Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"The Caretaker"

"The safety word is my name."
It's the halfway point of the series and we've come to the last of Moffat's regulars, Gareth Roberts, writer of light-hearted fluff. Thus we have 'The Caretaker,' a hybrid of 'School Reunion' and 'The Lodger' with a little New Who Series 1 and 5 soap thrown in. I've accidentally watched this episode three times, rather than twice, which says a good deal about its entertainment value even if it is trite and representative of New Who's tedious devotion to small-minded angst-drama. It's well paced with some nice lines, although the plot is total arse and as usual it drives the 'characterisation' element home with a sledgehammer. We begin with New Who's regular conceit where we're shown a snippet of what looks like a far more interesting adventure, with the Doctor and Clara chained up in a mysterious desert which is either on another planet or California on a bad day depending on what the rocks in the background are meant to be. If I may dwell on this longer than I intended, it's actually a pretty striking encapsulation of New Who's over-reliance on postmodern self-referentiality, where the image of 'Doctor and Companion in peril in a hostile landscape' is used as visual shorthand, a 'sign' if you will (in the Baudrillardian sense) of what the average viewer thinks 'Doctor Who' is. This of course only serves to emphasise how removed New Who actually is from what it purports to be, and the programme's massive insecurity complex: New Who secretly hates that it is the continuation of that 20th century sci-fi show which New Who's writers were picked on in the playground as kids for liking. Thus it must lampoon that aspect (moral and practical challenges in hypothetical scenarios) to better establish or justify to itself why it gets to be what it is (a ratings-hungry comedy-drama 'flagship' under a thin veneer of science-fiction imagery).
Here to clean up your shit TV show.
It's taking him a while.
Anyway, this among other things shows us that Clara is struggling to balance her life with the Doctor and her life with Danny, although it seems like it's very one way: her plans with Danny never seem to get in the way of the Doctor, only the reverse. We get some clumsy foreshadowing when the Doctor says "I hate soldiers" while having lasers fired at him in a space corridor before we get a dubious shot of a glistening, sweaty Clara and the establishment of our current plot. We get some finger-clicking to open the TARDIS doors, which we haven't seen in a while, and which kind of has some of its novelty worn off with the perfunctory way it is done here: Tennant snapping his fingers to open the TARDIS in 'Forest of the Dead' is one of the only genuinely cool things his Doctor ever got to do. The Doctor tells Clara to piss off because he's going into 'deep cover,' conveniently enough at Coal Hill School of Susan, Barbara and Ian fame where Clara now works and where her romance with Danny, blossoming like so many stock film clips of rockets launching and trees falling down in reverse, is the hottest topic of gossip among the student body. Danny notices that Clara is always "in a rush." He's bringing that up now? At the staff meeting the headmaster introduces the new caretaker - as if they'd bother - and it's of course Peter Capaldi in a brown mack. I just looked up 'stereotypical workman coat' to confirm that this was indeed a mackintosh (I don't think it really is), and one of the first images that came up was a promotional photo for this very episode. Someone's ahead of me here.
The Secret Policeman's Disco Ball
After the titles, appropriately enough, all the teachers go on their merry way, 'cause no one would care about the caretaker, although Capaldi's dialogue draws a bit too much attention to this. Danny gets to make a lame remark about his eyebrows, which are clearly going to be the 'Matt Smith's chin' of this incarnation, and Clara makes an amusingly glib effort to portray his knowing wink to her as a "general welcoming wink." She confronts the Doctor, who reveals that he's hypnotised the regular caretaker into thinking he has a flying car (Harry Potter?) and three wives (smarmy writers?) and oddly tells her to "go worship something" at assembly. "I'm a caretaker now, look I've got a brush," is another line well-delivered by the big C here. The ongoing remarks are less palatable: the line about a 'sinister puddle' is a step too far (it'd be funnier if he just listed with satisfaction all the tedious odd jobs he had to do) and an anecdote about him (presumably as Smith, I can almost see it unfortunately) 'sulking' among otters after a fight with the hopefully-never-ever-to-be-seen-again River Song is very unwelcome. He's come to see to some convenient local danger about which he's not being too clear, but it's immediately revealed when in the next scene we discover a community police officer discovering some kids "playing hooky" as they say, lounging around in the street playing games on their phones, although the sounds and shots make it look like they're playing Tiger handheld games or something. After sending them on their way our hassled neighbourhood bobby investigates some suspicious noises coming out of the derelict building on the block, assuming it's another kid, whining to the darkness "Turn your game off, it's time for school, come on!" like he's about to burst into tears. It is of course not a kid but some kind of horrible killer robot that zaps him in a cheesy and surprisingly graphic death sequence, blowing one of his arms off.
"Can I come and talk to the rest of the cast?"
A pointless scene ensues where the Doctor interrupts Clara's class on Pride and Prejudice through the window. We get some satire of the typical "joined a band with a historical figure" jokes the show likes to do when Clara speculates on how the Doctor knows when Austen wrote the novel (apparently some of it probably was written in 1797, making him wrong), and then Clara very professionally calls one of the students an "amateur" for asking for homework - another cheap gag. It's odd watching this episode and noting how it probably only works because of Capaldi. The previous two Doctors could never have passed off in this kind of role. Out in the playground, ridiculous Murray Gold 'comedy' music plays as Clara pointlessly picks up a watering can in a strange effort to disguise getting closer to the Doctor talking to Danny. The Doctor keeps going on about how Danny must be a PE teacher because he was a soldier, implying that he's an idiot. His line "No, sorry, I can't retain that," when Danny insists that he's a soldier and a maths teacher is pure contemporary 'blank refusal is funny' sitcom shite that Moffat would probably have chucked a laugh track onto if he was allowed. He fails to compare Danny to the identical Orson from 'Listen' two episodes ago despite Clara's suggestion, and instead assumes that her boyfriend must be a different teacher, the floppy-haired, bow-tie-clad Adrian. "Don't mind this old man," he tells them, another arguably ageist line well-delivered by Capaldi, but the moment really emphasises once again how much the shadow of Matt Smith's Doctor is hanging over this series. I'm also not sure what the episode says by in this way suggesting that the Doctor is hubristic enough, or sufficiently reductive of his companion's personality, to think the Clara would simply go for a guy who looked a bit like how he used to look; the idea is certainly never raised in the episode.
Ooh err missus.
After this we get a goofy montage of Capaldi going into full Kryten mode, bustling around the school rubbing out graffiti about Clara and Danny, unsubtly whistling Pink Floyd and sticking little sci fi gadgets everywhere while more generic Murray Gold comedy music tinkles inanely in our ears. In the caretaker's shed Courtney the troublesome kid first seen in 'Deep Breath' shows up looking for some paper towel after a "spillage in geography." Couldn't it have at last been chemistry? The Doctor has a 'Go Away Humans' sign on the door, which seems more like something Moffat's comedy Sontaran would do. Capaldi informs Courtney that the TARDIS is "the caretaker's box, every caretaker has their own box" and that it says 'Police' because "there's a policeman in there." Again Capaldi's delivery redeems a lot of this, although he can't salvage the comment about the sign which is pure Moffat forgotten-how-to-write-comedy excrement (unless Roberts wrote that one). He asks Courtney "haven't you got shoplifting to get to?" Is he asking that because she's a kid? 'Cause it kind of sounds like he's asking it because she's.... never mind, Clara comes in, although the cutaway to Capaldi as Courtney leaves makes it sound as if Courtney's turned around and walked straight into the door. The Doctor tells Clara that he's rigged up a scanner to detect the local danger, wondering why he keeps her around. Clara tells him that "the alternative would be developing a conscious of your own." It's an awful piece of Moffat telling over showing. He makes a reference to a teacher he used to know, which is possibly a reference to Barbara I guess, and then reveals that the danger du jour is an arbitrary gun laden robot called the 'Skovox Blitzer' which has seemingly come to East London due to "artron emissions" which have occurred in the area over time. Is that our tiny piddling concession to 'An Unearthly Child' and 'Remembrance of the Daleks' (and arguably to a lesser extent 'Attack of the Cybermen')? That's about as much effort as Roberts and Moffat are willing to invest in setting up their totally arbitrary dilemma. Remember, kids, only nerds and losers like plot. All the cool kids are into fictional characters talking about their invented relationships.
Ask for Alfonse.
Clara's brilliant idea for dealing with the killer robot is that the Doctor "leave it alone," which seems very defeatist of her. The Doctor, however, can't risk that it might be provoked by "some military idiot," returning to our touchstone of this series. He's built an invisibility watch to lure it to where he can trap it. That'd be handy in other scenarios, wouldn't it. Shame he's never made one before. He also claims that the school is the "only suitably empty place in the area." On what basis? It's just the writers dismissing any need for the plot to make real sense. His trap is that "chronodyne generators," the handy sci-fi gadgets that he's suddenly been able to make, will send the robot safely into the far future. Isn't that just fobbing the problem off onto someone else? The most amusing bit in this sequence is his suggestion to Clara that after defeating the Blitzer they visit Crocodilopolis: "They worship a big crocodile there." That'd be fine as the entire line, but the sentence goes on to him saying it's a coincidence, which is too clever-clever, as usual. He drops hints about recognising her boyfriend, comparing him to a "certain dashing young time traveller," but the ensuing conversation where Clara says "I underestimated you" and so on is written in a way that seems to really overemphasise what they're discussing. Why would the Doctor figuring out who Clara's boyfriend is (even though he's actually mistaken) be such a big deal? It's a weird moment. It's also weird how approving the Doctor is when he thinks Clara's boyfriend is Smith-alike Adrian. Again, it comes across as kind of hubristic.
"EXPECTO PATRONUM AGAAAAAAAIN!"
Outside, we get more dreadful Moffat lines where characters use the phrase "a thing" in lieu of explaining themselves. Parents' evening is coming up, because as usual there has to be some event on when the plot kicks up a notch. Danny argues that the Doctor "doesn't seem like a caretaker." What does he seem like then Danny? That evening the Doctor lures the big robot to the school but Danny, having postponed his date with Clara, is going around investigating all the Doctor's 'chronodyne' sci-fi gadgets, which apprently become 'deactivated' simply by pulling them off the wall. Presumably he thinks Capaldi's trying to blow up the school. Clara bursts into the Caretaker's shed, telling the Doctor that her date is off. Wasn't that hours ago? It looks like it was. Why is she still here? So all our pieces are in place. Danny absurdly calls out "Hello?" after just missing the Blitzer, which is stomping around on its noisy metal feet and barking directives in a harsh electronic voice, as if he's expecting that all the commotion is just someone loitering around the corridors. In the hall, the Blitzer's about to turn Capaldi crispy because Danny fiddling with the gadgets has meant they've all deactivated, but then Danny bursts in and the Blitzer attacks him instead. Why doesn't it kill the Doctor first? He somehow gets one of his gadgets back on and uses the sonic screwdriver like a magic wand to get the Blitzer sucked into the time vortex or whatever. What follows is a rather long scene where the Doctor rags on Danny for interfering, which means the robot will now return soon and won't be fooled again by the same trick, Danny susses out that it's a "space thing" (why does everyone share the same vocal tics in Moffat land?), Clara pretends it's a play in a moment of pure sitcom and Danny thinks the Doctor is Clara's "space dad."
"Get in here so we can cut your throat and dispose of the body."
The funniest moment here is probably when the Doctor says "You've made a boyfriend error." He asks her "Why would you go out with a soldier?" I'm glad they emphasised the soldier aspect here, 'cause it kind of sounds like he's asking it because he's... never mind. The answer of course is (in Clara's accent) "Because I loov him!" Whoa there, steady on. Because I'm the kind of deeply repressed Old Who fan to whom public displays of emotion are about as welcome as a face-full of human refuse, I of course vomited loudly into a bucket I keep on hand at all times upon hearing this line. When he asks her about bow-tie Adrian, she replies that he's not her "type." Sure he's not. Needing to convince Danny rather than bothering to lie, the Doctor rather over-dramatically reveals the TARDIS, which he has for some reason moved to the stage in the school hall. Danny thinks they need to call the army to stop the Blizter, but the Doctor insists that he must find a new solution. He ominously informs Clara that "You haven't explained him to me." Why does she need to? More interpersonal angst, as ever. It'd in many ways have been more effective for them to have done this with Smithy, although it'd run the risk of seeming like even more of an Amy-Rory rehash. Clara and Danny have a big long chat, the best line probably being Danny's "So there's an alien, that used to look like Adrian, then he turned into a Scottish caretaker." I wonder why she bothered mentioning the regeneration to him? She assures him that she doesn't love the Doctor "in that way." "What other way is there?" he asks. "You know what I mean." "I don't know what you mean." Is Danny being deliberately dense here? I wonder how this would have played out with our previous younger, more 'dashing' Doctors. Danny asks her "Why do you fly off in the box with him?" Why wouldn't you go time travelling if you were offered? When Clara asks him "What are you thinking," he should have replied "I think I need a drink."
Get Courtney in here and it'll be just like
the original 1963 team, right? Same show? Same show?
Danny complains that Clara's keeping of secrets from him raises the question of what she thinks of him. We're in full-blown soap opera angst mode now, with trite, stock 'drama' lines like "I just want to know who you are." Who cares? All this crap about keeping secrets is just humdrum 'human drama' shite that gets trotted out on TV all the time. There's nothing left to be said on this topic in any medium. To show him the truth, Clara sneaks Danny into the TARDIS with the invisibility watch. "Not even a ring," he remarks. Tolkien reference? It's hardly going to be Plato, is it? Capaldi offers that they piss off, which actually makes sense. He claims he needs 24 hours to finish his new contraption for defeating the Blizter. Couldn't he just nip into a different time period and take as long as he wants? As he himself says to Clara, "It's a time machine, we can get back straight away." He's also quite aloof with her, which is a bit dull, but it turns out it's a ploy to annoy Danny. Danny reveals that he can spot the "aristocracy" of the Doctor after hearing that he's a Time Lord, declaring that he's an "officer." It's an interesting idea, I suppose, and Capaldi lives up to the accusation very well in his performance in this scene, but they're going to need to take this idea further than they do in this episode if they expect to achieve anything with it. The question might be: what is an officer, an aristocrat, who turned his back on the privileged society which made him that way? If they don't take this further, or take this angle, I think they'll be missing a serious opportunity to actually do a far more potentially interesting take on the Doctor's characterisation than has been attempted previously in New Who with the usual simplistic rigmarole of him being a "lonely god" or a "good man" or having a "dark side" or whatever. As usual, Capaldi's delivery elevates a lot of this stuff, although I wonder if his "On balance, I think that went quite well," would have been delivered with more sarcasm by other incarnations - I'm contemplating Paul McGann's performance of Moffat dialogue recently, for instance. Now that I think about it, as interesting as it would have been, I don't think this script would have worked with the last couple of more facetious Doctors.
"Edward, can you waggle your fingers about and say 'Geronimo'?"
Courtney has been lurking nearby and Capaldi gets another good line where he states "It's a time machine! It also travels in space!" Her parents arrive on the forefront at parents' evening where they're used as a cheap joke. Meanwhile the robot has of course reappeared right now during a major event, and Clara and Danny leap up to speak to 'the caretaker' right in the middle of their parent teacher interviews. Somehow I doubt you'd get away with that. Clara has to lure the Blitzer to the Doctor's shed with the sonic screwdriver. I don't get why, if it's so dangerous, once again it doesn't shoot immediately upon seeing a target, instead chasing Clara around the school. To be fair to them, as generic as this alien menace is they do a reasonable job of making it look like it's actually moving on its robot legs, which might be the one thing you could say this episode does better than Fifth Doctor serial 'Kinda.' The Doctor's built a weird sci fi backpack to let him imitate the robot's general, the 'Skovox Artificer,' which is a pretty handy fit with all this stuff from a few minutes ago about aristocrats and officers. He needs more time to stop it self destructing however, but right on cue Danny runs in and manages to somersault completely over it, which is apparently a thing people can do. The Doctor then proceeds to yell at it and thus shut it down. The world apparently saved, Danny realises that the reason the Doctor dislikes him is because he needs to be "good enough for her." So they're kind of saying the Doctor is like her disapproving space dad? The Doctor takes Courtney with him while he dumps the deactivated Blitzer in space, and she proceeds to spew into the TARDIS. I'm surprised they didn't write it so that she spewed in space, it fell to a planet and then a few episode's later they go to "the planet evolved from Courtney's spew." Back at Clara's flat, Danny compares the Doctor further to officers who push people and make them stronger. When she says she trusts the Doctor, he weirdly starts imposing rules on their relationship, making her promise to tell him if he ever pushes her too far: "If you break that promise, Clara, we're finished... if you don't tell me the truth I can't help you." Why would she need him to help her? Why does he need to help her? I don't know which relationship ends up seeming more problematic here, although I suspect they didn't intend for this one to seem that way.
New Who - where all the comedy actors go.
Meanwhile in Heaven the policeman from earlier has a chat with Chris Addison and his discomforting gaze fresh from Mock the Week. We saw this guy get blown into pet-friendly chunks, which certainly disrupts my 'Heaven is a TARDIS which catches people just before they die' theory. We'll see where that goes. So ends 'The Caretaker.' As I say, entertaining enough as they go, and with some interesting ideas, but there are some pretty clunky lines scattered throughout and as usual it's frustrating to see how enslaved the writers are to this model of characterisation: conflict, crisis, confrontation, repeat, repeat, repeat. And it's all there is. Even though I found 'The Caretaker' to be reasonably diverting by New Who's standards, I simply can't avoid the frustrations it raises for me. I've been watching and re-watching a bit of Real Who lately, 'Kinda' and 'The Talons of Weng Chiang' for instance, and working my way through 'The Sea Devils.' Say what you like about any of them, but that's Doctor Who. 'The Caretaker' isn't something awful, but it sums up New Who more or less to a tee: puppeteering the imagery and vocabulary of Doctor Who but in a format and style which is completely unlike the show of which it is supposed to be a continuation. Why do plot and discourse only exist in this show (New Who) simply to enable characterisation? Characterisation is not an end in itself. It's really worth considering the fact that the issues contemplated by Doctor Who, like morality, power, scientific responsibility and the like are not of particular interest to New Who on a regular basis. New, if it does contemplate issues, deals with domestic 'human interest' ones like impossible and unrequited love, jealousy and secret keeping. Is this really the best way the premise of the show can be put to use? By these standards, 'The Caretaker' is arguably a success, and it raises some interesting ideas about the Doctor as a character, but it really emphasises how little vision New Who has beyond ruminations about these fictional characters whose own fictional lives are not meaningful or relevant in isolation. If Moffat and co are able to conjure something impressively intelligent from the concept they establish here of the Doctor as an aristocrat and officer, which is by far the most interesting statement that has been made in New Who for years, let alone in this episode, then fair play to them, but personally I would take care of my expectations.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Time Heist"

"No Steven and Stephen, you can't just throw some words
in there and expect a script I'll perform to come out."
'Time Shite'? Well, I tried. Moffat's burning through his regular cronies thick and fast as this series begins, possibly relying on people with whom he has experience to get his new Doctor established. Whether this means the second half of the series will be more fresh remains to be seen. It's now the Stephen Thompson episode and with Moffat by his side he gets to maintain the reputation for bland filler he established in Series 7 as an elevation from the pirate ship episode in Series 6. 'Time Heist' is a serviceable but predictable episode characterised by the same style which has occurred so far throughout Peter Capaldi's first series with an arguably more serious tone limited by unsubtle writing and repetition. The Doctor, a virtually immortal alien with a time machine, apparently doesn't have much to do, so he's standing around in Clara's flat, but she's dressed up in a weird suit and tie outfit for her next date with Mr Pink. He remarks on her face being "all painted in." Didn't he mention makeup just last week? We see Danny being tongue tied, which is presumably meant to be charming, and there's no reason when the TARDIS phone rings (I thought a major point in 'The Time of the Doctor' was that it rang back through the console now?) that she couldn't just walk out and leave. Capaldi has to use the term "a thing" again which seems to be Moffat's current favourite piece of pathetic pseudo Joss Whedon speak.
"I've got hold of a new kind of bank account.
It's called... Smug."
So he picks up the phone and they wake up in a room having lost their memories to those big grub things from the 2012 Christmas Special just after he's said "nothing will happen." Still relying on those instant reverses, I see. They're in the company of a cyborg named Psi and a mutant called Saibra, with a recording cack-handedly giving exposition on the new characters for us. A cheesily modulated voice calling itself 'the Architect' tells them via a recording that they must rob 'The Bank of Karabraxos' which is supposedly the "most secure bank in the galaxy," where doors are unlocked with DNA from breath and thieves apparently get incinerated without trial. There's a fair bit of inept dystopianism going on in this episode. 'Cause he's got half a laptop jammed into the side of his head Psi downloads the necessary data. Meanwhile, Keeley Hawes, who I'm most familiar with from Ashes to Ashes and working a surprisingly large amount with Mitchell and Webb appears in a generic office as 'Ms Delphox,' the head of bank security. Her appearance is the same black suit ensemble we saw already with Tracy Ann Oberman in Series 2, the evil space nanny in Series 4 and Frances Barber in Series 6. There's probably something in RTD's New Who Commandments about how every second series one of the villains has to be a woman in business attire. Hearing that intruders are present, she heads for a tank to get something called 'The Teller' which is guarded by two dudes in expensive-looking 'power armour' type costumes that barely get used.
"Whenever I touch someone, I put on a wig.
If they're bald, I die."
Somehow using the memory worms the Doctor and co escape from their rude awakening, Capaldi presumably insisting that they slow down because of how bloody old he is. Actually, I think 'Capaldi is old' jokes have run their course now because the worryingly ageist remarks people were making about him seem to have died down a bit online, although I daresay they'll keep making them in the show. How did the memory worms let them escape? Did they throw them at the soldiers? The guards seem to have lost all memory entirely, even though our protagonists only lost a bit. It's unclear. We discover furthermore that Psi is a hacker and bank robber, and Saibra is a cross between Rogue and Mystique from X-Men: when she touches people, she uncontrollably takes on their appearance. Clara mercifully doesn't say anything flirty when she sees herself. Saibra tells them she wears a 'hologram shell' to allow her clothes to transform, Moffat and Thompson clearly looking to pre-empt any number of forum threads. The Doctor gets her to take on the appearance of a stock businessman from some DNA which he assumed, correctly but still completely without evidence, to be on some block he picked out of the Architect's case in the first room they were in. You see him do it in the side of a shot and it's easy to miss, so it looks like he just produces this thing from nowhere and then uses it to advance the plot extremely conveniently. After their escape from the guards, this is the second in a series of issues in this episode resulting from awkward direction trying to contain a rushed script.
"Of course you don't get any dialogue or a personality.
This isn't Star Trek you know."
Suddenly they're outside looking at the bank, then they're in it. Where are they in it, though? We know it's a big pyramidal thing, but where in it is this big courtyard full of generic modern-day looking people and half-arsed weirdoes like low-budget Blade Runner? Another problem with this episode is that it needs the characters to jump from location to location without any sense of how they get between them. How come they were being yelled at by bank security earlier when according to this they weren't yet in the bank? I have no idea. In the courtyard in the middle of the bank the Doctor talks in a very loud 'quiet voice' about how they're robbing the place, which is presumably what causes Keeley Hawes to arrive with a big and surprisingly convincing-looking alien. There's some nonsensical guff about how a man's "guilt has been detected" by the alien, which proceeds to use wobbly effects to scan his brain for "criminal intent," after which, without bothering with confirmation, he has his "mind deleted" which farcically causes his forehead to cave in. It's very much the RTD school of visual shorthand, where feelings=thoughts=mind=brain=skull. The best moment is that Psi, presumably due to his augmentations, specifically reacts to the Teller's sounds, but they don't draw attention to it. Keeley Hawes tells the lobotomised fellow that his next of kin will be incarcerated too. It's another instance of the clumsy dystopianism I mentioned earlier. I'm all in favour of corporate satire, but making it that heavy-handed comes across as simplistic. It may be that I'm used to seeing Keeley Hawes in more serious roles, but she's playing it very camp here and I'm not sure it's the best use of her talents.
Damn, already had a line - can't claim
breathing as dialogue for extra parment.
They go to a collection-type room and receive a bomb. Isn't it odd how everyone's just sort of going on with this? None of them are saying that it's a mistake or anything of the sort, just accepting that they have to rob the bank. Somehow Psi projects holographic bank plans out of the metal plug end of a USB cable. They must have forgotten to build a prop. Elsewhere (I was going to say 'downstairs' but who knows where anything is in relation to anything else here) Keeley Hawes complains that they'll be "fired with pain" if Karabraxos gets wind of the intrusion. I'm just going to say "unsubtle" here and move on. If it's a big deal, why aren't they sending guards? Too scared that people will notice and it'll harm their reputation? Didn't we just see that they have discreet guys in suits, not just the soldier people? No one's noticing the four randoms robbing the bank. I mean, this is meant to be an "impregnable bank," we keep getting told this, yet Capaldi and chums have time to just stand around in a room doing nothing. Capaldi argues that "we must all have a very good reason" for being there but it's a rushed explanation for why they've agreed to do this. The Doctor argues that the reason he's in charge is "the eyebrows." Lame, lame, lame. Typical New Who character auto-memetic self-branding in lieu of characterisation. The bomb, interestingly enough, however, shifts part of the floor into another dimension, allowing them access. Why couldn't they use one of those later on the vault door? This is the problem with writing sci-fi: you need to be cautious with how much convenient technology you give your characters access. Too much, and every problem seems contrived. The TARDIS is the prime example these days, of course. Back in the day the combined excuse that the TARDIS was faulty and the Doctor didn't fully understand how to operate it anyway was enough to curtail that kind of thing. In New Who, when he can park it on the side of a building at the precise moment or jump through one person's life, less so.
The face of someone trying to think of
ways the plot holes aren't plot holes.
Once again Capaldi has to use the term "a thing" to describe what he expects will happen. It's not the last time this series alone. They figure the Architect would have had to break into the bank ahead of them but use amnesiacs to hide their guilt from the Teller. How did the Architect get in, then? It's finally detected that there are intruders: what happened to "impregnable"? We then get some clunky exposition as Psi and Saibra spew their personal dramas to Clara and the Doctor respectively. Psi erased all his memories of his kith and kin to protect them when he was interrogated in prison. Saibra is lonely because on touch transforms her. The nonsensical reason is this: "Could you trust someone who looked back at you out of your own eyes?" What the hell is that meant to mean? It's typical New Who forced-angst rubbish. As has been observed elsewhere, it's an excuse to set up some trite moralising from the writers: don't be alone. Personally I like company, but it feels like the writers trying to impose their values on everybody regardless of whether they're necessarily appropriate. The four reunited discover the lobotomised people, and pop through a corridor which gets reused numerous times as different locations in this episode to discover the unguarded Teller in its tank. Where are the power armour guards? The Doctor tells everyone not to move, then moves and wakes it up. It 'locks on' to Clara, whom the Doctor tells to keeper her mind 'blank.' Instead of "Don't blink," it's "Don't think." Do we get a flashback here with the shots of Clara trying not to think? Unsure. Couldn't she just think of things she didn't feel guilty about. Then somehow Saibra gets locked onto instead, and they can't just pull her away for some reason. Instead, the Doctor just sits there telling her how her mind will be destroyed instead of even attempting to help her. He gives her one of the things he took from the latest Architect case, an "atomic shredder" suicide device, which she promptly uses. Gosh, can't believe she's gone so quickly!
"Pull my finger right now or I too will die!"
The remaining guys find the cliché big circular bank vault door, which is totally unguarded despite intruders and looks like something from a London gangster film, not an "impregnable" future space bank. Psi accuses the Doctor of "professional detachment" in his callous attitude to the death of Saibra, which is more 'good man' bullshit, and I finally realise how Moffat is writing the Twelfth Doctor: as Cumberbatch's Sherlock - an irritating tit with a supposed heart of gold who is written in such a way that he seems to deliberately overplay his 'abnormal' or 'inhuman' responses out of insecurity rather than due to genuinely being psychologically different. Psi accuses Clara of making excuses for him, and it really draws attention to this issue in a way that I find quite frustrating. In the tank room, Keeley Hawes is still going on about how impregnable the bank supposedly is. Find the intruders then! Why is it so hard? We get another directorial issue when we barely see Psi retrieving some technological doohickey from another Architect case, which lets him interface with the vault's electronic lock mechanism, along with Clara finding a card with some info. She and the Doctor run off to distract the now-released Teller while Psi has to crack twenty-four locks. The one corridor is lit up with blue and red glows to make it look like different locales as Clara and the Doctor run off, but there's a bit where Capaldi seems to slow down when turning a 'corner' which is actually just a strut because it looks like he's worried he'll accidentally run into the wall. Somehow the vault unlocking keeps happening as Psi runs away. Why is the Teller dangerous? It's so slow.
Don't forget, canon is really important.
Somehow Psi distracts the Teller from Clara by looking at a bunch of pictures of 'criminals' he projects onto the wall: James Marsters, a Sensorite (I guess there were a couple of evil ones) and a comic book drawing of Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer, among others. "I am so guilty!" he exclaims. How does this work? They're just pictures of criminals, Jonathan Bailey having to spit out absurd lines like a maniac. Dramatic music blares as he gets his big 'heroic suicide,' atomising himself in front of the Teller. Nonetheless the vault won't unlock until a 'solar storm' disrupts the electronics. The Doctor realises that the Architect must know the future, and they've been sent back in time to this precise moment because the bank is vulnerable. It spontaneously unlocks just because of the electronics failure. Why? No idea. Inside the vault is basically the Department of Mysteries: a bunch of generic twentieth-century-looking safety deposit boxes that don't have individual locks and are arranged bizarrely not by owner but by contents. The Doctor claims that they must have come without the TARDIS because the solar storm would "make navigation impossible." Why couldn't they have used the TARDIS at any another time and landed it inside the bank vault? As I said earlier, Smith could land it on the side of a building. They'd written themselves into a corner here.
Don't shoot; she might wake up in 1981.
They discover a circuit to restore Psi's memory and 'gene suppressant' for Saibra, but are captured by the Teller, who inexplicably doesn't melt their brains. Instead they're taken back to Keeley Hawes' office. She reveals that the Teller is the last of its kind, as usual. People are leaving the bank, which leads her to believe their jobs are on the line. What, because of a natural disaster? Doesn't the bank ever close? Did no one in the future know this storm was coming? She tells the Doctor and Clara that she's going to lobotomise them too, but then just pisses off with the Teller, leaving them in the hands of the power armour men. These of course turn out to be Saibra and Psi, as the atom shredders were actually, unsurprisingly, teleporters. Didn't the same thing happen with Rose in 'Bad Wolf' with the Weakest Link robot? There's an escape ship in orbit: so the teleporters work in the storm, but the TARDIS doesn't? Suddenly they're back in the big catwalk gas room from earlier. How did they get here? It turns out there's a huge, roomy 'supply line' to their final destination, the private vault. This turns out to be a typical neoclassical space full of generic 'priceless artefacts,' mostly just cliché pseudo-classical artwork and antiques. It turns out that Karabraxos is the original Keeley Hawes: every facility of hers also has a clone to run security. Capaldi thinks he's sussing things out, dreadfully demanding that everyone "shuttety up up up." He goes into typical New Who Doctor manic mode, banging a big gong and gurning upon making a certain discovery. It turns out the solar storm is destroying everything, flames ravaging the city and people running hither and thither. Were they not aware? Why are they still here? Karabraxos takes a handful of junk and leaves, sending in the Teller to mulch their minds.
Down with the kids.
The Doctor is, however, inexplicably able to use the Teller's mind-rummaging technique to harmlessly recover his lost memories, making pointless references to the Fourth and Eleventh Doctor's costumes, doing more self-referential work by comparing his own gear to that of a magician and finally remembering that the phone call at the start of the episode was from Keeley Hawes in old lady makeup calling him with a plea for help. The Doctor was the Architect all along, going through the bank and leaving the boxes everywhere. If he didn't get attacked by the Teller for guilt then, why did he need to bother wiping his memory and gathering the team and doing it all over again? He walks away from the Teller completely unscathed, rambling at it about what they came to find. He makes a convenient remark about the Teller being 'mentally linked' to Karabraxos, something only being brought up now to explain why it couldn't rebel. A safe on the wall starts opening by itself. Is the Teller using telekinesis? This reveals another Teller alien: it was being blackmailed into helping Karabraxos to protect its "mate." It's just like the ending of 2013's 'Hide' then, the line that it's not a bank heist but a rescue mission even being eerily similar to Smith's remark in that episode that the encounter was not a ghost story but a love story. It seems like every episode so far this series has been rife with repetition of what New Who has done before. Incidentally, why is the female the one that's locked up? I guess they're both prisoners but it's typical damsel in distress stuff, even if it's a big alien with googly eyes.
"Can someone help me take the thermometer out?"
So the Doctor deposits the Teller and Mrs Teller on wilderness planet where they can be alone and comfortable without psychic interference. How lovely. It's actually not a bad example of him following through on an offer he seems to make all the time in New Who which never happens. Then apparently he gets everyone some takeaway and tells them an amusing story about Cesare Borgia and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a very old-school Williams Era Tom Baker style joke which is probably one of the more genuinely humorous and Doctor-like moments of recent years. He sends Psi and Saibra home, weirdly rubbing his arm after being hugged by the latter. "Beat that for a date!" he remarks after dropping off Clara for her evening with Danny. Is this meant to be jealousy? I really hope not. So, 'Time Heist' then. In some respects it's okay, but there are times when the Doctor's characterisation is given far too much emphasis - the whole thing is ultimately a reflective character piece for him, his compassion and his need for company over solitude. The plot feels rushed, especially due to a script and direction which means that without close observation things often seem to happen for no reason. The plot's also of course completely full of holes, which causes the entire scenario to come across as ridiculously contrived. The Doctor being the Architect is very predictable. It should have been the TARDIS in the vault, to explain why they couldn't use it. The supporting protagonists are decent, if a little underused due to the need to write them out for the sake of some cheap drama. Keeley Hawes is completely underused, much like several of the other big name guests we've seen this series such as Ben Miller, and in general the whole thing feels a bit rushed. It's probably the best Thompson episode so far, but that's not saying much, and largely it's due to a somewhat more subdued tone for most of it and some decent costumes. I can't say I think much of the location work for the bank, which makes the characters' progress feel fractured and incoherent. If the direction was a bit tighter, the plot less full of holes, the statements less trite, the scenario less repetitious and the Doctor less annoying it'd probably be a more respectable piece. It's a shame there weren't some good scripts stashed away in Karabraxos' private vault.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Listen"

The lamp on top of the TARDIS is where, at this point?
We've had the Dalek episode. We've had the dumb historical celebrity episode. Now it's time for the Spooky Doo episode. I like horror, but I guess you need to be a little kid to find this stuff scary. I also find it doesn't really work in serialised fiction. It's not like a monster is going to sneak up behind the Doctor, snap his neck and then bam, that's the end of Doctor Who four episodes into the new series. 'Listen' is more a psychological thriller than anything else, but it's still pretty tame as they go. We begin with the Doctor meditating on top of the TARDIS: an odd image, but an interesting one. What's he contemplating: deep matters of philosophy, perhaps? Spiritual and metaphysical possibilities? No, of course not, he's wondering if scary monsters live under the bed. He wanders around the TARDIS talking to himself and being pointlessly creepy, blowing out candles and so forth, while hypothesising about hidden beings that accompany us all our lives. He contemplates that in contrast to hunting and defence, evolution has never produced a creature perfect at hiding. Since when were any of these hunters or defensive creatures perfect? The example of a 'perfectly defended' creature is a puffer fish, hardly the epitome of invulnerability. Anyway, what about chameleons? What about stick insects, or sloths or stonefishes? They're all just as good at hiding as a puffer fish is at defending itself, in some cases better. I'm being pedantic, but the Doctor's premise seems to be based on some pretty unsubstantiated generalisations. Apparently such a being would only possibly be able to be observed when the observer was alone. What? It's a pretty stupid thing for him to be thinking about, like something an idiot or maybe a drug user would think was sophisticated. His chalk spookily falls off a book, the word 'Listen' appearing on his chalkboard. Well I've just shat my pants in terror. Roll titles!
"Formal jacket with a t-shirt! Never goes out of style!"
In a series of disjointed sequences reminiscent of the school scenes from 'Into the Dalek,' we see Clara's disastrous date with Danny Pink, who wants to skip the foreplay and go "straight for extras" with Clara. We get some typical 'instant reversal' humour where Clara wants to not talk about teaching and then they discuss just that, laughing uproariously about something that doesn't sound terrible funny. When they agree about a desire to 'kill' a student Clara cracks some more jibes about Danny being a stone cold killer before he insists that he did a lot of good work as a soldier. When he claims that "people like you get the wrong end of the stick" Clara completely overreacts and storms off. I'm not sure why Clara is this defensive - maybe she's a puffer fish - but there you go. Back in her room the Doctor's talking Moffat nonsense: "I need you for a thing." He makes some dodgy jibes about her appearance so that Moffat can overemphasise the non-romantic aspect of the character, and then goes on to describe his theory that "no one is ever really alone" and that it's related to how everyone has the same presumed nightmare. These two concepts have a vaguely Jungian quality to them (shadows and archetypes) but it's hardly a sophisticated concept; it's two human kids and an old lady from different historical periods having a hand from under their bed grab their ankles. A couple of aliens might have served to mix this up a bit. Clara claims that "everybody dreams about something under the bed." Do they? Not sure I ever have. To investigate, the Doctor makes Clara stick her hands into these rather sexual-looking pink squidgy things on the TARDIS console to hunt down the dream. She thinks of Pink when her phone rings, however, and it seems as if we've come to the wrong place.
"Now stick your fingers deep into the psychic interface."
Clara assures the Doctor that their location can't be right: she was never in a children's home in Gloucester. I'm pretty sure there wouldn't be orphanages in the Nineties. The Doctor thinks it is the right place, but surely he must know that it isn't. Did he take a hop, skip and a jump through Clara's youth back in 'The Rings of Akhaten'? He's a bit arbitrarily thick at points in this. The answer is, of course, that we've actually arrived in the past of a young Danny, who calls out to Clara revealing his original name to be Rupert, much like the bear with the checked trousers. It sounds a bit like he says 'Rupert Pig' but we are in fact witnessing Clara's date as a young child. Inside the 'home' the Doctor has a short and pointless conversation with the late night supervisor. When the Doctor asks him if ever he looks around to find his coffee's disappeared, he replies "everybody does that." Do they? I'm more of a tea drinker myself, so maybe the scary creatures under the bed aren't interested in my English Breakfast. The TV also turns off by itself so we think something must be afoot. Upstairs, Rupert Bear tells Clara that he thinks there's something under his bed: "everyone thinks that sometimes." Again, do they? I sometimes have weird dreams about animals under my bed, not ankle-grabbing hands, and I'm not scared, just annoyed that I have to figure out a way to get rid of them. Incidentally, Rupert has a pretty bloody big room for an orphanage. Maybe this is a concession to how rare they were by this point, although I'm inclined to think that they were probably in fact nonexistent.
Dream a little dream of me.
We get to see how Clara is great with kids as she clambers under the bed and rationalises to Rupert that late night noises are generally explicable: other people asleep or awake, the house creaking (it's implied later) and so forth. Something sinks down on the mattress above them, however, and they emerge to discover a huge lump under the blanket like the invisible man's in there pitching a massive tent. There's the reason these orphanages were closed down. Why doesn't Clara just whip the cover off the bed? Well she doesn't, and the Doctor, who's turned up while they weren't looking, sits around waffling about Where's Wally because it can't be New Who without the Doctor cracking some shit jokes. He explains that being scared is a 'superpower' because it enhances your responses. It's an interesting idea relating to the evolution concepts proposed earlier that the episode doesn't fully follow up on: fear as an instinctive response. For whatever reason, the Doctor insists that they turn their back on the giant blanketed phallus, telling it that they won't look at it. After some mucking about there's a flash and it disappears out the door, nicking Rupert's threadbare bed cover. After he makes some dark remarks to Rupert, Clara calls the Doctor a "big grey haired stick insect" in some more of this series' obsession with ageism and then she gives Rupert an 'army' of toy soldiers to comfort him, topped off by the Colonel who is "so brave he doesn't need a gun." It's a pretty heavy handed parallel to the Doctor. Rupert calls this toy 'Dan the Soldier Man,' implying that these events are setting up Danny's future. The Doctor telepathically sends him to sleep and back in the TARDIS he acts like more of a doofus than ever, asking Clara if she has a connection to the child when it's painfully obvious that she does. He states that he gave him a dream about being Soldier Dan: another Moffat ontological paradox? Will dream suggestion make him the man he is today? This episode is a little too willing to suggest that it will.
Moffat's summer home.
Clara goes back to the restaurant just after she originally stormed off to patch things up with Danny. We get some more shit humour from Moffat when Clara says her mouth wants to "go solo," which is just a repetition of the remarks Capaldi made about his eyebrows in 'Deep Breath.' She mentions the name Rupert, making Danny suspicious. Then an astronaut comes in and motions to Clara. Right. Danny becomes frustrated about Clara's prevarication and pisses off. Clara leaves too, so I hope they paid for their drinks already because otherwise that restaurant's going to be out a few quid. It turns out the astronaut is a descendant of Danny from 100 years in the future named Orson but also played by Samuel Anderson who plays Danny. The Doctor used the psychic link from Clara or what have you to pick him up, and it turns out that he was at the end of the universe where he was flung by a time travel accident. The imagery we see of a decaying planet with a giant pink sun on the horizon is very evocative of the later sequences of H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine,' one of the more successful pieces of imagery in the episode. I don't know what happened to no stars, Utopia, fanged people with tattoos on their faces and so on from 'Utopia' at the end of the Universe but who cares, that was dumb. The experiment in which Orson took part was to shoot him into 'next week.' If so, why is he in this big spaceship? What would he need it for? He's more than ready to go home after being stranded in the future for six months but in another example of our 'Twelfth Doctor is a dick' characterisation Capaldi makes up some cock and bull story about the TARDIS needing to recharge so he can test if there's anything out there now that all life has ceased. It's kind of convenient, isn't it, that someone with a connection to Clara enabled this particular scenario to come about.
"Your romantic subplot disgusts me."
In the TARDIS where Orson is shacking up for the night Clara finds Dan the Soldier Man and Orson relates that his family has an old story about time traveller ancestors, implying not very much beyond the fairly obvious fact that he might be a descendant of Clara. Now that we can see it clearly, why does Orson's spacesuit have the logo on it of the mission from the episode for which the costume was originally designed? Maybe it means something else here, like 'Sweaty Bollocks 6.' A message on the ship door visible only under night lights tells its writer not to open it, Capaldi telling Clara that Orson must have been tempted to seek some 'company' from whatever lurked outside. He reasons that the creaky sounds should just be the ship cooling, but argues that he needs to know if there's something outside. When a knocking begins, he starts reciting poetry, as characters so often do in Moffat Who. He unlocks the door and it starts to open, but he claims that this could just be a result of pressure from outside. When Clara argues, he inexplicably yells at her and browbeats her into returning to the TARDIS. The air starts rushing out of the ship, but there's no evidence of anything coming in. Orson rescues the Doctor and Clara sticks her hands back into the TARDIS' erogenous zones so that the Cloister Bell will stop ringing: "apparently I can do a thing," she declares, regurgitating more dreadful Moffat non-dialogue scraped from Joss Whedon's excrement.
"One day when you grow up you'll attempt
to bash in a caveman's skull with a rock."

The TARDIS lands in a barn somewhere where a little child is sobbing in bed. Clara asks if it's Rupert or Orson. Why would it be? Was she thinking of either of them? A couple of people we only see from the knees down come in complaining about the crying boy, the man declaring that his behaviour won't be tolerated in the army, the woman insisting that he doesn't want to be in the army. Then Moffat attempts to drop his massive bombshell: "Well he's not going to the Academy, is he, that boy? He'll never make a Time Lord." So presumably this is the Doctor. It's not altogether inconsistent with characterisation we've seen before, but where are we? Why are there "other boys" he could go and join? We were told just last week that the Doctor was "born into wealth and privilege" so he can't be an orphan, can he? Where is he then? Gallifreyan boarding school? Who knows. It seems to lean towards the 'not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords' thing too. In the TARDIS, Capaldi jumps to his feet repeating old Tom Baker lines: "Sontarans perverting the course of human history." Reason for this inclusion? Anyway, kid Doctor wonders who's there, so Clara grabs his leg to stop him getting out of bed, telling him it's a dream. Is this another ontological paradox? The Doctor only became interested in this because Clara hid under his bed and grabbed his ankle when he was a child? Back in the TARDIS, Clara insists that the Doctor depart and not ask her what happened, much like Rupert with the invisible phallus. Why? This isn't a potential monster situation. Isn't he allowed to learn something from this, maybe see himself as a child and remember what it's all about? Sadly it's not to be.
Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?
Instead of leaving things as ambiguous or subtle, however, we cut away to what we didn't see before: Clara giving kid Doctor a big spiel about fear, and how one day he'll come back as John Hurt in the 50th Anniversary Special when fear will make him kind. Is she meant to have subliminally imprinted these qualities upon him while he slept? 'Cause I've tried that on someone, and it doesn't work. They send Orson home and then Clara goes off to smooch Danny, but we cut away again to Clara pontificating further to little William Hartnell in his barn bed on Gallifrey, saying that "it's okay to be afraid" because "fear makes companions of us all." So was this whole episode's point summed up in 1973 when the Third Doctor said that courage was "being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway"? In the TARDIS, Capaldi pointlessly underlines the word 'listen' for emphasis and Clara leaves the little toy soldier with the kid Doctor. He probably woke up in the morning and said in his childlike squeak "What's this, hmm? Toy soldiers left by my bed at night? I won't be having with that, not one bit." 'Listen' is okay, I guess. It's an interesting experiment, at least, but the plot's far too convenient: too many of Moffat's same old ontological paradoxes and coincidences, too much navel-gazing about the character of the Doctor and too much repetition of what's come before: inexplicable potential monsters in 'Midnight,' the end of the universe in 'Utopia,' creepy orphanages as seen in 'The Impossible Astronaut' for instance, and Clara interfering in the Doctor's history as in 'The Name of the Doctor.' As the Doctor doing something in his spare time rather than being a monster of the week runaround it's interesting and unconventional as far as New Who goes but I feel like it would have been improved if the strongest idea - the Doctor contemplating some mystery - had proceeded along more interesting or more intellectually sophisticated lines than 'spooky monster under the bed.' The thriller elements aren't even really left unexplained - it was just Clara grabbing the Doctor's ankle when he was a little boy, with the rest presumably being a series of coincidences. As usual, some of the ideas have merit but the execution is, in my opinion, inelegant and by this point even a little trite. It feels less like a 'best ever episode' as some are claiming it and more just the regular charlatan's routine of dressing up something ultimately insubstantial in a narrative and vocabulary which gives the illusion of profundity. My recommendation is that if you want to listen, you do so to some lost Hartnell or Troughton serials, and don't overestimate New Who's capacity for integrity.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Robot of Sherwood"

"Need a fresh bag Clara 'cause I'm so incredibly old."
Another series of New Who is upon us so it's time for the Mark Gatiss episode. I think I've come to think of Gatiss as Moffat's sidekick: they clearly have a much closer working relationship than Gatiss had with RTD, for whom he only penned two episodes. They also co-run the godawful Sherlock (which was always crap, not just the most recent series) and Gatiss has even done a few small performances in Moffat-era New Who as well. He seems to be always around: he's spoken about the Twelfth Doctor in talks, Paul McGann mentioned that he was there when they filmed 'The Night of the Doctor' and despite having no formal role in the New Who command structure whatsoever he seems very involved. I don't know what I think of Gatiss. I generally don't hate his episodes (although 'The Idiot's Lantern' is pretty dire), but they're rarely memorable. 'Robot of Sherwood' is more or less in the same Gatiss tradition. To his credit, we begin with no stuffing around, finding ourselves straight away in the TARDIS with the Doctor asking Clara where she wants to go, and her declaration that she wants to meet Robin Hood. There's some clunky exposition, where Clara points out that it's a story and the Doctor overtly describes the premise, a "heroic outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor." Was this for the benefit of people who don't know who Robin Hood is? I guess New Who gets sold to a lot of non English speaking countries these days. Clara suggests that the Doctor is an "old fashioned hero" like Robin Hood, but he responds that his tendency to 'stop bad things happening' is "just passing the time," which I like as characterisation. If the Doctor goes looking for trouble, or if he's written as some kind of space-unwritten-moral-law enforcement, he becomes the Establishment, which is kind of contrary to the premise. This, I would argue, is one of the two themes of this episode: the Doctor's moral interventionism, and the nature of "heroes." Not exactly fresh material, but there you go.
How Gatiss understands the Twelfth Doctor's personality.
Oddly enough, the Doctor suggests to Clara that among other things they go to Mars and visit the 'Ice Warrior hives.' Has Gatiss been reading my blog? 'Cause in my review of his first 2013 episode, 'Cold War,' I suggested something along those lines as a superior alternative to the Ice Warrior story we were given. Anyway, the Doctor gives in after I think making a smutty joke - one of Gatiss' more tiring writing habits - and conveniently enough the TARDIS materialises right in front of Robin Hood at the exact right moment. Well that was expedient. Pacing will be an issue in this episode: sometimes things happen too quickly, at other times they're far too drawn out. There isn't much middle ground. Capaldi gives a pure slapstick comedy jump when Robin's arrow strikes the TARDIS, which sets us up for the tone as well. I like the fact that Robin rationalises the TARDIS as a trick with mirrors, and I like that the exterior of the TARDIS repairs itself. I don't much like it when the Doctor flat-out tells Robin that it's a TARDIS. It wouldn't mean anything to him, and Robin had already given him a perfect excuse for appearing out of nowhere anyway. Robin wants to nick the TARDIS, declaring that "all property is theft" to him, which sets up a recurring political element of the script. We get more unappealing characterisation for Capaldi's Doctor as he threatens to punch Robin in the face before fighting him with a spoon. Could have been a reference to him having duelling experience with Count Grendel of Gracht here, but sadly it was not to be. The most egregious part is probably the Errol Flynn knob gag. The Doctor tricks Robin and knocks him into the water: I was almost expecting him to drown in the low stream Men in Tights-style and Capaldi would have to become Robin like it was The Santa Clause or something.
"And you've seen a few girls running in your time haven't you?
Usually to go fetch a policeman."
Meanwhile, some generic knights led by seasoned British comedy actor Ben Miller are shaking up a town of thatched-roof cottages and the like, in a fashion reminiscent of the 2006 BBC Robin Hood TV Series, although if you've ever seen that then you know it makes New Who look like the height of sophisticated high-brow entertainment. There probably was an episode of that where the Sheriff had robots and a spaceship that someone had 'brought back for him from the Holy Land' or something equally fatuous. It certainly had holograms, what was virtually powered armour, near-clockwork devices and a host of other equally moronic anachronisms. Ben Miller abducts a lady and murders an old man in cold blood so that we know he's the bad guy. Back in the forest, Capaldi wanders around being even more of a dick in an effort to prove that the Merry Men aren't real. He also gets a horrendously ableist line, asking them if they're "all simple" because they laugh so much. Pretty thoughtless insertion from Gatiss there. The Doctor suggests as reasons for the apparent existence of Robin Hood and his gang the sci-fi cliché of a theme park as well as a pointless Old Who 'Carnival of Monsters' reference to a miniscope, which instantly evokes the previous week's episode. The Merry Men explain the usual deal: they help out because the "tyrant" Prince John is bleeding the people dry while Richard is away fighting the Third Crusade. Does anyone ever point out in anything that by participating in the Third Crusade Richard was probably just as bad as John was? The Doctor observes that the climate is too pleasant for the time of year, to which Clara facetiously suggests climate change, which the Doctor of course dismisses because "it's 1190." I'm reading way too much into this, but this is potentially another politicised remark in the episode if you consider our current political culture where climate change is genuinely perceived by some ideological groups as some sort of communist conspiracy theory. Robin's conversation with Clara is kind of nice, and he's actually far more endearing so far in this episode than Capaldi's Doctor, who's just wandering around complaining about the "banter" of Robin and his Merry Men and scanning things with the sonic screwdriver like a Matt Smith era nightmare. He actually feels like something of a bit player in his own show. He asks Clara "When did you start believing in impossible heroes?" which of course continues one of our themes.
Only £29.99 in a four-pack with bonus Ben Miller action figure.
Next we're off to Bodiam Castle for an archery contest where Robin intends to stick one, community-morale-wise, to the Sheriff. The two of them end up facing off, despite the fact that neither of them look like they've ever used a bow before: are the strings drawn back far enough? The Doctor interrupts requesting enlightenment from the Sheriff, and apparently this is the best way to do it. Gatiss' biggest cop out arrives, however, when the Doctor simply waves the sonic screwdriver and this causes the archery target to explode. It's a rubbish way of moving the plot along which places way too much focus on this gadget. All is revealed, however, as the Sheriff's guards' helmets slide open to reveal robot faces with crosses on their foreheads that shoot purple lasers, and they start running amok shooting at everyone. It's a pretty weak excuse to give the episode a bit of additional action. In the second pointless Classic reference of the day Capaldi busts out a Pertwee-esque "hai!" Venusian aikido chop to disarm Robin, with Gatiss feeling the need to spell out what he's doing to the audience: "Quickest way to find out everybody's plans - get yourself captured." Subtlety has never exactly been New Who's strong point, but this is a pretty fearsome example even still. I think it derives from the New Who writers' fear that their glossy new version of the show will be associated with a stereotype of emotionally-repressed twentieth century science fiction fans if anything is ever less than completely obvious. We cut to a bunch of extras slaving away in some yellow-lit dungeons that feel like something out of every RTD era episode set more than about three hundred years ago: Tennant wouldn't be out of place here, probably sweating and jutting out his lower teeth. One of the robots kills a tired old man with his head laser, and we cut away and cut back to see his quivering form replaced with a pile of ash. I'm surprised a pair of smoking boots wasn't left behind.
I was going to make a fart joke, but Gatiss
already exceeded anything I could muster.
Elsewhere in the Castle, Robin, the Doctor and Clara have been manacled up good and proper. This is probably the worst scene in the episode, as Gatiss drags out a completely pointless scene featuring nothing but Robin and the Doctor playing the "who's got the biggest cock" competition. It's a dreadful scene for Peter Capaldi which feels totally out of place with his performance in the previous two episodes, and even Robin is suddenly far more petty than he was a few scenes ago. It's a cliché scene of pure farce with the Doctor almost completely out of character, evocative of Tennant at his most poorly written. Why would he be so competitive with Robin? He's always been relatively cold in the previous episodes, why would this bother him? There are also loads of remarks about his age which aren't exactly necessary, and a lame reference from Clara to his being "Last of the Time Lords." It makes this scene feel like pure RTD from the light entertainment shit grinder. The Doctor has no plan to escape without the sonic screwdriver - again too much focus is placed upon it - and Clara predictably gets taken away to see the Sheriff as the apparent "leader" of the gang because she's the only one not acting like a moron. In the forest, Gatiss realises he has no way of doing plot exposition given the narrative cul de sac into which he's written his characters, so the Merry Men muse upon the Sheriff's need of gold and we see the robots forging gold circuitry in giant moulds. It's awfully similar to what happened in 'The Fires of Pompeii,' which of course also featured Peter Capaldi.
"Hold me."
Ben Miller has a cliché dining room scene with Clara, where again too much emphasis is placed upon the sonic screwdriver. Some have compared his performance here to Anthony Ainley's Master, especially in 'The King's Demons,' and I must admit that he does a decent enough turn as the generic villain of the piece. Heaping cliché upon cliché, in the dungeons Robin and the Doctor bust out the old "sick prisoner" routine, and the Doctor gets to look like even more of a dick as he claims that Robin's deathly afraid and pettily opines that Robin's "soiled himself." Not all of these clichés can be intentional. After the guard is knocked out, I smile guiltily when Robin incredulously exclaims "Soiled myself!?!" and the Doctor retorts "Did you? That's getting into character." They of course lose the key while dicking around. Get them out of this cell! Prison cells are where serialised fiction goes to die! Ben Miller starts getting a bit sleazy, but Clara keeps a pretty cool head. I guess she's been in tighter spots than this, like the time she was in all those horrific Series 7 episodes. She convinces the Sheriff to fess up about the robots. He himself is awfully blasé about them, but Ben Miller pulls it off by playing the role completely straight. The jokes about conquering Derby and so on are not, perhaps, necessary, however, verging upon pure comedy. In the dungeon, with the door open, Robin and the Doctor just pick up the manacle block and walk out. Right, well that was difficult. The Sheriff wants Clara's side of the story, but she admits that she was lying: why bother? Why not just give him a version of her own story, keep him talking and occupied for a while? Between scenes, Robin and Capaldi conveniently manage to free themselves, Capaldi tokenistically rubbing his wrist as they emerge into a room with a suspicious door.
Oh my giddy aunt.
On the other side is a spaceship set with a navigation computer aiming for 'The Promised Land' in a rehash of the robots from 'Deep Breath.' It's obviously part of the running story, but when ascribed this motivation it becomes clear that the surrounding premise - time travelling robots trapped in the past exploiting the human populace to help them repair their ship - isn't just consistent, it's pure repetition. How does the computer have its destination as 'The Promised Land' anyway? Do they have coordinates? I assumed the Promised Land was an epithet for an unknown location. By this logic you could put in 'My Ideal Holiday Destination' or 'Your Mum's House' into the computer and expect it to know what you were talking about and take you there. Capaldi decides that the radiation from the ship's engine is keeping the climate warm, and that the Sheriff and Robin are puppets the robots are using to establish a 'narrative' for the peasants to keep them docile. He flicks through some records of Robin Hood, glancing upon an image of Patrick Troughton playing the character of Robin. Does that mean Patrick Troughton exists in the Doctor Who universe? I guess the Second Doctor already had one identical double, Salamander. Why not two? Seeking Robin and the Doctor, the robots smash down the door of their own ship for no good reason and start shooting at but conveniently missing Robin, who grabs Clara and escapes. Why does Clara pass out, and get carried off by Robin? Makes her look like the weak one. Capaldi gets thrown in the dungeon after Ben Miller reveals his plan to take over England, which the Doctor claims will fail because the damaged ship will simply act as a "gigantic bomb." Could he really expect this twelfth century Englishman to know what a bomb is?
"Shoot your purple laser all over my gold plates you big robot."
Anyway, Capaldi meets the lady who got captured at the beginning of the episode, and they spontaneously manage to set up a rushed, generic Tennant-style battle where all the slaves are suddenly free and equipped with perfectly reflective gold plates that cause the robots to all blow themselves up. That's New Who for you: when in doubt, blow the bad guys up. The pacing has completely collapsed, events that would presumably take some time suddenly happening virtually instantly. Why did they have to spend so much time arseing around in that stupid dungeon scene? I can imagine Gatiss furiously typing away, realising he's only got ten pages left with which to wrap up the story. There's an unnecessary comedy scene with the Sheriff where he complains about "this turbulent Doctor," a horrifically cliché reference to the killing of Thomas Becket, before confronting him. The Doctor claims that Robin is part of the robot's plan, the "opiate of the masses" to keep them docile. So he's outright quoting Marx here, establishing further the political content of this episode. Both sides dismiss the theory as stupid, however, which completely kills anything vaguely interesting about the scenario. It's not that stupid. Robin reveals himself, and claims that "This legend does not come alone." Instead of the Merry Men all dropping in, however, it's just Clara, who we would have expected to be there anyway. Wasn't Robin interrogating her? Must have gone pretty bloody well. Robin has a big sword fight with the Sheriff, who reveals that he's a cyborg: "half man, half engine." Part of the set up for the finale, I think, although a scene showing him putting his head back on was cut as a matter of current taste. Clearly they needed a more elegant way of showing he was a cyborg in any sense, although in this instance it actually makes the scene far more subtle. Robin ultimately uses the Doctor's trick from earlier to dump him into a vat of molten metal like the Terminator.
Goldfinger did it more efficiently.
Everyone rather expediently escapes outside and to the other side of the moat before the robot ship takes off, but it doesn't have enough power and is going to blow up. It needs a boost, so they take the golden arrow prize from earlier and fire it at the ship where, chiefest of absurdities, the mere act of the arrow striking the side of the ship gives it enough power to make orbit. This is lazy writing at its finest, Gatiss either lacking the budget or the means to even show the robots catching or absorbing the arrow and adding its material to their circuitry. Nope, it's just a golden arrow somehow causing a rocket to fly. It's Tennant shoving the phone into the phone-shaped hole all over again, but probably lazier. This really does feel like an especially crap RTD episode, albeit in my opinion less offensive. The ship makes orbit and, like everything in New Who, simply blows up. I guess this is a theme - if your means of getting to the Promised Land involves exploiting and killing people, maybe you don't really deserve to get there. At least in this case it's not stated. Back at the TARDIS, Clara tells Robin to keep his chin and slash or pecker up and so on, and he muses to the Doctor that he'll be only a legend in the future, finding the situation agreeable. Somehow, he's completely believed Clara's story about the Doctor, laser-head robots apparently being enough to not only convince him of the existence of Time Lords from Gallifrey but also capable of rationalising such a concept even though it would have been completely incompatible with medieval religious culture and cosmology. Robin applies his own story to the Doctor, arguing that it's true of him as well that "a man born into wealth and privilege should find the plight of the oppressed and weak too much to bear," arguing that it's not just true of him becoming Robin Hood but also the Doctor leaving his home planet. That's not really the case though, is it? He's always been presented as having left through a combination of boredom, frustration and a desire for self-exile, and at the beginning the First Doctor seemingly couldn't give a shit about the 'plight of the oppressed and weak' until he'd mellowed out a bit in the company of Ian and Barbara, so that's not exactly very convincing. It seems like an effort to explain the Doctor as a figure of political opposition to the Establishment rather than how I feel like he's usually portrayed as someone who's actually outside conventional systems of politics and authority. The Doctor claims that Clara shouldn't have told Robin any of this, but he himself told Robin the instant he met him that his box was a TARDIS. He also claims that he's not a hero, but Robin argues that "perhaps others will be heroes in our name." This arguably concludes the episode's other theme, about the power of fictional characters to inspire us to do good: "I'm just as real as you are," which is to say not real. There's a really clunky "Goodbye Robin Hood, Earl of Locksley," farewell and we're done, with the last moment being virtually a complete objectification of our only other female character in the episode, Marion, who is basically left as a "present" to Robin from the Doctor.
"Let us never speak of this again."
'Robot of Sherwood,' then. Is it any good? Not really. It's let down by very bad pacing and a pointless and irritating characterisation of the Doctor, who's needlessly unpleasant and petty for much of the episode. The episode's protestation of the value of "old fashioned heroes" also forces Clara into the very 'damsel in distress' role that the Doctor mocks at the beginning, not really allowing her to do anything but give emotional support to the male protagonists and weasel some information out of the Sheriff that never amounts to anything. Ben Miller, like so much of New Who's guest cast, is wasted in a virtually throwaway role that doesn't allow him to really establish his character, and the robots are just so many arbitrary New Who goons who need a human spokesman because the writers are terrified that their audience, whom they contemptuously perceive as complete morons, will turn off in droves if so much as a character without a human face is given a major speaking role. It's lightweight comedy fluff but with a more serious or at least more thematic edge, but the two are fatally imbalanced from moment to moment, especially as a result of the awful dungeon scene with Robin and the Doctor. Robin himself is probably one of the best parts of the episode. I could almost see a story like this working back in the very early days of Doctor Who, with Hartnell and his companions having adventures in the forest and incredulously encountering fictional characters, but here the Doctor's just too unpleasant and the scenario's too limited and too consistent with the typical New Who routine for it to work. There are a few ideas that could be brought out, but they just aren't sufficiently allowed to with all the typical New Who time wasting, particularly due to the consistent lack of sub-plots. Plenty of people online who can't handle criticism of New Who think this episode should just be treated as meaningless comedy, but it actually isn't just meaningless comedy, and its failure to fully balance its halves lets it down. Even if it was pure comedy, you'd be better off watching Men in Tights again.