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.

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.

Doctor Who: Cold War (7.2.3)

Cold War

BBC Doctor Who Site

Viva Las Vegas!

Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the Eighties. Everything’s bigger.

This episode, written by Mark Gatiss, combines elements of Das BootAlienThe Thing, and probably other films I don’t know about, into a gripping cold war thriller. The setting is claustrophobic, a Soviet nuclear sub under the Arctic ice in 1983, during the height of the Cold War. The Doctor and Clara burst out of the Tardis expecting Las Vegas, only to find themselves in the sub’s control room, disrupting a training exercise in pushing the button for WWIII.

The Russians are understandably peeved at the interruption, particularly the gung-ho second-in-command, whose name I didn’t get. I have a thing about Russian names, my brain won’t process them properly. Never mind. He shall be known as General Ripper, from Dr. Strangelove. The Doctor and Clara are suspected of being spies, and it doesn’t help that the Tardis swans off on its own, leaving them in a dire situation. It gets worse. The sub hits a submerged reef and plunges out of control until fetched up by another reef. Then there’s the specimen the civilian professor on board has discovered trapped in ice, while searching for oil. A crewman, for inexplicable reasons, decides to melt the ice it’s encased in before they get back to Moscow. Revealing a thoroughly pissed-off ice warrior. And not just any ice warrior – this one is Grand Marshal Skaldak, a proud leader and a hero to his people. You insult him at your peril, because he will take out your entire planet to avenge the dishonour.

You could also apologise nicely and hope he’ll forgive you, but that’s no longer an option when General Ripper attacks him from behind with a cattle prod. They have to chain Skaldak up for everyone’s safety.

The rest of the episode is taken up with how Skaldak gets free and tries to launch a missile to start WWIII, because he thinks his brother ice warriors aren’t coming for him and he has nothing to lose. Being frozen for 5,000 years, he knows his daughter is “dust” and mourns her. General Ripper is also keen to start WWIII, offering to collaborate with Skaldak, who gets all the information he can out of Ripper and then kills him. As he does to another crewman to find out what his enemy is made of. Literally.

But he loves his daughter and can feel some empathy for these humans. Once again, it’s Clara who reaches out to the threat and neutralises it. She reminds Skaldak of what it is to lose someone you love (multiplied by billions where the Earth is concerned), and he disarms the weapon before flying off with his rediscovered brothers. True, the Doctor is prepared to destroy the sub and Skaldak’s ship in the Arctic version of a Mexican stand-off, but it’s hard to say which has the most weight in affecting Skaldak’s decision.

I like it that Clara is an equal in these adventures: “Saved the world then. That’s what we do.” This after a spontaneous hug with a slightly embarrassed aftermath. Clara is actively trying to live up to what she imagines as the Doctor’s expectations, seeking his explicit approval. And he trusts her to negotiate with Skaldak.

There are the usual grace notes in this as in most Moffat episodes. Great supporting characters, with the professor standing out as an Eighties pop music-loving, avuncular figure, who takes an interest in Clara and worries about her feeling unhappy after seeing the crewman’s body. I enjoyed the way he wanted her sing Hungry Like A Wolf, by Duran Duran, and she was too embarrassed to do it. Except at the end when everything depended on Skaldak changing his mind. I had to google it, but the song adds something to my appreciation of him.

Skaldak is a superb character. Not a villain or a monster, but a lost, proud, lonely ice warrior, stressed beyond measure and forced to the greatest dishonour of all, being seen without his armour. This is where the new series is so much better than the episodes from the last century. Aliens get some respect as characters and some money spent on their portrayal. With his armour, Skaldak is troubling enough. Out of it, he becomes downright scary. First we see the hand, with its long, scaly, probing fingers, then the glowing eyes in shadow and a suggestion of mouth. Finally, in response to the Doctor’s taunt, “Look into my eyes, Skaldak, face to face,” we see the whole head. But he’s also allowed to be more than his features suggest.

I have a couple of niggles. Clara’s accent seems be wandering between northern and RP. I hope she settles on one or the other. Then there’s the Doctor’s pronouncement that “History’s in flux. It can be changed, rewritten.” Pompeii? Why couldn’t the Doctor get more people out, as Donna wanted, when Vesuvius erupted?

Beyond that, I think this episode is superb, one of the high points of the season. Perfect ending, too, with Clara making the Doctor admit that his tinkering with the Hazard Avoidance Detection System has sent the Tardis to the South Pole. Never mind, the sub will give them a lift.

Doctor Who: The Snowmen (2012 Christmas Special)

Doctor Who - The Snowmen

The Doctor as Scrooge? Why not? Steven Moffat pulls it off perfectly in this cracking Christmas Special, with the Doctor living in a cloud of his own misery, reached by a retractable ladder and an ornate, circular iron staircase (“It’s taller on the inside”). In keeping with his mood, he’s dressed in shabby Victorian clothes, dented top hat, and sans bow tie. The TARDIS could do with a lick of paint as well.

It is, of course, because of losing the Ponds – “He suffered losses which hurt him,” as Madame Vastra explains to Clara, who has a more down-to-earth take on it, “Mad.” The Doctor is indulging in a massive sulk, refusing to help humanity, until Clara appears like a force of nature to get him up and running.

While the Doctor still has loyal friends – Madame Vastra, her wife, Jenny, and Strax, the Sontaran warrior brought back from the dead – only Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is able to break though the scar tissue and enlist his help against the Snowmen. They are intelligent crystals who mirror human thoughts, given form by the lonely, bitter mind of a boy who decides he doesn’t need anybody. Grown up to be a lonely, bitter man, he colludes with the snow to destroy humanity.

This Doctor Simeon is another Scrooge, sharing the Doctor’s bitter loneliness. But the Doctor has Clara to save him. Mostly by irritating him till he has to recognise her as his new companion. And because he starts to care about her, he can care about the world again.

It takes time. The catalyst is Clara’s one word answer to Madame Vastra, encapsulating the problem – “Pond” – which cannot fail to attract his attention. To the extent that he subconsciously puts on a bow tie before dashing off to rescue the Latimer’s from a dead, frozen, vengeful Governess. To make sure Clara is the one, he tests her by asking what his plan is, while being pursued by the Governess. Clara gets it, and also sees through the subterfuge.

From then on, the Doctor is committed, perhaps in love. There’s a fervency in the way he offers Clara the key to the TARDIS: “I never know why. I only know who.” And he’s devastated when the Governess snatches her away, just as things are turning out right. So he fights even harder to save the world and her. Perhaps he tries to bargain with the universe.

The world is saved, but it’s through the tears at Clara’s death, which fall as salt rain to melt the Snowmen and destroy the globe that controls them. And yet, maybe that bargain has been struck after all, because the Doctor recognises her name from the gravestone – Clara Oswin Oswald. He remembers her as Souffle Girl, who though a Dalek herself, saved him and the Ponds from the Daleks. As she lay dying, he again gave her the key, saying, “I don’t know how. I only know who.” So now he dashes off to find her, on the principle that three times is a charm, and in this case death doesn’t seem to be an obstacle. The last scene shows a modern Clara, standing by the gravestone in an overgrown cemetery. Of course we know she’s the new companion, but it’s good to have the mystery about how it could possibly happen.

I’m delighted with Clara. She’s intelligent, sexy, independent, exactly what the Doctor needs to keep him on his toes. Looking forward to the new season. I also enjoyed the return of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. Madame Vastra had one of the best lines in the show, with “Good evening, I’m the Lizard Woman from the Dawn of Time, and this is my Wife.” Glad to see Strax alive and well – you can’t keep a good Sontaran down.

A superb Doctor Who Christmas Special, made more powerful by allowing the Doctor to reveal his dark side.