Thursday, 1 August 2013

Doctor Who Series 7: Part 1 - A Fall With Grace?

The four of you who care will remember when I published a (ever-changing) list of Doctor Who ratings on this blog. My opinions on Series 7 are rather unfavourable, and they're probably one of my more controversial positions. That's right, worse than my opinion that Religion is evil, and onions are vile. As such, I would like to give a bit of background on the stories of Series 7 and I'd also like to explain what I think of each one in a way that a single number never really could. A 4 out of 10, for example, could mean an episode has a number of strong points that are dragged down, or it could mean the story was just not that good. If there's enough interest in this, I might make similar posts about the other series, but don't count on it.

Asylum of the Daleks - 4/10
"Save us, Doctor. Save the Daleks!"

The Doctor, Amy and Rory have been kidnapped by the Daleks to carry out a dangerous suicide mission in the Dalek's equivalent of a lunatic asylum. Also, the companion who's joining at Christmas is there, and she's an adorable freaking genius! Oh, and Amy and Rory are getting divorced or something. Asylum was promoted as being a bit like Die Hard... which I've never seen. If Die Hard was a convoluted mess which had too much stuff going on and failed to develop effectively on any of the ideas it presents, then yeah, they're pretty similar. 

This was a story that was supposed to make the Daleks properly scary again and - while they have their moments - they're too sidelined by Amy and Rory's pointless and unconvincing 30 minute break-up and Oswin flirting with everyone. It has some half-decent moments, like The Doctor's vicious conversation with the Dalek Prime Minister and secretly switching his shield with Amy, but this is one of those stories where I was looking at the clock 40 minutes into the episode thinking "Oh, is this it?"

If I were to describe this episode in one word, it would be 'Soulless'. The scenes with the Daleks should have been the scariest in the series, but they're a joke. The sequence with Rory trapped in a room with the Daleks is probably the best example: Any horror is spurned in favour of jokes about eggs and hackneyed slow-mo powersliding through a shutting door. The episode's emotional moments feel very empty too; Amy and Rory being on the verge of divorce should be harrowing viewing, but it isn't. The details of it are communicated in the most ham-fisted, poorly written way possible (why the hell would Amy be explaining to Rory she can't have kids? They've had this argument before, it's purely for the viewer's benefit) and the consequences of it are so overlooked, that the drama is lacking entirely.

It's worth mentioning that Asylum introduced a story arc which continues through Series 7: The Doctor erasing himself from historical records. The story ends with The Daleks asking the immortal question: "Doctor Who?" I can't say I approve. While I'm not going to judge too harshly without seeing where this plot ends up, The Daleks forgetting The Doctor just makes them look even weaker. Far from being a return to form for the Daleks, Asylum is merely a below average adventure; hence the rating of 4.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship - 3/10
"Did the Silurians beg you to stop?"

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a bit embarrassing to be associated with. The Indian Space Agency has picked up that a spaceship the size of Canada is heading straight towards the Earth. The Doctor assembles a gang from across time and space for... no readily apparent reason, and discovers the Spaceship is home to lots of Dinosaurs and a genocidal space pirate.

While it does have a few interesting twists, such as the ship belonging to the Silurians and the Engine Room of the ship being a beach, the story is hardly the most compelling in the world. In fact, that's a bit of an understatement: It's incredibly dull. It reminds me a little of the more average episodes from the Tennant era: the plot doesn't rise in tension or build to a thrilling climax, the episode just... keeps going. The resolution in particular just seems to happen; coming pretty much out of nowhere and not feeling especially clever or even like it was planned.

Because the budget wouldn't allow for the dinosaurs to be the main focus of the story, a large cast of characters is introduced: Queen Nefertiti of Egypt; the chauvinistic hunter John Riddell; Rory's father Brian; the aforementioned space pirate Solomon; and his two irritating and completely non-threatening robots. None of them have enough time devoted to them to elevate them beyond flat caricature, though David Bradley does a pretty good job of being threatening as Solomon, even if his robot imbeciles aren't up to the job.

Yeah, I don't want to talk about this story any more, it's garbage. Moderately enjoyable garbage, but garbage nonetheless.

A Town Called Mercy - 8/10
"Today, I honour the victims first. His, the Master's, the Daleks', all the people who died because of my mercy!"

A Town Called Mercy is one of my favourite episode of Season 7, and while that's a testament to the episode's quality, it's also a shame that the best is a mere 8 out of 10. The reason it's my highest rating is because it doesn't do anything wrong. It doesn't struggle to fit the plot into 45 minutes like literally every other episode in Season 7, it doesn't leave big plot holes in its wake, it doesn't butcher any of the characters, and the ending isn't painfully rushed.

The story is rather simple: Hiding in the mid-western town of Mercy is an alien doctor named Khaler Jex. He's being pursued by a ruthless cyborg only known as the Gunslinger, a man who was turned into a weapon by Jex and his team of scientists. It's the story's simplicity that allows the moral conflicts and the characters to take centre stage in a way that only one other episode in Series 7 really does. My favourite moment of the episode is where The Doctor, goaded by Jex, drags him to the edge of the town and holds a gun to his head. His emotions truly get the better of him and it's a stern reminder of how The Doctor can be a far darker character than he would like us to believe. We got a glimpse in the ending of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but it's a shame that the darker side to The Doctor wasn't a larger character arc: Matt Smith is at his best when he's all angry.

The reason the story only gets an 8 is because there isn't that much about it which is special. The story is simple, but it's also very predictable. Nothing is going to take you by surprise and it's only the character development which keep it from being a completely by-the-numbers episode. Though I am curious as to what The Doctor's plan would have been if Jex hadn't taken the climax into his own hands.

The Power of Three - 3/10
"Don't despair, Kate. Your dad never did."
This is an odd case because although it has a lower rating, I think I would sooner watch Dinosaurs on a Spaceship than The Power of Three. I wasn't expecting much from Dinosaurs and while it's crap, it's a perfectly serviceable romp. The Power of Three, however, is a disappointment. It focuses on the invasion of the very small cubes, which suddenly appear overnight and proceed to do bugger all. Puzzled, The Doctor stays with Amy and Rory and works with Kate Stewart (daughter of The Brig!) to get to the bottom of the mystery.

A story in bits...
I've given The Power of Three a 3 because there are quite a few things it does rather well. Rory's father Brian, while mostly just a bit of a nuisance, has a beautiful moment with The Doctor when he asks him about his past companions. Amy and The Doctor also have a couple of nice scenes at The Tower of London. Hell, the heart of the episode; The Doctor's relationship with Amy and Rory; is well handled. Though I intensely dislike his portrayal as a hyperactive kid: it's annoying, unnecessary and pretty demeaning to the character.

The mystery of the cubes unfolds pretty slowly. There are lots of pointless shots showing them in restaurants and The Apprentice which do little more than waste time in an already bloated episode. Slowly is fine. There's nothing wrong with a gradual story, but the problem with The Power of Three is that it ultimately doesn't contribute to very much. At the climax of the story, The Doctor finds the spaceship, waves the Sonic Screwdriver and the threat is over. That's it. The resolution of the story is to use the magic wan- er, the Screwdriver. Not something which reinforces the titular "Power of Three" that Amy even stresses at the end. Nothing even remotely clever.  

A poor ending can ruin an episode: It cheapens all the conflict that came before it by making it seem utterly pointless. The 20 minute year The Doctor spends investigating? Why bother when he can just beam up to the ship and Sonic them to death. What The Doctor is actually doing isn't very well explained either: He could have said "I'm disabling the feedback loops to force the warp engines to overheat" or something which would have lent the conclusion a bit more weight, but no. He doesn't even bother disposing of the henchman. I can't give the Power of Three anything higher than three out of ten - or even watch it - because the actual storyline isn't very good. Again, this is down to the episode not having enough time to flesh out it's ideas or have a decent ending. Are you seeing a pattern yet?

The Angels Take Manhattan - 7/10
"Together or not at all."

The finale of Series 7 Part 1 puts The Doctor up against his old foes, The Weeping Angels, in New York in a very Film Noir adventure. The Angels have taken over just about every statue in the city, and operate an organised prison for their food source. They've even managed to take over The Statue of Liberty: a famously hollow structure made of metal. Not only that, but it also manages to move halfway across New York without being seen. 

Yes: in typical Moffat style, this story is full of things which just don't quite add up. For example, The Doctor states that you can't change future once you've read it, and that is pretty integral to the plot. The problem is that The Doctor spent the majority of Series 6 doing exactly that! Then there's the excuse for the Ponds being trapped in the past: "One more paradox would rip New York apart." The TARDIS already had trouble landing there, so fair enough, but then it's revealed that River is able to go back to give Amy a book which needs to be published. Never mind the paradox, there's a massive plot hole threatening to engulf New York!

Even with the problems it has, I still enjoy The Angels Take Manhattan. It's quite a corker of a story, not stopping for breath and throwing you through plenty of loops and turns. In fact, it's probably one of Moffat's cleverer scripts; in particular, I found the idea of the Angels running a kind of 'battery farm' of people to be a stroke of genius.

With all that said, I prefer The God Complex as the Pond's great finale. A companions last episode should conclude their personal journey in some way and serve as a celebration of why they should be travelling with The Doctor in the first place, and this episode doesn't do either. The God Complex is, quite frankly, a thematic masterpiece. It (and most of Series 6) is all about Amy finally growing up into Amy Williams and moving on from her fairy tale story with The Doctor.

The reason I enjoy the story are also the reason I dislike the Pond's departure: Because the story is moving along at such a brisk pace, there isn't a great deal of time to put aside to say "look at how much you're going to miss Amy and Rory". It's just plot, plot, plot; pulling you through until the end instead of allowing you to get drawn into the characters. I also think the hope spot in the scenes at the cemetery cheapen the drama rather than making it more tragic. I would have preferred they stay dead after jumping than surviving and then getting struck off by an Angel. It just seems a tad far-fetched.

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