Doctor Who: “The Witch’s Familiar”

I said last week that there was only one time travel story to be told about Hitler: do you go back and kill him before he attempts genocide? Well, that clever Moffat has proven me wrong again. Apparently there is also the time travel story where you meet up with him (or Davros, same difference really) just before he dies and share a good laugh and a cry with him, apparently just because it’s the polite thing to do.

Oh sure, there’s the Doctor’s lines about compassion, which he chooses “every time” and other than which he “wouldn’t die of anything else.” They’re great lines, actually, and Capaldi delivering them has never been better. And he does point out that he’s not doing it for old decrepit genocidal Davros, but for the young vulnerable Davros he left on the battlefield, temporarily abandoning compassion. It’s the line later on, after he’s resolved the handmine cliffhanger the only way he could have (yes, spoilers coming), that’s perplexing: the one about how the distinction between friend and enemy isn’t as important as there always being “mercy.”

So where’s the mercy in this story? Is it when the Doctor donates some of his regeneration energy to Davros, claiming afterward that he knew it was a trick and fully realized it would cause living Dalek sewage to rise up and attack all the other Daleks and presumably Davros too? Is it when he hesitates before shooting a roomful of Daleks just long enough for Colony Sarff to constrict him into unconsciousness? Is it when he says “Missy…run” and, instead of shooting her for nearly making him shoot Clara, leaves her to the Dalek sewage fate with no obvious way off Skaro? Or is it when the Doctor leads young Davros out of the handminefield, something which we know he does primarily because it’s the only way to ensure that the Dalek autocorrect will allow Clara to express the concept “I show mercy”?

The waters are muddy, is all I’m saying.

But it could be worse. My first time through I was so put off by the spectacle of the Doctor having a friendly chat with the progenitor of a universal holocaust (I’m pretty sure I said “oh come ON” out loud when the Doctor’s hand started to glow, and the less said about the Vaderesque “let me see you with my own eyes” baloney the better) that it was hard to notice all the good stuff. For example:

  • The aforementioned Dalek autocorrect, probably the best concept introduced here. In some ways this makes Davros worse, because even if there were a pacifist Dalek, it would have been unable to express its sentiments, and any frustration it felt would be channeled into extermination.
  • The Doctor in Davros’s chair might be a Dalek’s worst nightmare, but for us it’s good fun. Though “I’m the Doctor. Just accept [the teacup]” is cheeky even for Moffat.
  • “You can’t kill a Dalek with a brooch.”
  • The design of Skaro itself is pretty gorgeous, not just the elegantly rounded buildings but the faithfully retained (from 1964) asymmetrical corridors. What the Daleks lack in genuine menace they still make up in iconic style.
  • Capaldi spends a good deal of the episode, whether intentionally or not, doing a striking Tom Baker impression.
  • Julian Bleach finally had something to do as Davros other than taunt the Doctor, and so I finally can agree he’s fantastic in the role.
  • Missy’s not quite as consistently awesome this time as she was last time (her “bad neighborhood” riffing verges on embarrassing) but I’m still going to miss her next week.

I must say I’m curious whether the sonic screwdriver is really gone. Probably not — if nothing else it’s good for merchandising. But with all that corny talk about the Dalek/Time Lord hybrid (what would be the point of that?) and the even more off-putting notion that the Doctor really fled Gallifrey because he helped develop such a hybrid, AND the rumor that this might be Moffat’s last season, we may be in for a finale that makes “The End of Time”‘s continuity-fiddling look like a model of restraint and good taste. If I were forced to choose, I’d take a seasonful of sonic sunglasses over a finale like that every time.

doctor who: evolution of the daleks

Funny how all it takes is one dog of a two-parter like this to puncture my swelling enthusiasm for this show. You’d think they could knock those out of the park, since they have the equivalent of four of the old-school episodes to develop the story and don’t have to rush it out in 45 minutes, but I guess when it’s as full of dumb, far-fetched ideas as this one, it doesn’t matter how long you have.

I can’t fault the ambition: it takes balls for an English company to do a story set in Manhattan in the 1930s. The accents weren’t as awful as I thought they’d be, though the boy from Tennessee couldn’t even stay consistent and Solomon was so obviously not a New Yorker.

But the plot was dopey from the start. Why pigs? Why not just docile humans? I guess the answer is that they were test runs for Dalek Sec’s transformation, but I never bought that any Dalek would ever do something like that, and I certainly never bought the resulting alteration of his personality. It just seems like a story idea someone thought would be cool, not one that made a lick of sense.

I mean, remember, they won the “Time War,” right? It wiped out most of them, but their main obstacle to survival is the Doctor. It’s not that they’re “not human enough.” Obviously I don’t agree with the Dalek philosophy, but there’s no way Sec’s experiment would advance it. We’d have to believe he had some secret motivation, but as far as I can see none was offered.

Fortunately this story did contain one element I like about the new season: every episode so far has featured at least a cameo by a super cute guy. They seem to either die or be turned into pigs pretty quickly, though, which kind of takes the fun away. And the story also contained almost all the elements I hate about the new series:

1. The Doctor’s magic wand sonic screwdriver. On the one hand, it makes sense for a guy like him to carry around a universal tool, a sort of super-Swiss-Army-knife. On the other, it doesn’t make sense that he can do freaking ANYTHING with it. It’s far more omnipotent than it was in the old series, and even then they destroyed it so that the Doctor would have to solve problems with his wits like everyone else. The thing needs limitations, badly.

2. Science that seems more like magic, which I guess is the same problem. The Daleks’ “genetic” techniques; gamma radiation delivered as a lightning strike (did I miss something there?); the Doctor’s ability to rig up a DNA testing machine out of some stage lights and the inside of a 1930s portable radio; it’s all, not to put too fine a point on it, pure bullshit. Of course the old show was never about hard SF either but at least they usually tried to make it seem vaguely possible. It’s obvious this lot just care about telling a fanciful story, which is good on some levels but when the motivations don’t make sense either, what’s the point?

3. The Doctor’s nigh-invulnerability. So far this season he’s had his blood drained (through a straw…don’t get me started), nearly asphyxiated, been voodooed by space witches (DON’T get me started), and now electrocuted by an obviously lethal dose of gamma radiation (see #2), and he just seems to get up and keep going with no explanation at all. In the past he would have mumbled something about a respiratory bypass system, or he would have freaking regenerated, but something tells me this Doctor could have survived a fall off the Empire State Building with nothing but a single tear falling on his cheek to revive him. Kind of relieves the tension when you know your main character can survive anything.

4. Martha mooning over the Doctor. Somehow it seemed natural with Rose; she seemed to have a few boundaries, or something. Martha’s fallen for him with one kiss and they’re hammering the romantic tension way too hard. So far I haven’t seen much about her that’s remarkable, and her family isn’t really in the picture so she doesn’t even have that dimension to keep her interesting.

I don’t know if I’m going to keep the DVD set I ordered. I certainly never want to watch this story again.

the new who review

I’ll probably end up posting more commentary on soon, but okay, okay, I finally have warmed to the new Dr. Who.

I still think the plotting has a tendency toward great setups with incredibly stupid endings, but I’ve really begun to enjoy it. I’ve gotten through the first two seasons now and am a few episodes into the third, all of which I liked so much (except for some seriously uncalled-for scenery-chewing by the Racnoss Empress) that I’ve ordered the third season from Amazon rather than watching borrowed copies. I’ll probably get the other two eventually.

I miss Rose, and I miss the characters associated with her, Jackie, Mickey, and even her alternate-universe dad. I thought the romance angle was questionable at first but it got to the point where I didn’t mind at all and kind of liked it. I wasn’t sure how I’d warm to Martha, but so far she’s just fine, if a little nondescript. She carries on the fine-booty tradition from Rose, too, which was never part of the appeal of the show for me before (well, almost never).

I can see why people liked Chris Eccleston. He was entertaining, and he didn’t look like an explosion in a fabric store, which must have helped to broaden the show’s appeal along with the slightly improved effects budget. And when he said he was gonna fuck somebody up, you believed he meant it. This was really a new thing for the Doctor, who in the past usually seemed to get through everything by the skin of his teeth. He carried off that “alien” quality well, and the edge we’d never associated with the character before.

I guess what bothered me about him was that he just didn’t quite seem like the same guy, even taking into account his post-traumatic stress. His leather-jacket-and-jeans outfit seemed more like the production team’s choice than the Doctor’s. His catchphrase “Fantastic!” really wasn’t. Something about him just didn’t fit. He could have been the Doctor’s little brother, maybe, but not quite the Doctor I grew up watching. It wasn’t too jarring; any sufficiently nerdy fan (me, for instance) could easily justify all of the choices made. But it distanced me a bit from the show — that and some of the lamer stories.

Some of the second season stories seemed even lamer, which killed my interest in the show for a while despite the fact that the new Doctor, David Tennant, was in my opinion perfect casting. In place of the catchphrase, we now had a motormouth comedian, which at first seemed corny but quickly became endearing, and his look and manner seemed a lot more the Doctor to me. But the great setup / weak ending thing was driving me nuts.

The finale to the second season was probably what hooked me again, though. It’s hard to believe any Doctor Who writing team could have pulled off a story with Daleks and Cybermen, but they did, and even though there’s a lot of disbelief to suspend in the resolution (and along the way: you mean to tell me that there were Cybermen and Daleks all over the world and we didn’t see them shoot anyone outside the Torchwood building?), it’s entertaining enough that I just didn’t care.

And it didn’t hurt that over the course of the season, Tennant just kept shining. I’m not ready to say I like him even better than Tom Baker. But I’m getting there.

So here’s hoping the strong (if perennially implausible) stories that started off this season continued; otherwise I’m going to be very disappointed in my reinvestment in one of my biggest, geekiest childhood obsessions.