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I am horribly behind with Doctor Who reviews, partly because I was in New York when this (half-)season started, and partly because I didn't find the first few episodes very inspirational anyway. This is an attempt to catch up.

7.7 The Bells of Saint John

This was basically a new companion introduction-episode, and given that the plots of such stories are only really there to give the two main characters a context in which to interact, I could forgive this one's for being weak or nonsensical. Consider, for example, Partners in Crime, which features human body-tissue being transformed into 'cute' little living creatures, and in which the Doctor resolves the entire crisis in about 30 seconds with a couple of McGuffins and a Sonic Pen. This story's scenario of people being 'uploaded' into something nasty but ill-defined via wi-fi is much in the same tradition. But Partners in Crime was full of great character moments, jokes and snappy dialogue which meant that it didn't really matter if the story with the Adipose was a bit silly. Here, that simply wasn't the case. Matt Smith and Jenna Louise Coleman were doing their best, but it felt as though Moffat's (rather limited) attention to this script had been used up on crafting cinematic set-pieces like the anti-gravity motorcycle powering up the Shard, instead of on the rather more important business of character and dialogue.

As a result, it was an entirely forgettable episode, and I can only be bothered to note down two things about it for future reference:

1) We should presumably be wondering who the "woman in the shop" was who gave Clara the Doctor's number, saying that it was the best helpline in the universe. Other possibilities could be entertained, of course (Martha, Jo Grant, the TARDIS herself), but given Moffat's previous form and increasing tendency to predictability I would be very surprised if it turns out to be anyone other than River Song.

2) I thought the following line rang some very Hitchhikerish bells when I heard it:
DOCTOR: I can't fly a plane! Can you?
DOCTOR: Oh. Fine. Well let's do it together.
And sure enough, a little Googling has tracked it down:
TRILLIAN: Can you fly her?
ZAPHOD: No. Can you?
ZAPHOD: Fine - we’ll do it together.
(From episode 3 of the radio series)

I've half a feeling that joke has also been used in Doctor Who before, presumably in one of the episodes which Douglas Adams had a hand in, but I can't track it down right now.

7.8 The Rings of Akhaten

From the way people spoke about this episode on Twitter, I'd expected it to be pretty much a full-blown musical, but the singing in it didn't seem particularly excessive or gratuitous to me. That said, Murray Gold is capable of writing better religious-sounding music than he seemed to manage here. I quite liked the pared-down, Cecilianist feel to the music when either Merry or the Chorister were singing on their own, but found myself unsatisfied when the crowd of spectators joined in, expecting a shift towards something more soaring and melodic at that point which didn't really materialise. I did like the Doctor sitting in the audience and trying to join in without knowing the tune or lyrics like an awkward irregular church-goer, though.

The story as a whole felt a little more coherent and fulfilling this week, and I especially liked the Star Wars / Babylon 5 feel of the planetoid where the TARDIS landed. That said, it would have been nice if some of the intriguing alien species we saw, and the ways in which they all interact and co-exist with one another, had been developed a little further, rather than functioning primarily as scenery. This, of course, is one of the problems with trying to tell a story of this type in a 45-minute format, which as it was struggled to convey a very rounded sense of the predominant local culture and religion which Merry represented in the time available.

I'm also a bit puzzled by the ending. Firstly, the parasite-planet creature did seem to be feasting pretty voraciously on the Doctor's memories for a while there. Yet after Clara stepped in with her leaf, he seemed completely fine and unaffected again - and has continued to do so for the next two episodes. Did he actually lose any memories during this process at all, or not? Secondly, call me a pedant, but surely the sudden disappearance of an entire planet ought to have some pretty serious consequences for the rings which orbit around it, shouldn't it? Or did I miss some kind of hand-wavey explanation about this?

Points to note in this episode seem to include:

1) Presumably it is Significant that the TARDIS did not seem bothered about helping Clara to understand the merchant Dor'een early on in the episode, and it's certainly in keeping with an ongoing theme of the TARDIS being generally unhelpful or obstructive towards her. I literally can't be bothered to speculate any more on where this might be leading, given how many apparently Significant Themes of Moffat's have come to nothing, and how disappointing most of the ones which were worked through have been. But what did seem odd was that the Doctor showed no surprise at all about it, and simply stepped straight into translating what Dor'een was saying for Clara. Shouldn't it worry him? Or is his lack of concern in itself supposed to be Significant too - like he is wilfully closing his eyes to the unsettling things about Clara which the TARDIS can see?

2) The Doctor's reference to one of the aliens on the planetoid as a Hooloovoo - another invention of Douglas Adams', who describes them in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy as a 'super-intelligent shade of the colour blue'. A few Douglas Adams references here and there are par for the course in Doctor Who, and it has long been established (OK, by Douglas Adams) that the two series take place in the same universe. But two in a row seems worthy of comment - though, that said, I haven't spotted any in subsequent episodes.

3) The Doctor's explanation to Merry of her unique significance includes the line, "The elements came together and burst apart, forming shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, and cabbages, and kings, until eventually, they came together to make you," which comes directly from Lewis Carroll's poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter (in Alice Through the Looking-Glass). The Doctor has always gone round quoting human literature (e.g. Shakespeare), but placed alongside the Douglas Adams references and multiple references to the programme's own past, it looks a lot as though this series is carefully positioning itself at the centre of a mélange of fantastical narratives. Is it all perhaps a dream after all?

7.9 Cold War

The good thing about Steve Moffat blowing most of the budget for this (half-)series on shiny cinematic special effects in the first two episodes is that we now enter a sequence of nice cheap bottle episodes (or as I normally think of them, cabin fever stories). In general, this is great, because bottle episodes tend to be more than usually character-driven, and that is what I really watch this stuff for. But in practice this first example rather failed on the characterisation. Yes, there were some attempts to characterise the submarine crew - e.g. by contrasting the cattle-prod-happy Stepashin with the honorable Captain Zhukov and amiable Professor Grisenko. But they felt like token cardboard cut-out gestures to me, with all too little relationship to the development of the drama once the initial tasering of their unexpected Martian passenger had taken place.

The Ice Warrior himself was well used, and the 'base under siege' format of the story (or, more accurately, 'base with something inside it') was an appropriate tribute to the Troughton era, as well as being simple and easy to follow. But I did wonder what younger viewers would make of the '80s Cold War set-up, while simultaneously feeling that rather more could have been got out of it to really add weight to the tensions within the submarine crew, and between the Doctor and the Ice Warrior over its nuclear arsenal. It seemed to me that this story had incurred all the disadvantages of a rather complex political setting, without really reaping the advantages in return.

7.10 Hide

This was a much better example of how a bottle episode should work, and easily my favourite story of the (half-)season so far. This time I felt that the characters were well-defined (especially Emma Grayling) and that their strengths and weaknesses were actively driving the development of the story. It did feel a little as though Neil Cross (the script-writer for this one) didn't really know what to do with Hila Tukurian once she arrived, which was a pity. I would have liked to get to know her better, and in fact there was some pretty exciting potential there, what with her being a TIME TRAVELLER and everything. But on the plus side, we did get some nice development from Clara as she began to understand the gulf between her own human viewpoint and the Doctor's, and to find that troubling. The script was great, with plenty of fun quotable lines but also emotional space and weight when they were needed, and the Gothic setting and (for a while) traditional ghost story were very enjoyable and properly scary at a few points.

By now it's also clear that after the opening story, each episode of this (half-)season has included specific references to a particular Classic season. In Rings of Akhaten, the Doctor said that he had visited the planetoid previously with his grand-daughter. Cold War gave us a Troughton 'monster' in a Troughton setting. This episode included a reference to Metebelis 3 and jokes about 'companions' vs 'assistants' - a term which really arrived with Liz Shaw, who for the first time was helping the Doctor but not travelling with him. And (looking ahead briefly) Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS will revisit territory which we have not explored since Four's The Invasion of Time. This means that by the time we hit the final episode of the current series, now known to be titled The Name of the Doctor, we will have reached references to the Seventh Doctor, and thus of course the end of the Classic series. That's certainly interesting, because the Doctor is in his Seventh incarnation in the novel Lungbarrow, which has been the most direct exploration of his identity and background so far - but somehow I can't really see Moffat going there with the TV series.

7.11 Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Yay another bottle episode! But a slight down-turn from last week, in that although there was a creditable attempt to build a story of drama and tension around the three Van Baalen brothers and to have it affect the plot, it didn't quite ring true or compel me in the way that Emma Grayling and Alec Palmer did the previous week. I also found it pretty disquieting that all three of the black characters died - again. (And yes, I know they came back to life again afterwards, but when that is literally done by means of a Big Friendly Reset Button, it doesn't really count.) This isn't just about them being in secondary roles and thus more likely to die than the Doctor or his regular companions. It is a systemic issue, and this felt very much like the latest instance of the black-characters-as-disposable trope.

I was a bit apprehensive about seeing too much of the inside of the TARDIS, as obviously that carries a huge risk of disappointment, and I do think that showing the Eye of Harmony was probably ill-advised. But I liked the glimpsed swimming pool, the technology tree, the design of the library and the ultimately claustrophobic feel of the shifting, looping corridors. The inclusion of The History of the Time War in the library was obviously designed to get us all excited about the season finale and the Doctor's name above all, as well as being a quick device for bringing both Clara and new viewers up to speed with some of his angst issues without having to repeat it all in detail. But it also sparked off a whole different line of thought for me in relation to my long-running interest in the treatment of history, and especially history books, in Doctor Who.

It is a long-standing convention in Doctor Who (and indeed elsewhere) to treat history books as though they are short-hand for history itself, so I suppose we are just expected to take the existence of the book for granted. But they are not actually the same, and the question I want to ask about that book is - who wrote it? The TARDIS? The Doctor? River? I don't think anyone else was in a position to do so. And whoever it was, why did they include his name so apparently casually on the page, when the Doctor has previously suggested to River that it is basically all but unspeakable? In fact, given how little these aspects of the book's existence make sense, was it even real, or simply an illusion created for Clara by the TARDIS - perhaps as a way of conveying something which Clara might need to know in the face of the TARDIS' impending explosion and the unravelling of time and space which would follow?

Speaking of which, are we now to understand that the exploding TARDIS, and the time-cracks which it creates, at the end of new Who season 5 take place in the alternate time-line which the Doctor and Clara escaped from in this episode via the Big Friendly Reset Button? In a triumph of hope over experience, I'm still holding out for these questions to be resolved by the end of the season...

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 1st, 2013 10:52 pm (UTC)
As usual, I try to emphasise the positive with my reviews, but it is difficult to escape that most of this run has felt a little flat. I found The Bells of Saint John more rewarding than Partners in Crime had been, and am one of the few admirers, it seems, of The Bells of Akhaten. Cold War seemed like edited highlights of a longer work, and Hide, as you say, suffered from the underdevelopment and underperformance of Hila. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is not ageing well as I go through the week. This must be in part a case of my assimilating other people's criticisms as I read them, but it's also because the 'cleverness' of a story about storytelling (if that's what it is) only comes across to the initiated; it's not immediately apparent that this is what the story is doing (if it is and I and others are not merely grasping at straws) nor does it do anything except collectors of conventions to tick them off their list. This is exactly what Doctor Who set out to avoid in 2005.

Thankfully, the next episode is more enjoyable... /flaunts privilege
May. 2nd, 2013 08:57 am (UTC)
Glad to hear it about the next episode! And yes, I agree that it feels rather as though Moffat has let some of the strengths of new Who slip through his fingers, without ever really understanding why they had mattered. Two-parter episodes are one such instance, and I found much to agree with in this article which you shared on Facebook.
May. 2nd, 2013 12:39 am (UTC)
I can't make my mind up about these stories, or the first half of the season for that matter. I think I remarked on parrot_knight's blog that they mostly seem good objectively, but somehow don't grip me emotionally, which is odd, as I've never been a Moffat-basher and the 2011 season is my favourite new Who season by far.

Douglas Adams had a history of pilfering (consciously or otherwise) from other programmes, including two possible lifts from Hartnell Doctor Who, so I'll forgive the referencing on the grounds that what goes around, comes around.

Not sure if the bottle episodes are due solely to the need to budget for more expensive ones - Doctor Who has always thrived on low budget stories. I think Neil Cross joked (?) in DWM that he asked for less money than he was offered for Hide.

Cold War gave us a Troughton 'monster' in a Troughton setting.

Oddly enough, it makes me think of Pertwee as much as Troughton, less because of the Peladon stories and more because of the whole "Kill the monster!" "No you fool! Talk to him!" plot.

The question about who wrote The History of the Time War is a good one. Meta-fictionally, Lawrence Miles edited The Book of the War spinning off from the BBC Books eighth Doctor time war arc where the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey, so I did wonder if this was a strange in-joke, especially considering Miles' public hatred (there's no other word for it) of Steven Moffat.

Within the fiction, my money's on the TARDIS. Unless no one on the production team thought it through properly. Moffat has promised answers to Clara's identity and I think the exploding TARDIS by the end of the season...
May. 2nd, 2013 09:06 am (UTC)
People bashed RTD for focusing too much on angsty Doctor-pain and other such emotions, but I feel Moffat has swung too far the other way, and is simply not giving enough space to his characters' responses to their experiences at all. Overall I think RTD had a much better grip on the emotional cores of the stories he was telling, and I miss that a lot.
May. 2nd, 2013 10:11 am (UTC)
I don't really feel that the characters' responses are neglected (I actually prefer Moffat's general approach to characterization to Davies'), it's more that I don't have any personal sense of my own emotional involvement in the stories I was watching. There's a review in About Time 4 books that argues that watching Image of the Fendahl leaves the reviewer feeling like someone told him about a good story rather than like he has actually seen one himself and I think that's how I've been left feeling with this season and I can't quite work out why.
May. 2nd, 2013 03:25 am (UTC)
I thought that Cold War was the first Doctor Who I've seen to have no ideas whatsoever.
May. 2nd, 2013 09:02 am (UTC)
Hehe - that's a pretty strong statement, but perhaps you are right? I'm just running through a list of god-awful stories from the Classic series in my head now - Galaxy 4, Underworld, Warriors of the Deep, The Twin Dilemma... It's a painful exercise, but actually they do all have key concepts and conflicts at their heart which they are trying to explore. In fairness, Cold War sort of tried to as well, but the effort was extremely faint-hearted.
May. 2nd, 2013 09:33 am (UTC)
I don't know why, but I'd assumed that the time war book was written by the time lords - either as a ongoing journal or written at the period where all was lost, as seen in the timothy dalton christmas episode - hence the doctor's true name being in it....

about the time rift - I had assumed this was a totally seperate time rift to the one in the first matt smith series - seperate event but same cause (since we know the tardis exploding causes time rifts, this is consistant - and we know that the way to fix it it to stop it from ever happening, same issue same resolution - unsatisfactry to the viewer but at least it is consistant).

I didn't know douglas adams had made HHGTTG and who in the same galaxy, thanks for that.

I am getting less and less impressed with "reset" buttons and their like though
May. 2nd, 2013 10:49 am (UTC)
I think the series is struggling with the single 45 minute episode structure whilst trying to run long story arcs across a series and longer stories across more than one series.

Each episode is being asked to do too much work IHO. Consequently they're not doing them terribly well.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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