Tag: TV drama

Doctor Who Review: Extremis

This review contains spoilers.

I was very prepared to hate Extremis: it’s Steven Moffat’s second writerly outing this series, after the sickeningly self-congratulatory The Pilot.

I was pleasantly surprised, however.

Its initial, slightly Dan Brown-ish premise sees the Pope approaching the still-blinded Doctor to ask him to read the Veritas: an ancient text in the Vatican’s library that has made everyone who has read it kill themselves. What Terrible Secret does it contain?

Interspersed with this ecclesiastical foray is another story, of a kind of which Moffat is regrettably fond: a story from the Doctor’s past. It reveals that the inhabitant of the vault the Doctor’s been guarding all series is Missy (to the surprise of precisely no-one); that he was once supposed to execute her, for reasons, and didn’t because his dead wife River Song told him not to; that he has to guard her for a thousand years, nevertheless, because he made a vow.

It’s not a great episode, but it does actually work surprisingly well. The secret – the “truth” – that the Veritas contains, it turns out, is that the world of the episode is a computer simulation set up by a mysterious alien race so they can study humankind’s defences and invade the Earth (for reasons which I assume will become clear over the next couple of weeks). This is old, old ground that runs the risk of becoming ridiculous; but Moffat eschews Matrix-style reality-bending in favour of subtle wrongnesses that are much more effective. An arm that pixelates into nothingness. Explosives packed under tables in a canteen. A room full of people all choosing the same random number. And faced with these wrongnesses, the creeping panic that Bill feels on learning the truth feels appropriate and well-grounded; the mass suicide of the CERN scientists who’ve read the Veritas seems like the only rational response, an act of resistance designed to stop the aliens learning about humankind’s capabilities.

The episode’s weak link is really the Missy plot thread, which is just not the kind of story Doctor Who is designed to tell. Against the bleak horror of the Veritas story, the various histrionics of the Doctor, Missy, the executioner and Nardole (who enters the scene to speak for River Song) are overwritten and trite. And the Missy we get here, facing her death weeping and kneeling, is unrecognisable as the Master who refused to regenerate in Last of the Time Lords in order to spite the Doctor.

Ultimately, Extremis doesn’t really feel like it’s doing much work: it makes some play with the idea that

Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward

with the idea, presumably, that this is what the scientists are doing when they blow themselves up, what the simulated Doctor is doing when he emails what he knows to the real Doctor, knowing that the simulation will be terminated at this point and he will die. But the episode is much more interested in setting the next episode up, in establishing the capital-p Plot and capital-t Themes for the rest of the season, than in exploring its rather disturbing premise. This is a shame, on the whole, as it makes for a bitty and slightly incoherent episode – though I’m also not sure how “we are all living in a computer simulation” would have worked as a standalone.

In summary, Extremis isn’t going to be remembered as a great Doctor Who episode; but I don’t think it will be remembered as a terrible one either. Next week: who the hell knows?

Top Ten Books for Firefly Fans

  1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. It’s been noted across the internet that this book is pretty much Firefly with aliens. It’s an episodic amble across the galaxy, complete with crew tensions, individual character arcs, space pirate invasions and dodgy cargo. There’s even a bubbly lady engineer.
  2. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. Consider Phlebas is a lot chillier than Firefly, but it wears the same kind of pessimism about the universe. It centres on a mercenary ship, the Clear Air Turbulence, whose crew feels like Serenity‘s without the rose-tinted goggles: a group of ruthless pirates without loyalty, love or hearts of gold, who kill without a moment’s thought.
  3. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy is all about doing what you can in your small corner of space, which is very much a thematic core of Firefly‘s. Its universe also feels as culturally immersive as Firefly‘s does, and it’s about resisting a totalitarian government.
  4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This may seem like a weird pick: it’s not SFF at all, but an epistolary novel about how the people of Guernsey survived the Second World War. But, like Firefly, it celebrates the power of community to resist and overcome evil.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delany. Another space-pirate story, this one’s about the importance of the ordinary and the powerless.
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams. It’s set in space! I’m not sure why I feel like this should be on this list. It’s got Firefly‘s lightness of touch, its irreverence for authority.
  7. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. Although it’s a Regency military AU with dragons, I think Temeraire has something of Firefly‘s emotional heart, as its hero Laurence carves out a space for empathy in his rigidly defined social world.
  8. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. This is a steampunky story about a far-future world in which cities eat each other to survive. It’s got Firefly‘s beaten-up, lived-in aesthetic, and its deep, cynical distrust for capitalism.
  9. Railsea – China Mieville. Railsea‘s characters are, like the crew of Serenity, nomadic: the novel’s set on a train that hunts moles through the desert of capitalism. It’s about radicalism and salvage and storytelling, all concerns of Firefly‘s.
  10. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. This is about a travelling theatre wandering through an America devastated by superflu. It’s nowhere near as depressing as it sounds: again, it’s about carving a community in circumstances that seem hostile.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Doctor Who Review: Knock Knock

This episode contains spoilers.

Ah, well. I suppose three good episodes in a row was too much to hope for.

Knock Knock is the requisite Scary Episode of this season. It starts off very scary indeed (well, bearing in mind that I used to get freaked out by the Daleks) and goes downhill quite rapidly.

So. Bill and five friends-of-friends are searching for a student house to rent and having abysmally little luck when a mysterious stranger played by David Suchet approaches them and offers to rent out his mansion for an absurdly low price – provided they don’t go into the tower.

Pro tip, student househunters: never, ever rent a room off a mysterious stranger you just met. Particularly one played by David Suchet.

Against all common sense, the gang sign the Landlord’s contract and move in. But why do the floorboards creak so in the empty corridors? What’s the noise like tiny footsteps that one of the housemates keeps hearing above his head? Why does the tree outside sway in the non-existent wind? And what about Pavel, the housemate who’s not been seen for a day?

These are profound questions, well asked. The paranoia and claustrophobia build up in the house until it’s nearly unbearable, and the differing reactions of the housemates – some passing it off as a prank, some genuinely terrified – are a nice touch. (Actually, Knock Knock has overtones of the spin-off series Class, thanks to its diverse ensemble cast, each with an actual character to play rather than what feel like inherently supporting roles.)

And then – the tension breaks as doors slam and shutters seal themselves and the walls knock, knock, knock. The housemates are trapped.

But they are, at least, trapped with the Doctor, who’s been helping to move Bill’s stuff in and has refused to leave since then. The Doctor quickly gets to the heart of the action and solves the mystery, and Everything is Made Better by Love. Overacted love.

Doctor Who has two problems with horror stories. The first is that 45 minutes is really too little time to build up enough tension to make it scary while also having a decent payoff for that tension. It is possible to strike the right balance, as Blink proved, but it’s difficult.

The second is that the writers always try and make the payoff emotionally meaningful, usually in a way that is entirely, painfully unsubtle. Again, it is possible to have an effective, meaningful payoff, but, again, it’s difficult, especially on a show still nominally aimed at twelve-year-olds.

In this case, the episode is trying to be about parenthood. Specifically, it turns out, the Landlord has been keeping his mother alive by feeding people to the alien woodlice which infest the house. Only he’s told her, for…reasons, I guess? that she’s his daughter, and that as her father he knows best.

That’s the battleground of Knock Knock: who knows best. When the Landlord’s mother discovers the truth, she also discovers that she can control the woodlice. That would be an interesting device, if it was established as a point of worldbuilding: that the lice respond specifically to motherhood, or something like that. But it isn’t. Apparently motherhood just gives her a natural authority – which she uses, effectively, to commit suicide and kill her son along the way.

Mother knows best!

And there are troubling overtones of parenthood in the relationship between Bill and the Doctor, too. Embarrassed by his presence – an embarrassment which I read as Bill fearing her new housemates might think she was sleeping with him – Bill pretends that the Doctor is her grandfather. She repeatedly tries to get him to leave the house in a way that makes it clear that she’s trying to set some boundaries:

This is the bit of my life that you’re not in.

Look at the way the episode frames Bill’s boundary-setting. We know, of course, that there’s something badly wrong with the house, and that the best chance for Bill and her friends is if the Doctor sticks around. So, not only does the Doctor refuse to leave; we as viewers are forced into recognising that he’s right not to leave, because, after all, grandfather knows best!

Except the Doctor isn’t Bill’s grandfather. And Bill is an adult woman. What this episode is doing is trampling all over her agency, undermining all the work the series has done to establish her as smart and independent and progressive. Being the Doctor’s companion, being under his protection, apparently makes it OK for him to infantilise her in a way that the narrative structure of the episode validates and supports.

This, by the way, is pretty similar to the Doctor’s relationship with Clara.

Knock Knock wants to be a moving exploration of the power of parenthood. In fact, what it is is a look at two very fucked up parenthood models. That’s the core problem of Moffat-era Doctor Who for me (note: this episode was not actually written by Stephen Moffat): it tries to make us believe in, and root for, relationships which are not just flawed but actually, dangerously rotten to the core. It doesn’t know what healthy relationships look like. That’s why its more emotion-driven plots don’t work.

Next time, zombies in space. Really?

Doctor Who Review: Thin Ice

This review contains spoilers.

Two not-bad episodes of Doctor Who in a row? Good lord.

Thin Ice, written by Sarah Dollard, sees the Doctor and Bill arriving in London, 1814, by accident. (They’d been aiming for London, 2017, so I guess by the standards of these things they weren’t too far out.) It’s the year of the last Frost Fair, when the Thames froze solid enough that markets could be held on the ice. Bill is delighted and charmed by her visit to Olde Englande, until she isn’t: the Doctor and Bill spot green lights under the ice, surrounding unwary wanderers and dragging them down into the depths. Investigating, they find themselves digging into the underbelly of Regency England, the racism and the poverty and the oppression. Why is there a massive sea-creature chained at the bottom of the river? What are the dredging-yards doing? Why are the upper classes such dicks?

There are some great observations about oppression here: the series is obviously continuing its theme of multicultural understanding and tolerance. Bill remarks that 1814 is considerably less white than she expected (which, kudos to the production team, who have obviously worked to put multiple people of colour into actual important speaking roles, rather than just the token extra); the Doctor replies, “History is a whitewash.”

Huzzah! I honestly never expected to hear Twelve saying that.

And when Bill is angry and upset about a child being eaten by the creature under the ice, the Doctor explains to her that outrage is a luxury; that if she doesn’t pull herself together more people will die. It’s a smart choice, by the way, to have Bill and the Doctor in middle-class period costume, while most of those they interact with are working-class or lower; it makes for an interesting discussion of privilege, highlighting the sharp distinction between Bill’s relatively luxurious 21st-century lifestyle and the street urchins’ desperate, hand-to-mouth 19th-century existence.

Like Smile, though, I think some of the good, well-intentioned representational stuff in Thin Ice has some unintentional connotations. Specifically, I feel like Thin Ice‘s implicit comparison between 19th-century and 21st-century mores strays into self-congratulatory territory. Let’s not forget, after all, that we might expect Bill to know something about the luxury of outrage already, being both working-class (how much does that canteen job pay, anyway?) and a person of colour herself – as the episode points out. And it’s a shame that the only person who is outwardly racist is the villain of the piece, utterly uninterested in anything except capitalist progress, and so utterly irredeemable: it perpetuates the lie that only really evil people are racists, that a few powerful villains made the slave trade (which Thin Ice references both explicitly – Bill raises it with the Doctor, concerned that Regency England may not be safe for her – and symbolically, through the chained sea-creature) possible; when in fact the very opposite is true. Where’s the casual racism of Regency England, the beliefs so widespread that they were uttered entirely without conscious malice, as self-evident truths?

At the end of the episode, Bill is asked (as seemingly all the Doctor’s companions are at some point) to make a choice: whether or not to set the sea-creature free. On the one hand, it is clearly not a very happy sea-creature, and it is eating people. On the other hand, if it goes free it might eat some more people. “If your future is based on the suffering of that creature,” says the Doctor in his infinite wisdom, “what’s that future worth?” This is an excellent point, but sort of elides the fact that our future is still based on the suffering of others, because that’s what capitalism means. The system is founded on it; but Thin Ice suggests that solving capitalist greed is easy, as simple as freeing the chained slave and destroying the venture capitalist. Look at how ludicrously one-sided Bill’s dilemma is: there’s never any serious suggestion that letting the creature go will endanger London, whereas keeping it in chains is definitely Evil. (Compare this situation to the similar one in The Beast Below, when everyone thought that letting the space-whale go would cause the break-up of the ship and kill millions of people. That’s a better metaphor for the relationship between capitalist greed and Western society.)

And what about the Doctor’s speech to the capitalist villain keeping the creature chained up: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry; it’s measured by the value you place on a life”? To me, it seems that the Doctor is making an implicit comparison between the backward, oppressive values of the Industrial Revolution and our more enlightened times: we value everyone equally now! Isn’t that nice?

Except we don’t. People still die in crowded factories in China and India, working twelve hours a day to bring the West iPhones and fast fashion. Children still sift through toxic waste to find the minerals for Western touchscreens. Disability and chronic illness still plunge people into poverty in England. We haven’t solved racism, sexism, oppression; it’s important to remember that.

While I’m enjoying the social conscience that Doctor Who seems to be re-developing, I’d like to see episodes that reference colonialism and oppression actually dig a bit more into the implications of those metaphors, within the constraints of the format. It’s a show where literally anything could happen; so if we’re finally getting away from the white male patriarchy it developed during the last season, it would be good to see something properly radical come out of it.

Doctor Who Review: Smile

This review contains spoilers.

This is not going to be a Moffat-rant. Surprisingly enough, I actually didn’t hate Smile; partly, I suspect, because it wasn’t actually written by Stephen Moffat (it springs from the pen of Frank Cottrell-Boyce), but mostly because it feels very much like Davies-era Who. Bill and the Doctor rock up in the future, on the first colony of Earth, Erehwon. The Doctor rhapsodises about the optimism that built this shining white city, the garden-of-Eden promise of a brand-new planet; but where are all the people?

After some investigation, it turns out that the skeleton crew who were to prepare the city in advance of the colonists’ arrival have been turned into fertiliser by the Vardies, the robots built to keep the humans happy. The Vardies communicate through emojis, hence the episode’s title; they’ve killed the humans because they identified grief as the enemy of happiness and decided to eradicate it. Which is a bit of a bummer for all concerned.

And now, the real colonists are waking up from their long cryo-sleep, ready to walk into a city that will kill them.

So, as I said, it’s a pretty standard findy-outy episode, recycling old Who tropes – sinister robots who just want to help, a utopian dream gone horribly wrong, an inexplicably deserted city – and combining them with some convincing extrapolation (the multi-purpose nano-robots are orders of magnitude more plausible than anything that usually makes its way into Doctor Who) to make a plot that actually makes a surprising amount of sense and doesn’t rely on The World Being Saved By Love. The ending, which has the Doctor realising that the Vardies are now a sentient species, resetting their memories so they don’t remember the colonists so won’t try to kill them, and negotiating peace between the two factions, feels similarly like classic Who: a balance between the moral imperative of pacifism and the Doctor’s particular brand of gung-ho problem-solving.

I do have some Thoughts on the episode, though, which I think are more about inherent biases than the rampant misogyny that characterises some of Steven Moffat’s episodes. See, the premise of Smile, and in particular its ending, is that the Vardies aren’t evil; they’re just different (much like the puddle of oil in The Pilot). In other words, it’s a story about competing cultures, about profound cultural difference and how that can manifest.

This is a laudable project, of course: stories in which genuine difference is celebrated, or at least presented as something we can live with, are rare in SF novels, let alone genre television. I just think it’s rather muddily executed.

In particular, Smile specifically refers tp the culture clash involved in colonialism: the Doctor refers to the Vardies as the “indigenous species”, with the humans as colonists. And there’s an interesting little reflection, perhaps, on the idea that difference is socially constructed as the Vardies’ cultural difference was literally constructed, built into them, by humans. But that particular metaphorical construction becomes problematic in conjunction with the Doctor’s mind-wipe of the Vardies – and only the Vardies – at the end of the episode. Sure, the Vardies get to earn rent from their human creators, seemingly reversing the dynamics of colonialist exploitation. But this seeming reversal is only achieved by a much more problematic forcible erasure of the Vardies’ racial memory.

Sure, the Vardies won’t kill any more humans. But the humans have reason to kill the Vardies too, yet they get to keep the memory of their grudge. If the Doctor can talk the humans out of genocide, why can’t he do the same for the Vardies? Or, if mind-wipe is necessary, why can’t he mind-wipe the humans, too? Or, why does the story have to end with the humans living in the Vardies’ city?

And there’s the rub. The episode can’t, or won’t, get away from the fact that the Vardies were built by humans. Despite the Doctor’s protestations to the contrary, the narrative refuses to budge from the idea that the city belongs to the humans, and not to the sentient Vardies. It’s split, awkwardly, between superficially declaiming a post-colonialist happy ending and structurally re-enacting colonialist atrocity.

This split is performed, it seems to me, by an interesting little bit of self-inconsistency at the level of the plot. If the Vardies aren’t evil, only different – if they think they’re doing good by murdering people – why do they use an obviously evil emoji? The writer wants us to see cultural difference; the story, which has so much more inertia, tells us to see evil. There’s a salutary lesson about unconscious bias in there.

Next week, the Frost Fair on the Thames! I’m looking forward to it.

Doctor Who Review: The Pilot

Y’know, every year I manage to forget how tedious Capaldi’s Doctor is.

Happily, every year Steven Moffat is here to remind us.

The Pilot, the first episode of the new series, introduces us to the Doctor’s new companion Bill, an intelligent, sassy woman working in a university canteen. For unknown but probably boring and stupid reasons, the Doctor is undercover as a lecturer at the university. He spots Bill illicitly attending his lectures, and plucks her from intellectual obscurity to become his protegee.

Bill is, also, the first openly gay Doctor Who companion (depending on whether you count Jack Harkness as a proper companion). Which is wonderful, not only because it means that her entire character won’t be based around her flirting with him. Only, well, her entire first episode is based around her sexuality.

See, the monster of the week is a puddle of spaceship engine oil that shapeshifts to be whatever it needs to be. It possesses a young woman at the university, Heather, who (quite poignantly) can only think of getting away from wherever she happens to be at any one time – so she unwittingly, uniwllingly becomes the titular pilot. Heather and Bill just happen to have met at a night out recently, and have a crush on each other, which is why Possessed Heather starts following Bill around and trying to possess her too…

I mean, obviously the gay love interest becomes a sad, emotionally rapacious alien, right? And obviously the very first love story about the first gay companion is a Bury Your Gays story in which Heather loses her humanity.

I mean…really, Moffat? This is how you choose to introduce the new companion?

To compound matters, Moffat seems to be setting up another storyline in which the woman is a mystery to be solved by the Doctor. And this will make up the entirety of her character arc. Why does the camera look so pointedly at the photograph of Susan Foreman on the Doctor’s desk when Bill is mentioned? Where did the Doctor get the photographs of her dead mother from? Why did the vault’s “friends only” security setting let her through? (Thanks to Den of Geek for reminding me of these questions.) Just Who Is Bill?

We went through all this with Clara, and it was tedious then. We do not need another fucking Impossible Girl. How about a female character whose history and character arc is not contingent on the Doctor?

And, oh, the Twelfth Doctor is so tedious. We’re told that his lectures are amazingly inspiring, drawing lots of people who aren’t even supposed to attend them. But the one we see isn’t really a lecture at all: it’s a bombastic monologue about the nature of time, a metaphor that doesn’t refer to anything around it. The Doctor patronises Bill. He gets her enrolled in the university, without any kind of selection process or oversight from the wider faculty. He embodies nepotistic privilege, the behind-closed-doors dealing that does no-one any favours in the long run. He tells Bill exactly what’s best for her – as if she, an adult woman, couldn’t make her own decisions. He’s manipulative and paternalistic and controlling.

Yes, to some extent this has always been the case. It’s part of the Doctor’s character to know more than anyone else in the room, and to assume that, therefore, he knows best. The difference is that Moffat seems to think his superior attitude is okay. The gaze of the camera, the companion, the audience is not ironising or critical (as it was when Rose Tyler was around, or Donna Noble, or Romana, or even Amy Pond – the role of all of whom was to question, to act as conscience for the Doctor); it’s overwhelmingly idolising. The Doctor is now the centre of the universe – and not just in his own head any more.

There are brief moments of resistance: the way Bill’s face hardens when the Doctor dismisses her catering job; her appeal to him when he’s about to wipe her mind of memories of the TARDIS. “Imagine how you’d feel if it were you.” It’s these that give me a little hope that this series things might be different – that this series, the Doctor’s companion will get to be a person instead of a mystery.

Next week, what looks to be a classic deserted-city story, with emoji robots. As ever, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Top Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I think this is actually already a TV series – I mean, I doubt there’s a single Dickens novel that isn’t – but I haven’t managed to get my hands on it. It’s almost a truism to observe that Dickens is perfect for a TV series’ episodic, sprawling structure – certainly Our Mutual Friend needs more space than a film can give it.
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I had to think about this one a bit (and it’s never going to happen in any case, the Tolkien Estate being notoriously tight-fisted with the rights), but it’s an episodic narrative with a vast cast of characters and a number of narrative strands. It would be like Game of Thrones but without all the rape.
  3. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. I cannot imagine any TV producer being brave enough to take on Perdido Street Station, with its particular brand of squicky violence and unromanticised reality, but I wish they would. The pulpy plot elements, the rambly narrative, the overbearingly Gothic-steampunk city of New Crobuzon? Yes, yes, yes.
  4. Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I don’t know why, I just think the high-speed zaniness of the graphic novels would transfer well to TV. (Maybe like Doctor Who but without all the sexism?) It makes a lot of play with different kinds of pop culture and the role they play in public dissent, too, which would be interesting to consider in a TV show.
  5. Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon. Obviously, there’s a lot in Pynchon that couldn’t be captured visually, but that’s the case with pretty much everything else on this list too. But I can see a TV version of Bleeding Edge playing out like Dirk Gently, almost.
  6. Paradise Lost – John Milton. What? Paradise Lost would look fantastic on TV, all fire and brimstone and war in Heaven, and it has some pretty compelling characters too. If you can have Shakespeare on TV, you can have Milton.
  7. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Yes! It would be like Firefly but with aliens and fewer guns.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. I just read this, and it would make a terrible film but a great TV series (though I suppose it’s quite short). You could do a lot with the city of Palimpsest itself, and intertwining that with the characters in the real world would work really well on TV.
  9. Robot Dreams – Isaac Asimov. You know what would be good? A Twilight Zone-style anthology series featuring Asimov’s short stories, which all have that kind of conceptual twist you got in Twilight Zone episodes, when it turned out the person narrating the story was dead or something. Obviously, not that tone of twist, but structurally it’s the same thing.
  10. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. All the Regency society manoeuvrings are like a soap anyway. It would just have dragons in it too.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)