Base Under Water


Review of Under the Lake
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Sometimes there's a really good reason that something becomes a trope. Take, for example, Doctor Who's well-known "base under siege" story archetype (seen most commonly in the Troughton era). While its frequent use tends to make certain elements easy for the audience to predict (unless actively subverted), the inherent tension of a situation in which a pre-determined, non-expandable set of individuals have to defend themselves against an unknown, mysterious, or seemingly unbeatable enemy can make for a gripping narrative.

Such is the case with Under the Lake. Writer Toby Whithouse (whose previous Who credits include School Reunion and three other episodes) uses the tried-and-true setup to great effect, keeping the crew both separated from outside help and in valid fear for their lives.

Upon first watch, I was so taken with the story, in fact, that I couldn't think of anything I didn't like about it. Further thought and a second viewing highlighted a few, but none were enough to dampen my general delight. I can't even express how refreshing it is to feel so unreservedly pleased with an episode.

The first of the relatively small down sides happened even before the opening credits rolled. While the Drum's crew was relatively diverse (two white women, three men of color, and one white man (who isn't technically even part of the crew)), it was still the black guy who was first to die. As a white woman myself, it took me a while to realize that sad truth, and I can't decide how much it ought to bother me.

Moran was the commanding officer, so in a way the Black Dude Dies First trope is balanced somewhat by the anti-trope of the black guy being in charge. I could also believe that it may simply be an accident of casting (they liked this actor for his reading of the few lines he had and for looming ominously as a ghost), but even if that's the case, it's unfortunate that it still fed into the trope (though at least the entire remaining cast wasn't white).


Something Familiar


Review of The Witch's Familiar
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Well, it wasn't godawful.

In fact, it may well be the best second half of a Moffat two-parter I've yet seen (though the bar isn't set very high, in my opinion). That's not to say it was anywhere near flawless, but I did find plenty to enjoy.

The episode begins by resolving the we-didn't-believe-it-anyway deaths of Missy and Clara and giving an actual explanation for the method of their escape (and Missy's in Death in Heaven). It struck me as odd that Missy would need Clara to suss out why the Doctor always survives. Does Missy already know the answer or not? If she does, why walk Clara through it just to ask the follow-up question ("What happens if the Doctor assumes he's going to die?")? The only reason to do so is to bring the audience along (which is not good storytelling).

If Missy doesn't know why the Doctor survives, then she was dead wrong when she told Clara "you're the dog" in the relationship. Despite knowing him for millennia, Missy still needs a human who's only traveled with him recently, on and off for a couple of years, to figure out the Doctor for her? Neither of those interpretations makes much sense, and the scene thus left me vaguely dissatisfied.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is being all Doctor-y, chucking Davros out of his chair and driving it around himself. Moffat, in turn, continues to address the audience indirectly through his characters. When the Doctor survives the onslaught of Dalek guns and comes out calmly sipping a cup of tea, he chides his adversaries, "Of course, the real question is, where did I get the cup of tea? Answer: I'm the Doctor. Just accept it."


Same Old Tricks


Review of The Magician's Apprentice
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

I think most fans can agree by now that, like him or not, Moffat has a pretty distinctive style. When you go into a Moffat episode, you have certain expectations. No one should be surprised, then, to discover that in the Series Nine opener, he's up to his same old tricks.

The first, and perhaps most notable, of these tricks is giving us an (at least mostly) enjoyable Part One in a two-part story. Moffat excels at set-up, giving rich scenes and hints at things to come that get our fannish hearts pumping with that lifeblood of our breed, speculation. Time will tell how it all pans out, but experience suggests that the conclusion of the tale is unlikely to live up to the promise of its beginnings.

One thing we know Moffat can do well, though, is creating creepy "monsters" (at least the first time he uses them). The opening scene on the unknown battlefield provides that in spades with the "hand mines," even though I'm still trying to decide whether I think they're more or less frightening after finally seeing one tripped. The mix of this advanced weaponry with more archaic kinds (biplanes, bow and arrow) gives us—in retrospect—visual clues to go with the spoken ones about which war it is (especially for those viewers familiar with Tom Baker's run). Yet, it's still a bombshell when the boy's identity is revealed and the opening credits roll.

When we return to the story, we follow Colony Sarff (a creature that I found blasé, but was no doubt hide-behind-the-couch-worthy for those with even a touch of ophidophobia) into the Maldovarium (a hangout that evoked the cantina from Star Wars with its eclectic clientele), the Shadow Proclamation, and the planet Karn.

Given the previous roles of both the Shadow Proclamation and Karn in recent plot arcs (Series Four and the lead-up to the Anniversary Special, respectively), I'm fully expecting one or all of them to become important by the end of the series (though not until the finale). After all, it's one of Moffat's hallmarks to seed clues that only become apparent when a series is viewed in the aggregate. Regardless, we learn that Davros is now searching, so far fruitlessly, for the Doctor. But when Colony Sarff reports its failure, Davros is unconcerned; he knows he can get to the Doctor through the Doctor's friends.


Confession #96: I'm Not Listening


With a brand new series nearly upon us, teaser trailers, images, and episode titles for Series Nine are everywhere. If one spends any time at all online, they're easy to find, and difficult-to-impossible to avoid. I'm not a complete spoiler-phobe (which is good, because I wouldn't be able to use the Internet if I were), but I do like to maintain a certain level of surprise going into a new season. It makes me feel like a stick in the mud, but with all the publicity on social media (which is where most of my Internet experience happens), I've gotten to the stage where I pretty much stick my fingers in my ears and shout, "LA LA LA!" to keep from learning things ahead of time.

I do watch trailers put out by the production team—that's part of the show, in my opinion—and there is some news that I could only miss if I were oblivious to other fans online (e.g., return or casting of certain characters/actors). For the most part, though, I ignore the hype: I don't go look at the behind-the-scenes, on-set photos that the BBC spams out; I've only watched two trailers once each (I don't even know if that's all of them or if there are more); and I have not read the titles of any of the episodes beyond the first two (which were plastered all over the prologue video), though I mistakenly glanced at a couple that I didn't scroll past fast enough in my Twitter feed. (By the way, I'd like to offer hearty thanks to the others in the FB groups of which I am a member for only linking to the list, rather than posting it outright.)

Although I recognize that there are those out there who like to skip to the last page first to find out whodunnit when they're reading a mystery, or who need to read the ending of their book after the first chapter or two to learn whether or not their favorite character survived the slaughter, I do not actually understand such people—not at a gut level. I'll to do the whole "live and let live" schtick with someone who wants to know everything possible ahead of time, but the idea that it's fun to learn every twist before even knowing the story just baffles me.


Confession #95: I Like Odd Correlations


A couple of years ago, when the fiftieth anniversary rolled around, we were marveling at the fact that Remembrance of the Daleks was as far behind us as An Unearthly Child was behind Remembrance. Now Survival, which marked the end of the original run of the series, is as separated from the present as it was from the show's beginnings (give or take a couple months). Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey indeed.

This kind of temporal comparison fascinates me (something I realized when a different pop cultural correlation occurred to me the other day: Star Wars (the third top-grossing film of all time) came out thirty-eight years ago; Gone With the Wind (all-time top-grossing film) came out thirty-eight years before Star Wars). One can come up with all sorts of interesting pairings—whatever time frame you can think of can yield a new perspective.

For example, nearly fifty-two years down the line from An Unearthly Child, the effects and staging of the episode look positively archaic. At the time, though, it was stretching the medium in new ways. And, after all, it was technological leaps and bounds beyond the cinema of fifty-two years before. In that year (1911), feature films were still a brand new phenomenon. The Italian silent film L'Inferno (The Inferno, from Dante), released in 1911, was perhaps the third or fourth feature film worldwide, and became (Wikipedia tells me) what some consider the first blockbuster.



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