Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Series 7: Part 2 - The Impossibly Bland Girl

For Part One... Part Three... Part Four.... Part Five...

Like Series 6 before it, Series 7 was split into two parts. Unlike Series 6, however, the two parts of Series 7 feel far more like separate Series than a divided one. 7b introduced us to a new companion, Clara Oswald, along with a now story arc revolving around her and a generally different tone to what 7a had. Part of me thinks that 7a should have just been a series of specials spread out across 2012 to reflect the Pond’s sporadic adventures with The Doctor and 7b being the ‘proper’ Series 7, but that’s a very minor thing.

I’ll continue to talk about the Story Arc in the introduction to Part 3, but for now I’ll say that I don’t think it worked as well as it did in Series 6 because the main method of delivery is just a weekly reminder that Clara is "The impossible girl". There's very little change from episode to episode, and it hinders Clara's personal development as a companion as well as a mystery: the mystery itself is not advanced and that means we can't see more to Clara because she's treated as merely the plot rather than a person. It all falls down to the “Blockbuster of the Week” format which demanded an individual story each week, and that is the main source of Series 7’s problems.
The Snowmen - 8/10
"Tomorrow the snow shall fall and so shall mankind."

It's Christmas 1892, The Doctor has retired following the loss of Amy and Rory. Madame Vastra and Jenny are assisting him in his isolation, but they do not approve of it. As Snowmen begin to spring up around London searching for a frozen body, it's up to young barmaid and governess Clara to bring The Doctor back and foil the evil plot before the Earth is taken over by Dr Simeon and his army of ice.

Like A Town Called Mercy, The Snowmen has a good rating because it doesn't get a lot wrong. As far as the single story goes, it probably has the fewest plot holes of any Moffat-penned stories in a long time. While a few things like Clara choosing 'Pond' as the single word come off as a little contrived, they don't serve to be a detriment to the plot. One criticism is less against the episode itself and more against the arc: Because this episode follows directly from The Angels Take Manhattan, The Doctor's retirement lasts a grand total of 35 minutes, and it's pretty pathetic.  The other weakness is that the main villains - Dr Simeon and the titular Snowmen - aren't given nearly enough time to serve as an adequate threat.

Following from Asylum of the Daleks, The Snowmen reintroduces Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald and does a cracking job of it too. Even when she doesn't have total control over The Daleks, Clara is still full of guile and it is endearing to watch her try and take charge in The Doctor's absence. Even when he returns, Clara is still keeping up where other companions would merely follow. This is a very important,  because as an audience we have to totally buy into her if she is to convincingly coax The Doctor out of his apathy. 

Unfortunately, Moffat decides to throw her off a cloud. This leaves Modern Era Clara to take up the mantle of companion in the next story, and I think that was a mistake. First of all, how many times has River Song jumped out of an airlock or off a skyscraper and The Doctor has saved her? It's not even hand waved as to why he doesn't. Second, we haven't had a long term companion who's not from contemporary Britain yet. Finally, Victorian Clara is a far more compelling character than the version we're introduced to in the following episode. Indeed, the fact that we know the next Clara is coming kinda cheapens her death here. Victorian Clara was originally to be the main companion, but was discarded in favour of Modern Clara as it was thought they could do "more weird stuff" with her. Well...

The Bells of Saint John - 6/10
“Yes! It's a spaceship! Yes! It's bigger on the inside. No! I don't have time to talk about it."

… They did nothing interesting with her. Clara’s third introduction, this time as a proper full-time companion, is relatively underwhelming. Unlike in The Snowmen, Clara doesn't really do anything in The Bells of Saint John other than get captured. It’s almost like we’re expected to like Modern!Clara because we liked her Victorian counterpart, but it’s difficult to do that when she displays none of the same fierce independence or wit. In fact, Clara doesn't show much of a personality at all apart from “feisty”. After my hopes were built up in the Christmas Special, I was disappointed with the companion we were handed in this story.

Okay, that (admittedly rather big) problem aside, The Bells of Saint John is a fast-paced and highly satisfactory opening episode, but it all feels like it’s over before it began. From Cumbria in the 1200s, to an airplane taking a nosedive towards Clara’s house, to storming up the Shard on an antigrav motorbike to awesome music, The Bells of Saint John never stops for breath, and it makes it slightly difficult to fully enjoy everything that happens. I also suspect it’s another reason why it’s difficult to like Clara: We never get the chance! Though while they last, the moments certainly are impressive.

The frantic pace also leads to the main threat being a bit underused. The big threat of the story is that people are being controlled by their Wi Fi, some of them even being killed and getting uploaded to a cloud of souls. The evil Miss Kizlet is in charge of this scheme, and using the Spoonhead base stations, she can ‘hack’ people to do what she wants. Unfortunately we’re only given a very limited taste of what she can do, which is a shame because control through Wi Fi has such great potential as an idea. Also, Celia Imrie is too wonderful to be given so little screen time!

There’s also a notable recycling of old plot devices in here. I’ve seen one comment that it feel like a “best of” rehash of Moffat’s previous stories than a new episode. I wouldn't quite go that far, but there are certainly elements of Blink, Sherlock and Silence in the Library, among others. With that said, I didn't find it to be to the detriment of the episode as there are enough new concepts to balance it.

What you’re left with is an episode where lots of stuff happens and you’re left wondering exactly what did happen. It has its fair share of clever moments like way The Doctor motivates Miss Kizlet and uses all of her own assets to restore Clara, but do yourself a favour and just watch those scenes in isolation.

Also, who was the woman in the shop who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number?

The Rings Of Akhaten - 8/10
“Can you hear them singing?”

Okay, I lied before: this is my real favourite of Series 7. I also think it’s the strongest ‘Companion’s first trip’ story the revival has had. The Doctor takes Clara to see “something awesome”: The Festival of Offerings. The young Queen of Years must sing to appease the Old God and keep his asleep. She’s dead scared, so it’s down to Clara to cheer her on and encourage her to go through with it. She does and, naturally, the Old God wakes up. It all goes downhill from there! 

I can give nothing but praise to Neil Cross for bringing so many fresh ideas to the table with the world of Akhaten. I believe it to be the first time I've been properly convinced that we were looking at an alien world and not just a piece of CGI. The customs, history, rituals and culture – even if not all of it makes it into the broadcast episode – are very well thought out. I love the key idea that everyone pays with memories and sentiment; it’s unique and it works perfectly with the Festival of Offerings and how the Old God is ultimately defeated.

So unlike A Town Called Mercy, Akhaten certainly can't be accused of playing it safe. In fact, the story is special in the sense that it doesn't even have one for the first 15 minutes or so: It's simply showing Clara the wonders of the universe, a side of travelling often hinted at but rarely shown fully. But what keeps Akhaten from scoring any higher is that the middle of story isn't as strong as it should be. Merry (The Queen of Years) is taken during the Festival to be served as a feast to Grandfather, a mummy-like creature. The Doctor and Clara chase after her, and they’re attacked by the Vigil, who are servants of Grandfather. The Doctor then proceeds to whip out his Magic Wan– er, Sonic Screwdriver, and engages in a wizards duel with The Vigil. At the same time, Grandfather is waking up and bashing on his glass cage. Merry uses one of her songs to open a secret door to escape, but Grandfather has broken out. He screeches, waking the Old God (we were previously led to believe Grandfather WAS the Old God), and then the Vigil just vanish. 

The whole sequence is horrifically rushed and confusing. It took me a rewatch to fully understand what was going on, and even then I didn’t totally get some of the semantic details. I probably still don’t! The frustrating (albeit somewhat redeeming) thing about it is that there is quite a good underlying explanation for everything that goes on. Even the Magic Wand is well-justified in its use, as something that is established about the world of Akhaten is that many things such as doors are acoustically locked, and the Vigil do appear to use sound waves to attack, so it makes sense The Doctor should be able to use the Sonic as a defence. It’s just never explicitly explained. This is especially frustrating, since the first 3-5 minutes of the episode is spent watching The Doctor act like a bit of a time-stalker by watching Clara's life since her parents first met. It does play into the story eventually, but it still feels disjointed and would feel more at home as a prequel. In fact, there are many elements of the story which ought to be rearranged: it's just a bit slapdash in terms of editing.

Fortunately the episode picks up dramatically after this. With the Old God awake and demanding to be fed, The Doctor offers up his vast memories and experiences as a banquet as he delivers what will hopefully go down as one of his most famous speeches of all time. Meanwhile, Merry stands alone in defiance of the God she has served all her life, singing to (somehow) help The Doctor. Finally, it’s Clara’s offering of “the most important leaf in human history” representing all the possibilities her deceased mother may have had that fills up and destroys the Old God. It’s a very triumphant and uplifting set of scenes and I watch it whenever I need a bit of a pick-me-up. A perfect ending to a great episode.

Cold War - 2/10

Cold War sucks. Everyone was looking forward to it because it was supposed to be the triumphant return of the Ice Warriors and – while I’m not the kind to buy into hype – what we got was a poor imitation of Robert Shearman’s Dalek. Like Dalek, we’re faced with a lone villain from the classic series as they lead a massacre, believing themselves to be abandoned by their species.

Unlike the lone Dalek, however, Skaldak presents a level of threat roughly on a par with Team Rocket from Pokémon. Aside from climbing out of his armour and looking a bit like a lizard slug, we don’t get a clear vision of what an Ice Warrior can do. Indeed, there seems to be very little justification for this episode to be about an Ice Warrior other than purely for the sake of bringing them back. It’s supposed to be tense for Skaldak to be sneaking through the submarine and picking off the crew one by one, but it’s too predictable to draw you in.

Speaking of predictability, this episode suffers from something I had by this point begun to expect from Series 7: Deus Ex Machina endings and contrived plot elements. Near the beginning of the story, The Doctor very inconveniently loses the TARDIS – which would have been useful on a sinking sub - due to a displacement system he just happened to have installed off-screen and only ever uses in this story. He also loses the Sonic Screwdriver. 
“Yes!” I thought: “The Doctor might finally have to Macgyver his way through something!”
But no. A side character finds it by the time he would actually need it for anything, because god forbid Mark Gatiss should think of something remotely clever to solve a problem.

“How does The Doctor defeat the Ice Warrior menace?” I hear no one asking. Well… He kind of doesn’t. The Doctor and Clara have a bit of a chat with Skaldak and then the Ice Warrior comes to collect Skaldak and brings the Submarine to the surface. Sound anticlimactic? It is. So, so much. I would have had a more satisfying conclusion by merely changing the channel half way through.

I’m tempted to give it a fat zero, but where it is done well, the claustrophobic tension is pretty effective. I’m speaking, of course, about the scene where Clara is alone with the Ice Warrior, in another scene basically ripped wholesale from Dalek. The moment where she discovers that Skaldak is out of his suit is truly startling the first time. Though even this – a scene which should show Clara’s independence and capability as a character – is ruined somewhat by her being directed by The Doctor. What is it with you, Mark Gatiss? Why do you always give me hope then take it away?

Hide - 3/10
“We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.”

Hide sucks too. The Doctor pays a visit to Caliburn House to meet Emma Grayling: An empath who may be able to work something out about Clara. Before he can get to that, they have to solve the mystery of the Witch of the Well. Encountering every horror cliché in the book along the way (most of which have no bearing on the episode and are lacking explanation), everything eventually gets all Sci-Fi and timey wimey.

I’m giving it a higher score than Cold War because the script actually has some interesting themes and conceits. As much as ‘Phantom of the Hex’ sounds cool, ‘Hide’ is an incredibly appropriate name. It’s all about the characters hiding secrets, hiding feelings, keeping their motives hidden. It also plays pretty well on ideas of fear and love in a nuanced and thoughtful way. But this alone does not make Hide a good episode.

Hide suffers from a woefully uneven tone. The first 15 minutes or so plays the story dead straight as a creepy mystery. These scenes on their own are ruined by The Doctor acting like a complete buffoon, doing his best to destroy any tension and eeriness. The episode then spends a few minutes taking us on a tour of Earth history. These scenes really stick out from the rest of the story for all the wrong reasons. Aside from a poignant moment of the end, the sequence is incredibly silly; if Matt Smith didn't already, then the time travel definitely destroys any mood the episode built up. By the time the story returns to scary; this time with a bit of sci-fi thrown in; it’s impossible to take it seriously. The ‘horror’ is as gripping as a hagfish in olive oil.


There is also the classic Series 7 problem of trying to do too much and not going into anything to a satisfying depth. Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling have many hints of depth to them, but that’s all they are left at: hints. Time traveler Hila Tacorien has no development at all despite seeming like a very important figure. Ghostly goings on such as the cold snap and the “Help me” written on the wall are left totally unexplained. While we’re on the unexplained, the TARDIS would supposedly be dead if it spent any longer than 10 seconds in the pocket dimension. Guess how long it stays! That's right, damn sure longer than 10 seconds.

The last minute (quite literally) twist that The Crooked Man (the monster of the story) is merely trying to find his mate comes out of absolutely nowhere, and it's pretty sickening in its sweetness to boot. If he had any before, any threat to The Crooked Man is completely lost on a rewatch. This all comes back down to an uneven tone: Hide just can't seem to decide what it wants to be, and ultimately fails at being anything.

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