Monday, September 15, 2014

Dr. Who series 8 (Deep Breath, Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, Listen)

(WARNING: story lines and plot twists in Season 8 episodes discussed in detail)

Don't look now

but Steven Moffat seems to be regaining some of the creative juices he lost since his memorable start as head writer of the Fifth Series of Dr. Who.

Take Deep Breath: perhaps not as funny, but a darker, less frenetic season premiere than that first effort. Peter Capaldi as the Doctor babbles, but it's closer to the babble of a madman (a paranoid schizophrenic?) than ever before--Tennant mostly came off as a gregarious blabbermouth and Smith like an easily distracted child; Eccleston was a swaggeringly arrogant jerk, despite which he's my favorite from the new series. So far.

Reinforcing the 'madman' concept is the Doctor's tendency to see things from the strangest perspectives ("Who invented this room?" "Doctor, please, you have to lie down." "Doesn't make any sense--look, it's only got a bed there. Why is there only a bed in it?" "Because it's a bedroom."). Moffat is constantly trying to explore or redefine the meaning behind this or that detail in the Whovian mythology,* in this case the new series' tendency to use younger and younger actors (Madame Vestra on the Doctor: "I wear a veil as he wore a face. For the same reason." "For what reason?" "For the oldest reason there is for anything: to be accepted.").   

*Something he also does, to varying degrees of success, with Sherlock Holmes, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Speaking of veils, Smith's Doctor wore the face of a young man, through which cracks peek the visage of an older being. It's the opposite with Capaldi's Doctor: the face of an old man through which peeks the eyes of a younger, more immature, perhaps more helpless child.

Arguably the most unsettling--and here you see Moffat's eagerness to shake things up--aspect of this Doctor is his bleaker, more calculating sensibility: he will pause for a moment to consider abandoning his companion (Jenna Colman as Clara Oswald) behind but only for a moment: if logic (or his idea of it) dictates, he will leave. Clara's panic seems genuine, not to mention unprecedented (can't recall it happening ever, at least in the new series, and never to her); it's enough to cause one to lose faith in the Time Lord completely. The Doctor does respond when Clara reaches her hand out blindly backwards in a late gesture of faith, but the absolute trust (of Clara, of the audience) in the Doctor has been broken; wonder if Moffat will make more of this in future episodes

Interesting that the mechanisms collecting body parts in this episode are somehow related to the equally acquisitive clockwork robots in The Girl in the Fireplace; Moffat seems to like machines or situations trapped in faulty programs or circumstances--seems to mirror his fascination with human lives locked or trapped in timey-wimey loops or currents (see my thoughts on River Song).  

Love the steampunk sensibility, from the clockwork opening credits (inspired by a fan video) to automatons in Victorian upper-class garb. The future often seems less and less interesting from a production point of view nowadays--the hero either runs down a featureless metal corridors or featureless plastic corridors (take your pick). At least with steampunk you can hope for wood paneling and brass fittings, not to mention the occasional hissing gas lamp.

Love that despite the Doctor's more calculating nature there is an attempt to endorse him, bottle-cap prying brows and all, to Clara's care, and who else to speak up on his behalf than the previous, much-beloved Doctor? Moffat's default tone seems to be smart-alecky wit than anything else, but he's also skilled at the small poignant moment (think of Officer Billy Shipton and his much-delayed date); Moffat's moment here (thanks in no small part to Matt Smith) seems sharper than it has been for some time. 

Moffat shares writing credits with Phil Ford for Into the Dalek. Premise is simple: the Doctor goes all Fantastic Voyage on us, is miniaturized and then inserted into a dying 'good' Dalek in an attempt to save it. Yes, I know; yet another Dalek story--but I submit Moffat introduced new chills in an earlier attempt ("Eggs eggs eggs eggs") and does so again here, this time operating on a microphage level, allowing us insights into the complex relationship between a Dalek and its computer-mediated armor, and--as with the earlier episode--again trying for a radical redefinition, this time of a classic Who villain. 

Doesn't seem like a big deal, but think about it: an insane Dalek fights out of love or a sense of wonder; a sane Dalek fights the way it always fights, out of hate. It can fight for bad or (in this episode) for good, for or against its fellow mutants, but there can only be one  ruling desire: the utter destruction of whatever has been targeted. I'll admit Daleks have been around too long and too often to be frightening anymore, have been reduced to being a popular Halloween costume. Perhaps the most Moffat's idea can do is induce a brief pause, where you consider what he's saying; if you allow the point to drive home, though, that pause can be followed by a delicious little shiver (hate serving good or hate serving evil is still hate). That the Dalek chooses to fight his own people due to the Doctor's own hate--that's the tragic little fillip that adds piquancy to Moffat's concept.

Call Robot of Sherwood a palate cleanser, Mark Gatiss' attempt at silliness. Uncharacteristic--the titles of Gatiss' episodes usually announce his intentions (The Unquiet Dead; Night Terrors; The Crimson Horror), comedy not usually one of them. That said, being threatened by the charisma and relentless cheer of Sherwood's merriest bandit seems exactly what the Doctor needs, and he rises to the occasion with  inspired petulance, crotchety-old-man style. The plot doesn't make sense (why would alien robots want so much gold? Why are the robots themselves so slow and altogether lame?), but the banter between the Doctor and his equally legendary rival (even if the Doctor himself doesn't approve) is a lovely little change of tone, a brief evocation if you like of Matt Smith's early days

Like it that the Doctor, meeting a living legend, tries to cast the situation in "is he or isn't he real?" terms, and Gatiss' story concludes with a third possibility: that the relationship between legends and the people who inspire them isn't necessarily linear, much less logical. Interesting point, for an ostensibly lightweight episode.  

If The Eleventh Hour is Moffat's elaboration on The Girl in the Fireplace and Deep Breath its implied sequel (the clockwork Victorians in Deep being cousin to the clockwork Frenchmen in Girl), call Listen Moffat's attempt to do another Blink.  

Plenty of chilling moments--the chalk rolling across the floor, the figure under the bedspread, the knocking on the ship's hull--without matching Blink's intensely ratcheted suspense (for that you need a brilliant plot developed cleanly and clearly, the tension prioritized over ambiguity and atmosphere). Not all of the thrills are even original--the knocking I submit is Moffat's shout-out to Midnight, one of Russell T. Davies' best scripts. 

In one sense the episode is even more stripped-down than Midnight: instead of a handful of characters it bears down on three; instead of an unseen villain it basically has none. The mind in danger hasn't been taken over so much as traumatized--the damage was there all the time.

But Listen seems more than all that--more than just another scare episode along the lines of Midnight or Blink. It ranges from the end of the universe to the Doctor's childhood; it skips from Clara's bedroom to a London restaurant to a crashed ship to a Gallifreyan barn. It careens through wildly different emotional tones, taking time along the way to sketch out the outlines of Clara and Dan's budding (if rocky) romance.

Listen doesn't have the sharp poignance of Billy Shipton's story, or the wrenching loss of Madame de Pompadour's, but there is I submit something moving here in a broader, even deeper, way. The episode takes Moffat's tendency to tinker with the meaning of bits and pieces and raises the stakes considerably: Deep Breath tried to redefine the significance of the Doctor's younger incarnations, Into the Dalek a Dalek's relentlessness, Robot of Sherwood the relationship between a man and his developing legend. Listen seems to want to redefine nothing less than the Doctor's deepest motives: what makes him seek out companionship all the time (humans in general, females in particular); what makes him want to help others; what makes him run--maybe even what made him steal a TARDIS in the first place, flee into the vast reaches of space and time. Easily the best episode of the season so far, and possibly Moffat's finest script in some time. 

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