade her to trust Clara enough to rescue the Doctor. Reminds me of the Tardis falling in love with her Doctor in The Doctor’s Wife.

Clara carries out her mission with terrible driving and great panache. Hila turns out to be Alec and Emma’s distant granddaughter (“blood calling out to blood”), as the Doctor blunderingly assumes they already know. But there’s still the monster, who the Doctor realises just wants to get together with its counterpart in their own world. So he goes to fetch him with the rope and winch method (“Hello, you old Romeo, you,”) and they’re picked up by Clara in the Tardis. Lovely ending.

The episode covers a lot of ground. The love story between Alec and Emma is beautifully told with lingering looks and unrequited sexual tension. Emma and Clara’s talk reveals that Clara is not in love with the Doctor, though she clearly likes his “big chin.” And her misgivings about the Doctor are brought into the open when a trip to the world’s beginning and ending doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. Hence her worry that “To you I’m a ghost.”

The Doctor’s reply, “You are the only thing worth solving,” continues the story arc of how do you solve a mystery like Clara. Emma warns Clara about not trusting him: “There’s a sliver of ice in his heart.” And Emma confronts the Doctor directly about his motives for helping them, understanding he had an ulterior motive. It was to ask her about Clara.

Emma: She’s a perfectly ordinary girl, very pretty, very clever, more scared than she lets on.
Doctor: And that’s it, is it?
Emma: Why, is that not enough?

Clearly not enough for the Doctor, judging by his expression.

A couple of niggles. For Alec to be an intelligence agent in WWII, he would have to be at least 55 in 1974. Doesn’t look anywhere near that. And the Earth is only 4.5 billion years old, not 6 billion.

Apart from that, a scary, gripping episode, with a lot of emotional meat, and the usual nuanced dialogue that has me watching each one several times over.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

This painting by Peter Breughel the Elder has a poem by W. H. Auden associated with it. Auden unravels the terrible mystery of the painting, which is that Icarus flies to the sun on wings of wax, and his inevitable fall does not disturb the rest of the world.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W. H. Auden