Tag Archives: Doctor Who

Doctor Who: “Sleep No More” is a disaster in every possible way

“Sleep No More” definitely numbers among Doctor Who’s worst episodes. Although it may not be the absolute worst in history, I can’t think of one that I’ve disliked more. That said, it’s not an episode to inspire a great deal of, well, anything. My singular thought as the episode ended was just “What the fuck did I just watch?”

The episode begins by skipping the opening credits in favor of jumping straight into a confusing and frustrating forty-five minutes of found footage nonsense. The story—a pretty standard base under siege plot—is introduced by creepy scientist Rasmussen, who is too-obviously some kind of villain, and we’re then introduced one by one to the unfortunately forgettable members of a doomed rescue party.

The only character this week who got anything like a development arc was Chopra, but even he was sadly one note. The show cast its first transgender actor, Bethany Black, as genetically engineered “grunt” 474, but her talents are largely wasted in the role, and the secondary plot where 474’s self-sacrifice helps Chopra to see the grunt’s humanity is underdone, unconvincing, and ultimately irrelevant as both characters involved die within moments of each other. Deep-Ando is separated from the rest of the group early on and dies alone as well. Rescue party leader Nagata was barely present and contributed little, but she did at least get to escape with the Doctor and Clara in the Tardis at the end.

Speaking of Clara, she fades into the background here almost as much as any of the secondary cast members this week. With Jenna Coleman’s definitely impending departure from the show and Clara’s possibly impending death (hey, it is rumored) coming as soon as next week, it’s incredibly saddening to see her once again marginalized in the story with almost nothing to do. It’s no comfort, either, that the Doctor is just as ineffectual this week. It only makes me wonder what the point of this episode is at all.

I have seen some posts praising the found footage format and the horror elements of the episode, but I didn’t find it compelling or frightening in the least. The shaky camera work was occasionally nauseating, but never managed to convey the sense of panic that I think was intended. The monster of the week was more silly than anything else, and if the sleep dust monsters weren’t absurd enough to look at, with their rather disgusting-looking heads like huge gaping (and vaguely scatological) orifices, the Doctor’s various theories and explanations made the monsters just plain ridiculous.

It’s not a great sign when even the Doctor ends the episode with an exasperated exclamation that none of it makes sense, and that’s exactly what happened here. The whole way through the episode, I kept waiting for it all to finally congeal into something resembling a coherent story, but it just never happened.

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Inversion” is great, but only if you turn off your brain

“The Zygon Inversion” was not at all what I was expecting, but the more I think about it, the more I think that it’s probably exactly the sort of thematically confused, unsatisfying pablum I ought to expect from this show by now. Frankly, it was just a kind of bizarre episode made all the more frustrating for being technically very good.

We start with getting a different perspective of last week’s cliffhanger. It turns out that, while Clara’s being body-snatched she’s actually trapped in a sort of weird nightmare house where she is somewhat aware of what Zygon-Clara is up to and slightly capable of influencing Zygon-Clara’s actions. Nonetheless, she doesn’t have enough influence to prevent Zygon-Clara from destroying the plane carrying the Doctor and Osgood.

Straight from there, Zygon-Clara goes to destroy the life of, apparently, the first other Zygon she finds. Though he tries to escape, she succeeds in disabling the poor fellow’s ability to shapeshift, forcing him to reveal himself as an alien to a rather unimpressed-looking group of teenagers outside his apartment.

Meanwhile, real Clara is rewinding Zygon-Clara’s memories and sees that two people (Osgood and the Doctor, natch) managed to parachute out of the blown-up aircraft. Cut to Osgood and the Doctor, who have landed on a beach surrounded by wreckage that is curiously devoid of any other people. This sort of glossing over and trivializing of tragedy is both annoyingly characteristic of the show and rather at odds with the pacifist message of this episode in particular. The Doctor may profess all he likes that he doesn’t like this sort of thing, but his silence here is telling. He’s more concerned with Osgood’s broken glasses than with anyone else who might have been on the crashed plane.

Speaking of Osgood, I’ve never much liked her, but I found myself falling a bit in love with her this week, perhaps precisely because she’s such an unusual and slightly irritating character. I still can’t stand her silly costumes, but I love how much thought she’s clearly put into the idea of how she would go about trying to take over the world. It’s also worth noting that Osgood and her strict insistence on not revealing whether she is human or Zygon is possibly the single thing in this whole two-parter that makes proper sense. Goodness knows, the new mythology introduced here, with the Zygon pods and their needing a “live feed” to what’s in Clara’s brain (because apparently the Zygon’s aren’t just shapeshifters now) is more than a little silly.

Elsewhere, Zygon-Clara thinks she’s found the Osgood box, a device that will supposedly end the cease-fire, but instead she’s only got a laptop with a pretty mocking video telling her that she hasn’t got the box at all. She soon receives a call from the Doctor, during which he tips her off to Clara having the information that Bonne (Zygon-Clara’s real name, it turns out) wants.

This leads into another scene of weird and nonsensical lore-expansion as Bonnie goes to Clara’s pod to interrogate her. Bonnie is able to psychically link with Clara to chat, and we learn that even their heartbeats are linked, so they can’t lie to each other. Clara tells Bonnie about the Osgood box, although it’s pretty obvious that Clara is telling the truth very cleverly, and Bonnie sets off (with Clara’s pod in tow) to find the box for real.

In the meantime, Osgood and the Doctor go searching for the Zygon that Bonnie forcibly revealed after video of the incident has gone viral. They manage to find him, hiding a shop and completely devastated by his affliction. In a powerfully affecting scene, they confront the unmasked Zygon only to have him kill himself right before their eyes. Unfortunately, we’re not given much time to be affected by this turn of events because that’s when Zygon-Kate and a couple of Zygon-UNIT officers show up to take Osgood and the Doctor to the Zygon command center where Clara’s pod was stored. By the time they get there, Clara’s pod is gone and Bonnie has discovered the problem with the Osgood box—there’s two of it. In a tense scene, we learn that Zygon-Kate is actually real Kate, which is good (although it begs the question of how Bonnie didn’t know that Kate wasn’t a Zygon all this time), but also quickly compounds the problem. The Doctor, Osgood, and Kate rush off to where Bonnie is, where Kate immediately tries to figure out how to use the second box.

The last fifteen minutes of the episode are dominated by what is essentially one long, impassioned monologue by the Doctor as he talks us through this standoff. Peter Capaldi is absolutely at his best here, and the monologue itself is well-written, but it pretty much completely ignores the crux of the matter that was supposedly at hand last week—the desire of at least some of the Zygons to live openly among humans without having to hide their true selves, which led them to some regrettable and ill-advisedly radical and violent actions—in favor of addressing an altogether different issue. Namely, the general destructiveness of war and the ultimate futility and counterproductivity of violence as a way of resolving disagreements.

It’s a great speech, as far as it goes, and certainly Capaldi’s performance is superb, but it feels disconnected from and insensible of the underlying issues, and the return to the status quo at the end of the episode is profoundly unsatisfying as it solves nothing. The truth is, if you think about it much at all, the speech doesn’t go very far at all, and on rewatching it to write this, I was struck by the degree to which the Doctor entirely ignores the quite legitimate concerns and anger and fear of both Bonnie and Kate. Instead of actually engaging with the two women, the Doctor berates and shames them into compliance with his wishes by insulting and infantilizing them in turn.

Earlier in the episode, the Doctor quipped to Bonnie that he is old enough to be her messiah. This seemed like a weird thing to say (not least because he wouldn’t be Bonnie’s messiah, what with her not being human), and it becomes plain to see by the end of this scene that the Doctor has some very strange and inflated ideas of himself. I’m not quite ready yet to call it a messiah complex, but it’s decidedly odd and unfortunately grating, mostly because the Doctor seems absolutely incapable here of empathizing with or even granting basic respect to either Kate or Bonnie, although most of his ire seems to be reserved for the Zygon woman.

It’s downright uncomfortable to watch as he shouts Bonnie down, refuses to call her by her chosen name, and belittles her, only to then turn around and condescendingly offer her forgiveness for the things that she’s done. The spiritual connotations here are very clear, and unpleasant. They are also, so far, unexamined, and the overall tone of the episode is that the Doctor is the hero of this story.

In the midst of the Doctor’s rant, Bonnie accuses him of creating an untenable situation with his original peace agreement, which she insists is unfair to the Zygons—and it is unfair. In response, the Doctor denies any responsibility for the problems and blames Bonnie for the current impasse. The thing is, Bonnie is right. The terms of the peace agreement, like the terms of many agreements throughout history, may have been the best short term solution to an immediate problem, but they clearly are not perfect. While Bonnie’s argument that the Zygons have been treated “like cattle” doesn’t hold much water, and in fact seems to have been written to purposefully portray the character as unreasonable and even hysterical, the basic complaints introduced in “The Zygon Invasion” last week—in short, that the Zygons wanted to be free to be their authentic selves—were not unreasonable at all. It’s only by almost entirely refusing to engage with this reality that the Doctor is able to be seen as the voice of reason, and in the end Bonnie’s complaints are swept aside as she becomes a new Osgood dedicated to keeping the peace. The Doctor has succeeded in browbeating her into capitulation to the point where she gives up her own identity and adopts one that is shaped around creepy worship of the Doctor.

Needless to say, the messaging here is confused at best. Personally, I find it all a little creepily sinister. Most of all, though, I find it to be predictably reflective of Steven Moffat’s own uncritical fanboy views of the Doctor. Unfortunately, Steven Moffat’s dedication to Doctor Who doesn’t extend to preserving the things that have made the show such a long-running institution, and the biggest problem that I have with this episode, aside from the oddly religio-fascist messaging, is Moffat’s willingness to abandon canon and reshape it to suit his immediate needs with no thought to the long-term viability of the changes that he makes.

I think what annoys me the most about the type of expansions of Doctor Who lore that we’ve seen in these last two episodes is that they are so mystical in nature. This is another thing that is highly characteristic of the Moffat era, but I just don’t like it at all. The show has never shied away from dabbling in metaphysics, and there is no doubt that Doctor Who has always been more accurately categorized as fantasy than science fiction, but still.

Moffat era Who seems increasingly content to leave its own questions unanswered and is getting more and more concerned with what kind of stories and developments might be “cool” and less and less concerned with what actually makes sense within the Doctor Who universe. While I don’t have the history with or attachment to the Zygons that I did to, say, the Weeping Angels, the devolution of the Zygons into overly mystical absurdity is following a somewhat similar trajectory as the Angels’ decline.

Much of the show, even when it did deal with ghosts and monsters and mythological creatures, was about exploring more science fictional explanations for those various phenomena, with very few things ever being explained away by seemingly magical things. Here, we have magical-seeming explanations presented unquestioned and used for what seems to be pure storytelling convenience. Something that Steven Moffat seems to have never learned is that creativity is often about working within existing constraints (such as established lore in a shared universe, for example) in order to tell a great story. Instead, Moffat is far too quick to discard parts of canon that he finds inconvenient and change things however he likes in order to tell the stories that he wants to tell, regardless of basic sense-making and completely heedless of the history of the show or the work of people who came before him.

Unfortunately, this also ends up being disrespectful of the audience. It toys with audience expectations and discounts our intelligence in a way that highlights to me that Steven Moffat truly does view the rest of fandom (i.e. every fan who isn’t Steven Moffat) with complete and total disdain.

“The Zygon Inversion” might be a great episode, but only if you don’t think about it at all. I, for one, miss the days when this wasn’t the best I had to say about this show.

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion” is just kind of boring

[SPOILER ALERT]

I was so excited to see Clara have so much more to do in “The Zygon Invasion” than she has the whole rest of the season that I didn’t even realize that she was replaced by Zygon before she’d spoken half a dozen words. I only called it about a minute before it was actually revealed to the audience, and I’m usually pretty good at detecting evil twins. I’m not sure if I’m happy to have been surprised by what was really a pretty well-written episode or if I’m just terribly irritated by the revelation that Clara is once again being reduced to furniture.

Aside from that, this was (objectively) a fairly good episode and one of few in the Moffat era to pass the Bechdel test. With Jemma Redgrave returning as Kate Stewart, Ingrid Oliver reprising her role as Doctor fangirl Osgood, and several minor female characters making their Doctor Who debuts, it’s an episode that is just packed full of women in key roles. Peter Capaldi has really settled into his role as the Doctor, and he continues to be great fun to watch. I even rather like the Zygons, although I’m not sure where the show is going with this storyline.

Here’s the thing about this episode, though: I just didn’t like it. Clara being damseled is part of the reason, certainly. There’s not much that will annoy me more about any story than female characters being reduced to objects in need of rescue. But that’s not entirely it, either.

Mostly, I found the episode to be thematically muddled and, frankly, boring. Honestly? I think I’m just almost unable to get really excited about this show anymore unless it does something really fascinating, which it didn’t manage to do this week.

The peace with the Zygons that was negotiated in the anniversary special seems highly impractical, and the desire of the Zygon radicals this week—supposedly to live openly rather than secretly and in hiding—seems eminently reasonable enough that it’s hard to see them as entirely villainous. On the other hand, with the Zygons having, apparently, made no effort to resolve their problem through diplomatic channels, their violence seems disproportionately and absurdly unnecessary and counterproductive. By using language that ties the Zygons to real-world terrorists, the show is inviting a comparison that doesn’t really stand up to any real scrutiny.

Doctor Who is a show that only rarely addresses these kind of real world political issues, and it’s disappointing to see it done in this manner, if only because this shallow treatment of complex issues risks becoming incoherent. Things didn’t break down entirely this week, though, and the second half of the two-parter might make more sense of the copious set-up we were presented with this week. We’ll see.

Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived” is the show’s best episode in years

“The Woman Who Lived” is the first episode this year that I’ve unequivocally loved. In fact, I’d say it’s the best episode of Doctor Who since 2010’s “Vincent and the Doctor.” It’s certainly the best episode so far of the Capaldi era, which has generally been lackluster to say the least. Interestingly, and I think not insignificantly, this is also the first Doctor Who episode written by a woman (Catherine Tregenna) since 2008. It shows, and in a good way as I think “The Woman Who Lived” is an episode that very much benefits from a woman’s touch.

The most important woman involved in this episode, though, is the titular one, played with rather surprising deftness and nuance by Maisie Williams. I wasn’t particularly impressed by Williams’ workmanlike turn as Ashildr last week, but this was no simple reprisal of that role. Rather, after some eight hundred years, Ashildr has taken and abandoned many names and now refers to herself as just “Me.” She’s known colloquially, however, as the Knightmare, an infamous highwayman, and she meets the Doctor when they both are trying to steal the same object in 17th century England.

At first, Me thinks that the Doctor has come back for her, and she hopes that he will take her with him on his travels, but he quickly disabuses her of this notion. It turns out that she’s got a back-up plan, involving a lion-alien and an ancient space artifact and a gateway to maybe Hell, but this is really all secondary to her interactions with the Doctor and the emotional journey that they both go through over the course of the episode.

A major theme this season has been the need for this Doctor to reconnect with his humanity, to rediscover his purpose, and after 800 years of functional immortality the woman who was once Ashildr finds herself in much the same position. She’s a perfect foil for the Doctor here and forces him to look at his own life choices and deal with some of the consequences of the decision that he made for her. This is exactly the sort of accountability that the Doctor needs and that used to be more commonly provided by his companions, but it’s nice to see here, especially handled so nicely.

I’m not back to the level of enthusiasm I had for Doctor Who, say, five years ago, but this episode is the most enjoyable the show has been for me in a long time. It was smart, funny, and hit all the appropriate emotional notes perfectly.

Some stray thoughts:

  • Though the idea doesn’t make a ton of sense, I love the thought that Me’s memories fade over time, and her library of journals detailing her many lifetimes is fascinating.
  • I really was impressed with Maisie Williams in this episode. It’s a little surprising to see someone so young be really believable as an eight hundred-year-old immortal.
  • I could have done without the lion alien, to be honest. He was really just silly-looking, and I think Me could have easily come up with her plan some other way, perhaps using some other artifact or device.
  • I love puns so much.
  • I found that I didn’t really miss Clara this week. She’s had so little to do lately, that it’s hardly noticeable when she’s gone.

 

Doctor Who: “The Girl Who Died” is more of what I suppose is the show’s new normal

I think the thing that is bothering me the most about this season of Doctor Who so far is that people seem to be generally enjoying it, and it appears to be receiving largely favorable reviews in spite of being, objectively, pretty bad. It’s a sign of how much Steven Moffat’s tenure as show runner has damaged the show that we’re all looking at these last few episodes like, “Wow, that was alright. That was fun.” I feel like our collective expectations for the show have just gotten so low that basically anything remotely coherent that’s not overtly offensive just blows us away. It’s pretty sad.

And that’s how I feel about “The Girl Who Died.” Like every other episode so far this year, it’s not terrible. It certainly makes a good deal more sense and relies on much less deus ex machina than last season. It even has a couple of moments where it feels like a proper episode of Doctor Who instead of Steven Moffat’s Mediocre Doctor Who Fanfic Hour. But it’s not good. (So why these sort of breathless puff pieces?)

“The Girl Who Died” commits two major sins, in my book. First, it continues the shows recent tradition of giving Clara almost nothing to do aside from cheerleading for the Doctor. Second, it shoves literally every point it’s trying to make down the viewers’ throats, explaining it all as if we’re all very, very stupid. The worst part of all of this is that the show has been doing this every week now, for five weeks straight, spoon-feeding us every plot point and straight up telling us how to feel about it. This episode, especially in its epilogue, is the absolute pinnacle of this kind of insufferable hand-holding. Before I get too far into that, though, let’s look at what Clara got to do this week.

Things actually started out promising, albeit with a cold open that apparently has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story other than to give Clara an excuse to spend half the episode wearing a space suit. The real story starts when Clara and the Doctor find themselves captured by vikings and taken to the vikings’ village, where the Doctor tries to trick their kidnappers into thinking he’s Odin. Someone else has beaten him to it, though: a warlike alien, who beams all the best warriors in the village–along with Clara and a viking girl named Ashildr (guest star Maisie Williams)–up to his spaceship.

On the spaceship, the warriors are unceremoniously vaporized, while Clara and Ashildr manage to escape that immediate danger. When they find out that the warriors were harvested for testosterone (okay…), Clara gets one legitimately hilarious line and then manages to almost talk a way out of the situation for herself and Ashildr, only to have Ashildr start an actual war with the alien. They’re then beamed back to earth where they have to explain the the farmers and craftspeople that are left that they now have to fight a bunch of terrifying space people.

For the rest of the episode, Clara is relegated to nearly silent emotional support for the Doctor as he works through his feelings about saving people and possibly changing time or whatever. In the final fight against the alien, Clara gets to take a cell phone video and then pose with it a la Vanna White while the Doctor threatens to take it viral if the alien doesn’t leave earth alone. It’s actually kind of disturbing just how quiet Clara gets in the back half of the episode. Even though she gives all the appearance of being present, she’s little more than a prop for the Doctor’s angst to reflect off of.

Maisie William’s Ashildr fares little better, to be honest, and never manages to become a truly fleshed out character though Williams does her best with the weak material she’s given to work with. Ashildr and the other vikings barely react to the loss of all their village’s warriors, which makes no sense considering that everyone supposedly loves this community so much that they’d rather get killed by aliens than leave. There’s also just not much substance to Ashildr herself. Though we’re told that she feels sort of like an outcast (which again belies her attachment to her village) and that she likes stories and makes puppets, we’re not shown any of it, just told it, and then only when the plot demands a character with a strong attachment to the town and a penchant for puppets and storytelling.

The all around lack of subtlety in this episode would be astounding if it wasn’t so characteristic of the show these days. The (frankly extremely belated) revelation of why the Doctor “chose” his current face would have been nicer if it hadn’t served as such a great reminder of the show’s better days. A perfectly passable and sense-making ending–with the Doctor reviving Ashildr and leaving the extra dose of space magic healing for her–was ruined with a long sequence of heavy telegraphing about what next week’s episode is going to be about. Worst of all was that lengthy spinning shot of Ashildr with the Doctor talking in voice over. That was just downright silly.

The thing about Moffat-era Doctor Who that was re-emphasized in this episode is that Steven Moffat just doesn’t know how to quit while he’s ahead. Over and over again, he fails to create mystery, using foreshadowing that is so heavy-handed that there’s no such thing as spoilers for his episodes anymore. He comes up with ideas that are interesting and works with themes that ought to be compelling, only to have his stories consistently devolve into masturbatory self-congratulation as he wastes three quarters of an episode telling-not-showing us all just how clever he is.

I’ll be watching and writing about next week’s episode because I like Maisie Williams and I hate to leave a thing half-finished, but I’m not sure how much longer I can keep going with this show. I’m already exhausted, and I’m not even halfway through the season. Week after week, I have the same complaints, and the biggest one is Steven Moffat, who is quickly running this show right into the ground. I might keep watching the trainwreck happening, but I don’t know if I have it in me to keep writing a thousand words about it each week.

“Before the Flood” is Doctor Who at its most mediocre and frustrating

This most recent episode of Doctor Who wasn’t completely awful, but it just felt a bit ho hum, to be honest. I hate being condescended to, and I hate watching characters I like being condescended to, so I kind of hated “Before the Flood” in spite of its not being a particularly bad episode.

It really just rubbed me wrong right out of the gate, with a quick explanation of the bootstrap paradox. You know, just in case there’s anyone watching Doctor Who or interested in science fiction who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with one of the most common concepts of how time travel might work. We might not know it by this name, but we’re all pretty familiar with the idea. And, frankly, this explanation seemed patronizing enough that it ought to irritate folks even if they find it informative.

So, that happened.

We’re then launched into an episode that cements, in my mind anyway, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as the most unlikable iteration to date. The Doctor has always been inconsiderate, self-absorbed, and somewhat manic, but in the past his actions have generally been governed (and his worst tendencies have been tempered) by a deep-seated basic decency, a reverence for life, and a real desire to help people. That’s not so much the case these days.

And this new Doctor isn’t just cavalier with people’s feelings, he’s cavalier with their lives, and there are basically no consequences for the Doctor at all. Indeed, he seems entirely unaffected at the end of this episode. The worst part, though, is that it seems that in order to protect the Doctor from criticism by the audience, all of the characters’ emotional reactions feel weirdly muted, and “Before the Flood” ends with the Doctor giving a whiz-bang explanation of how clever he was to have figured out what was going on. Considering how many people died–and at least one was clearly preventable–you’d think the mood might be a little more somber. The Doctor’s self-congratulatory tirade here is grating.

This season’s rather depressing treatment of Clara continued this week, with the companion once again sidelined with little to do and nothing to actively contribute to solving the week’s problem. She did talk to the Doctor on the phone, which gave him the information he needed to figure out what he needed to do, but Clara didn’t actually get to have any ideas of her own or take any actions that helped move the plot along.

I’m entirely convinced that Steven Moffat has no idea what the Doctor’s companions are for, and that Clara is the culmination of Moffat’s successful campaign to turn the companion into a piece of pretty furniture who occasionally makes nurturing noises. Clara seems to only exist now in order to be an object that the Doctor is ostensibly very passionate about rescuing.

The treatment of women in general has been pretty awful in this most recent pair of episodes. I wanted to scream when the Doctor (half-heartedly, really) tried to get O’Donnell to stay in the Tardis for protection. The Doctor seemed to deliberately imply that his solicitude was vaguely sexist, which of course prompted a feisty rejoinder from O’Donnell about how she’s not going to stand for that sort of nonsense. So she leaves the Tardis and is promptly killed by the Fisher King. I’m not sure there are even words to fully convey just how much I hate this particular, highly insulting and misogynistic trope.

For all the promise Cass showed as a character last week, she has just as little to do this week as Clara, and in the end is reduced to a romantic reward for the guy who is only alive in the first place because of Cass stopping him from seeing the words carved into the spaceship. Also to make Bennet look emotionally intelligent so we can see how much O’Donnell’s senseless death helped him to grow as a person. O’Donnell and Cass deserve so much better than this.

I said, though, that the episode was mediocre. It was, objectively, in spite of the many things about it that really pissed me off.

It had a genuinely creepy monster in the Fisher King, who looked really cool, although his taunting of the Doctor sounded a little too reminiscent of, well, a bunch of other enemies of the Doctor in previous episodes. And Paul Kaye as the Tivolian undertaker, Prentis, is an absolute treasure, if almost unrecognizably made up. In the end, the Doctor’s solution to their predicament was actually pretty clever, although it would have been more surprising and less grating if it wasn’t for that absolutely insufferable opening monologue.

Like many episodes in the Moffat era, “Before the Flood” is a mix of some of the best and worst of Doctor Who. The last two seasons of the show have more than demonstrated that it really, really could have been worse.

Doctor Who: “Under the Lake” was good-not-great, but an improvement on the last two weeks

“Under the Lake” was a good, creepy episode. It wasn’t great, but it was good enough–and enough better than the last two weeks’ episodes–to highlight just how low my expectations for this show have fallen.

Peter Capaldi continues to shine as the Doctor, and it feels like we’re starting to see him really hit his stride in the role. The constant mean-spirited digs at Clara that were so unpleasantly characteristic of last season continue to be absent, which goes a long way toward making Capaldi’s Doctor actually likable and fun to watch. That said, he struggled a little in this episode. I understand not wanting to make the Doctor warm and fuzzy and lovable, but I’m concerned that he’s become too much a version of Steven Moffat’s obnoxious, abrasive Sherlock–only less clever, though about the same level of unfunny.

I rather liked the group of people that the Doctor and Clara found inside the underwater oil-drilling base. Some of Doctor Who‘s best episodes include these kind of ensemble casts, and this one is excellent support for Peter Capaldi.

It’s nice to see a deaf actor (Sophie Stone) playing a deaf character, and Cass is kind of a badass in general as the person in charge on the base, faced with some tough decisions as things go from bad to worse. The Doctor’s inability to understand sign language was played for laughs in a sort of cringeworthy way, but the interactions between Cass and the Doctor–mostly headbutting–were some of my favorite parts of the episode.

The only sour note with the guest ensemble was Steven Robertson’s Pritchard, who was a totally one note corporate jerkwad. He works for the oil company, and he dies early. Doctor Who has utilized similar characters before, and to similar effect, but I don’t think Pritchard works here. It’s not that I don’t love a good morality play where the evil corporate tool dies because of his own greed and/or stupidity, but this character just wasn’t stupid and/or greedy enough for me to feel like his death was really deserved. I think this is because his death was just way too obviously a punishment in the narrative. Usually these sorts of characters’ deaths are somehow a direct result of their bad qualities, but that wasn’t the case here. It also didn’t help that the character barely got any actual speaking time. It’s a well-chosen trope, but poorly executed.

The biggest problem with the episode, however, is that Clara still has pretty much nothing to do. Companions often do sort of fade into the background when there are a lot of other characters around, but rarely so completely as this, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it be called out as overtly within the episode as Clara’s irrelevance is here. After an action sequence where Clara and a couple of other characters were in mortal danger, the others are being greeted and fawned over by their friends while Clara literally says that she’s safe, too, if anybody cares. And, of course, no one does care, except perhaps the audience, but I think I mostly just felt bad for Clara.

It’s a particularly depressing sort of self-awareness to see from the show, and it makes me think that things for Clara are not going to get better. If the rumors are true and Clara is going to die when Jenna Coleman exits the show, that may be a merciful end to a character that has consistently been under- or poorly utilized.

Overall, though, I liked this episode a lot. It’s the first episode so far this year that I’ve felt was actually good rather than just “good for what the show is now.” It’s telling, though, that it’s also the first episode of the season not penned by Steven Moffat. There were still a few Moffat-esque flourishes to the script, but “Under the Lake” was a solid episode, with a great supporting cast and a pretty creepy monster mystery. I didn’t love the “cliffhanger” ending, but I’m looking forward to seeing the other half of this story next week.

“The Witch’s Familiar” is a great episode for Capaldi’s Doctor, kind of ‘meh’ for everyone else

Steven Moffat’s track record with two part episodes is dodgy at best, but “The Witch’s Familiar” manages to be a decent and mostly inoffensive, if largely expected, follow-up to last week’s “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

From a storytelling standpoint, the episode isn’t great. The plot is slim, and the episode spends most of its time trying to make its ostensibly high stakes feel real. Unfortunately, there’s never any real sense of danger, and the single major unanswered question of the episode–what happened with baby Davros on the battlefield in the past?–is answered at the end of the episode in a typically (for Moffat’s Doctor) Pollyannaish way.

The biggest problem I had with both this episode and the last one is that Clara and, albeit to a lesser extent, Missy have very little to actually do, and yet they do it very, very noisily–both figuratively and literally. Neither Missy nor Clara truly contributed anything to the Doctor’s story in these two episodes, and Clara’s job in “The Witch’s Familiar” was entirely to exist as an object for the Doctor to have feelings about. Missy, of course, exists to torment Clara, presumably for our amusement, but her shtick is already wearing thin. Missy is also a veritable fount of useful but clunky exposition that could have easily been left out if Moffat was simply willing to go with a less absurd plot.

This episode, though, even more than last week’s, is really the Doctor’s show, and Peter Capaldi gives a virtuoso performance. His interactions with the elderly and ostensibly dying Davros are well-written, and their centuries-old rivalry was believable enough that the flashback scenes with young Davros feel kind of unnecessary and only serve to further show how amazing the Doctor is. Moffat continues to tell us that the Doctor has a dark side or whatever, but the Moffat era of the show has seen a sort of systematic stripping of the Doctor of any and all moral ambiguity. It’s too bad, really, because these Davros flashbacks provided a perfect opportunity for the Doctor to do something dark. No such luck, however.

That said, this is still the most interesting the Doctor has been in a good while, and it was nice to see Peter Capaldi given some decent material to work with. I only wish Missy could be less of a caricature and Clara could be less of a piece of furniture.

Doctor Who is off to an okay-ish start with “The Magician’s Apprentice”

I’m a little surprised to say that I rather enjoyed “The Magician’s Apprentice.” It’s a very Moffat episode, which isn’t surprising since it was written by the show runner, but it manages to not be awful. That said, I feel like this should be a kind of good news/bad news sort of review.

The good news is that Missy is back, and she’s as delightful as ever. It’s really obvious that Michelle Gomez is having a ball with this role. The bad news is that Missy’s return doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and her antics become grating after the first five minutes or so before she–in a fit of pique–does something evil enough that it’s no longer possible to classify her behavior as “antics” at all.

The good news is that Clara seems to be doing alright. She’s still teaching, and it’s nice to see that she didn’t have any inexplicable career change, and she’s apparently also working for UNIT, although it’s not clear exactly what her role there is, and it’s, frankly, not clear why UNIT appears in this episode at all. The bad news is that, with the introduction of Missy into the mix, Clara has basically nothing to do because Steven Moffat seems to be incapable of writing parts for two women in the same episode. Mostly, Clara spends the episode making disapproving faces about stuff that Missy does.

Another bit of good news about Clara, though, is that this entire episode passed by without a single instance of the Doctor commenting on her face, body, or age in a demeaning manner. The bad news is that Clara and the Doctor barely interacted at all, and none of it was memorable or interesting.

More good news? Clara might be canonically bisexual! Bad news? You could have blinked and missed her line about Jane Austen being a good kisser–which, by the way, would be a totally bizarre thing for a teacher to just say to a room full of twelve-year-olds who don’t know their teacher is a time traveler.

The thing is, this was a pretty okay episode. It’s not great, and it’s got a lot of the regular Moffat nonsense going on, but I enjoyed it more than I did any of last season’s episodes except maybe “Robot of Sherwood” (not because it was good but because I love Robin Hood). I think this episode might be more exciting for those who are more familiar with Classic Who than I am; I know my partner, who grew up watching the show, was much more excited than I was, although I at least remembered who Davros was.

The biggest problem I’m already sensing with Season 9–admittedly judging just from this episode and the titles and descriptions of the rest of the season–is that Moffat still seems obsessed with having the Doctor facing his “darkest hour” at least two or three times a year. At the end of “The Magician’s Apprentice” the Doctor is left without his screwdriver, his TARDIS, or his friends, but it just feels a bit ho-hum when we already know that this is just the first of several anticlimaxes to come. 

The best news I’ve seen about this episode so far? Apparently, Steven Moffat’s tenure as show runner isn’t just wearing thin with mean old feminists like myself. Viewership for this episode was down by almost a third (from 6.8 to 4.6 million viewers) from the first episode of last season. People have been suggesting for years that Moffat is going to run Doctor Who into the ground, and these numbers don’t seem promising. Maybe this means that Moffat’s time with the show will be coming to an end sooner rather than later, and maybe that would clear the way for someone new to come in and make the show really good again. I’d love to have something better to say about it than “it wasn’t the worst.”

What I will be (and you should be) watching this fall

So, it took me most of a summer of watching light fare to recover from this last season of Game of Thrones, but I think I’m more or less ready for watching and writing about some new television this fall. I won’t be writing about everything I watch, obviously, and there are a couple of things I intend to write about that I don’t know if I’ll be able to stick with–that could end up like my watching and posting about Killjoys did this summer; I still haven’t watched the last two episodes of that show, I was so bored/frustrated with it.

Here’s the plan:

The Mindy Project – Tuesdays on Hulu starting 9/15. I honestly love this show, and I will watch it til the end of time, although I rarely write about it outside of a line or two on Tumblr. The first episode of season four is excellent, and the first three seasons are available to stream on Hulu as well so it’s not too late too catch up if you’re really dedicated.

Doctor Who – Saturdays on BBC America starting 9/19. Doctor Who is another show I just can’t quit. It’s also one that I intend to write about this year, although I haven’t had much positive to say about it during Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. I’m not making any promises about this one, though. Right now, my goal is to have my Doctor Who post up on Monday mornings, but I’m not going to destroy myself over this show the way I do over Game of Thrones. If it gets too insufferable, I will likely switch to just watching it.

Minority Report – Mondays on Fox starting 9/21. Frankly, I’m already bored by this series, but I’ll probably check out the first episode or two just to confirm my suspicion that it makes no sense. I’m pretty sure the whole point of Minority Report was that the whole pre-crime thing is a terrible idea and this show seems to be presupposing that–maybe it isn’t? Okaaaay.

Scream Queens – Tuesdays on Fox starting 9/22. This show is relevant to basically all of my interests. And it has Jamie Lee Curtis. I’m currently planning to write about this one on Wednesdays.

Heroes Reborn – Thursdays on NBC starting 9/24. This show is basically not relevant to anything. No one wanted or asked for it. But it’s a thing that is happening. Since I loved the first season of Heroes as well as anybody, I will be watching this, but I’ll only be writing about it if it’s really good or really comically terrible.

Bob’s Burgers – Sundays on Fox starting 9/27. Love it. Watch it with my family. Will almost never post anything about it except gifs of Tina on Tumblr.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine – Sundays on Fox starting 9/27. Also love, but also won’t write about unless something major happens.

iZombie – Tuesdays on the CW starting 10/6. The first season of this show was a little uneven, and I wasn’t totally thrilled with the way it ended, but I plan to tune in again this year and write about it some more. Depending on how things pan out, I may end up choosing between this and Scream Queens to write about, though. Just, realistically, I’m not sure I have it in me to write about more than one show a day, especially as I’ve got a lot of reading that I want to do over the next few months as well.

Jane the Virgin – Mondays on the CW starting 10/12. I won’t write about this show (mostly because it’s basically perfect), but it’s another one that we watch as a family and I can’t wait.

Supergirl – Mondays on CBS starting 10/26. I kind of dislike most super hero stuff, but this show looks completely charming. I’m currently planning to write about it.

Ash vs. Evil Dead – Saturdays on Starz starting 10/31. This show is definitely what I am doing on Halloween. I’m not sure if I will write about it or not. It depends on how good this show is and how bad this season of Doctor Who is.

Into the Badlands – Sundays on AMC starting 11/15. This show is almost certainly awful, but I’m kind of interested in it anyway. No plans to write about it.

The Man in the High Castle – On Amazon Prime starting 11/20. I haven’t read the Philip K. Dick novel this series is based upon, but the trailer for the show looks promising. I’m hoping to read the book sometime over the next couple of months, and then I might watch the show.

Jessica Jones – On Netflix starting 11/20. Another Marvel show. I’m somewhat looking forward to this one, but I haven’t even finished Daredevil yet, so there’s no telling when I’ll get around to it. I do really like Krysten Ritter, though.

Childhood’s End – On SyFy starting 12/14. I read this book over the summer, and I totally understand why it’s one of the great sci-fi novels. I also totally have no faith in this adaptation of it. It looks legit awful, and I’m a little embarrassed for SyFy about it. I’ll definitely be watching it, though. And I expect that I’ll write some about it, too. I think it’s going to be just that enraging.

The Expanse – On SyFy starting 12/14. I’m somewhat more optimistic about this show, although I haven’t read the source material (and don’t really intend to unless the show is really good). I’ve no idea whether I’ll write about it or not. It depends on whether I have any feelings about it strong enough to be worth sharing.

I’m really disappointed that the new shows that seem intended to capitalize on the popularity of Game of Thrones-esque, gritty, dark medieval European settings (The Bastard Executioner and The Last Kingdom) both look boring as shit. I’m actually a pretty big fan of the gritty medieval stuff, but I have no desire to watch shows that look to be almost entirely devoid of women. Game of Thrones might hate its women, but at least they exist there.

In all honestly, the shows I’m most looking forward to this fall are all returning favorites. The new stuff that’s coming out isn’t that exciting, with a couple of exceptions, and a solid half of it looks actively bad. I figure I’ll try a few new things, though. Worst case scenario, everything is terrible and I end up reading more books instead.