Robot of Sherwood

Once again it’s easy to see the antecedents for this episode. There are a few intentional shout-outs to the Third Doctor’s era — the “Hai!” karate-chop (“Venusian aikido,” he used to call it), the Miniscope theory. You might also think fleetingly of classic season 11’s “The Time Warrior,” in which a spaceship crash-lands in medieval England and enlists slave labor to help it get off the ground again. But the most obvious is season 16’s “The Androids of Tara,” which features not only an almost identical title but also a pseudo-medieval setting, a dashing young nobleman, a bearded villain (Count Grendel) who uses human-seeming robots to do his dirty work, not one but two lovely brunettes who look a lot alike, and of course a climactic swordfight and a death-defying plunge into a moat.

Not that any of this trainspotting makes much difference to whether “Robots of Sherwood” is any good in itself. The central problem is that it’s clearly meant to be one of this season’s comedy episodes — a wise move given how grave the previous two stories frequently seemed — but has only a handful of jokes that are actually funny. Many of the rest seem written for Matt Smith (and perhaps they were), and almost all of them are maybe one more script editing punch-up from being serviceable. Humor is a subjective thing, but “I see what you did there” is not the same as a laugh.

And it isn’t just the jokes that seem more Smith than Capaldi. The tension driving the relationship between Clara, the Doctor, and Robin Hood is based on a jealous oneupsmanship contest between the latter two for the admiration of the former, which seems out of keeping with the Doctor’s mature disavowal of this attitude in “Deep Breath.” We can read it differently — Dad competing with the new boyfriend for his daughter’s admiration — but this doesn’t necessarily make it less awkward. I can’t decide if this dynamic would have been better with Smith, or just more natural, but this is the first episode of the season where I acutely felt his absence.

That said, Capaldi’s once again fine, fun to watch in his own right, and the cast of this fairly silly story is generally quite good, particularly Ben Miller, tasked with following Alan Rickman, the only memorable part of the movie namechecked in this episode.

One of my favorite moments in the episode was its second best joke (after “Derby, Lincoln, THE WORLD”): the Doctor, chained to a post and bickering with Robin Hood about their relative prowess, insists correctly that of the two of them he would be better at “dying more slowly.” The other is of course the end, where we think someone’s describing Robin Hood and it turns out they’re describing the Doctor, also a man of privilege who fled that role in order to help those less fortunate, also larger as a story than as a man, and the more powerful and wonderful for it.

The robot design is excellent; whoever’s responsible for it and for the clockwork robots in “Deep Breath” is really knocking it out of the park this season. It’s interesting, this connection between robots, cross imagery, and the “Promised Land” motif. No doubt some wag has already speculated that we’ll see Kamelion there by season’s end.

Into the Dalek

Well, let’s get these out of the way:

  • “Planet of Giants” (1964): miniaturization
  • “Carnival of Monsters” (1973): miniaturization, crawling around inside a machine
  • “The Invisible Enemy” (1977): miniaturization, crawling around inside a person trying to cure him
  • “Resurrection of the Daleks” (1984): human soldiers vs. Daleks & their duplicate humans
  • “Dalek” (2005): a Dalek having a transcendent experience and accusing the Doctor of having an infernal one
  • “The Waters of Mars” (2009): the Doctor playing God and being humbled
  • “Let’s Kill Hitler” (2011): a metal shell containing miniature humans and mechanical “antibodies”

So yeah, this is a story with plenty of precedents in Doctor Who alone, enough that on first viewing it’s easy to dismiss this as the sum of its parts. Truth be told, it’s not that hard to do on second viewing, either. It’s not just the miniaturization shtick, which seems more the sort of thing you’d see in prime-time animation these days rather than dramatic science fiction; it’s also the tedious We Are Not So Different, You and I business that’s only rivalled for Tiredest Cliché these days by Everyone Around You Dies So You Must Be a Bad Person. Of course the Doctor is not a good Dalek. A good Dalek hates and kills everyone and everything except itself. The Doctor, as far as we can tell, hates only the Daleks, and half the time doesn’t even kill them. Hating and sometimes killing members of at most one species is not what you’d call a grand moral victory, but it would surely get you flunked out of Dalek school.

But this is what the Doctor’s patient, Rusty, has become: a remedial Dalek. The Doctor hasn’t converted him into a “good Dalek,” but he has made the two of them alike: both of them hate only Daleks now, the difference being that Rusty has a gun and doesn’t hesitate to use it. The Doctor had presumably hoped to turn Rusty into a pacifist, and had the hubris to gamble that a David-Lynch-style camera-facing telepathic monologue straight from his own brain would get the job done. But it turns out that the Doctor’s “am I a good man?” question to Clara isn’t rhetorical. It turns out that he doesn’t have the pacifist brain he thinks he does, and while he blames the outcome on Rusty’s Dalek nature, it seems more likely that the Dalek simply dutifully mirrored what it found in the Doctor’s own mind.

It’s this that illuminates one of the episode’s most troubling aspects, the Doctor’s repeated invective against “soldiers.” He’s at best dismissive and at worst insulting to anyone carrying a gun, which at first seems unforgivably ugly to anyone who knows soldiers in real life and is aware of how many of them are good people who are too often blamed for what their civilian commanders send them to do. The rationale for his refusal to take Journey Blue on board the TARDIS seems flatly offensive at face value, unless it’s not a condemnation of her but a condemnation of himself. That is to say: it’s not that he’s afraid she’ll run around shooting people and transgressing his moral code. It’s that he’s afraid she’ll run around shooting people, and he’ll let her, because of his moral code. He’s afraid that if he had his own soldier — as he briefly has Rusty — he’d start giving orders, and people would die. The last thing he needs is a soldier; he’s much better off with a teacher.

As it is, we already get a frankly jaw-dropping moment with soldier Ross. What the Doctor does is not entirely unprecedented, but the utter lack of apology or remorse is. Capaldi continues to astound, aided but not entirely carried by a pretty fantastic script; it’s strange to imagine Matt Smith delivering these lines, many if not most of which were presumably intended originally for him. The aforementioned telepathic grandstanding is a little over-the-top, but no more embarrassing than it would have been with any other Doctor. It’s incredibly bold to make him so unlikeable, not merely endearingly cranky but actively dangerous and offensive, to the point where it seems almost justified for Clara to slap him. You get the feeling this incarnation would have punched the Moment’s red button in the blink of an eye, no questions asked, and gone to lunch. We haven’t seen a Doctor this obnoxious since Colin Baker, so let’s hope it turns out better than it did then.

Clara herself continues to improve, her relationship to this new Doctor granting her renewed purpose as a character and as a dramatic foil. Newcomer Danny Pink seems fine as a screen presence and an actor, though the actual scripts for his scenes are almost entirely terrible. It seems inevitable that the Doctor is going to have to confront his no-soldiers policy in just a few episodes’ time, so that — maybe just for a short while — we’ll once again have two teachers from Coal Hill School on board the TARDIS, keeping an unreliable, mendacious, and yet still rather wonderful old man in check.

The Missy cameos continue. Whatever you may think of the possibility that Heaven exists in our universe, it seems unlikely that it will turn out to exist in the Doctor Who universe. And one of the characters who have arrived there is definitely dead — we saw the body. Both of them, however, might exist within the Doctor’s memory — as, indeed, would the character many of us initially speculated Missy might be. It’s conceivable the Doctor might have repressed some guilt about all three of them dying, though why Gretchen would be there and not Ross (who, having threatened the Doctor directly, seems more to fit the pattern) is a bit mysterious. This might even point toward Missy being some aspect of the Doctor himself, which would fit one of the other popular theories. Too early to tell, to be sure, but fun to speculate.

And I must admit the theme tune is growing on me. The little lead-in from previous iterations is gone and it sounds more like the classic theme than it has in a while. I guess it can stay.

Deep Breath

Change isn’t hard. Doctor Who depends on it. If you count the very first story, in which viewers in 1963 had to get used to an eccentric, cranky old professor whose first adventure took him to prehistoric Earth and saw him apparently willing to murder a caveman if it would help him and his friends, we’ve had to learn to accept twelve different alien faces. So a regeneration story by now is something the show has mastered — done eleven times already in different ways, many of them wildly successful. It was a radical move in 1966, but today it’s old hat.

Wearing the old hat, or more often the old coat, is old hat too. Still, it’s surprising to think back and realize that only once before in the program’s entire history has the new Doctor spent his first half hour of post-regenerative trauma impersonating his previous self. Erratic behavior, yes; lapses into coma, yes; bad jokes, amnesia, yes, yes, and once even an attempted murder, but only once before have they tried (and it seems so obvious if you think about it) to bridge the gap by having the personalities overlap. And even then, because they weren’t sure when they wrote it what the new actor was going to be like, it was a complete accident.

I don’t think it’s an accident here. For the first half hour or so, Peter Capaldi does Matt Smith. Or more accurately, Steven Moffat is writing for Matt Smith. The jokes aren’t Capaldi jokes, they’re Smith jokes. I’m not saying Capaldi shouldn’t flirt, but he definitely should not flirt with dinosaurs. I’m not saying Capaldi shouldn’t do wacky, I’m saying he can’t, or at least he doesn’t. The lines don’t work. And as a result, we have the dizzying, awful feeling that Clara has, that the floor’s dropped from under us. He’s not only not the same man, he’s the wrong man. A stranger’s wearing his shirt and his manner and neither fit. Which means we have only a lizard, a potato, a teacher, and — well, okay, a housemaid slash ninja to save Victorian London from whatever is capable of incinerating a dinosaur and making it look like an accident.

Just about everyone you know who saw “The Eleventh Hour” will tell you they were sold on Matt Smith by “fish fingers and custard.” Steven Moffat can sell you a new Doctor if he wants to, and he doesn’t need 80 minutes to do it. So I don’t think he wanted to. The Smithisms are deliberate. They set up a palpable switchover about the time the new Doctor discovers he’s Scottish and can really complain about things now. It’s the same time the new Doctor discovers he’s willing to swap a tramp’s most useful possession, his source of warmth, for something the tramp will have trouble selling and will never need, a means of telling time. Maybe something the Eleventh Doctor would do. But probably not.

It just gets better from there. For all the worry about how Clara and the new Doctor would work together, they mesh perfectly, by not meshing at all. They make good partners-in-crime; it’s the friendship part that’s tough. Last time we had a prickly new Doctor argue with his companion a lot, it was just unpleasant, but Moffat has written sitcoms, which are nothing but pleasant arguments. Either because she’s no longer a mystery, or because we’ve had a year of her not quite working perfectly, or just because of the new comfortable discomfort, Clara really starts to sing from the restaurant scene onward, and Coleman turns in some of her best acting for the show yet. I’m not entirely convinced that she’s the egomaniac control freak the Doctor thinks he sees; to me this seems like more of a Moffatism, characters diagnosing each other with psychological disorders they don’t actually demonstrate, the way we had “psychopath” defined last season as “a warm, affectionate person who enjoys doing somewhat daring things.” Here she’s just brave, quick on her feet, sure of herself, able to learn from her own mistakes, and, by the end of the episode, willing to adapt in big, significant ways.

And then there’s Capaldi, who just over 30 minutes in settles perhaps not into THE way he’ll play the part (as his interviews perhaps modestly disclaim) but definitely A credible approach. Unsurprisingly, he’s graver, angrier, more forceful, even more physical, yet still dryly funny. He’s a fine actor. It’s not clear he has (or, arguably, needs) the breadth Smith displayed at the best of times, but he might have a greater depth.

So, unusually for a regeneration episode, does the story. On the surface it’s a sequel to “The Girl in the Fireplace,” of course; though the Doctor himself never quite remembers where he’s met the clockwork robots before, we naturally do. Here they’re not just stealing parts for their ship, but also for themselves. They’re like brooms, says the Doctor to the head robot (who is, confusingly, dressed as the Great Intelligence) — replacing bits of themselves as they wear out, till eventually they’ve replaced every part of themselves and are no longer the same broom.

Which is basically what the Doctor’s done. He’s replaced his face, his voice, his hair, his body, his clothes, his personality, and even some of the lighting and furniture in his TARDIS. The blue box remains basically the same, and that’s about it; the screwdriver only dates back one face ago. Is he the same broom? Or just sweeping the same floors? Certainly the manner of the sweeping has changed. There aren’t many moments in Doctor Who‘s history that feel like the scene where he pours two drinks and confesses to the head robot, “I have a horrible feeling that I’m going to have to kill you.” Or the one where it’s implied that this may very well be exactly what he’s done.

Then there’s that coda. “Missy.” Look, I have no inside information, so this isn’t a spoiler, and Moffat’s notorious for leading us down the garden path on these things, but I can’t help thinking of another recurring character in Doctor Who who was also introduced in the classic show’s eighth season and later made a habit of being listed in the credits using eccentric but obvious aliases. Nor can I help thinking of all the hoo-hah about the Doctor being a woman this time, and how thanks to “The Doctor’s Wife” it’s now canon that Time Lords can change sex when they regenerate. I’m just saying.

Oh, and that one time the Doctor acted like his previous incarnation for about half the story? “Spearhead from Space” — the transition from the Second Doctor, on whom Matt Smith reportedly based his own portrayal, to the Third Doctor, on whom Peter Capaldi has apparently based his costume. I’m just saying.

I’ve only scratched the surface here — talked as little as possible about the increasingly forced comedy and even more forced profundity of the Paternoster Gang, implied very little about the Doctor’s redefinition of his relationship with Clara, touched not at all on the intriguing talk of “promised lands” and “heavens” (which the Doctor wants to reach but doesn’t believe in), not even mentioned that lovely phone call at the end. (Not one word of complaint about the worst theme tune revision in the new series, though the graphics are all right.) In a 76-minute story (certainly at least tied with “Day of the Doctor” for the longest unbroken Doctor Who episode), there’s bound to be more than one bucketful in the well.

So here we are at the start of a new cycle of regenerations. The Twelfth Doctor is really the First Doctor. In a way we’re back to basics. In a way it’s a brand new broom.

Capaldi’s Costume

doctor-who-peter-capaldi-costume

It’s not bad. My first reaction was that it was somehow both too fussy and too plain, and definitely too much like a costume. The purple jacket from season 7B was getting to be a little much already, and this is in the same self-conscious vein. But then I saw the images juxtaposing Capaldi and Jon Pertwee, and those make it very clear what they were going for. If Tennant was Davisonesque and Smith was the best mix of Baker and Troughton there could ever be, Capaldi can very easily be Pertwee.

Shoes: A+
Pants: C
Jacket: B-
Shirt: A
Cardigan: WTF?

It’s going to be an interesting season. I still haven’t decided if I want to write about it or not. I might just try enjoying it and reacting to it, rather than critiquing it. We’ll see.

…Doctor Twelve

Eh.

I mean, he’ll probably be fine. Lightning might strike twice, he might Matt Smith us. It could happen.

It’s an interesting step along the path of the Pertwee homages we’ve seen. While it’s been noted that he’s the same age Hartnell was in 1963, to me it looks like we’re heading for the same sort of dynamic the Third Doctor had with Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith. That’s not a bad thing. And apparently he’s a fan.

I’d planned either to stop writing full-length Doctor Who reviews at the end of the year, or else change my approach to them. Seems like it might be a good time for that. Then again, for all I know things are about to get really interesting.

One thing I do know: it’s going to be a lot easier than I thought to wait until August 2014 for the new season to start.