Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Series 7: Part 3 - Nightmare in Something

Urgh... The rest of main Series 7 never gets as bad as Hide or Cold War were, but they do represent a drop in quality the rest of the series never fully recovers from.

I've spoken (and will continue to speak!) about "Series 7 Syndrome" - That the episodes in the series suffer from trying to take on too many concepts, characters, and set pieces by failing to develop upon any of them effectively. Well there's another - relatively minor - issue I have with most of the episodes in 7 Part 2 in particular. In Series 5 and especially 6, the Eleventh Doctor often either has some kind of long-term plan (e.g: Day of the Moon, The Doctor's Wife) or is otherwise constantly adapting and playing a long game of Xanatos Speed Chess. In Series 7, we seem to have regressed back to a problem I have with many stories from David Tennant's era, where we mostly seem to be just going through the motions and stumbling on a solution, or in some cases neither The Doctor nor his companions do anything and the situation just seems to tie itself up. It's a minor issue compared to some others, but I find it makes the stories feel less clever and less rewarding to watch. But onto the episodes!

Journey to the Center of the TARDIS - 6/10
"Don't get into a spaceship with a madman. Didn't anyone ever teach you that?"

While it certainly wins the award for longest title, Journey to the Center of the TARDIS isn't going to win any 'best episode ever' awards any time soon. In a refreshing change of pace from the previous two episodes, however, it's not absolute garbage. The Van Baalen brothers are salvagers who set their sights on the TARDIS, and for a hastily added reason, the blue box's shields are down. The TARDIS has been badly damaged in the crash, and Clara is trapped somewhere inside. The Doctor recruits the Van Baalens to conduct a rescue operation, but many dangers are lurking in the corridors.

Now there's a lot of clever stuff here: The main plot is a great concept; I like "the machine that makes machines" addition to the TARDIS mythos (and the music); I love the confrontation The Doctor has with Clara towards the end of the episode regarding her mystery; the Time Zombies stalking the halls are the creepiest villains in Series 7 (not saying much) and have a brilliantly twisted origin; and this episode must have the most well foreshadowed and justified example of a reset button ending EVER in the form of a "Big, friendly button".

But there are several layers where the episode fails to deliver. The Van Baalen brothers are one-dimensional in characterization, suffer from wooden acting, and don't do much other than give The Doctor someone to talk to. While I try not to buy into hype, I couldn't help but be disappointed at how little of the TARDIS we actually got to see; the only room which was done justice was the Library, the rest - such as the swimming pool, drawing room, etc. - are relegated to fleeting glimpses, if not entirely absent. Instead of just more scenes in corridors and catching an occasional glimpse, I would have liked to see The Doctor and co. at least going through a couple of rooms rather than endless trudging through corridors. In fact, this is the one time this series I will criticize the directing: I don't know much about the technical side of lighting and camera shots, but I found the direction bland and unimpressive, particularly when compared to the dynamically-shot Bells of Saint John or The Name of The Doctor.

With that said, the episode is perfectly enjoyable if not enjoyably perfect. But I enjoy a rewatch now and then.

The Crimson Horror - 5/10
"I'm the Doctor, you're nuts, and I'm going to stop you"

Back to Victorian England, where Madame Vastra and friends are investigating a spate of deaths caused by the "Crimson Horror": a mysterious condition which turns victims into statue-like corpses with blood red skin. They infiltrate Mrs Gillyflower's community of Sweetville, finding The Doctor and uncovering Gillyflower's bonkers plan to fill the sky with poison. 

To be honest, I don't know what else to say about this episode. It's... alright. Not much from it jumps out as being especially good or bad. It's certainly a different (and by different, I mean "basically pantomime") kind of story, but it just doesn't do that much for me. Mrs Gillyflower is a deliciously evil villain to watch - I mean who else could scream "Die! Die! DIE!" without it being completely awful - but this is one of those episodes where everything just seems to fall into place too quickly and easily. I will mention two things though:
1 - I like how it's perfectly possible to shield yourself from a launching rocket by just turning away slightly.
2 - The eponymous piece on the soundtrack - "The Crimson Horror" has been a sleeper hit for me: Very atmospheric, but also catchy.

Nightmare in Silver - 4/10
"Hail to you, the Doctor! Savior of the Cybermen!"

I want to like this episode. I really, really do. The Doctor takes Clara and her wards to Hedgewick's World: The biggest amusement park in the universe. Naturally he's taken them long after it has been abandoned. The only inhabitants now are an irritating and largely pointless army platoon sent to the world as a punishment. Oh, and an impresario unwittingly holding the seeds for the rebirth of the Cybermen. The Doctor sticks around, causing said rebirth when the idiot children are kidnapped.

Now contrary to the popular opinion, I actually like the new Cybermen. Here they were reimagined as a constantly upgrading menace who use their opponents as spare parts and respond to a new threat with a simple software patch. This an idea I feel should always have been a part of the Cybermen - it feel like an approach that sits well with their concept and it allows the threat they pose to remain fresh. Though here they are, quite frankly, overpowered. They are also lacking the twisted, repressed humanity that made them so chilling in The Age of Steel.

The rest is underwhelming. The plot is best described as flimsy, and can be separated into two main strands: The actual Cyberiad invasion - which isn't actually too bad -and The Doctor battling a cyber-conversion via a chess match with his Cyber Planner alter-ego: Mr Clever. I hated the Mr Clever subplot. It was all very abstract and once the novelty of Matt Smith acting to himself wore off, the sequence lacked any engagement or substance. The only thing about it which I liked was the clever resolution - "Just taking advantage of the local resources!"

Then we get to the children... Oh good grief, the children. Angie in particular is insufferably rude and annoying. It's disappointing because Neil Gaiman has regularly demonstrated he can write children brilliantly (Coraline), so to create the most annoying kids to have ever graced Doctor Who is an achievement. Clara actually gets quite a bit to do as she leads the resistance against the Cyberiad. Unfortunately this still doesn't do much for her development: she still feels like "generic companion" rather than Clara Oswald, and her leadership and confidence isn't consistent enough to be worth investing in. There are some pretty tense scenes of the team attempting to subdue the Cybermen, and they really are great, but there just isn't enough of them.

I understand even Neil Gaiman himself was disappointed with how many elements of this story had to be excised due to lack of time or budget, and I agree with that. Overall, this is the episode which I feel suffers from "Series 7 Syndrome" the most. It is too busy and everything that could have made it really good is lost: tension building, action sequences, character development, elaboration of certain plot points. None of it is really there, and it is truly a shame.

The Name of The Doctor - ?/10
"The man who lies will lie no more, when this man lies at Trenzalore."

Dat poster... If you were to ask me when the story came out;or for the majority of 2013 actually; I would have given it around a 4 out of 10. I didn't like it much at all. Now I'm starting to appreciate it more for what it is rather than - perhaps - what I hoped it was going to be, but I still can't decide exactly where it lies on my list.

"The Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave, and it is discovered."
"He wasn't talking about my secret. He was talking about my grave. Trenzalore is where I'm buried."
So that's the plot of this episode, and frankly it's pretty clever. The Great Intelligence (as opposed to a villain that has been more effectively set up as The Doctor's arch nemesis...) has found The Doctor's grave. But the grave of a Time Lord doesn't take the form of a body: It's a scar of all their travels in time. The Great Intelligence steps into the open wound to bring pain and misfortune to The Doctor's every moment: Revenge on every second of his life. Great Intelligence aside, this plot I think is actually genius, and it pulls the absolutely critical trick of both serving as a conclusion to long-running arcs while serving as a good story in it's own right.

However, as I write this little mini-review, I'm just remembering all the things I didn't like about it. I found the Whispermen to be underused and the threat in general to be a bit on the weak side. Specifically, we never get to see what the Great Intelligence is actually doing inside The Doctor's time stream; he poses a wholly abstract threat which ultimately doesn't mean much. That was a missed opportunity. I think. Jenny "dying" was a bit naff, particularly as there was no need to explicitly say she was dead. This is aso the only episode where I've found Strax annoying - the moment in question being when the Whispermen are stopping The Doctor's friend's hearts, and he is completely destroying the tension by acting... Well, like Strax. It's forced, detracts from the atmosphere, and simply isn't very funny.

Due to her inconsistent characterization and lack of development, I never bought into modern!Clara as a companion, so even if I do like her in this episode, her sacrifice didn't mean that much to me. In addition, the drama lacks punch because we know from the second the GI steps inside that Clara will too, and again: it's an abstract solution to an abstract problem. I've criticized most of the stories in Series 7 for being too busy, but this is one of few I do think would have benefited from being a two-parter: While it does a good job, I feel an extra bit of breathing room would allow a dark atmosphere to fully develop and would give some much-needed context and drama to the consequences of both the GI and Clara entering the time stream. 

Finally, I found River's final scenes to be a bit too conclusive for a character I had hoped would never get one. There was always an element of tragedy to The Doctor and River never being on the same page of their relationship, with the lack of a conclusive 'goodbye' being nigh poetic. I feel this sequence ruins that slightly, and doesn't make a massive amount of sense to boot.

But on the positive, I find the generally dark and foreboding tone of the episode to be beautiful. I'm singling out the first scenes of The Doctor and Clara exploring the stormy, scarred battlefield of Trenzalore (with such haunting music!) and Clara telling The Doctor about the message to the tune of "A Secret He Will Take to His Grave" to be among my favourite moments in all of Series 7.

I don't know. I do like this episode quite a lot now, even if it does have it's problems. I do dislike the fact Time of The Doctor basically made it un-happen, so I guess that means I'm a fan. But we'll get to that when we get to it! Anywhere between a 5 and 7, I think.

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