Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Flesh was weak …

Ok. I gave in.
I downloaded the 2011 (half) season of Doctor Who from iTunes and I watched it.   (And may I say how much I dislike that Doctor Who has picked up on this modern invention of half seasons?  It’s bad enough where there are 23 episodes so at least a half season would give you 12 episodes.  But where you only have a 13 episode season, the whole concept seems absurd. Or particularly exploitative of the audience.   But I digress.)

spoilers ahead

Let’s talk about the cliffhanger(s) first.  I already knew that River was Amy’s baby because I picked it up from the television critic blogs I subscribe to.  Usually they are careful about not screaming out spoilers and they give a big warning so I can just skip over those parts and end up surprised. But it was the last episode of the (half) season and  that ending blew so many people away that they ended up shouting it from the rooftops.  So I knew the secret but I didn’t know how the secret would be revealed.

I have to say that I was very surprised that it was the adult River who revealed the secret.  Didn’t that break her spoiler rule? As the episode wound down to only minutes remaining,  I expected that the audience would find out the secret but that the other characters would have to find out on their own.  It seemed like cheating to have adult River show up and tell them.  Having her show up to lecture the Doctor was in character, but telling the secret seemed out of character to me. And it doesn’t make it less cheating to bring them over to the cradle to have them read the name.  They could have wandered over to the cradle and read the name for themselves. Amy had the little embroidered cloth for a long time without really looking at it.  She could have just looked at it at some moment.  And wasn’t it uncomfortable for everyone to have to talk to the adult child? Although comforting, I suppose, to find out that the child survived.  Lots of questions raised by that ending.  But despite these execution flaws, it was a great cliffhanger and it certainly sets up the second half quite nicely.

I’m not sure I’d classify it as a game changer though.  Maybe it will be but it isn’t clear to me yet that it is.

But the cliffhanger of the penultimate episode was a complete and total surprise for me and pretty much a gamechanger for the season.  Throughout the series I was prepared to find out that Rory wasn’t real.  After all, he was plastic man at the end of the last series and he admits in this series that he can remember those 2000 years. And all season he kept dying but not dying.  I was even prepared to find out that an alternate Amy in an alternate universe was pregnant (probably because I already knew the whole River secret so I kept wondering when Amy would finally be pregnant.  Not to mention the positive/negatives the TARDIS scans kept showing.)  I was even prepared to find out that the whole season was a dream (I was going to be angry about that but I was prepared for it).  But that the Amy we were seeing for the entire season (or almost the entire season) wasn’t “real” never crossed my mind.  So that was a fantastic ending that had me jumping out of my seat.

Then there is the cliffhanger from the first half hour of the series, where the Doctor is killed in the middle of his regeneration.   Ok, I didn’t see that coming.  It was well done – the way it was scripted, filmed, edited.  It was really well done.  But  I also didn’t and don’t believe it.  And of course I don’t think I’m supposed to believe it. After all, it's not like the BBC would let them kill the franchise.  And they didn’t lock the franchise into having Matt Smith as the Doctor for the next 200 years. Stephen Moffat is very creative but even he is stuck with a format that requires real actors to play the Doctor and, as we well know, real actors do leave the series from time to time. What he might have done was make it possible for Matt Smith to make guest appearances for the next 200 years. I immediately found myself wishing they had done this with David Tennant.  But then I rejected that idea. The Doctor is supposed to be gone once he is gone.

Truthfully, in the immediate aftermath I was sort of annoyed by the whole death thing because I saw it as a trick.  I assumed, as the characters did, that they needed to go back in time and change things so that the Doctor didn’t die.  But that isn’t how things are supposed to work on Doctor Who.   So it couldn’t be anything as simple as that. And yet, that’s what we were all thinking.

But of course we now have the idea that there can be a Flesh Doctor out there to solve the mystery in some way.  Yes, even though it appeared that he melted.  But the Doctor told him he might survive in some way and, after all, if he really is the same as the Doctor maybe he can regenerate.  But only regenerate into a Doctor who looks like Matt Smith?

Here’s my prediction (and I’m notoriously bad at predictions). All of this, in some way, will lead to a clarification about the number of regenerations the Doctor can go through. I think the mythology says that there can be only 12 regenerations, hence only 13 Doctors. We’re already at Eleven. They need to fix that in some creative way. I’m hoping that somehow this will lead into the creative way.  I have no idea how.

As far as the overall value of the season so far, I don’t like to evaluate seasons until they are complete. After all, this is a half season, so it is only a set up for the second half.  Things could and probably will change dramatically in the next half.

Here’s where I am so far, intellectually and emotionally.  Frustrated. But I would be less frustrated if I knew there was a new episode coming up next week and I wasn’t being manipulated by network shenanigans  into waiting for the end of the same season.

Why the frustration?

It’s far too much to expect Moffat to rise to the level of 2010 every year and so I’m trying not to.  As far as plot goes, this plot is much more intricate and refined than 2010 was (but the Silence better come back and explain the end of 2010 at some point).  In 2011, though, the writing is far more uneven. It is, in fact, more like a regular season of Doctor Who.  I was glued to my chair for every episode of 2010 but this season I find myself getting up and doing things while it is on in the background.  I did that pre-2010 also so this isn’t a huge criticism.  I’m just saying that he knocked it out of the park and was the batting champion in 2010 and now he’s back to being just a great .333 hitter.

Granted, some of what I was frustrated with may have been intentional.  Well, it probably was intentional.  I thought that the beginning of the second episode, Day of the Moon,  was sloppy because it didn’t explain how River and Rory escaped the Silence (couldn’t the Silence have just exploded them?) or how the little girl got away.  Or, for that matter, how the Doctor and Amy and Canton got away from the Silence and weren’t exploded at the end. Or how the Doctor and River and Amy remembered the Silence to explain it to Canton and hatch their plan

And when did Amy get switched?  At the end of episode One she tells the Doctor she is pregnant but at the beginning of episode Two Amy says that she’s not pregnant.    In the last episode the Doctor says she must have been switched “before America” but of course the Doctor lies.  And why did the Silence want the Doctor to know that Amy is pregnant?  I assume that’s the thing she was supposed to tell him.  But he isn’t supposed to know something – that he dies?  Or maybe he is supposed to know that he dies.  But not that she’s pregnant?  Or not something else?  In the end she both tells him she’s pregnant and that he dies.

There were a lot of things about the Silence that were never exploited.  So even though they seemed to have disappeared at the end of episode 2, I feel certain they will come back. After all, one of them was around in 1969 when the Doctor died.  I think the whole idea that ideas can be planted in people’s minds while they look at the Silence might be more important than the actual idea to kill them on sight that was planted during the Moon Landing.

I also thought that Day of the Moon was a little over the top with the orphanage scene.  I mean, why on earth would Canton and Amy have even gone into that building?  Have they never seen a horror movie?  When a building has “GET OUT” written (in blood?) on the walls, well …  you know what to do.  Get Out!!!  I did love that a British series thinks that a 19th century building like that would exist in Florida outside a theme park.

Although the two-part story of the Flesh was incredibly important for the overall development of the story, I found the writing for it somewhat pedestrian and very much horror movie of the week.  And although the Doctor kept saying we should give the Flesh a chance, Jennifer did become a monster. But I was pretty surprised when the Doctor melted the Flesh Amy at the end of the episode.  After all, he kept saying the Flesh deserved a chance.  So why melt her?  I know he said he had to break the connection but …  it just seemed like he would have given some thought about how to preserve Flesh Amy as well as real Amy.

The pirate episode was well filmed (very Pirates of the Caribbean in feel) but again seemed like typical episode of the week fare and at times I found my mind wandering. I admit that by the end of the series I was starting to get tired of Rory almost dying every episode but they more than paid that back with the Flesh Amy reveal.  The Pirate episode also showed how very real Flesh Amy was in her emotions.  But maybe it explains why she stopped CPR and gave up.  I expected the Doctor to have to pull Amy off of Rory’s cold dead body to stop her.  One highlight of the pirate episode was seeing Hugh Bonneville as the captain.  I always enjoy him no matter what role he plays.  But here’s a question,  if the other ship lived in a parallel universe, how did they get into OUR universe for the Battle of Demon’s Run?

I liked the concept of Neil Gaiman’s episode about the TARDIS being a woman, but even it sort of dragged toward the beginning. But then the story picked up when the plot line became clear. I liked the TARDIS as woman, even if she looked like she was Helena Bonham Carter’s poorer sister. I’m sorry she won’t talk anymore. And again, the emotions of Amy over the supposed death (again) of Rory, combined with the Pirate episode of the previous week, was good cover for Amy not really being Amy.

Of course, the whole episode was worth Amy accusing the Doctor:  “You want to be forgiven” and his response “ Don’t we all?”   Also her statement about him being a Time Lord:  “It’s just what he’s called; it doesn’t actually mean he knows what he’s doing,”  LOL!

And, while it wasn’t completely out of character for the Doctor to suggest, after the two part premiere, that they go on an adventure instead of finding the little girl, I thought it was odd that nobody brought up even the hint of the idea of finding the little girl ever again.  Maybe Amy being Flesh Amy was the explanation for her forgetfulness but what about Rory and the Doctor?  (But how totally Stephen Moffat is that? To put a little girl in danger and leave that situation hanging out through the series.  His use of children in Doctor Who is wonderful.)

But that leads me to the biggest problem of the series for me so far, which has been this gnawing feeling that Moffat has changed the Doctor in some essential way.  And part of it has to do with River.  Back when Ten met River he didn’t automatically like her or trust her.  And that was understandable even beyond the shock of meeting someone from his future.  Here was a woman who was using the same type of blaster that the Ninth Doctor chastised Captain Jack Harkness for even possessing.  The Ninth Doctor didn’t automatically like or trust Captain Jack either.  Jack had to become a hero and prove himself.  Well, River gave her life for the Tenth Doctor so I guess she proved herself.

But going through holes in the walls opened by blasters is a far cry from the Doctor standing outside the TARDIS with River and saying that “unlike me she really doesn’t mind shooting people” and admitting that should bother him but doesn’t.  Huh?  Of course it should bother him.  He’s the Doctor.  It was a great scene for Alex Kingston but it seemed completely out of character for the Doctor.

Seeing her blast the Silence into oblivion was a great scene – but in Doctor Who?.  Did Stephen Moffat get his Rivers mixed up and bring us River Tam in Firefly, built to be a weapon?  Killing a few people in the blink of an eye?  But, of course, we find out in the last episode that River Song is meant to be a weapon too.  And that is what was wrong about that scene.  That the Doctor is not the least bit upset that she is weaponized? Shouldn’t he be just a tiny bit upset by her prowess with the gun? Even if he left before she began the real shooting spree,  shouldn’t he have been upset by the beginning of the spree?  And being the Doctor, wouldn’t he just know that she had a shooting spree?  The whole thing seemed weird to me.

And the Doctor didn’t give them the Silence a real chance.  He started to and then he stopped himself and said he wouldn’t because it wasn’t Christmas.  Huh?  The Doctor’s plan to get rid of the Silence using Neil Armstrong was far more Doctor-like.  But it still involved having the entire world use guns!  How far is this from the Tenth Doctor having Martha get everyone to just think his name to save the world?  (Oh, and what about that little moment with the Doctor flirting with River in the middle of the shoot out scene?  Really?  I don’t think so.  Not even David Tennant’s Doctor, who had women flinging themselves at him right and left, ever had a flirtation scene like that. But again I digress.)

Think about it.  From the moment the Doctor came on the screen this season, guns were there and accepted.  River shot his hat off of his head.  The Doctor himself is shot. River shot up the Silence.  The Doctor programmed all of the world to kill the Silence on sight and we see scenes of guns being drawn.  Amy pulled a gun on her own daughter twice this season (granted she didn’t know it was her daughter.)

If this is all about the Doctor setting foot in America then I wish he had stayed in the UK.

And what about the last episode?  There is no evidence that the Cybermen were involved in the plot having to do with the baby and yet the Doctor just blows up their space ships and kills hordes of them to threaten them into telling him where Amy is? Really?

Yes, I know that the Ninth Doctor threatened the Daleks when they held Rose.  But they held Rose.  From what I could tell, the Cybermen had nothing to do with Amy.  What ever happened to always giving a warning but no second chances?  What ever happened to the Fourth Doctor wondering if he had the right to exterminate the Daleks?  And how the hell could Rory walk right into the den of the Cybermen and survive?  And why, oh why, was Rory in a Roman costume again?

And what about the Doctor in the last episode calling in his debts?  Even from people who don’t want to help? Has that ever happened before?

In fact the very beginning of this season was just weird.  With the Doctor doing things to get into history books and showing up in the Laurel and Hardy movie.  What were Amy and Rory supposed to do even if he was trying to send a message?  They don’t have the ability to time travel on their own.  And it seems so out of character for him just to be causing trouble for the sake of causing trouble.

Russell T. Davies cast his Doctors with a Nine who looked like he could beat you to a pulp in a dark alley and a Ten who turned into an action hero at the drop of a hat. But they had a code that they stuck to. And Ten especially had a lot of angst attached to his ruthlessness.   The casting of Matt Smith seemed to be a return to a more traditional Doctor. And I liked that. He’s a bumbling professor type. He’s eccentric. He thinks bow ties and a fez are cool. He’s a very comfortable Doctor. He’s a doctor that children could be comfortable around immediately. Which doesn’t make him any less the Doctor than it made the old-time Doctors the Doctor.

I get that Stephen Moffat wants to deconstruct Nine and Ten and the Russell Davies era of Doctors.  He is removing any aspect of the action hero.  This Doctor is not going to be jumping out of spaceships and crashing through glass ceilings onto marble floors below (how did Ten survive that?)  And I approve. Although I miss some of those action hero aspects.

Moffat may be trying to take the Doctor back toward his roots and, if so, making the Doctor come to grips with how much he has changed since the Time War is one path back.  But even the action hero doctors didn’t act like Moffat has Matt Smith acting this series.  They didn’t cheer when fighters were overhead taking out “the enemy”.  It seems like the Doctor has degenerated since his regeneration.  Moffat has, in some ways, made him worse than Nine or Ten in ways I find hard to believe.

I spent a part of 2010 wondering what David Tennant would have done with Stephen Moffat’s scripts, but the 2011 scripts are completely tailored to Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor.   I can’t imagine Ten in these 2011 scripts.  This is not to say I can’t see DT playing them.  Of course he could, he’s a great actor.  But having the Tenth incarnation of the Doctor in the scripts would change everything because he was a fully formed character.  You need a new version of the Doctor to play these scripts.  You can convince yourself that you don’t fully know his character and I suppose you can doubt yourself when you wonder if the Doctor would really do these things.

The one thing that Matt Smith really brings to the role is a real sense of disbelief that he could ever be seen as anything but a power for good.  No matter how he has used his power, the Doctor has always been sure of his belief that he uses it on the side of right.  Even when he does terrible things.  The Doctor comes in at the last moment and saves the day.  The Doctor is who everyone looks to when the day needs saving. And last season he found out that all of his traditional enemies blamed him for the rift in the Universe and this season he finds out that his use of all this power, unchecked, has resulted in the Universe being terrified of him.  That a nice young girl thinks of him only as a great warrior. It really seems to shock him.

Perhaps this isn’t just the season that the Doctor visits America.  Perhaps this is the season that Stephen Moffat uses the Doctor as a metaphor for America in the 21st century.

Or not.

Anyway, on the whole I’m liking the season but I wish they hadn’t split it up and I’m somewhat worried that Moffat is going to let the changes to the Doctor get out of hand.

A few odds and ends:
  • It is interesting that when I first saw the Flesh I thought “Oh, this is a way to get the older River out of the computer.”  But then the Flesh were portrayed as dangerous and I wasn’t so sure.  Some of them became fully human, but others turned into monsters (literally).  The Doctor made a big deal about Amy being prejudiced and yet then he destroyed Flesh Amy without a qualm.  So maybe it isn’t such a good idea to put River’s consciousness into the Flesh.

  • Was the Doctor who died at the beginning the regeneration of the Flesh Doctor? But Amy asked if it was a clone or a duplicate and  old Canton said it was most certainly the Doctor (although how could he know?).  Maybe technically a regenerated Flesh Doctor is the real Doctor?  I wondered where the TARDIS was in that scene and why was the Doctor was driving a station wagon.  And if he was the Flesh how did he have a matching TARDIS blue diary to compare with River? Unless she never realized there were two Doctors (if there are two Doctors).   Rory even said something like that to her at the Prison, joking about there being two Doctors. 

  • I loved River this season.  Aside from the scene where she spills the beans, I thought she was perfectly written.  I don’t think she and Matt Smith have good chemistry though.  She and David Tennant sizzled together.  She and Matt Smith seem cute together but I don’t really see the possibility of attraction (and I loved that he gave her the code name Mrs. Robinson).  But if they are really going to introduce the character of River as a child, Matt Smith will be perfect.  I can’t imagine a better Doctor for a child to meet. Certainly not from among the new era of Doctors.  Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant could do it, but they were really much more adult versions of the Doctor.  Matt Smith could easily be a kid’s Doctor.  It was very cute when he spoke “Baby”.   

  • Who were all those allies that the Doctor recruited in the final episode?  The Victorian lesbian Silurian who solves crimes.  Have we seen her before?   The Sontaran who was forced to act as nurse.  Have we seen him before?  We’ve seen the fat guy before – with River. But never with the Doctor. For that matter, who was the army arrayed against the Doctor?  Who are the headless monks?  Even the forest people are new.  Have we seen any of them before?   Part of me wondered if we were in alternate universe world and this was our clue. 

  • If River is the little girl, why doesn’t she remember the whole space suit episode? 

  • Underground tunnels in Florida?  Get real. They can’t even have basements there. 

  • I’m thinking that the Good Man that River kills will be her own father, Rory.  When Rory goes to the prison he has to tell River who he is.  So she hasn’t seen him in a good long while.  Maybe doesn’t even remember him.  (I wonder how far ahead in the story Alex Kingston has been briefed.)

So that’s it.  Many months for us to speculate.

Oh, and one more thing.  I wonder what the significance of 1969 is for Stephen Moffat.  That’s the year that he sent the Tenth Doctor and Martha back to during one of his earlier episodes, Blink.   But I’m pretty sure they were in London and not America, so it is unlikely they will run into the Eleventh Doctor.  Although maybe they do and maybe that’s  what rips the Universe apart.