Tag Archives: Geek rants

Comic TV With Dan: The Punisher

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: a breakout character from Daredevil gets his own solo series.

Short version: fun if you like violence, but Marvel Netflix, we need to talk about your pacing problems.

Premise

Frank Castle, as established in Daredevil’s second season, has been on a violent rampage of revenge ever since his wife and children were killed in a gang fight that was somehow orchestrated by rogue operatives of the US military to cover up something that happened in Afghanistan, and now that I write it out it sounds pretty convoluted… man Daredevil got scattered in its second season.

Anyway, given that when we last saw Frank he was learning that his former CO and his bosses were behind the assassination attempt via gang fight, naturally we join him having opted not to care about that and live in lonely, quiet seclusion… in the city where he was very publicly tried for mass murder a year or so ago. It’s hard to tell with Marvel Netflix, their timeline is fuzzy.

But Frank’s retirement doesn’t last long, as a former intelligence analyst turned outlaw hacker calling himself Micro tracks Frank down in an attempt to go after those guys we thought he was already going after.

Frank sets out to kill everyone responsible for his family’s deaths (for reals this time), but a Homeland agent named Dinah Madani is trying to get justice for one specific part of all that stuff Frank and his comrades-turned-nemeses did in Kandahar.

So the question looms: what will win, vengeance against the military/CIA conspirators, or justice? Or are they both basically the same? No. They aren’t. They try to be clear about that, but… we’re here for all the gun battles, but they don’t want to endorse vengeful murder-sprees, per se… awkward.

And for a change, I’m not going to complain about lack of connection to other Marvel properties. First off, the Punisher as a protagonist works better on his own rather than surrounded by other Marvel characters. Second, Marvel Netflix and the Marvel movies are not connected, they just aren’t, let’s all accept that. And third, it’s not even a problem that the only link to the other Netflix shows is a few appearances by Daredevil‘s Karen Page. Daredevil is out of play until his third season; The Punisher might be set in New York, but it never makes it to Harlem, so no Luke Cage; nobody has need or desire of a private detective, so no Jessica Jones; and unraveling the events of the series requires covert intelligence connections, forensic abilities, situational awareness, and the ability to recognize basic patterns, and that rules out Iron Fist.

Strengths

John Bernthal remains great in the title role, capturing Frank’s rage, grief, and even flashes of charm. Westworld’s Ben Barnes shines as Frank’s former combat buddy-turned-private military contractor Billy Russo. 

Spoiler

And when he inevitably turns out to be one of the bad guys, as we all must have known he was going to, he’s utterly believable as Frank’s equal in violence.

[collapse]

Agent Madani follows in the footsteps of Marvel Netflix’s frequent attempts to pair a male hero with a strong, badass female co-lead. Actually not the men, ’cause Jessica Jones had Trish Walker. But this one might be one of their better attempts. She doesn’t need constant rescuing like Karen Page in Daredevil, doesn’t consistently fail at the one thing she’s supposed to be good at like Misty Knight in Luke Cage, and she isn’t savagely undermined by her writing like Elektra in Daredevil or Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, becoming subservient to the male hero’s arc at the cost of her own. She always has her own motives and agency.

Micro works, and is well acted.

And if you do enjoy bloody, violent revenge stories, they do not let you down on that front. Well, in episodes with action beats. Which I think is most of them?

Weaknesses

If the “Secret military wrongdoing in Afghanistan” plot doesn’t do it for you, or rooting for a guy whose go-to solution to problems is murder doesn’t appeal to you, well, there’s not much else to enjoy here.

Rawlins, the man behind Kandahar and architect of the Castle family’s deaths, is kind of just a blank slate of “corrupt, criminal, torture-happy would-be patriot.” He lacks depth, humanity, or redeeming qualities of any kind. But then Punisher villains can’t really be nuanced. A Daredevil villain can come down to philosophical differences driving different ideas of The Good; a Batman villain can be driven by sympathetically tragic events in their past, like Kite Man (hell yeah); an X-Men villain can be a good man thinking he’s protecting humanity (I’m referring mostly to Legion, not The Gifted, police dude from The Gifted is just an asshole); but when you exist to be someone for Frank Castle to murder for our entertainment, you kind of have to be unambiguously evil. Which… I mean, that’s fine, but at least try to be fun like Damien Darhk, or engaging like Kilgrave. Rawlins is just there and you want him not to be.

Madani’s partner, Sam Stein, is incapable of speaking without delivering ham-fisted exposition. Like, really ham-fisted. “Quite a story. Doesn’t bode well for me, your newly-assigned partner.” As natural-sounding expository dialogue goes, he’s somewhere between a Star Wars text crawl and Narrator Smurf.

Let’s talk about Lewis. In the first episode, Frank lurks around his old military pal Curtis’ support group for veterans. It’s the one scene in that episode where he acts like a human person with emotions. One of the veterans is a gun nut, liberal-hating, “keep America for white Christians” asshole, and his rantings catch the attention of a younger vet named Lewis, who mutters “sic semper tyranis.” A weirdly educated remark for someone who falls for ignorant hate speech so quickly.

Here come the spoilery bits.

If that had been the last we saw of Lewis until episode nine, that would have been fine. But no, we spend swaths of the first two thirds of the series watching Lewis have PTSD, decide that the only cure to his PTSD is to be back in combat, get rejected by Russo’s company Anvil because he’s very clearly too unstable for any sort of combat, and then slowly but surely turn to domestic terrorism, all so that he can distract Frank Castle from the main story for two episodes near the end of the season. Which, okay, while putting the plot on pause, allows for a couple of key character beats to happen (two in two episodes, that’s not a lot), but there must have been a more elegant way to do them.

And sure, yes, an examination of how life on the homefront is difficult for vets would be good, if not necessarily germane to classic Punisher stories, but surely the right approach would have been to show how not all vets turn into Castle-style murder machines, not to imply that PTSD turns vets into domestic terrorists because mental trauma renders them incapable of not fighting. Lewis had all the love and support you could ask for, and still went mad-bomber, and that does not feel super respectful to struggling veterans.

I get it, man, I get what you were trying to do. When the second-amendment, concealed-carry douchecanoes show up to point at Frank Castle and say “That’s my guy! A good guy with a gun! That’s what we’re saying!” the producers can point at Lewis and his “Jews control the internet” mentor and say “You idiots aren’t the Punisher, you’re these morons.” But if that’s what he’s for, you did not need to spend ten episodes failing to build Lewis up as a character just to make him a third-act bonus villain. If a third-act bonus villain is even needed, which brings us to…

The Ever-Present Pacing Problems, or “It’s called episodic narrative, look it up.” If you needed to pad out the first season with all of these dull, reductive Lewis scenes, maybe it’s time to rethink your episode counts. It’s happening more and more with Marvel Netflix, so it must be said… if you don’t have enough story for 13 episodes, you don’t need to make 13 episodes. And there’s more.

It takes three episodes for the Frank-vs-corrupt-CIA-guy arc to kick off. Three episodes waiting for the show to catch Frank back up to where he left off when Daredevil ended. Three episodes giving Punisher a second, worse origin. Guys, it’s time you gave up the whole “The reluctant hero must be gradually dragged back into action” routine. Only Daredevil has ever managed to hit the ground running. Even The Defenders took three episodes to get out of first gear, and it was only eight episodes long. Punisher could have been a tight ten, if they’d sped up the first act and restricted Lewis to that first scene and his bombing spree.

Being on Netflix means people can and often will binge-watch, but not always. Stop treating each Marvel Netflix show as one really long movie and learn how episodic narrative works.

High Point

It’s easy to spot off-episodes of the first season, but it’s a little harder to name standouts. There’s sort of a baseline level of decent quality that they sometimes fall short of, but never really break past. I guess… either episode three, “Kandahar,” in which we examine Frank and Micro’s pasts as they have the most awkward “getting to know you chat” possible, or “Virtue of the Vicious,” a Rashomon-style examination of the long-awaited end of Lewis’ arc.

Low Point

With two flow-breaking Lewis-centric episodes and an hour-long torture session to choose from, it should be hard, but… let’s talk about episode one, “3 AM.”

First off, Frank hunts down the last members of the gangs whose gunfight left his family dead, despite knowing that his ex-CO arranged all of that, so really he’s just hunting down pawns in his ex-bosses’ sick game. Having killed the final possibly unrelated peon, Frank takes the iconic skull costume it took him 12 episodes of Daredevil to get around to wearing and burns it. Then moves back to New York and, despite being a notorious criminal with a very distinctive face, takes a job with a construction crew, knocking down walls with a sledgehammer. Knocking down walls. On a construction crew. Don’t tell me they’re a demolition team, why would a demolition crew need a cement mixer.

Save for introducing Curtis and Lewis the Rat-Faced Time Waster, they spend the next forty-five minutes, forty-five goddamn minutes, with Frank’s asshole criminal co-workers verbally harassing and threatening him while he silently ignores them, hammering his walls and thinking about his dead family all day and all night. Finally, in the last five minutes, when the assholes try to kill the one co-worker who was nice to Frank after a botched robbery of a mobsters’ poker game, his former self is unleashed upon the assholes and the mobsters they robbed. Which would have been a great jumping off point for a classic Punisher vs mob story, but is instead when Micro spots Frank, after months of waiting for him to notice that intel he’d slipped Frank back in Daredevil. If it had been Frank vs. the mob, sure, maybe I could see him needing to be convinced to take up arms, since this Punisher didn’t fight mobsters, he only hunted people he blamed for his family’s death. And some ninjas. But this is just the same vengeance rampage.

The Punisher had an origin. We did not need to drag him back to square one just so he could be reluctantly pulled back into the same vengeance spree he was on when we last saw him. Stop with the reluctant heroes. Stop it.

It’s a weak opening, designed to fill in anyone who didn’t watch Daredevil, while annoying anyone who did watch Daredevil by taking a huge and unnecessary step backwards.

MVP

Gotta be John Bernthal. Like Daredevil season two, the show is at its best when he’s on screen. Unlike Daredevil, that’s most of the time.

Tips for Next Season

He’s run out of vengeance, so it’s clearly time for an Equalizer-style grudge match between the Punisher and the mob. That would be some classic Punisher storytelling, far more on-brand than taking on black ops groups. Maybe try something like that.

Also… The first episode ends with Micro spotting Frank through “gait recognition,” which, no, what is that… and then says “Welcome back, Frank.” Garth Ennis’ “Welcome Back, Frank” is a classic Punisher story filled with humour (often black), memorable villains, oddball supporting cast, and frequent, innovative action beats, like a shootout in a morgue or a chase scene through a zoo, forcing Frank to use zoo animals as weapons. It is everything you should have aspired to, and if you’re not going to manage it, then keep Welcome Back Frank’s name out of your mouth.

Overall Grade: B-

Coming soon to this feature: can I find a source for Runaways? Let’s find out.

Dan Watched Inhumans and Wow But You Shouldn’t

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: what happens when the showrunner of Iron Fist doesn’t try so hard.

Short version: If you are watching Inhumans, then stop.

Premise

Behold, the Inhumans! Created centuries ago by the Kree (this is not specifically explained on the show), the Inhumans live on the far side of the moon, safe from the prying eyes of the humans below. Well, except for all of those Inhumans that lived in the secret village we saw in season two of Agents of SHIELD, who are never mentioned, and all of the new Inhumans that have been springing up in seasons three and four of Agents of SHIELD, who are begrudgingly acknowledged and a couple of whom even make appearances… but no mention of the government agency that worked so closely with them before ending up in space at the end of their last season.

So, like season two of Agent CarterInhumans continues the trend of other ABC shows being the only Marvel properties willing to very, very vaguely reference events on Agents of SHIELD. As little as they can get away with. Which… you know, Agents of SHIELD has been Marvel’s best TV show since Daredevil stopped trying halfway through season two, so maybe… whatever.

The Inhumans use a process called Terrigenesis to unlock their true selves, which sometimes just grants a power, sometimes causes a physical transformation (good or bad… just ask Eldrac, who got turned into a wall), and sometimes does diddly-squat, in which case welcome to the Moon Mines, you genetic failure.

The Inhumans are ruled over by Black Bolt (short for Blackagar Boltagon… not a joke) and his royal family. Black Bolt’s voice has incredible destructive power: speaking at a whisper hits like a cannon ball, and normal volume can obliterate a person. His wife, Queen Medusa (Serinda Swan, who in better days was Zatanna on Smallville, yes I just called Smallville better days, that’s where we are with this), has prehensile hair. I don’t know how to describe it to make it seem more dignified. Karnak (Ken Leung, of many things, one of which was Lost), one of the top warriors, can see and exploit the flaws in anything, and precisely plan any scenario in seconds. Gorgon… has hooves for feet and can stomp on things like super hard. Crystal is cute but boring. That is… she can, like… control the elements and whatnot, fire and air and… I mean she looks good in jean shorts but she basically adds nothing to this show except being the closest one to Lockjaw, the adorable giant teleporting bulldog.

And Maximus (Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton, Iwan Rheon), Black Bolt’s brother, has no powers, but a serious lifelong case of throne envy. Which is where we find ourselves in the first episode.

They were really banking on us being on board with the apparent protagonists right from the top, because we open with Maximus staging a coup to seize the throne. The royal family retreats to Hawaii (sure), gets split up, and attempts to regroup so that they can retake their home from Maximus.

Maximus, by the way, won the support of the royal guard through his platform of “Maybe we shouldn’t take everyone who didn’t get powers in Terrigenesis and force them to work in the Moon Mines, maybe a rigid caste system based on genetic accident isn’t cool.” Black Bolt, therefore, is pro genetic-caste-system, which is problematic, but they compensate for Black Bolt being on the wrong side of history by ensuring that Maximus is the sleaziest sleeze in Sleazetown, dripping malice and creepiness every time he’s on screen.

Okay, let’s break this thing down.

Strengths

The big teleporting bulldog is pretty cute.

He’s a good boy who doesn’t get the pets he deserves.

And it’s short.

Weaknesses

Where. To. Start.

Every character is made the least interesting version of themselves possible, whether for budgetary reasons or just utter lack of vision from showrunner Scott Buck, who just a few months ago also failed to deliver an even slightly interesting take on Iron Fist. That he was given a second Marvel show demonstrates flawed leadership at Marvel’s TV branch, even if going from Netflix to network is the equivalent of being sent down to the minors. Right, the characters…

Medusa has super-strong prehensile hair, so of course that’s taken away from her immediately as Maximus shaves her down to a buzzcut. Sure her CG hair couldn’t have been cheap, and it looked bad, but the fact remains that they swiftly took away her most notable feature, and made it really rapey when they did it, and goddamn you guys that wasn’t cool. Karnak is a master strategist, so by the end of episode one, he walks off a cliff, I say again the master strategist walks off a cliff, and suffers a head injury that compromises his power. Black Bolt, king of Attilan, is overthrown inside of half an hour. Maximus, in the comics, is an insane genius, brilliant but untrustworthy, and here he’s just a power-mad douche incapable of thinking anything through. Eldrac is a person who got turned into a wall that can open portals and they barely even touch on that. Crystal… I don’t know much about comics-Crystal but she must have had more going on than looking cute in shorts. She couldn’t have less going on than she does here.

Look, every comic book show eventually does “Are they still a hero without their powers,” but a) it’s always a drag, and b) they don’t make it the whole first season. But this is just where our problems start.

Every single aspect of the show is punishingly bland at best. The dialogue is bad, the acting mediocre, the effects cheap, the characters uninteresting, and while Maximus is insufferably terrible it’s hard to ignore that fact that he seems to be right about everything. He doesn’t want to live under a genetic-lottery caste system and thinks maybe forcing 1400 people to live in cramped hiding on the moon isn’t the best call, and he’s right on both fronts. It takes 10,000 individuals to maintain genetic diversity. With 1400 people in Attlian it’s amazing that the Inhumans aren’t as inbred as an Austrian duke by now.

Sure, there’s apparently another reason they live in hiding, some larger danger hinted at repeatedly in the finale, hints almost assured to never be paid off, but it’s the Kree. They were hiding from the Kree, the aliens who created them, and in season two of Agents of SHIELD made it clear they thought that was a mistake worth erasing, that’s the deal, fuck you for making a show this bad and thinking you could lure us in to wanting a second season with such obvious cliffhanger-bait.

Medusa and Black Bolt keep wanting to give Maximus one more chance to turn things around despite him taking every opportunity to not be worth it. It gets old.

And it’s not a recent development, either. A flashback to Maximus and Blackagar’s youths shows young Blackagar moping about not wanting to be king, while his brother keeps shouting “I do! I’ll be king!” And when their father says no, it has to be the elder brother, Maximus literally says “But if he dies, I get to be king, right?” And Father-of-the-Millennium lets it slide. Sure, pal, nothing to worry about there.

The human scientist who teams up with Medusa is trying so hard to channel Arrow’s Felicity Smoak that I can only think of her as Faux-licity. Also she might be in love with Medusa. A more interesting show would have run with that.

My only theory is this. Head of Marvel Entertainment, Ike Perlmutter, has been desperate to introduce the Inhumans to the MCU as a replacement for the Fox-owned mutants (even though the Inhumans are terrible replacements for the X-Men, do not work as metaphors for oppressed minorities, and Fox’s The Gifted is proving why mutants do it better on a weekly basis). He tried to force Kevin Feige to make an Inhumans movie, only for Feige to break away from the rest of Marvel Entertainment and cancel the movie the second he didn’t have to report to Perlmutter anymore. So Ike made it into a TV series. Maybe, maybe Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel TV, knew that the only way they were going to shut Ike up about the damn Inhumans was to make the show, but make it Fant4stic bad so that the concept would lose appeal. And so they hired the Iron Fist guy to write it.

I mean that’s the only explanation that makes sense to me. They screened the pilot on IMAX. They read the script, saw the dailies, and then still felt comfortable putting the worst thing Marvel Studios has ever, ever done onto the largest screens possible and charged people money. I don’t see how that happens unless they are actively trying to fail.

High Point

…Um… “Make Way For… Medusa,” maybe? They finally managed to add a character I enjoyed, even if he’s one of the bad guys.

Low Point

“…And Finally: Black Bolt.” The season (and gods willing series) finale managed to be just as excruciatingly bland and pointless as the pilot while delivering a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion (seriously, the final scene was entirely dull) and spending too much time setting up a second season that I cannot imagine anybody actually wants at this point.

MVP

Lockheed the giant dog, I guess.

Tips for next season

Fuck you. I shall think of this show as cancelled until ABC’s May upfronts confirm it as so, and then I will think of it no more.

Overall Grade: F

Like, it’s not even fun bad.

Gonna have to finish series five of Doctor Who just to wash that crap-fest out of my brain.

Dan on TV: Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire is the best show you’ve never heard of. Allow me to explain.

The first thing to understand about Halt and Catch Fire is that despite being a period drama on AMC, it is not Mad Men. I say that to you now, suspecting that one of the creators had to say this to the network at some point during season one.

Halt and Catch Fire just completed its fourth and final season, and it has been a hell of a roller coaster. In the beginning, it was about a would-be tech visionary recruiting a failed computer designer to create the next big thing in PCs, but it was so devoted to re-invention over its four seasons (as is fitting for a show about tech visionaries) that in the final episode, those two characters barely appear. And along the way, it went from a pretty good period drama to a great one.

Love, War, and Computer Culture

Halt and Catch Fire centres around five brilliant but often broken people trying to be the next big thing in computer culture, a place where “the next big thing” shifts frequently and unpredictably. It begins in 1983, as they attempt to break into the home PC market, but goes on to cover 11 years of developments and advancements in the dawning internet age as the leads continue to chase the bleeding edge. Online gaming. Online community and commerce. Anti-virus. The dawn of the world wide web. In all cases, united or divided, they strive to be the leaders in an ever-shifting, hyper-competitive marketplace.

All five are lovable and hateable in equal measure. Together or apart, they form a riveting ensemble. Between 1983 and 1994, they love each other, hate each other, support each other, try to destroy each other, build businesses, lose businesses, and are constantly on the verge of being the first or best to market with some new innovation. But no matter how many times they screw each other over, no matter how much damage they cause to each other, there is still a bond between them that often weakens, but never fully breaks. Which is good, because it keeps them banging off each other.

Sure, in the beginning, it leans towards Mad Men. We have an enigmatic, charismatic leading man with a mysterious past in a period drama, but within season one they wisely move past that. And even in the beginning, there’s an important difference between Halt and Mad Men… a little thing called pacing.

Mad Men had a very nuanced, subtle, gradual pace. Events would creep along through small actions and awkward silences, building slowly until everything burst in the finale. Throughout the first season, Halt and Catch Fire would introduce a crisis, build it to a fever pitch, force someone to make a compromise someone else hated to fix it… and still have enough episode left for some even worse crisis to destroy their momentary peace. Future seasons calmed down a little, but you could never call the show uneventful.

The setting, the central plot, and central theme all shift throughout the series, but the core never does: Cameron, Donna, Joe, Gordon, and Bos. Let’s meet them.

Cameron Howe

The Prodigy

When we meet Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, who’s picked up three high-profile sci-fi gigs since doing this show– The Martian, Black Mirror: San Junipero, and Blade Runner 2049), she’s a punk programmer sneaking into college lectures about the coming computer age. More often than not, she’s the smartest person in the room, and painfully, aggressively aware of that.

Cameron dreams of true innovation. She doesn’t want to build a slightly better IBM, she wants to build a truly new computer. When video game design draws her interest, she doesn’t want to just make Centipede. She wants a wholly new, wholly different game experience. Cameron Howe would be the bleeding edge of the internet age if it weren’t for a few… quirks.

Cameron does not play well with others. She’s a loner by nature and doesn’t excel at “collaboration” or “cooperation.” She views partners and investors as encumbrances, not teammates. She expects her teams to dance to her tune, even when she’s making no effort to teach them the words. She alienates people, forces them to take actions she doesn’t agree with, and even when she’s right, she’s usually burned too many bridges for it to matter.

And the show really took off when it realized that she was its actual heart. Her and…

Donna Clark

The Businesswoman

Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) was set up to be simply the long-suffering wife of one of the main characters, and thank the TV gods they sobered up from that, because a) that’s a tired cliche, and b) both Donna the character and Kerry the actress are better than that.

Donna is married to Gordon, and is mother to their two daughters, and while season one sets up Gordon as the big, gifted, engineer and computer builder, it also makes it clear that Donna is his equal. She can’t program like Cameron, few can, but she can build as well as anyone.

Not that people tend to notice, because it’s 1983 and she’s a woman. And, spoiler alert in case you haven’t noticed all of the everything, being taken seriously as a woman did not exactly get easier over the next ten years. And that’s more of an issue for her than it is for Cameron, since she’s the one actually willing to work with people to get ahead.

Also, she doesn’t really care for being the mother to anyone but her kids, and her compatriots have a tendency to force her into the position. Being the responsible one, the grounded one, the one willing to make the compromises, the one who has to see the larger picture beyond just the dream. And when you’re dealing with volatile visionaries like Cameron and Joe, or just the habitually wounded pride of her husband, that can cause turmoil.

Donna has dreams, she has ideas, she’s as capable of chasing the next horizon as anyone else in the cast, but there are a couple of things she’s missing. She doesn’t have Joe’s manipulative charms or Cameron’s determination to live or die by her work alone. What she does have, in place of those things, is a willingness and ability to work the system. To make connections, build relationships, to care about audience engagement and put what they want over what she thinks they should want, something Cameron struggles with. Or something Cameron would struggle with if she didn’t find it all so beneath her.

Look, I love Cameron in general, but sometimes… look, the ain’t anybody you can root for every episode.

Case in point, our theoretical lead character…

Joe MacMillan

The Visionary

Joe MacMillan is played by Lee Pace, who was the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies and as a result has my love and loyalty forever. In the beginning, he has recently left IBM, fancying himself a visionary. He can see where computers are heading and is determined to get there first at any cost: financial, human, or otherwise. He comes to Cardiff Electric, Texas-based manufacturer of typewriters and radios, and infiltrates it to push them to build a home computer that will challenge his former employers. It is 1983, one year before Apple debuted the Macintosh. The timing is not coincidence.

Joe McMillian was introduced as an enigma, a man of mystery with a hidden past and unexplained scars and a mysterious agenda, and thank Buddha and all of his wacky nephews that they got the Hell over that. There are two things they did with Joe in season two that improved the show immeasurably: first, they made him more of a fun human being; second, they realized he wasn’t the lead. Even if he would be top-billed all the way through, because opening credit politics are what they are.

Joe does have a certain amount of vision. He must, because he finds himself at the forefront of a lot of industries, one way or the other. He also has a certain amount of charisma, because he keeps drawing people to his banner… even the other leads, who after his initial actions have so many reasons to doubt him.

Because more human or not, Joe’s got his flaws. He’s not the best team player, since he’s willing to fight entire companies if he feels they’re holding back his vision. He’s willing to burn anyone he has to if the project demands it. And when a project or a company goes wrong (which they often do, this is not a happy show where everything always works out), he can lash out in sometimes extreme ways. Joe MacMillan does not fail gracefully.

But once they’re done trying to turn him into Computer Don Draper, they find something worth rooting for at his core. A love for his colleagues that makes the shift from “Manipulating them to create the Cardiff Giant” to “He created the Cardiff Giant as an excuse to work with Gordon and Cameron” believable and touching.

Even when his story is mostly detached from the others, he’s a key part of the show, but it’s still for the best that they moved the focus away from him after the first season. Not because he doesn’t work, but because the ladies just work better.

Gordon Clark

The Builder

Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, who you’ve certainly seen in something) tried and failed to launch his own computer alongside Donna, and the failure was a costly one, in terms of savings, pride, and Gordon’s standing in the eyes of Donna’s parents. When we meet him in 1983, he’s a simple engineer at Cardiff Electric, a broken man who’s abandoned ambition. Until, that is, Joe talks him into reverse-engineering an IBM to build their own PC.

Gordon’s a builder at heart. He’s never happier than when he’s prying open a machine and putting it back together, better and stronger. He and Joe have the best working relationship, if still not consistently, which makes sense because he and Joe were supposed to be the leads until it became clear that Donna and Cameron should take over.

Maybe it’s because Joe can sense that Gordon still has the drive, the need to be a success on his own terms rather than just a Cardiff Electric cog. But the sting of his previous dream’s death hasn’t fully left him, and it means he has one thing Joe doesn’t: a willingness to settle. To plateau. To say “This is enough.” But the line where he’s willing to do that isn’t low enough to make life simple.

Gordon and Donna’s dreams do not sync up as often as either of them would like. Often one’s dream comes at the expense of the other, and that puts a strain on their relationship, and their relationship with their kids. All is seldom well in the Clark household, and Gordon makes some typical 80s-success bad choices that don’t help in the matter. Or help him in general.

But if there’s something to be created in order to find the next big thing, Gordon’s not hard to talk into joining in.

John Bosworth

The Salesman

John “Bos” Bosworth (Toby Huss), career salesman, has been at Cardiff Electric since most of the cast were kids. His is a simple life of southern-charm sales pitches and golf with clients, which is utterly upended when Joe MacMillan arrives and, before Bos and any of the bosses know it’s happening, tricks/forces them to rebuild Cardiff into a computer company, bringing down the wrath of IBM.

But as much as Bos resents how Joe is changing Cardiff, the more important change is what’s happening to Bos himself. His resentment thins. He bonds more and more with Cameron, becoming a surrogate father to her (her father is alive, but she and her parents don’t exactly get along). The glow of the computer age infects him, even if it doesn’t endear him to Joe in a rush.

Older than most? Sure. Computer literate? Not very. But he sees the future the others are building, and he wants in, even if he’s past his prime. He’s hungry to be part of this, and hunger plus limited time equals desperation, desperation leads to bad choices, and on this show, bad choices lead to big consequences.

But nothing short of death ever drives these people apart forever, and Bos’ folksy charm hides real skill for business and with people, something the others sometimes find themselves needing. Which works for Bos, because he needs them to need him, as after decades of life in sales, it’s only chasing after the dreams of his younger colleagues that he’s spotted his purpose, and he can’t lie down and rest before he’s caught it.

Final Thoughts

I feel like I should do more than talk about the characters here, but the fact is that each season is a new ride (featuring time jumps mild and extreme in between), each ride is bumpy as hell, and I feel I’d be doing you a disservice  by hinting at what any of the bumps are. I can say this: if the Cardiff Giant story of season one isn’t grabbing you, skip to the last two episodes of the season. Witness COMDEX, the birth of Mutiny, the first great fracturing of the central cast, and dive into a much-improved season two as Cameron and Donna take centre stage, attempting to invent online gaming in the time before Nintendo and Sega resurrected home consoles. See Bos rise from the ashes, Joe struggle to bounce back from a humbling computer convention, Gordon flounder for a new purpose, see the whole board change as the show finds a new structure.

There are incredible visual flourishes on this show. In one episode, there’s what seems to be a single tracking shot following Gordon, but this simulated single shot covers months or even years as a company grows from conception to construction to growth and expansion and finally to stagnation, and relationships strain and collapse in a few minutes that encompass a season’s worth of of drama. But lower-key than usual drama, nothing super exciting, so it’s okay that it’s just one shot in just one episode.

See Gordon and Donna’s girls grow up, one of whom grows into a computer whiz in her own right, and begins to steal the last season.

See Joe discover what the One Big Thing he’s been chasing this whole time really is… and whether or not he ever catches it.

See Cameron’s dream of what computer games can be collide with the birth of a drastically different take, the ultra-violent first-person shooter.

And let an incredibly talented cast make you love the flawed, sometimes broken, often wonderful characters pushing the story along.

If you’re in Canada, the first three seasons are on Netflix and the fourth will be along eventually, I’m sure. I know that it’s peak TV, and everyone and their streaming service has a recommendation, but the finale… the finale was a thing of beauty, and not every series can claim to have gone out that strong, and based on that I felt I had to share this show with you all.

And then life happened and this post got hell of delayed on me, but it’s still valid. So go, my pretties, binge, binge.

Next time… hadn’t we just gotten to my favourite era of Doctor Who? I should get back to that.

Overthinking Doctor Who 4.5: Road to Regeneration

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

The Specials: “This song is ending.”

In 2005, Russell T. Davies finally, after years of fan hopes and prayers, reintroduced Doctor Who to television. Later that year, as the first series drew to a close, David Tennant took over the title role, bringing the show to new levels of popularity and fan love.

And in 2008, both men announced they were leaving.

While series four was their last full series on the show, they both took 2009 to do a sort of farewell tour. While incoming showrunner Steven Moffat got everything in place to take over in 2010 (Moffat series take a while to write), Davies and Tennant came back for five hour-long specials airing between Christmas Day 2008 and New Year’s Day 2010. The Specials represent the terminus of Ten’s journey, ending with his regeneration into Eleven.

Something Davies specifically, maliciously set out to make the most brutally heartbreaking regeneration of all time.

So we’ll have to break format a little to cover these.

It’s Christmas!

The Next Doctor finds Ten trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to shake off the remorseless string of increasingly sad farewells that marked the end of series four by visiting Christmas in Victorian London (this will not be the last time a hearts-broken Doctor comes to this time and place to wallow). He’s only barely landed when suddenly he’s running into returning enemies the Cybermen… and an oddly-dressed gentleman calling himself The Doctor (David Morrissey), claiming to have a sonic screwdriver and a Tardis. Has The Doctor found his future self?

Well, no. By the time they even announced this episode we knew that the next Doctor would be some kid named Matt Smith, so the bluff wasn’t strong, but the mystery behind why this guy thinks he’s The Doctor was well-told. And provided the first clear, undeniable proof that Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is in fact canonical.

The pain of The Doctor’s losses is partially buried beneath his curiosity in this false Doctor, but it’s there. He has no companion and isn’t seeking one. And when Miss Haritgan, who has taken control of the Cybermen, rebuffs his offer for a peaceful solution, it’s clear that he resents being made into a killer.

“What do you make of me, sir?” she asks, refusing to leave Earth in peace.

“The question is, what do you make of me?” he replies. Then his tone goes ice cold as he says “You make me into this.” And he fires.

It’s a pretty standard Christmas special, all told. A charming self-contained adventure in which they casually mention that it’s Christmas. But it also makes it clear that some part of Ten died during The Journey’s End, and despite the best efforts of his would-be replacement, it doesn’t look to be coming back.

It’s Easter!

Planet of the Dead was meant to be The Tenth Doctor’s last good time, one more simple, fun adventure before things start to get dark. Well, simple for The Doctor. There’s still a far-off planet and alien fly-people and an incoming swarm of fangy death. So, sure, pretty casual.

A woman we will come to know as Lady Christina de Souza steals a valuable golden chalice from a museum. Fleeing the approaching police, she trades diamond earrings for a ride on a London bus, only to have The Doctor hop into the seat next to her, munching on a chocolate egg.

He doesn’t care about the chalice, though. Doesn’t even know about it yet. He’s more concerned with the wormhole he’s trying to track, which has grown large enough that the whole bus drives through it and ends up on some foreign desert world.

Problem is, it wasn’t a desert world last year, and the things that stripped it down to sand are heading their way. The Doctor and Christina have to get everyone home and ensure that the incoming death swarm doesn’t reach Earth.

Like Astrid in Voyage of the Damned, The Doctor and Lady Christina were the a perfect-companion-meeting that was never meant to be. They hit it off quickly, she’s clever and resourceful almost beyond The Doctor himself, and they share a thirst for travel and adventure (even if her desire for travel is slightly escape-the-law based). And she’s eager, so eager to hop in the Tardis and see the stars. But it’s not happening.

Where Astrid and The Doctor were torn apart by Kylie Minogue being expensive circumstance… and for all we know, a little temporal manipulation from Dalek Caan to keep Astrid from delaying The Doctor’s reunion with Donna… it’s The Doctor himself keeping Christina out of the Tardis. After having to say goodbye to Rose for a second time and then immediately losing Donna, he can’t bring himself to let anyone else into his travels. So Lady Christina serves two key roles here.

First, she delivers that “last good time” Davies was trying to deliver, and second, she’s important to showing how damaged The Doctor has been since that mess with Davros. She is almost precisely the sort of person he’d normally take off into time and space. The whole “cat burgler” thing isn’t fully a value-add, but Jack was a con artist when they met and look at him now, all defending the Earth. So to sell The Doctor’s deep spiritual damage, they hand him a perfect companion desperate to go with him… and have him say a firm no.

But that’s just where his problems begin.

One of the passengers on the bus is psychic, and after an hour of seeing their impending doom hurtling towards them, she has a final warning for The Doctor, after repeating the warning he received from the Ood last year, “your song is ending.”

“It is returning, it is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor… Oh but then, he will knock four times.”

The end is nigh, and The Doctor’s not walking into it willingly. He likes who he is, he’s liked being Ten more than he’s liked himself since the Time War turned ugly, and he is not looking to change. Why else would he have dumped a regeneration into his severed hand so that he could heal without changing?

It’s… Fall, I guess?

“State your name, rank, and intention.”
“The Doctor… Doctor… fun?”

The Doctor arrives on Mars, in the mid-21st century, where he comes across the planet’s first human settlement. Problem is… the first human settlement was destroyed. Which may have inspired its leader’s granddaughter to later captain Earth’s first faster-than-light ship, and explore the galaxy. The destruction of this base is a fixed point in time, like Vesuvius. And it’s happening today. Any minute now. Because there’s something in the underground glacier they started using for water, and it’s infecting the crew one by one, turning them into water-spewing crag-faced zombies.

The Doctor is eager to get away, because it’s a fixed point, so not only is there nothing he can do… after Pompeii, he’s afraid that if he stays, he’ll be the one who makes it all happen. But the crew aren’t eager to let this inexplicable stranger leave, the water zombies draw his curiosity… and he likes these people. He especially likes their noble commander Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan, filling the companion role this time around), whose grandchild starts a dynasty of space explorers, and when he finally begins to leave as everything goes wrong… he can’t. Or at least, he won’t.

“There are laws of time,” he shouts to Adelaide as he seeks a way to stop the water zombies. “Once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws but they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realise that the laws of time are mine and they will obey me!”

If you think The Doctor asserting dominion over time itself is a good thing, you are way off. Adelaide sees it. He’s been alone too long. He’s gone too far. He’s becoming something terrible, someone willing to rewrite history to his own preferences. It’s not a power she thinks he or anyone should have, and is willing to sacrifice to take it from him.

And The Doctor collapses, emotionally. He knows he’s gone too far. He’s become lost, the exact sort of monster he once fought. And as this is sinking in, an Ood appears in the snow, signalling that his end is drawing near. So he does the only thing that makes sense to any Doctor in this position…

He runs.

Waters of Mars is when The Doctor, already damaged from Journey’s End, finally breaks. And it sets the stage for the End.

Brace yourselves. It’s gonna get teary up in here.

It’s Christmas Again! And Also New Year’s!

The Ood have seen a terrible omen. A sinister cabal seeks to resurrect The Master. An industrialist named Joshua Naismith has his own plans for The Master, and is trying to build an alien healing device called The Immortality Gate. Two of Naismith’s staff have their own agenda. The people of Earth are plagued by nightmares, but only Wilfred Mott (Donna’s granddad, remember?) recalls them and knows what they mean. A mysterious woman is reaching out to Wilfred, telling him he must take up arms. The drumbeats in The Master’s head are getting louder. And behind it all, something horrible… the End of Time itself.

It’s all a trap, a way for the Time Lords to survive the Time War… at the expense of everything.

And The Doctor gallivanted through time and space too long (marrying Queen Elizabeth along the way… improbably, we’ll get back to that), and is late to the party. Or so say the Ood, anyway.

We could spend a lot of time talking about everything that happens in this final two-parter for Davies and Tennant. What The Master does, what the Lord President of Gallifrey is willing to do, Donna’s return, the mournful Chameleon Circuit rock epic summarizing it all… one last triumphant “ALLONS-Y!” But while End of Time is an appropriately epic tale for Ten to end his run with, what we should really focus on is this…

While The End of Time Part 2 isn’t without humour, don’t get used to it. Russell T. Davies set out to write the Saddest Regeneration of All Time. And good lord but he nailed it. He nailed it hard.

First, he took away the security blanket of regeneration not being the end. Ten, facing his prophesied death, laments that even if he does regenerate, it’s still like dying. “Everything I am dies. Some new man saunters away… and I’m dead.”

When the prophesied “he” knocks four times, and The Doctor sees his death approaching, it takes him a moment to meet it gracefully. “I could do so much more. So much more!” (Also of note, Wilfred isn’t making it easier, as throughout the second half he begs The Doctor not to let himself die, and Bernard Cribbins makes it heart-rending.) But the cost of living on, small though it was, is still too high. And so The Tenth Doctor must end… following a farewell tour.

Every companion, friend, loved one… everyone who meant anything to Ten gets a final, often silent farewell. And after one last visit to 2005 Rose Tyler, the Ood return to sing him to his rest. He staggers back to the Tardis, utters the saddest final line a Doctor has ever had*, The Doctor’s Theme plays one last time in epic fashion…

And Matt Smith arrives. It’s a rough ten minute ride to get here, but it’s going to be okay. I promise you it’s going to be okay from here.

Except when it’s incredibly sad. That doesn’t end. But it’s not all the time.

(*I would argue that the second saddest final Doctor line ever is Colin Baker’s “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice!” because nobody knew that would be his final line. The head of the BBC fired Baker between series, in the first of several moves that seemed to be engineered to kill the show.)

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Rassilon isn’t just a Time Lord, he’s the Time Lord. As covered in Chameleon Circuit’s Gallifreyan History 101, “he was strong, he was mighty, he was the founder of Time Lord society,” one of the two men who mastered time travel and elevated Gallifrey. The other having been Omega, who was unfortunately erased in the process, something he took umbrage to in 1973’s The Three Doctors. There were also some hints during the Sylvester McCoy years that The Doctor himself may have also been involved, a story thread that was dropped when the BBC clamped down on attempts to explore The Doctor’s past.

Anyway, since the end of the original series, books and radio dramas have dug further into the legends of Rassilon. Was he the wise and benevolent ruler of a good and just Gallifrey, or was he a cruel despot who intentionally killed Omega? Whatever he was before, being resurrected to fight the Time War has made a monster of him now. But that’s what the Time War did.

This Year in Daleks: They got 2009 off. Still wiped out from The Journey’s End.

The Good: The Master is back to, albeit indirectly, kill his second Doctor. The Master has been involved in the incidents that caused the regenerations of Four, Ten, and Twelve. Man, that’s two of the all-time favourites.

Miss Hartigan made a good human ally/overlord for the Cybermen in The Next Doctor.

The Bad: …Eh. They’re all fine.

The Ugly: I have some qualms about the design choices for the water zombies in Waters of Mars. Not fun to look at, and the head water zombie kind of annoyed me any time she was on screen, I’m glad they’re all dead.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: 

  • Timothy Dalton, James goddamn Bond, is the Lord High President of the Time Lords, revealed in the end to be Rassilon.
  • Brian Cox is the voice the head of the Ood in Out of Time.
  • Joshua Naismith is played by Supergirl’s Martian Manhunter, David Harewood.
  • Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya is one of the passengers in Planet of the Dead.
  • I want to include Michelle Ryan as Lady Christina, but other than Steven Moffat’s surprisingly good Jekyll and 2007’s failed Bionic Woman remake, she hasn’t really done much. Shame. I liked her.

End of Time is the first and only time that a villain, in this case John Simm as The Master, is included in the opening credits. Though he turns out not to be the villain.

The bus in Planet of the Dead sustains damage going through the wormhole because they filmed the desert planet scenes in Dubai, and the bus did suffer significant damage in the process of shipping it there. Which caused some production headaches.

The woman contacting Wilfred in End of Time is a Time Lord, one of two who opposed the plan, credited only as “The Woman.” The Doctor seems to know her somehow. How, exactly, is the one last unanswered mystery of the Davies era. Is she Romana? Susan? The Rani? The wife we never knew, a child they’ve only alluded to, some other family member? Just a like mind from the days of the Time War? We don’t know. We may never know. “I was lost, long ago,” she tells Wilf. In the words of The Doctor, that is textbook enigmatic.

She comments on Wilfred’s military service, that he missed the war and never killed a man. “No I didn’t,” Wilfred says. “No I did not. No. But don’t say that like it’s shameful.” This mirrors actor Bernard Cribbins’ military service. He served in World War II, never killed anybody, and is incredibly proud of that. One more reason Wilfred, the Final Companion, is the best.

Planet of the Dead uses a cute lampshade-hang on the question of how similar to humans The Doctor is, one Moffat will steal in the year to come:
“You look human.”
“You look Time Lord.”

“I don’t know what I’d be without that noise,” says The Master.
“I wonder what I’d be… without you,” replies The Doctor. There can be some interestingly sweet moments between these two eternal foes.

On a personal note, The Last Doctor was the only episode I managed to watch between Last of the Time Lords and May of 2010, when I started binging my way through series four. The rest of the specials ended up waiting until that summer, after series five was up and running. So I had a slight advantage over most other viewers at the time: heart-crushing as Tennant’s final scenes were, I’d already fallen for his replacement, and knew that fresh good times were on the other side.

“Legs! I’ve still got legs!” The newly minted 11th Doctor begins with an inventory, and a disappointment: “And still not ginger!”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: A speech from Barack Obama plays a role in End of Time Part 1, but I wouldn’t count it.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “I don’t want to go.”

Saddest Moment of the Year: See above.

Next time… Hello, Mr. Smith and Mr. Moffat.

Overthinking Doctor Who Part 4: Companionpalooza

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

Voyage of the Damned was the first “apropos of nothing” Christmas special, not setting up or paying off stories from the main series or centered around a recent/impending regeneration. It’s got all of the hallmarks: a one-off story (not unique, most Doctor Who stories are one-offs), a one-time companion, and a weird amount of heartbreak for freaking Christmas. The only exception here is that they do technically introduce a character of interest, even though they didn’t necessarily know that at the time. But maybe they did? Could be, he is back on the show in the first episode of series four.

Anyway. Moments after dropping off Martha Jones at the end of Last of the Time Lords… or depending on how canonical you consider it, moments after the really sweet Moffat-written Children in Need short Time Crash in which the Tenth Doctor meets the Fifth (who both Tennant and Moffat grew up watching)… sorry, where was I.

Moments after dropping off Martha Jones… sorry, but it just is really endearing watching David Tennant give a tribute to the man who helped shape his childhood love of the character, both lightly mocking things like the stalk of celery he wore on his lapel and paying homage by listing all the Fifth Doctor quirks that Tennant incorporated into his own take. Right, back to it.

Moments after dropping off Martha Jones— and the moment where he looks at Davison and says “You were my Doctor,” that is just–

Right. Got it. For real this time. Moments after dropping off Martha Jones at the end of Last of the Time Lords, The Tardis collided with a luxury liner called The Titanic, for the second consecutive finale cliffhanger in which Tennant was reduced to just “What!? What!? What?” Turns out to have been the Starship Titantic, bringing alien guests on a stellar cruise to Christmas-time Earth.

“Why is called Titanic?” the Doctor asks one of the slightly creepy robot angels called Hosts that just seem to cry out “These go on a killing spree in the second act” the second you see them.

“Information: the Titanic is the most famous ship in Earth history,” the benign assistant about to go full murder-bot says.

“Yeah, cheers, any mention of why it’s famous?”

So it’s pretty clear where this is going. The Doctor meets a waitress named Astrid (played by Kylie freaking Minogue), a poor couple who won first class seats named Morvin and Foon, a tour guide with faulty Earth information named Mr. Copper, an upper class bag of putrid dicks named Rickston Slade, and a fun-sized spiky alien named Bannakaffalatta.

And just as everyone’s bonding and having a great time, the sudden yet inevitable disaster strikes, and it’s up to The Doctor to save who he can. Which… well, the disaster movie template requires that it not be too many people, and it’s not who you’d expect or hope.

Don’t get attached to Astrid, is what I’m saying, fully aware that you will anyway.

It’s a fun and touching episode with an instantly likable supporting cast (save for that asshat Rickston) and moments almost guaranteed to bring out the tears. First being the most unlikely yet brutally effective tug at the heartstrings…

“Bannakaffalatta stop! Bannakaffalatta proud. Bannakaffalatta… CYBORG!”

And then, of course, The Doctor’s desperate wail, pain masked by rage, determination giving way to failure… “I can do anything!”

And along the way, there’s an alien-suspecting newspaper salesman played by Bernard Cribbins that you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Series Four: Companionpalooza!

It took me a year and a half to get around to this. My PVR didn’t record series four in fall of 2008, and somehow it took me until spring of 2010 to catch up. Nineteen months of thinking “I need to get on that.” Never again.

Series four was Russell T. Davies’ last full series as showrunner, and he intended to go out big. Donna Noble’s return becomes the capstone to an arc that began with the Cult of Skaro’s appearance in Army of Ghosts, although I have no proof that Davies actually meant for Army of GhostsThe Runaway Bride, and Evolution of the Daleks to all be pieces of one larger story.

Martha Jones (who has joined UNIT, as we learned in series two of Torchwood) is back for three episodes in the middle, Rose Tyler is trying to reach The Doctor, and those are just opening salvos. For the big two-part finale, everyone’s back, and I mean everyone. Everyone.

Rose, Martha, Jack, Mickey, Sarah Jane, K-9 (briefly), all three of the horrible companion mothers, even Former Prime Minister Harriet Jones. Jack brings Gwen and Ianto from Torchwood (allowing The Doctor and Rose to note her similarity to when the same actress was in The Unquiet Dead, waaaaaaay back in series one), Sarah Jane brings her son and supercomputer from The Sarah Jane Adventures. The only non-evil, still alive characters of note from the last four series missing are Nine (of course) and Pete Tyler.

And in the end, they all join together for one sweet, perfect, heartwarming moment where they all fly the Tardis the way it’s meant to be flown… as a team.

Enjoy it while it lasts, because the sadness is coming and coming fast. As an Ood warns earlier on… every song must end. And this song’s ending soon.

(Oh, and one more time for the kids in the bleachers… anyone who thinks the Moffat era relies too much on deus ex machina, rewatch this finale and explain yourself. It’s better, or at least more narratively satisfying than Last of the Time Lords, but it remains basically gibberish.)

The Doctor

Series four shaves a few layers of grief off of Ten this year. The loss of Rose is less fresh, so he’s less hung up on it (just in time for an unexpected reunion), and with the final villain not a fellow Time Lord, they don’t have to punch the grief over losing his homeworld and species in order to sell his determination to keep his old foe The Master alive.

This, then, is David Tennant as his apex as The Doctor. He’s always incredible to watch, because he is that astounding an actor basically always (look, people, I saw him live in London, and you just… you have no idea), but this year he cut loose and had the most sheer fun in the role.

Not that his white-hot rage and flares of grief are absent, because those are parts of the character. But by now it’s all a well-fitting suit. Two years of practice, and Tennant can really strut his way through time and space.

The Companion

Donna’s back!

Much as I somehow didn’t enjoy her first appearance in The Runaway Bride for reasons that I can no longer recall or comprehend, Donna Noble is the greatest of Tennant’s companions, fight me.

First of all, Donna doesn’t fall in love with The Doctor. And after two years of will-they-won’t-they with Rose and one year of quiet pining from Martha, that was refreshing. 

Second, she has the best arc of possibly any companion ever. A simple temp from Chiswick, she doesn’t seem like most important person in all of time and space, and cannot believe that she might be, but she grows into that role over these 13 episodes. Plus, she is amazingly capable, often spotting clues The Doctor misses, and saving his soul along the way.

Catherine Tate and David Tennant have amazing comic chemistry together. It takes a few short minutes for them to become a screwball comedy double act again in Partners in Crime, and it remains delightful all the way through.

Road to the Medusa Cascade

A lot of big, epic stuff happens in the finale, requiring every recurring character of note from the first four years, but basically all of it happens in the last two episodes. Leading up to that, we have a few Bad Wolfs; recurring phrases, shots, or ideas that pop up throughout the year to hint towards what’s going to happen in the finale.

First, and most flashy, a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by Rose Tyler, leading up to her full return right before the finale in Turn Left.

Second, the bees are disappearing. A real-world environmental catastrophe that provides a key clue to The Doctor in The Stolen Earth.

Third, as the title The Stolen Earth suggests, planets are going missing. Whole planets, missing. Probably should have looked into that a little faster, Doctor, it was important.

And they sure do like to remind us that The Doctor keeps his old hand in a jar in the Tardis. You know, the one that was cut off and regrown right after his regeneration in The Christmas Invasion? That Jack had in his office throughout the first series of Torchwood? And that The Doctor took back from The Master in Last of the Time Lords? That one.

The Supporting Cast

Donna’s mother is kind of the laziest Russell T. Davies companion mother of the trio. Sylvia Noble is overly harsh with Donna, and at one point is quick to pin the Earth’s problems on The Doctor, the very person trying to stop them. She doesn’t have Jackie Tyler’s “Cautionary tale of mundane existence” or Mrs. Jones’ instant, irrational, sell-out-humanity commitment to distrusting The Doctor. In place, she has… not much. Not even grief for her husband, who we saw in The Runaway Bride but apparently passed on since then. She’s just mean to Donna. Like I said, kind of lazy.

There is, however, Wilf.

Wilfred Mott, played by Bernard Cribbins, made his first appearance in Voyage of the Damned, then in Partners in Crime was re-introduced and established as Donna’s grandad. (In The Sontaran Stratagem they underline that it’s the same guy.) And he is delightful. A believer in aliens, he also believes in Donna, and swiftly puts his faith in her new friend, despite having seem him vanish the previous Christmas.

Wilfred Mott is Ten’s final companion, but that’s still to come.

Also of importance this season… in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, the annual Steven Moffat story, The Doctor meets an archaeologist by the name of River Song (Alex Kingston), who swings into the adventure with a knowing “Hello, Sweetie.” She claims to already know him, but he’s never seen her before. An awkward situation for them on your first watch, heartbreaking once you’ve reached series six. River’s going to be vitally important down the line, but for now enjoy her intro/exit.

(Is River’s dismissal of Ten as not “the real Doctor,” not the Doctor she needs right now, a statement by writer Steven Moffat about how he intends to write a better Doctor once he takes over? No. No, it couldn’t be, could it? No… no. Maybe–no. No, Tennant hadn’t even committed to leaving yet, although… Let’s not worry about it.)

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Welcome back to the stage Davros, mad genius of Skaro, creator of the Daleks. This is a dude in serious need of some chill, and is out to unmake reality. Shame that there’s practically no trace of him for eleven episodes. Honestly, the whole “just drop a few buzzwords and then have them be important in the finale” Davies model can be just a touch unsatisfying.

Davros works almost better as a dark mirror to The Doctor than The Master. All of The Doctor’s genius with none of his compassion. Where The Doctor devotes his incredible mind to kindness, Davros is fixated on destruction. But he is able to cut into The Doctor’s very being, showing that they both create weapons of death: Davros created the Daleks, The Doctor makes weapons of his friends, and has left a trail of (mostly) good people dying in his name in his wake. There’s even a montage of people who died to help him, starting with Jabe the Tree from End of the World and going all the way to the unnamed hostess from Midnight. Davros might lose, but that revelation about The Doctor cuts deep and won’t heal in a hurry.

This year in Daleks: Dalek Caan, last survivor of the Cult of Skaro, managed to break through the unbreakable seal and pull Davros out of the Time War, so that he could build a new Dalek Empire. In the process, Caan went more than a little crazy. Anyway, brace for another trip on the old “The Daleks are back, the Daleks have been wiped out, the Daleks are back” rollercoaster. But a decent one.

Classic Monsters Revived: Say hello to the Sontarans, a cloned race of short, potato-looking warriors out to either conquer all or die in battle. Makes them hard to threaten, when death in combat is almost as good as dying. The lead Sontaran is General Staal, but keep your eye on his second-in-command, Commander Skorr. He’s played by Dan Starkey, who has a bright future playing Sontarans on this show.

The Good: The Adipose, little blobs of sentient fat, are utterly adorable, even if their Nanny is a little aggressive with the humans they’re born from.

People died, sure, but you can’t stay mad at the little guys.

The Vashta Nerada, microscopic swarms living in shadows (“Not every shadow… but any shadow”) once again prove Moffat’s ability to wring scares out of very simple monsters. A kid in a gas mask, a mime made up like a stone angel, and now darkness and shuffling space suits.

People probably wouldn’t keep insisting that Midnight is the best episode of the year if the villain weren’t so effective.

And humanity itself manages to be the monster no fewer than four times, either by being the real villain (Planet of the Ood) or by being swift to sell their fellow humans out to the villain (The Sontaran Stratagem, and to a lesser extent Midnight, where humans’ ability to be nasty plays into the monster’s agenda).

The Bad: I guess the villain of Voyage of the Damned isn’t their best work.

The Ugly: The big damn CGI wasp from The Unicorn and the Wasp is a little cheesy-looking. And the Pyrovile sure shout their name more dramatically than they needed to…

High Point

Several people I know would say Midnight, in which The Doctor is trapped in a broken transport with a group of increasingly agitated passengers while an unknown monster lurks outside in an impossibly hostile environment. I disagree. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying it’s not even in my top three.

No, for my money, the single best episode of series four is Fires of Pompeii. The Doctor and Donna find themselves in Pompeii on, as Captain Jack Harkness once called it, Volcano Day. Donna confronts the dark side of time travel, The Doctor has to make a horrible choice, the cast is solid, the central story strong, the tragedy is profound, and the ending is simply beautiful, if still sad. Catherine Tate proves that she brings a lot more to the table than screwball comedy, and it features two guest stars who will go on to be major players of future series.

Midnight is highly effective. Fires of Pompeii is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders.

Low Point

Turn Left, in which a sinister alien uses a beetle thing to alter history, making Donna change one decision, ensuring she never met The Doctor. And without her, he doesn’t survive the events of Runaway Bride.

Want to know what would have happened if The Doctor hadn’t been around for any of the crises of the last two years? Think watching the world slide into ruin from the lack of Time Lord intervention might be fun? Well it isn’t.

Turn Left and Midnight came about for the same reason as Love and Monsters and Blink: need to compress the shooting schedule. The previous two years, they just gave The Doctor and his companion a much reduced role so that David Tennant and Billie Piper/Freema Agyeman could start filming the next episode at the same time. In this case, David Tennant could film the bottle episode of Midnight while Catherine Tate was doing Turn Left. Catherine Tate was certainly capable of shouldering an episode without Tennant’s help, but after a year filled with screwball comedy and high-octane adventure, Turn Left is just a major downer, and by the time Britain is building concentration camps I just really wanted it to be done.

Highlights?

Lots.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a great two-parter from impending showrunner Steven Moffat, and as I’ll elaborate later, never, ever miss a River Song episode.

Partners in Crime is delightful screwball comedy that brings Donna back to the Tardis.

Unicorn and the Wasp continues a tradition of high quality Historical Guest Star episodes.

The Doctor’s Daughter is pretty incredible, as The Doctor, Donna, and Martha find themselves in the middle of a war between humans and fish-aliens called Hath fought through soldiers grown in instants from tissue samples of other people. Not clones, separate beings grown by reassembling the donor’s DNA. And when a sample is taken from The Doctor, resulting in Jenny, he must grapple with the notion that there’s a possible new Time Lord that is, in a way, his offspring. It’s one of the few episodes to acknowledge, and possibly the only one to drill into, the fact that once upon a time The Doctor had a wife and children. And at least one grandchild, whose name was Susan. And they’re all gone.

And Planet of the Ood is basically the best Ood episode, and they’re about to be important.

Skippables?

…Nope, can’t think of one. I don’t love Midnight, but I can’t advise skipping it. I mean for what it is, which is an incredibly tense bottle episode, it’s really well done. And The Sontaran Stratagem is a lot of build-up to the more engaging The Poison Sky, but is a “Previously on” segment really enough?

And Turn Left is the return of Rose and features Wilf. You probably shouldn’t skip that.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

  • Most important is Fires of Pompeii, which features both a future Doctor and a future companion. Peter Capaldi, at the time of writing about to end his reign as Twelve, appears as a marble merchant whose family becomes key to The Doctor and Donna’s investigations. Karen Gillan, future Guardian of the Galaxy and Jumanji victim, back then less than two years away from getting her own Tardis key, has a less significant role as a local prophet/priestess. There’s no callback to this for Gillan, probably because the makeup and accent disguise her more than, say, Freema Agyeman playing Martha Jones’ weirdly identical cousin the year before Martha was introduced, but the Twelfth Doctor looking exactly like some guy an earlier self met in Pompeii eventually gets an explanation.
  • Academy Award Nominee and Rogue One platoon leader Felicity Jones turns up as a guest at the party in The Unicorn and the Wasp.
  • In addition to Kylie Minogue, the crew of the Starship Titanic includes Being Human’s and apparently Quantico’s Russell Tovey and British actor of note Geoffrey Palmer.
  • I mostly just know Colin Salmon as Oliver Queen’s stepdad from the first season of Arrow, but apparently he’s a big enough deal to have played himself in Master of None. Anyway, he’s in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. As is Westworld hostess Talulah Riley.
  • Midnight features David Troughton, son of Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor. He’s not famous, but that’s neat.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: Joe Dempsie, who GoT fans know as Baratheon bastard Gendry, turns up in The Doctor’s Daughter. And Tim McInnerny, who has been popping up lately in Winterfell as one of the crankier northern lords, but who I still remember as Percy/Captain Darling on Blackadder, is the would-be owner of the Ood in Planet of the Ood. If you claim to own a species, try not to meet The Doctor. It won’t go great.

Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter is played by Georgia Moffett, the daughter of Fifth Doctor Peter Davison. And apparently she and Tennant hit it off on set, because they got married and had a daughter (possibly in that order). So The Doctor’s Daughter is played by The Doctor’s daughter, who married The Doctor and gave birth to The Doctor’s daughter. Only on this show.

Martha’s engaged to that doctor she met in the third series finale’s alternate timeline. Guess she looked him up after all. Won’t last, though. Their careers don’t match and he’s Lucifer.

After enduring Jackie Tyler’s pestering and Wossname Jones’ bitter paranoia, The Doctor lands a solid burn against Sylvia Noble’s constant belittling of Donna towards the end.

UNIT is back in a big way, though they suffer heavy losses against the Sontarans and the Daleks, and lose their flagship The Valiant. No more CG helicarriers for you, UNIT. Also, they reference The Doctor’s old pal and UNIT’s commander, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Sadly he never made an appearance on the reboot.

Doctor Quote of the Year: Ten finally gets to say “Alons-y, Alonso!” but also mixes it up with the odd “Molto bene!” And everybody seems to take a turn saying “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: Agatha Christie solving a parlour mystery.

Saddest Moment: First time through, it’s got to be What Happens to Donna. But if you rewatch, if you know where things are going, if new characters have become old friends… then it’s in the Library. “All the time we’ve been together, you knew I was coming here.”

Next time… Russell T. Davies and David Tennant take a goodbye tour as the show mostly takes 2009 off.

Comic TV With Dan: Preacher

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: an unconventional search for God.

Short version, if you’re not watching Preacher, then start.

Premise

Following the explosive events that ended season one, small town preacher with a shady past Jesse Custer is on the road searching for God, with his volatile girlfriend Tulip and buddy Cassidy the Irish vampire in tow. Jesse’s still bonded to Genesis, the half angel/half demon baby that gives him the power to make anyone do anything he says. So this should be easy, right?

Well… There are a few complications.

First… and I’m surprised the comics didn’t go into this more… the world is big and God is hard to find, even if you think you know which city to start with. And since nobody’s ever met God, you could be looking right at him and you wouldn’t necessarily know.

Second… last season, the angels who were supposed to be guarding Genesis dispatched the unstoppable cowboy killing machine, The Saint of Killers, to kill Jesse.

The Unholy Cowboy Terminator

Third… The Grail, a religious organization that secretly controls the world, has taken an interest in Jesse. And one of their top people, the cunning and heartless Helmut Starr, wants to control him.

Not a person you want giving you a lot of thought.

And fourth… Tulip and Cassidy are not 100% on board with this plan. They have their own things going on that Jesse barely seems to notice, and the perpetually debauched Cassidy is still sweet on Tulip.

Oh, also, Eugene “Arseface” Root remains in a sticky situation after last year, and makes an unexpected friend who might be able to get him out of it.

This show’s debut season was impressive if scattered, but with all of the origin stuff settled, they were off like a shot this year, and everything was clicking. In university, half of my friend group eagerly waited for the new Preacher every month, and now I’m right back there waiting for fresh Preacher every week.

Or, at the moment, eight to nine months. Damn it.

Strengths

Wham! Pow! Billy Joel’d! When Preacher has a major fight scene, they do not mess around. It doesn’t happen every episode, but there are some epic throwdowns. Everyone else doing fights on TV, watch Preacher and take notes (yes, you, Iron Fist, always you, Iron Fist). The rest of comic book TV has their work cut out for them if they want to top the Billy Joel Fight.

Tighter focus: Season one was spread over the entire town of Annville, but season two opens with the thing season one most notably lacked… a tight focus on the three leads and their relationships. After too many season one episodes where Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip were split up, they’re finally a unit, and the first half of the season is laser focused on them, and it’s delightful.

The Faces of Evil: As good as Jackie Earle Haley was as Odin Quincannon, the show absolutely crushed it this year with the Saint and Herr Starr. Graham McTavish is chilling as the killer cowboy, and Pip Torrens kills as Starr. He’s savage, humourless, absolutely hateable yet fascinating to watch. If he’s to be the main villain on this show, may he last six seasons and a movie.

Twisted Storytelling: I read every issue, miniseries, and one-shot of original Preacher, and I never know what they’re going to do next. For example, one of the three new regular characters? Until he walked on screen for the first time, I would not expected [REDACTED] to be a character at all, let alone an opening-credit-regular character. And with one slight exception, everything they have pulled has been pretty impressive.

Two Acts: Basically, the show splits into two halves, fairly cleanly. The first half follows the trio’s journey to New Orleans and run-ins with the Saint (with revelations about their pasts), and in the second half, Starr and the Grail make their play. It works well.

Impressive Cast: The cast all does such great work, it’s impressive even if you don’t know that almost none of them are speaking in their native accents. I think it might just be Julie Ann Emery as Featherstone, and I’m not even positive about her.

Cassidy and the angel Fiore take a break from a hedonistic bender to read Archie comics.

Learning about the Saint of Killers involves the trio reading the actual, original Saint of Killers miniseries.

A Bill Hicks poster in Fiore’s dressing room serves as a neat Easter egg to the Bill Hicks tribute issue of the original comic.

They actually did Humperdoo. I wasn’t sure they would but they did. (When it happens you’ll know.)

Weaknesses

Underused Tulip: Somehow Jesse is still the only one whose story has momentum. In the back half, when cracks begin to form between the central trio (which of course they had to, so let’s not call that a flaw), Tulip’s plot has no second gear. Again. And Cassidy’s is mostly background.

High Point

Sokosha. After two shootouts and a lot of walking, the Saint of Killers comes to call on Jesse… with unexpected twists and hints along the way.

Low Point

Backdoors. Look… there aren’t really bad episodes, but… sometimes, when the protagonists are clearly being manipulated, and they’re not seeing it happen, and you want to scream “Damn it, Will, Hannibal is literally messing with your brain,” but you know this is just going to keep happening until the finale… it can get frustrating. That’s where I was going into Backdoors.

Also the more they split up the main trio the more the show suffers, if only because they are not good at giving Tulip her own story.

MVP

Pip Torrens as Helmut Starr. It’s a whole new Preacher when he shows up.

Tips For Next Season

Okay. So. We’re going to Angelville. Gonna finally meet Jesse’s less noble relatives. That is… gonna be thing, and after the Saint and Starr I trust you to nail it. And Cassidy’s there. That’s new, he took that arc off in the books, so seeing Cassidy meet Gram’ma and Jody and TC could be neat.

But you know who else is around that wasn’t in the comic arc? Herr Starr. I want to see Starr and Gram’ma cross paths in just the worst way. Give me that, please thanks.

Also Tulip and Featherstone’s reunion should be a fight for the record books.

Overall Grade: A-

Coming soon to this feature: I swear to Zod I’m going to get around to watching The Tick soon.

Coming next time to this blog in general: something less TV related.

Does that mean I’m done with examining Doctor Who? HA! No.

Overthinking Doctor Who 3: On the Rebound

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

I didn’t overly care for The Runaway Bride first I saw it. Not sure why, because it is delightful.

At the end of Doomsday, in the closing seconds after the tear-stained farewell between Rose and Ten, The Doctor turns to see a bride (the wonderful Catherine Tate) has appeared in the Tardis and is angrily demanding to know where she is and how she got there, to which he can only stammer “What?” over and over. It’s pretty funny.

The Christmas Invasion was a key part of series two, introducing plot threads (Torchwood) and the new Doctor. Hope you didn’t count on that being a regular thing, though, because it won’t happen again for a while. Okay, sure, The Runaway Bride introduces a companion, Donna Noble, but not this year’s companion.

The Runaway Bride is a break from the tragedy of Doomsday, some simple screwball comedy (and world-threatening menace) that showcases delightful comic chemistry between Catherine Tate and David Tennant (his reaction to repeatedly being called “Martian” is simple yet hilarious).

And in the end, while Donna chooses not to run off with The Doctor today, she does remind him of something important… Rose or no Rose, he needs someone. He shouldn’t be alone.

Luckily…

Series Three: “Time Lord… You are not alone.”

At the beginning of series three, The Doctor has never felt more alone. When the trauma of burning Gallifrey was still fresh, he had Rose. In series three, she’s gone, stranded somewhere he can never go, and the happy-go-lucky best pal Doctor of series two is hollowed out as a result.

So when the Face of Boe tells him he might not be alone in the universe after all, it’s a beacon of hope he can’t quite bring himself to face.

Series three is all about reminding us that The Doctor is a big, mythic character. That for all of his attempts to seem down-to-Earth-or-equivalent, he’s so much more. “He’s ice and fire and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

By the time the resolution of the finale hinges on everyone on Earth thinking about The Doctor until it gives him godlike powers, it’s like “Okay, we get it, he’s cool. He’s so very cool. We’re on board, already, we watch the show.”

Yeah, on that… I’m going to need everyone who thinks Steven Moffat is bad about deus ex machina to rewatch Last of the Time Lords and then explain yourselves. I’m not saying Moffat doesn’t occasionally make up some freaky time travel things to resolve a plot, but the deus ex machina finale nonsense Davies pulled makes Moffat era finales look like Law and Order.

Really sensible and logical. Was that not clear? I feel that was clear.

The Doctor

Weird to take such a positive, energetic take on The Doctor and then suck all of that out of him for a whole year. Okay, that was unfair, it’s all still there in most episodes (but definitely not all), but The Doctor is defined by grief this year. His heartbreak over losing Rose haunts everything he does, from his reluctance to take on a new companion to one of the reasons why his new companion Martha voluntarily takes her leave from the Tardis, something that almost never happens, and certainly hasn’t happened to a companion since.

Well, mostly not.

How alienated is The Doctor? When he turns himself into a human (something I’ll be discussing later, and not in a flattering way), he gives Martha a series of instructions on what to do if things go wrong. He does not even think to include “What to do in case I fall in love with someone,” a fact that fake-human-Doctor John Smith finds horrifying.

The Doctor needs a kick in the ass, is what he needs, but he won’t really get one until next year. And he won’t get one that takes for three.

The Companion

Martha Jones, would-be doctor, would-be Doctor’s girlfriend, and the first ever Companion of Colour.

Poor, poor Martha Jones.

A med student prepping for her final exams, Martha gets swept up with The Doctor when her hospital (St. Thomas’, a pretty swank hospital to be across the Thames from Parliament, frankly, so she must be fairly damn clever). She doesn’t even get to be a full, proper companion until the halfway point of the series. Until then, it’s The Doctor offering her one adventure into the past, then okay we may as well do one into the future, alright that was a rough one, one more into New York…”

The first seven episodes all happen in a row, over a few days, with minimal time jumps (like, cut from night to the next morning is probably the biggest), and that’s all the time it takes for Martha to fall for The Doctor. In fact it’s happened well before the first “Some amount of time and adventures later” cut. She’s completely smitten by the time she asks, no, demands that this stop being a temporary arrangement at the end of The Lazarus Experiment. However… it’s already begun to be clear that he doesn’t really see her, because he’s still hung up on Rose.

And that never gets better, and that’s agonizing for Martha. Eventually it’s part of what makes her choose staying with her family rather than travelling on with The Doctor. He’ll never see her the way she sees him, and while she’s confident they’ll meet again (rightly so, after a guest stint on Torchwood series two she pops back for a couple of visits next year), she needs to get away from him to figure out a life for herself.

There are a lot of implied Doctor/Martha adventures between 42, the last “We pick up where we left off” adventure, and Utopia, the beginning of the three-part finale arc, and good for her. I hope there were a lot of adventures that happened between episodes, because otherwise her time in the Tardis would be a downer. Two trips to the past, two to the future, two adventures at home, nearly dying in five of those, and then stuck in one place for months. Twice. Human Nature/Family of Blood sees the pair spend months in 1913, an incredibly sucky time/place for a black woman at the best of times, where future doctor Martha Jones has to work as a scullery maid. That would be a rough gig even if she didn’t need to watch The Doctor fall in love with someone else. And then right after that is Blink, where The Doctor and Martha get stuck in 1969 (which again is not the friendliest time towards black women, like all of recorded Earth history up to and at least somewhat beyond the present day) and she has to take a job in a shop so that she and The Doctor can afford food and shelter.

You are an indescribable genius with natural charm, Doctor. Get. A. Job.

But she does mention having watched the moon landing four times. Which means she’s had some good times with The Doctor that might not even have been life-threatening. It also means she’s probably killed a few Silents by now.

We’ll get to that. Later.

Harry Saxton

Beginning in Smith and Jones, our premiere, the name “Harry Saxon” begins flying around. But it’s slightly more than “Bad Wolf” and “Torchwood,” because that Harry Saxton is up to something. He’s an MP on the rise, riding anti-alien-weirdness sentiment and an odd, indefinable charisma into the void left at Downing Street when The Doctor arranged for the fall of Harriet Jones.

Now… it would be easy to say “Hey Doctor, I know you were mad at how the Sycorax thing played out, but maybe you shouldn’t ought to have done that to Harriet, because look what happened” given what her replacement will do. But that’s unfair. If she’d still been in office when Saxon began his play, she’d have just been one more obstacle to be removed. And if the goddamn Slitheen didn’t let an existing Prime Minister stop them from seizing control of British government, then Harriet Jones couldn’t have slowed down Harry Saxon.

As to who Harry Saxon is, why he’s so interested in The Doctor as to weaponize Martha’s family against him… the answers to this 21st century mystery are, improbably, waiting at the very end of the universe, with a well-meaning old man named Professor Yana.

Who seems to find the words “Tardis,” “regeneration,” and “time vortex” reeeeeeaaaaally familiar somehow.

The Supporting Cast

Martha has more than just a mother, she has a whole family, all of which seem to count on her to be the voice of reason in familial disputes. But while her brother, sister, and father are simply tethers to Earth, her mother… well, she’s a Russell T. Davies era companion mother, and also the worst Russell T. Davies companion mother. She’s bitter, hostile, and paranoid. She decides, within minutes of meeting him, that she doesn’t care for this Doctor guy her daughter’s taken an interest in, and her ugly, angry, overprotective nature makes her all too willing to sell out The Doctor to Harry Saxton.

The one and only thing I like about Martha’s mother is that she gets a nice, long time to know that that was the single worst decision she could have made, and given Martha’s life choices from here, her opinion about what Martha should do with her life clearly carries no weight from then on.

“I don’t like this new job of yours, Martha–”
“Hey, remember when you tried to sell out the planet, the whole planet, because you had a ‘bad feeling’ about a guy I brought to a party?”
“…Right.”

“I don’t know about this man you’re seeing–”
“You know who you did like? Harry Saxon. You liked him plenty.

No, no, don’t talk to me about hypnotic signals affecting all of the UK, I know about those, but they didn’t work on Martha’s father, so I’m not letting that harsh old woman off the hook.

But hey, Captain Jack’s back for the last three episodes! Yay! And they explain A) what happened when Rose resurrected him at the end of series one and why he got left behind (for Who fans), and B) why he can no longer die (for Torchwood fans).

The Monsters

The Big Bad: What if you were the last of your kind? Alone in the universe, no matter how many other people you find and befriend. But what if there were just one more? One more person like you?

And what if that one person were the worst possible choice?

Ladies and gentlemen, readers of all ages, the first and greatest of The Doctor’s Time Lord nemeses, The Master.

Introduced as a foil for Third Doctor John Pertwee, the would-be-conqueror Time Lord has battled Doctors across the decades, and made his first reboot appearance in series three. All of The Doctor’s cleverness with none of his conscience, The Master is never an opponent to take lightly. Even back in the 90s when he was briefly Eric Roberts.

The Master takes on new meaning in the Davies era, because The Doctor’s nemesis is now also the only other living Time Lord. An old friend that is The Doctor’s only living link to his people and his past, but who is determined to destroy him. Whether he beats The Master or not, The Doctor still loses.

This Year in Daleks: The Cult of Skaro, those four Daleks designed to explore new ideas, take over the construction of the Empire State Building to further their most radical and un-Daleky experiment yet. It… doesn’t go great for them.

The Good: The Carrionites, aliens who look like witches and speak in iambic pentameter. Series one had ghosts who were actually aliens, series two had a werewolf that was actually an alien, now these ladies. And if you were wondering, eventually there’ll be vampires that are aliens and a mummy that’s… I forget the mummy’s deal. We’ll get to him.

The Weeping Angels, now a classic, make their first appearance this year.

As do the Judoon, rhino-faced freelance police officers with a somewhat forceful approach.

The Bad: I don’t love The Family of Blood.

The Ugly: They did not have the technology to animate a scorpion monster with a human face in The Lazarus Experiment. That was some Mummy Returns-bad CGI.

High Point

I know what you think I’m going to say and I’ll get to it, but first…

The Shakespeare Code is clever beyond measure, and it involves William Shakespeare repelling an alien invasion by freestyling iambic pentameter, which ends in a Harry Potter spell.

I don’t know what else I need to say.

Low Point

Human Nature and The Family of Blood have a couple of points of merit, I guess, but… to escape the body-stealing hunters The Family of Blood, The Doctor transforms himself into an average human: an instructor at a private school in 1913. His memories replaced, lost in the illusion of being teacher John Smith, he and Martha are essentially trapped in immediately-pre-WWI England, which again is just a bummer of a time for Martha to be stuck in (man but it sucks to be Martha).

This “Time Lord hiding out as a human” thing is vitally important to the Harry Saxon arc, but… I dislike these episodes for the same reason I dislike episodes of The Flash where Barry doesn’t have his speed: watching the hero not be the hero isn’t any fun. It might be a little interesting to watch The Doctor being human for a bit but he’s lacking as a protagonist.

And it doesn’t help that the hyper-obnoxious Family of Blood cried out for a swift and brutal defeat like nobody since the goddamn Slitheen (they aren’t Slitheen bad, nobody is). Realizing that this story was going to continue for another week was one of the most crushing moments I’ve had watching this show. Why did Russell T. Davies give the worst villains two parters.

That said when they do get theirs, it’s pretty satisfying.

Highlights?

Any fans reading are mystified that I didn’t name Blink as the highlight of the year. Like Love & Monstersit’s a Doctor-light episode, with The Doctor and Martha barely appearing and a new character driving the action. Unlike Love & Monsters, it’s brilliant. It introduces a new and swiftly iconic villain in the Weeping Angels, is the first appearance of the phrase “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey,” it sells a completely new and utterly one-time protagonist in Sally Sparrow, it juggles horror, humour, and heartache, and has a really neat conceit, as Sally must unravel messages from The Doctor from almost forty years in the past to defeat the Angels. It’s just… it’s weird to call an episode that barely features the title character the best of the year. Shakespeare Code did a lot of that and also The Doctor is, you know, in it.

Other highlights… Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks is a solid double feature. The Lazarus Experiment is worth it just for why and how The Doctor sticks around after saying his good-byes to Martha.

Skippables?

Nope, sorry, much as I dislike the villains and the lack of Doctor, Human Nature and Family of Blood are absolutely indispensable to the year’s arc, and really let David Tennant act his heart out in the second half.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

  • John Simm might be a big deal in the UK but I only know him from this and the British version of Life on Mars. Maybe he’s more familiar to you, I don’t know. Anyway.
  • Two Academy Award nominees this year. Star of The Social Network and history’s worst Spider-Man movies Andrew Garfield tests out the southern drawl that got him an Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks.
  • Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan takes centre stage as Sally Sparrow in Blink.
  • Mark Gatiss, occasional Who writer, co-creator of Sherlock, where he also plays Mycroft Holmes, makes his first of two appearances– well, three including an uncredited voice-over– in The Lazarus Experiment.
  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I know from… things, and will be in Wrinkle in Time soon, is Martha’s sister.
  • Pip Torrens, currently playing Herr Starr on Preacher, is John Smith’s headmaster in Human Nature/Family of Blood. 
  • In Last of the Time Lords, Martha Jones teams up with a resistance soldier (a doctor, in fact) played by Lucifer’s Tom Ellis.
  • And Jessica Hynes, co-creator and co-star of Spaced with Simon Pegg, is the 1913 school nurse who tempts John Smith with a simple and good human life.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: There’s enough overlap over the years to require a second category. Human Nature/Family of Blood features two: Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen) is the most notable member of the Family of Blood, Son of Mine, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed) is a slightly psychic student who’s key to resolving (albeit prolonging) the whole mess.

Wow. Lots of neat guest stars this year. Probably a record.

Christopher Eccleston got the first stab at telling the audience (via Rose) that Gallifrey and the Time Lords were gone. But, for all of his strengths as an actor, based partly on what he was given he couldn’t sell that profound loss like David Tennant did in Gridlock, finally telling Martha what happened to his world, and allowing the grief over its loss to trickle out.

This season got a new theme for The Doctor, which next series became the theme for Martha: The Doctor Forever. Does that not say everything about Martha Jones. Doesn’t even get her own theme, just has to ride shotgun on The Doctor’s.

Future showrunner Chris Chibnall writes his first episode: the real-time disaster adventure 42. I mean the story revolves around a disaster, not that the episode is a disaster. Actually it’s pretty decent.

Doctor Quote of the Year: It made its debut last season, but it’s back to stay: “Allons-y!” Although “I’m sorry” is still a frequent flier.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: William freaking Shakespeare. Maybe I named Madame de Pompadour as the best one too soon. Yep, yep, I surely did.

Saddest moment: “I have until the rain stops.”
(Honourable mentions: David Tennant can make you sad when a monster dies, and he does in the finale. Also, in Family of Blood, The Doctor’s human identity John Smith must die so that The Doctor can return, and he doesn’t love that idea. But I was so ready for that to happen by then that it didn’t bother me much.)

Next time… Russell T. Davies ends his last full series as showrunner with a bang, I tell you what.

Overthinking Doctor Who Part Two: Enter Ten

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

Between series one and two begins a beloved annual tradition, the Doctor Who Christmas special. David Tennant, briefly glimpsed in the traditional post-regeneration new-guy cameo, makes his proper debut in the closing act of The Christmas Invasion. Before that… well…

Regenerating from absorbing the Time Vortex takes a lot out of The Doctor, and he ends up in a coma for most of the episode. While he sleeps… stalked by robot Santas and Christmas trees… aliens invade, compelling a large chunk of the human race to walk up onto the roof. With The Doctor out of commission, it’s up to Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (told you she’d be back) to face down the invaders.

No, I didn’t say “Harriet Jones and Rose Tyler.” Sure, she’s still here, but she is goddamned useless. If she hadn’t almost wiped out the Earth through her daddy issues, this would definitely be Rose Tyler at her worst. Like half an hour of ugly crying and one pathetic attempt to stand up to the invading Sycorax, and then The Doctor strolls out in his jim-jams and sorts everything out through an epic introductory scene. No, David Tennant doesn’t stroll out, he struts out. He owns every frame of his screentime, and shows off everything that’s amazing about Ten.

This is the only time a Christmas special has ever been used as an intro episode for a new Doctor. Mostly it goes the other way, with three Doctors so far using Christmas (or a combination of Christmas and New Year’s) for their swan songs.

Series Two: “The Doctor, in the Tardis, with Rose Tyler. Just as it should be.”

…Or should it?

As Doctor Who tribute band Chameleon Circuit  put it…

“Because my life before you was unreasonably mundane
Never been happier although we face death every day,
I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

See… supporting cast are often quick to point out the dangers of life with The Doctor. Unreasonably high risk of Dalek-murder, proven risk of Cyberman-related death, and the fact that wanting to impress The Doctor makes people all-too-willing to throw themselves into all of that danger. But what doesn’t get brought up enough is that life in the Tardis is a drug. Life back home can never, ever compete to exploring all of time and space with the most remarkable man (soon to be woman) you’ll ever meet.

And that’s where we find Rose. We’d seen, more than once, that Rose was choosing Tardis life over home life, and given how Jackie and Mickey made it look, who on Earth could blame her. But it gets worse this season. Pay attention and you’ll see it. The very idea of leaving The Doctor seems toxic to Rose. She would stay on a collapsing space station rather than leave it without him. She would abandon her mother on an alternate Earth rather than leave The Doctor’s side. Earth life is losing all meaning as she loses herself in The Doctor.

It’s not just the time travel and other worlds anymore. The Doctor and Rose Tyler are falling in love, which was unprecedented for any incarnation of this show. Even Romana, the only Time Lord companion who wasn’t a blood relation, was a student and not a girlfriend. They might not be able to say the words until it’s too late (or a second past that), but it’s happening. It’s clear. And it’s not heading to a happy place.

He tries to warn her it can only end sadly. “You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of my life with you.” But she only cares about that first half, even if her mother fears that everything that was Rose Tyler is being hollowed out by the experience. Not that Jackie’s opinion on the subject had ever been trustworthy, but… she doesn’t seem to be entirely wrong. Rose is only alive when she’s near The Doctor, and that’s not healthy.

The Doctor

“Look at these people, these human beings. Consider their potential! From the day they arrive on the planet, blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than – no, hold on. Sorry, that’s The Lion King…”

Tennant’s Doctor is a tour de force. His edge has softened since Nine, but it’s not gone. Never gone. But when Ten’s charming and personable, it’s not covering pain. He authentically loves (nearly) everyone, bonds easily, and never forgets a face, even if it was someone he only met briefly who’s aged a couple of decades. Chat with Ten for a few minutes and he’ll be your new best friend. But cross him and you’ll live in fear.

He’s filled with love and compassion, but do. Not. Cross. Him. Tennant goes from gleeful to burning rage on a dime, and the fury of this Time Lord is not to be trifled with. His smile could melt ice, but his rage burns like the sun.

He’s brilliant at speeches. He turns a phrase like nobody’s business (Just watch his fascination with a “big, red button that must never be pressed”). He’s possibly the most lovable Doctor since Tom Baker. I think. I have seen practically no Peter Davison episodes, so I’m kind of guessing on that front.

If you can’t love the Tenth Doctor, you can’t love Doctor Who, and if that’s the case… in his words, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

The Companion

Rose is in love. Deeply, passionately, the type of love that they’d write novels about in the 19th century. Tragic novels. Novels about houses brought to ruin by doomed romance. Her love for The Doctor plays out more like addiction than true love. In most cases, left without The Doctor, she collapses.

There are exceptions. Fear Her, most notably, where The Doctor is taken out of commission and Rose has to finish saving the Earth. Which, with help from the sidelined Doctor, she manages to do. But this is driven more by a need to get him back than a desire to help out anyone else. And when the monster is stopped, it takes a lot for her to care about anything but where The Doctor is.

And her daddy issues are ongoing and rampant. Upon accidentally landing on a parallel Earth where her father never died (or had kids), despite every protest The Doctor lodges, she is drawn to her alt-father like iron to a magnet. This might technically result in The Doctor saving everyone on Earth-2 faster than he might otherwise have, but it doesn’t quite excuse how she cannot wrap her head around “alternate Earth, these are not your parents.”

And she accidentally protects the ultimate evil a little in The Satan Pit but that’s largely excusable.

Rose spends series two insisting that she’ll stay with The Doctor forever, no matter how many red flags ex-companions, her mother, and possibly-Satan throw her way suggesting that she might be wrong about that.

Torchwood

This year’s Bad Wolf is Torchwood, briefly mentioned in the episode Bad Wolf. In the second episode, Tooth and Claw, Queen Victoria, angered over her run-in with aliens and their nonsense, founds the Torchwood Institute to deal with alien menaces.

And then they get mentioned once per episode until taking centre stage for the two-part finale.

It’s kind of weak, really. They don’t add anything to series two. The finale could have been centered around anyone… Earth-1’s Cyberdyne Industries, Harry Van Statten’s people, anyone. That it happened to be a clandestine government agency stealing alien tech to advance Britain is just sort of… there.

All it really does is pave the way for Captain Jack Harkness’ spinoff, as Jack takes control of what’s left of Torchwood following the finale.

The Supporting Cast

Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith improved this year. Jackie didn’t get less demanding, but did begin to shift away from being a personification of the mundane life Rose seeks to escape and towards the real life Rose is throwing away to run from disaster to disaster, monster to monster. Jackie’s concerns about Rose’s safety stop being over-protectiveness (although… not that “over,” all things considered) and start being a legitimate concern about her state of mind.

And Mickey grows tired of being the one left behind. He steps up, joins Team Tardis for a spell, and then charts his own path as a defender of the Earth.

Pete Tyler is a bigger part of the show this year… well, Pete Tyler, because of course he does, because the only thing that drives Rose more than loving The Doctor is her literally world-shattering daddy issues.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Welcome back The Doctor’s number three classic villain, the Cybermen.

Upgrade or be deleted. You pick.

Only now, in a world with actual production values, they’re more horrifying metal monsters instead of people in flimsy looking silver jumpsuits. The Cybermen come into being on an alternate Earth, but eventually find their way to Earth-1. And even if they didn’t, a much later episode claims that the Cybermen happen, always. Wherever man considers upgrading himself with cybernetics, a time will come when emotions will be considered a weakness, and Cybermen will come into being. And from there, they’ll decide everyone should be Cybermen.

This Year in Daleks: What, you thought Rose wiping out all of the Daleks meant no more Daleks? Please. The Daleks come back from utter extinction no less than four times. This year, we meet the Cult of Skaro: Daleks Sec, Jast, Caan, and Thay.

Sec’s gon’ give it to ya

Tasked by Dalek high command during the Time War to experiment with that so un-Dalek notion, creativity, they were the first (and only) Daleks to adopt names, and escaped the end of the Time War by hiding in the void between universes. Not a fun choice for them, all told. They also experimented with something much more important… smack talk. Dalek/Cybermen trash talk is something beautiful to behold. Not that fans didn’t experiment with some improvements.

The Good: The Krillitane might be a little cheesy in their CG bat form, but in their evil teacher/Anthony Head form they work well. As do the clockwork robots of The Girl in the Fireplace. Cassandra the Last Human makes a body-hopping return appearance, only not to end up the villain of the episode.

The Bad: Enjoy watching spoiled brats have a tantrum? No? Then Fear Her might be a rough ride. Also… she mostly works, but I do find the face-eating television lady from The Idiot Lantern a little smug and grating at times.

The Ugly: Look… I’m not saying that Doctor Who shouldn’t work with the Children in Need charity… but the Abzorbaloff is what happens when you ask children to design monsters and promise to put the winner on television.

Yeah. Not… not great.

Could they afford a CG werewolf stalking Queen Victoria through a Scottish manor? No. Should they not have had a werewolf, aided by kung fu monks, stalking Queen Victoria through a Scottish manor? Hell no, that was awesome.

High Point

It’s hard to pick. There are two amazing episodes near the beginning, and it’s impossible to choose which is the real highlight. They aren’t a two-parter, but they are back-to-back.

School Reunion sees The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey investigating bizarre behaviour at a school… bizarre behaviour that has also attracted the attention of Sarah Jane Smith, companion to the Third and Fourth Doctors, and one of the longest-running and most beloved companions of the original series. And even better? She’s brought K-9, the robot dog who The Doctor adopted for much of the 70s.

This was huge for me, since Sarah Jane and K-9 were right out of my childhood. My earliest Who episodes were Tom Baker and Sarah Jane, and K-9 becoming a part of the Tardis crew was the greatest non-Jedi and non-Ghostbuster thing tiny me had ever seen. So having them back was brilliant. Sarah Jane seeing the Tardis for the first time in decades, K-9 back in action, and Rose seeing the first thing that’s truly scared her since she started travelling in the Tardis… the possibility that she could be left behind one day. And it doesn’t hurt that the episode is very well done, features a pivotal character beat for Mickey, has a great villain played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head, and one of the more simply chilling moments for Ten’s dark side. “I used to have so much mercy. One warning. That’s all you get.” This would easily have been the highlight of the year.

But then it’s followed by The Girl in the Fireplace, which is just amazing. Ten, Rose, and on his first proper Tardis voyage ever, Mickey find a spaceship run by clockwork robots and stalking a French noblewoman 3000 years in the past throughout her whole life. Yes, it’s the Moffat episode, and it’s brilliant. Hilarious in places, heartbreaking in others, one of their best historical guest stars in Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis and the uncrowned Queen of France, plenty of callback lines to his last episodes and a few lines that will be called back to in a few years. It’s a genius piece of storytelling that has one of my all-time favourite exchanges:

“It’s a spacio-temporal hyperlink.”
“What’s that?”
“No idea. Made it up. Didn’t want to say ‘Magic door.'”

And this great deleted scene.

I can’t say enough good things about The Girl in the Fireplace, so I’ll stop trying.

Low Point

I always thought it would be Love & Monsters, the first Doctor-light episode, with The Doctor and Rose barely appearing. I mean any episode with more Jackie Tyler than The Doctor can’t be all that great, can it?

But no, it’s Fear Her.

In Fear Her, a trip to 2012 to check out the London Olympics brings The Doctor and Rose into conflict with an alien being that has possessed a young girl, Chloe Webber. Chloe was traumatized by her (now dead) abusive father, and the alien comes from a race that telepathically clings to each other to endure their journeys through space. Now it’s been cut off, lacking connection to billions of friends and family, and is attempting to fight its loneliness by trapping nearby people in drawings.

This is… an annoying monster. Not horrible like the Slitheen, but just annoying. There’s an element of sympathy here, because she’s going crazy from solitude. But her method of dealing with it is inflicting real damage on people. The Doctor and Rose clash on this, correctly identifying it as a child throwing a tantrum. Rose favours discipline, The Doctor empathy… he thinks the only humane response is to find a way to get her back to her people. Once she’s reconnected to billions of her own kind, she won’t need to possess Chloe and lash out at the world.

But she is possessing Chloe and is lashing out at the world. She is trapping innocent people in living Hells and then getting mad at them for not liking it. And she comes alarmingly close to doing this to the entire world.

And she isn’t even sorry. I agree that we’re talking about a traumatized child, so The Doctor’s solution is the best one. Put things right rather than inflicting further harm. But the humane solution falls slightly flat when that punk-ass, whisper-talking, world-ruining psychopath child alien doesn’t even seem to understand why what she did was wrong.

Better hope she doesn’t get lost again, is all I’m saying.

It just makes for an unsatisfying episode.

Highlights?

The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit introduce everyone’s favourite tentacle-faced aliens, the Ood, and are a nicely tense two-parter. Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel are the lynchpin of series two, and allow Mickey to finally be more than the “tin dog” of Rose’s pals and gals. And Tooth and Claw features Queen Victoria, shaolin monks, and a werewolf. I have hooked people on this show with that description alone.

Skippables?

You know, I just don’t love everything in between The Satan Pit and Army of Ghosts. Huh. That turns out to only be two episodes. Love & Monsters and Fear Her. I made my feelings clear regarding Fear Her, and Love & Monsters is just a little… disposable. If you’re going to introduce a bunch of lovable losers and have them become a make-shift family only to start immediately killing them off, make it a better episode.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: I mentioned Anthony Head. Future companion and Sense8’s Best Girlfriend Ever, Freema Agyeman, has a brief role in Army of Ghosts, which is retconned to be her future character’s weirdly identical cousin. They don’t say “weirdly identical,” that’s me, because I have seven cousins and none of us look that similar to each other. Sophia Myles is the titular Girl in the Fireplace, but maybe only I know her from stuff? You might not. Harry Potter’s Moaning Myrtle is a member of LINDA in Love & Monsters.

The Face of Boe is back, with a message for The Doctor that he isn’t quite ready to deliver. In The Doctor’s words… “That is enigmatic. That is textbook enigmatic.”

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Brilliant!” followed closely by “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” But his signature line debuts in the second to last episode.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: As mentioned, we double up this season with Queen Victoria and Madame de Pompadour.

Saddest moment: “I suppose, if it’s my last chance to say it… Rose Tyler–”

Next time, The Doctor’s on the rebound with the first Companion of Colour.

Overthinking Doctor Who Part One: Back from the Dead

Look, if I can spend eleven posts talking about The Office, I can probably manage a few about Doctor Who.

Anyone who knows me… or takes even one look around my living room… knows how much I love Doctor Who. Always have, as far back as I can remember. There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

Series One: “I’m The Doctor, by the way, what’s your name?”

Series one (“series” is British for “season,” and the way their TV shows work, a more apt description) was a miracle. A gift. Doctor Who had been off televisions, more or less, for almost twenty years. The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace had wandered off, and that was it. Save for radio dramas. And the infamous American TV movie, an attempt to launch an American Doctor Who series… on Fox.

That feels like a bad match, network-wise, but in the dark years before Netflix and Amazon Prime it’s hard to think of a network that would be better.

And the weird thing is, as much as we disliked it at the time… enough that I’ve owned it on DVD for years, but still haven’t actually watched it since 1996… it actually serves as a bridge between the languidly paced cliffhanger serial that was old Who, and the more action-driven series it’s become.

So the first series had a daunting job ahead of it. They had to appeal to old-school fans, but also win over a new generation. A generation who might not be used to the BBC’s bargain-basement effects. But they did a decent job. In fact, I’d say a great job.

It’s easy to look down on series one, given that every series is an improvement on the one before it* until… look, series eight had its issues, I don’t deny that. But it is fun, and it’s charming, and it does a solid job of making you love its central characters, whose largest flaw is that they get a little overshadowed by their replacements.

*In my opinion, which is the one we’re listening to here.

The Doctor

Christopher Eccleston had the job of re-introducing TV’s favourite Time Lord. And while the Tennants and Smiths to come may have overshadowed him, that’s not his fault. His material was… slightly dodgy. His Doctor, when you pay attention, is actually pretty great.

A major theme of series one isn’t entirely apparent until you look back on it years later. But the hints are there. Nine is fresh out of the unspeakable, indescribable, and most certainly unfilmable horrors of the Time War. Right before meeting Rose, he (as far as he knows) wiped out his own species, burned his own homeworld, in the desperate hopes of stopping the last great Time War before it could end all of existence.

And that’s the Doctor Eccleston plays. A man haunted by his own deeds, still grappling with the trauma of unspeakable conflict ended with an unbearable price. He’s the last of the Time Lords, and the only way he can deal with that is to grab onto a new companion and run as fast as he can from adventure to adventure.

Nine has a pretty great sense of humour, to be sure, but if you watch closely, you notice something… it’s a defense mechanism. He’s never more jovial than when he’s covering up his own pain and sorrow. This means he’s thoroughly pleasant when he meets Rose, but that’s mostly because he’s freshly regenerated from his Time War self, as we can surmise from him apparently seeing his face for the first time in his second scene.

He’s also got a temper, and is swift to turn on any humans who let him down or seem to be serving a greater evil. When someone helping run a series of game shows that slaughter their contestants states they’re only doing their job, she gets a swift and cold “And with that sentence you’ve lost the right to talk to me.” On the other hand, show promise and he warms up to you. And in Dalek, he begins to shake the trauma of the Time War. He begins to heal, to walk the path away from destruction and towards becoming the everyone’s-best-pal Doctors that are Ten and Eleven.

This progression builds to a head in the season finale, when he finds himself confronted with the same choice that ended the Time War: burn a planet, kill billions of innocents, to end the Daleks. And his choice, in that moment, sums up Nine’s 13 episode journey. The Daleks ask… is he a coward, or a murderer?

“A coward,” he says, abandoning his plan. “Every time.”

Anti-Moffat fans are known to say “Never skip Nine,” out of respect for what Eccleston accomplished. On this, and this alone, we agree. As to Eleven going back on what Nine said, they can get stuffed. But that’s a future discussion.

The Companion

Unpopular opinion coming… Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is the worst contemporary companion. Fight me.

She has her strengths, sure. She is, in her way, exactly what the PST-ridden Ninth Doctor needs. An innocent, filled with curiosity, wonder, and unshakable goodness. She pushes Nine to be a better man by refusing to accept he could be anything else. The Doctor refuses to burn the Earth to stop the Daleks because of Rose’s influence. A classic trope: the companion saves The Doctor so that The Doctor can save everyone. She’s also not without her moments of intuition.

That said.

She is not, when you get down to it, all that useful. For every monster she plays a key role in defeating, there’s a situation she makes actively worse, or an episode where she just collapses into a weepy mess. Mostly she’s there to coo over The Doctor while he saves the day, and improbably believes she represents her species at their best.

And then there’s her daddy issues.

She’s so obsessed with the father who died when she was a baby, she tears a hole in the fabric of time and nearly dooms the entire Earth. Say what you like about Clara Oswald, she never almost wiped out humanity because she was selfish and stupid about history.

Bad Wolf

Russell T. Davies, the man who brought Doctor Who back to television, didn’t really do season arcs. What he would do is have some sort of recurring reference that would finally pay off in the last two episodes of the series. In this case, it’s the words “Bad Wolf.”

The words haunt The Doctor and Rose, being spoken or appearing as text in nearly every episode, until in Boomtown they finally begin to notice and think it’s odd. Why is this happening? Frankly… it’s weird.

Turns out Rose, imbued in the finale with god-like powers by the Heart of the Tardis, planted those words everywhere she and The Doctor had been as a message to herself, that she could in fact get back to the future and save The Doctor.

Sounds… sounds kind of dodgy, doesn’t it? Well, it… mostly works. And the finale also pays off threads started in two of series one’s best episodes, Dalek and The Long Game, so there’s a sense of everything coming together.

That said… anti-Moffat people sometimes complain that Moffat relied on deus ex machina endings. In The Parting of the Ways, Rose gets godlike powers from the Tardis, uses them to magically fix all of their problems, and then The Doctor makes her all better with a kiss.

So if deus ex machinas bother you in the Moffat years, I have to ask what the Hell show you were watching up until then.

The Supporting Cast

The revival of Doctor Who introduced a new element that the classic series never really had: the idea that The Doctor’s companions have friends and family back home that they want to keep in touch with. Normally a companion would get swept up (or assigned to him by UNIT*), bounce around time and space with The Doctor, and eventually get dropped off somewhere to live their post-Tardis life (or, in one case… not). Well, except for Jon Pertwee’s main companions, who didn’t get to travel much.

But Rose Tyler has a home, and she even chooses to check in with it now and again, which allows Russell T. Davies to launch his favourite recurring theme: Everyone’s Mother is Awful.

That’s… I’m not saying that. I don’t even agree with that. My mother isn’t awful, yours probably isn’t either. But if you’re a companion to a Davies-era Doctor, you’re probably unpleasant.

(If you’re the mother of a Moffat-era companion, you’re probably dead. Neither trend is ideal.)

So. Jackie Tyler.

Rose’s overbearing mother turns up no less than six times over the first series, and she’s a nuisance in five of them. Overprotective, over talkative, and we see where Rose gets her weepiness. Jackie Tyler represents, personifies the humdrum, empty life that Rose is trying to escape. There might be real love between the Tyler women, but the one good thing she does in series one is help Rose leave again in the finale.

But we also see where Rose gets her “take no crap from man, god, or Dalek” attitude from, because if her daughter’s in danger, she’ll take no crap from a Time Lord. Which rarely accomplishes anything, and in fact at one point puts the whole world in danger, but still?

And then we have Mickey Smith. Known at times as “Mickey the Idiot,” he actually deserves a bit more respect than the show cares to give him. Mickey is Rose’s kind of useless boyfriend, who she quickly and happily abandons to see all of time and space. This… damages his life. A lot. Mickey never fully gets over Rose, but also learns that he’ll never really have a key place in her life. She’ll always run off with The Doctor, but lord save him, he’ll still come running when she calls.

Mickey is a prototype for a later, better companion. He exists to not be caught up in The Doctor’s aura, to never fall for his charms, to be the first to point out the damage he’s capable of leaving in his wake. Trouble is, he mostly just comes across as whiny and jealous. But he still has his uses. In Rose, he’s Rose Tyler’s boat anchor. By World War III, he’s learning to hack global defense agencies. But mostly he’s just here to be angry that Rose will never choose him over The Doctor.

And there’s one more of note, but we’ll get to him in a minute.

*Unified Intelligence Taskforce, the UN organization that deals with all these alien invasions and whatnot. They’ll come up again.

The Monsters: Good, Bad, and Ugly

The Big Bad: They waste little time (five episodes, to be precise) before getting to the biggest bads in Doctor Who history… the Daleks. They hang a lampshade on all the easily mockable aspects of the classic pepper pots of death… having a plunger for an arm, being seemingly unable to handle stairs… and then push past them. The plunger arm kills a guy, and with post-80s effects, making a Dalek fly is easy enough. One Dalek slaughters his way through dozens of armed guards. And then they dare you to feel empathy for the perfect killing machine.

The Good: The Editor in The Long Game is a top-notch example of a frequent type of Who villain, the human all too willing to sell out his species for power and profit. And he’s played by Simon Pegg, who’s delightful in the role. See also Dalek’s human villain, Henry van Statten.

And future showrunner Steven Moffat shows how he can create classic, creepy villains with just a few flourishes. The Empty Child’s titular villain, a small boy in a gasmask stalking the homeless children of Blitz-era London, is damned unsettling.

The Bad: The goddamn Slitheen. I’ll come back to that.

The Gelf, aliens that use gas to inhabit the bodies of the dead, aren’t really anything to write home about.

The Ugly: Man those bat/vulture aliens from Father’s Day are some bad, cheap CG. Good thing that episode’s real villain is Rose Tyler’s daddy issues.

High Point

The final five minutes of The Doctor Dances are, without question, the most beautiful five minutes of the year. One of the most beautiful sequences of the show’s first five years, frankly. And the road to that point is a fantastic two-parter.

See, Steven Moffat didn’t get asked to replace Davies as showrunner for no reason. During the Davies era, Moffat would come in, write one story per series, and it would be the best one. Or one of them, anyway. In this case, it’s The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances.

We’ve got a brilliant monster in the titular Empty Child (the phrase “Are you my Mummy?” will freak you right out), some perfect subtle scares, a heartbreaking and then heart lifting plot, and the best lines of the year. Anything The Doctor has to say about bananas is gold.

And if that’s not enough, it’s also the first appearance of John Barrowman as time-travelling con artist turned defender of mankind, Captain Jack Harkness. The omni-sexual time traveller out for redemption is a fan-favourite, and you’ll love him too. I mean, he was the first character to get a spinoff for a reason.

Low Point

The goddamn Slitheen.

Aliens of London and World War Three have their moments. Harriet Jones, MP, is a fun and ultimately important character, and this is her debut. Also, Rose’s mother finds out what exactly Rose has been up to, when an attempt to stop off at home 12 hours after they first left goes askew and they discover Rose has been presumed missing for 12 months.

However.

The A-plot to this two parter is simply insufferable. The Slitheen, a family of murderous alien criminals, seize control of the UK in an attempt to nuke the Earth and sell off the slag. All with shit-eating grins and an overwhelming amount of fart jokes. They are actively painful to watch. As a result, this two-parter is virtually irredeemable.

I hate it when the annoying villains get two-parters. That’s two episodes of Nine’s very short run they burned on this train wreck. The Slitheen got one more (admittedly improved) appearance later in the year, and then were banished to the even more kid-friendly* spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures.

*Yes, despite how obsessed adults get with this show, and despite the body count, in the UK it is still largely considered children’s programming. Go figure.

Highlights?

It’s remarkable how much the show improves the second you get away from the Slitheen. Dalek, The Long Game, those are classics by any measure.

Rose is probably still the second best introductory episode ever (my favourite is yet to come), because, well, it had to be. But those first few lines from The Doctor sold me on Nine right away, from his simple intro line (“Run!”) to actually introducing himself (“Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!”). It was a perfect, high-speed into to the central character.

Skippables?

Look, I tried this time, I really tried, to get through the whole first series without skipping anything. But I can’t. I just can’t. The Slitheen are awful. Smug, campy, farty, painful to watch. I can’t go back.

And if the early production values annoy you, or the high camp levels, there is a streamlined approach I’ve recommended in the past. Skip from The End of the World all the way to Dalek. All you’ll miss in The Unquiet Dead is the first of a seven-series long tradition of historical guest stars and a meta-joke that comes from one of the cast turning up in the Who-spinoff Torchwood a couple of years down the line.

You can skip Father’s Day if you like. I think the emotional payoff works, but it is most defintely Rose Tyler at her very worst. And if you’ve skipped Aliens of London and World War Three to avoid the goddamn Slitheen, you may as well also skip Boomtown. The Slitheen in question has improved as a villain, she has an amusing philosophical showdown with The Doctor, Captain Jack is in it, and the resolution sets up something kind of important, so it’s hardly all bad. However, it’s still a Slitheen episode, and the B plot is a relatively empty and meaningless character beat for Mickey and Rose, so it’s not all great either. If your goal is to reach the greener pastures of David Tennant’s run… well, you can always come back later.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: Not something old-school Who was known for (save for a 70s cameo by John Cleese), but new Who manages a few. Simon Pegg is the most notable in The Long Game, which also features Black Books and Green Wings Tamsin Grieg. Penelope Wilton of Shaun of the Dead and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is backbench MP Harriet Jones, who we’ll be seeing more of. And notable British actor Simon Callow is the first historical guest star, Charles Dickens, in The Unquiet Dead.

Perhaps the very best explanation for how British The Doctor is comes in the first episode:
“If you’re an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the north?”
“Lots of planets have a north!”

“Bananas are good.”

The End of the World introduces the Face of Boe. He’s gonna be important.

Rose hints at visiting other worlds, but they must all be off-camera. Series one never makes it further away from Earth than orbit.

Doctor Quote of the Series: “Fantastic!”

Saddest moment: Heartbreak is inevitable on this show, but the hardest hits come from Pete Tyler’s big sacrifice in Father’s Day and the end of Nine in The Parting of the Ways.

Next time… welcome to the Tardis, Mr. Tennant. It’s going to be brilliant.

The Defenders: Comic TV With Dan

As we know, every summer I review the season of comic book TV, and look at who did what best. When there were only seven shows I was looking at, it was fun and easy. Then it was eleven. Then thirteen. And they just keep coming.

So instead of reviewing like 20 shows next June, we’ll tackle them one by one over the next 11 months, as they end. Then hand out virtual trophies in June, as per usual. Fun!

Fun for me, anyway, but let’s drag y’all along for the ride.

To begin with…

The Defenders

It feels like it’s been longer than two and a half years since the Marvel Netflix universe kicked off. Two seasons of Daredevil and one each of Jessica JonesLuke Cage, and Iron Fist have finally led to this: the Avengers of Marvel Netflix, The Defenders.

Well… they sort of all led to this. Instead of all four shows blending together against a greater menace led by the franchise’s best villain, like in Avengers, what we have here is Jessica Jones and Luke Cage being dragged (kicking and screaming, in Jessica’s case) into a mash-up of Iron Fist and the worst part of Daredevil. Which doesn’t seem like the best starting point, but, well… how shall I put this.

It’s okay.

It ain’t Invasion!, but it’ll do.

Premise

We open with a check-in on where the four leads are since last we saw them. Matt Murdock is doing his best to give up being Daredevil and focus on law; Jessica Jones is avoiding being a hero or taking cases and getting drunk; Luke Cage is fresh out of prison thanks to Foggy Nelson (probably used that whole “illegal fight club/human experimentation” thing to get some sentences commuted); and Danny Rand has been roaming the Earth with Colleen Wing hunting The Hand.

The Hand, inconsistent villains of Iron Fist and worst part of Daredevil, take center stage as the main villains. Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), the previously unseen true leader of The Hand, has been alive for centuries, but is now dying of an unspecified but incurable illness, and has blown the last of their immortality serum on resurrecting Elektra to be their ultimate weapon, the Black Sky.

Sidebar: They actually do a decent job selling Elektra as an ultimate weapon, especially once we see that they don’t really need to conquer the world or anything. They already have global influence, they just need her to keep rival ninja death cults, K’un Lun warrior monks, or slightly enhanced crime fighters from getting up in their business. And she’s pretty good at that. Sure, when they flashed back to Alexandra acquiring Elektra, and her compatriot Sowande asked if she was still committed to this Black Sky plan, it would have been great if he’d added in “I’m just saying, turns out the Norse gods are real, one of them hangs out downtown, should we be adapting the plan?” But we’re very clearly past that. The movies and Marvel Netflix do not co-exist, let’s all just move on.

More of a sidebar than I meant it to be… where was I… yes. Short on time, Alexandra speeds up The Hand’s work to acquire more of The Substance, the key to their immortality. The trick is, doing so will level Manhattan. Jessica Jones goes looking for an architect they dragged into their plans, Matt Murdock tries to keep her out of trouble, Luke Cage tries to help Harlem youths dragged into Hand grunt work that keeps getting them killed, and Danny Rand hunts Hand operatives, and that puts all of them on course for a big joint throwdown at Hand HQ.

At the end of episode three.

Having five fewer episodes than most Marvel Netflix shows does not push them to move at a more rapid pace.

Because that’s the thing about Marvel Netflix, you see, as well as some other Netflix dramas. Their devotion to the streaming model means that they view the show as one eight-hour movie, rather than eight individual episodes. They have One Big Thing happen at the end of the hour to compel you to keep going, but then not much happens the other 40 minutes.

Well, not much in terms of action beats. There are plenty of character moments, chats between the leads (the four main heroes, Colleen, and Claire), intrigues among Hand leadership. If you’re hoping for a whole bunch of superhero action, this isn’t the place.

I think we know what is.

But if you want to watch four reluctant heroes from very different lives learn to work as a team and bond as people, you could do a lot worse. Actually maybe you couldn’t, because that was a very specific description I just gave, I’m not sure there’s more than one… well, it could be a lot worse.

Put another way, it’s talky. It’s very talky, short on action beats, and languidly paced, but the talky bits turned out to be largely worthwhile.

Strengths

Good team: The leads actually work well together. Watching them bounce off each other is interesting and engaging enough that you almost don’t notice how very, very talky the show is. Luke Cage and Danny Rand are actually a good enough duo that they come close to being the classic partnership they were in the comics. Matt and Jessica play off each other well enough I’m mad we’ll probably have to wait until a second Defenders season comes along to see them do it again.

Closing some holes: We do get some answers to nagging questions about the shared Defenders-verse. Why didn’t Daredevil show up to help Luke Cage or Iron Fist? Because after the friendship-ruining shitstorm of season two he’s been retired. What was up with the rival Hand factions in Iron Fist? The Hand has five ethnically diverse leaders, they work independently more often than not, and they do not tend to get along. What the hell was up with that giant hole from Daredevil season two? Seventeen months later they finally explain.

The Improving Iron Fist: Danny Rand is still a tool with a short fuse, no getting around that, and he surely does still like walking into a room filled with bad guys and saying “Hi, I’m Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, here to oppose you.” But having Luke and Jessica calling him out on his nonsense actually moves him towards being a better character. Hell, he even landed a couple of decent jokes and learned about privilege.

Jessica Jones: I have missed you, you delightfully abrasive drunk.

Daredevil fights good: The fight scenes might not be shot or edited as well as they could be, but at least the choreo and rehearsal times have improved since Iron Fist. Seeing Daredevil back in action is enough to remind us of when these guys were the best in the business at fight scenes. Not that they have the title back… so far that still belongs to Preacher.

Villains: Sigourney Weaver crushes it as Alexandra, and Gao and company are effective menaces for the foursome (plus Coleen). Even Bakuto.

And I’m pretty sure Matt found a big clue by playing the Daredevil opening theme on a piano.

Weaknesses

Underwritten support staff: They make a point of bringing in the key players from all four shows for at least parts of the season. But other than Colleen Wing, Matt’s old trainer Stick, and the omni-present Claire Temple, they do not have a lot to do. I’ll explain.

Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are mostly there to say “Aw gee, Matt, don’t be Daredevil, you don’t gotta be Daredevil,” which is perhaps the least interesting and most frustrating thing they could be asked to do. We want Matt to be Daredevil. Anyone telling him not to be Daredevil is wasting our time.

Jessica’s pals, Malcolm and Trish Walker, are basically just hostages, there to give Jessica skin in the game. Trish almost plays a larger role in the main story, then doesn’t. On three occasions. Waste of what was and probably will be a great character.

And most frustrating is Misty Night. The heads of Marvel Netflix clearly like Misty, and they should, she brims over with potential, but they just do not know what to do with her. She spends most of the season reduced to saying “Tell me what’s going on! You have to, I’m the police, and actually on your side!” only to remain in the dark. They go through more “I can’t tell you the truth for your own safety” moments in eight episodes than The Flash manages in 23, and that is… not positive.

Where the ninjas at? So The Hand turns out to be an international conglomerate with leaders from Japan (the only asshole who can’t be bothered to speak English), China, Africa, South America (I did not miss you, Bakuto), and Europe. That’s fine. That’s okay. But their soldiers not being ninjas anymore? Come on, man, that was the one cool thing about that group…

Massive spoiler here, just massive

So we’re still doing the whole “Swap villains in the third act” thing? Even if the first villain was great and the replacement is so-so? Even if having Elektra murder Alexandra and take over The Hand didn’t really add much? I mean I get that it seems like a neat twist, and maybe it would have been if Luke Cage hadn’t beaten you to it.

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Names: Can we be done with “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” now? He’s called Daredevil. Just call him Daredevil. Jesus. Put this next to “The Incredible Green Guy” and “The Blonde Dude with the Hammer” and it seems like Netflix thinks New Yorkers just like using the longest possible names for people. Which is clearly just madness. And it’s only people. World-altering alien invasions get called “the Incident” and everyone’s just okay with that. Double madness.

High Point

Worst Behavior. In the third episode, Defenders actually start meeting each other and having conversations. And it works pretty well. Then in the end, all four finally link up for that aforementioned epic throwdown against the, sadly, non-ninja Hand troops.

Low Point

The H Word. In the first episode, we catch up with all four leads, and not one of them is in an interesting place. Three out of four have basically been in limbo since their last appearance, with Matt and Jessica trying their best not to be superheroes and Luke Cage in prison. And Danny Rand is Danny Rand. It makes for a slow start. Avengers didn’t open by convincing its leads to be heroes again. Okay, fine, except Banner.

MVP

Kristen Ritter as Jessica Jones. Sure, she puts up the biggest fight to be part of the story, but she’s the most reliably fun part of the team. And her friends are trying to talk her into being a hero, not out of it. She also has most of the best lines (Luke Cage runs a decent second, especially his reaction to Danny’s origin), and gets a really satisfying hero moment at the end of episode four.

Tips for Next Season

Look… you have a lot of shows to make, a lot of characters to juggle, but you don’t film them at the same time, the leads aren’t Robert Downey Jr.-busy, there is now no reason that the leads can’t all guest star in each other’s shows. Before Iron Fist, we wanted to see Luke and Danny team-up. Post Defenders, we’re sold on it. And they all still live in the same city. There is no good reason to make us wait two or three years to see these people cross paths again.

One more spoiler. One more BIIIIIG spoiler.

Fine. Except Matt. Won’t be seeing him until Daredevil season three, which is… fourth? Fourth in the queue. 2019? Then-ish, unless they start making more of these each year. Man, they are going to sit on that cliffhanger longer than is warranted.

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Grade: B

Yup. This was the right call. No way trying to do 20 of these in June was going to work.

Until next time, nerds.