New Doctor Who Ups the Stakes

My ongoing obsession with the BBC classic series Doctor Who continues.

Doctor WhoLast week the 11th season of the (new) Doctor Who began. This season features three big changes: a new Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, a new head writer, Chris Chibnall, and three new companions.

Having seen the first episode, I can’t wait to see how the new season develops with Whittaker in the title role. Whenever an actor assumes the role he (and now she) brings a fresh take on the Doctor. Usually it takes a few episodes before they find their footing. Chris Eccleston’s loopiness sparked right away. David Tennant and Matt Smith both brought a boyishness to the role that took a little time to grow on me. I never ever warmed up to Peter Capaldi’s overly dour take on the Doctor.

Whittaker was thoroughly charming. There were some rough parts to the season opener–she’s overly giddy at times–but she has a warm confidence that telegraphs a strong future.

There’s one other change that’s more subtle but I think more important. The Doctor’s companions often serve as an audience stand-in. The companion, usually female, is full of wonder and amazement and learns and grows as she travels the universe with the Doctor, surviving one harrowing adventure after another. Danger is at every turn, but no companion in the new Who era has ever truly died.

Rose was exiled to an alternate earth (still alive).

Martha became a Torchwood soldier (still alive, I think).

Poor Donna Noble survived, though only because she had her memories of her adventures erased.

Amy Pond and Rory both survived, though they were banished to the past.

Clara Oswald, well, she died. But then the Doctor did his timey-wimey stuff and snatched her away just before the moment of her death. I didn’t get it either but I loved Clara so I was happy.

And then there’s Bill Potts. Turned into a Cyberman. That’s death, right? No. Another timey-wimey thing where she becomes an immortal puddle or something.

With each companion the danger and risk is heightened, but true consequences are denied.

Not so in this season’s first episode. We were presented with a cast of four potential companions: police officer Yasmin, determined bike rider Ryan, his grandmother Grace, and Grace’s husband Graham. While fighting the big bad tooth-faced monster with a name that sounded like Tim Shaw, one of those four potentials dies.

Like, really dies. Buried and all.

Not only that, it was the FIFTH human death shown in just this one episode.

Doctor Who is nominally a children’s show. Yes, characters die, but less often than you’d think. And never, until now, a (near) companion.

Does this mean that any of the three remaining companions could die this season?

Hopefully, and not because I want to see them die, but because I want to see stakes that matter.

 

 

 

The trouble with daleks

Confession here: as much as I love Doctor Who, the series has one glaring weakness, one that I’ve been able to overlook, mostly — its villains.

Capaldi

Before I get started on my rant, I’ll talk about what I love about BBC’s half century old sci-fi classic. Doctor Who is playful and thrilling and joyful. Its set-up, with an ever changing cast of Doctors (via regeneration) and revolving companions, keep the series fresh. I love the humanity of the alien Doctor, the creative plot twists (which often stretch the limits of believability), and all the fun timey-wimey stuff.

But the villains. Yes, I know that Doctor Who has its roots in a children’s series, so the monsters can’t be too monstrous. But none of the monsters have kept me up at night. Especially these sparkly things.

daleks

This latest season opened with a two-parter starring the Doctor’s biggest nemesis, the Daleks, created and controlled by the evil Davros. The episodes were exciting and inventive. We got to watch the Doctor’s  frenemy Missy (aka The Master, another renegade Time Lord) interact with and torment the Doctor’s faithful companion Clara. We glimpsed the Doctor being playful as he rode a tank and thrashed an electric guitar in medieval Britain, and we watched as he rescued a boy from death, a boy who would grow up and become a mass murderer.

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But I can’t get past the ridiculousness of the daleks. They look like inverted, bedazzled garbage cans with a plunger for a hand. Probably because the daleks were created in the 1960s, before such things as half-decent special effects. When Doctor Who was revived in the 2000s, the show was stuck with these ludicrous looking creatures as part of Doctor Who canon. I don’t find the daleks remotely terrifying, and their shrill cries of “exterminate” make me want to laugh.

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As much as I enjoy Doctor Who, the biggest failure of its revival has been the lack of a singular, terrifying enemy. The Silents came close, but they were dispatched. The Weeping Angels were pretty good too, but they only have one trick, which gets old quickly. Instead we’re stuck with the shrill, plunger-wielding daleks, and maybe once in a while, the clunky cybermen.

Here’s hoping the next head writer gives Doctor Who fans the villains we deserve.

Doctor Who and plot regrets

Writing is hard. You have to not only come up with compelling, believable characters, you also have to create dramatic tension. You have to give the character a reason to do what he does — motivation. And that’s not always easy. Especially when you’re rebooting a beloved, decades-old sci-fi franchise like Doctor Who.

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But that’s exactly what head writer Russell T. Davies did when he brought Doctor Who back to the BBC in 2005. He created a dark version of the Doctor, one who ended the war between his home planet Gallifrey and their mortal enemies the Daleks by sacrificing his home world to rid the universe of the Daleks forever. What Davies gave us in this new Doctor, played brilliantly by Christopher Eccleston, was a withdrawn, shell-shocked hero burdened by guilt. Sure, Eccleston’s Doctor showed flashes of that childlike wackiness that is the hallmark of the Doctor across incarnations, but the guilt was a strong undercurrent.

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This theme — the burden of guilt and the loneliness of being the last of your kind — carried through to the new incarnations of the Doctor as played by David Tennant and Matt Smith. Doctor Who became a balancing act between darkness and frenetic energy.

But then the new head writer Steven Moffat changed it all. In Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary episode, not only did we see the Doctor who ended the time wars, we also had a shift. Gallifrey was NOT destroyed. The Doctor was not guilty of genocide, however well intentioned. The Doctor was given a new purpose — rescue his home world from the static universe they were trapped in.

Now Moffat believes he may have cheated, in a way. In a recent interview, he stated that he, like the Doctor, is haunted by guilt:

“I know some of you, including friends of mine, were upset that we reversed the outcome of the Time War. My defence, however feeble, is that given the chance, the Doctor would do exactly that. And it was his birthday, how could I deny him that chance? What could define him more? This man who always finds another way? And there he is, at every moment of his life, proving to himself – literally – that there is always a better path.”

I say Moffat should get over his guilt. Why? The morose Doctor had run his course. After several years, we understood that the Doctor was tortured. What more could we get from this particular plot point? Why not switch things up? In the world of sci-fi and fantasy, writers have a broad canvas to paint on. Why not take advantage of every square inch?

Now Doctor Who has a chance to be reborn. Now we can witness a Doctor who has a genuine shot at redemption, one who is hopeful and can save his home world. Just imagine the new stories that can come from that.

In praise of Neil Gamian

If you haven’t read any works by fantasy writer Neil Gamian, you should. The British-born writer is best known for works such as the comic series The Sandman and books including American Gods. I’ve reviewed American Gods and for anyone into fantasy or mythology, American Gods is a must read. It is sprawling and thrilling, and I can proudly say it has influenced my writing.

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Aside from novels and comics, he’s also had a long friendship with Tori Amos, popping up as a character of sorts in several of her songs. He’s written a glorious Doctor Who episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” and he also gave one of the best commencement speeches you’ll ever hear.

Now Neil Gaiman is taking on another role, one that would seem obvious for a writer: free speech supporter. PEN America, an organization of writers dedicated to supporting freedom of expression, is slated to give an award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which lost several members following a terrorist attack. Some PEN members pulled out of the awards gala citing concerns that the magazine was racist. And now, several writers, including Gaiman, Alison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman, have stepped in.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman was blunt in his reasons for joining: “…for f**k’s sake, they drew somebody, and they [al-Qaida] shot them, and you don’t get to do that.”

Freedom of expression is a bedrock principle of mine. I know what it’s like to be afraid to speak your mind, to express yourself, for fear of backlash in ways small and large. I know what it’s like to feel intimidated. I know what it’s like to feel that I have no voice. Writing has helped me find that voice. It’s given me the freedom to speak my mind and reveal who I am. And I am thankful that when it comes to my fiction, the only barriers in place are the ones that I choose to erect.

I understand the controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo. But my support of the right to free expression is nearly absolute. And there’s no way I could NOT stand up against violence or government coercion against freedom of speech.

I’m heartened that Gaiman is claiming a spot at the PEN America awards gala. And I can’t wait for his next Doctor Who episode.

Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

So long, River Song

If this brief interview is any hint, we won’t be seeing the return of two of the most interesting Doctor Who characters—River Song and Captain Jack Harkness—as long as head writer Steven Moffat is around.

I for one am disappointed.

River Song

River Song, as played by Alex Kingston, was a larger-than-life character in a show filled with larger-than-life characters. From the first time we saw her in the Silence in the Library episode way back in season 4, River took control of every scene she was in. She possessed a singular confidence that only grew stronger as she showed up in different points in the Doctor’s timeline. And when we learned of River’s vulnerabilities (as well as her unique origin story), she only became stronger. Rarely has a character’s first appearance been their death scene. Moffat made it—and River—work.

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And then there’s Jack Harkness. As played by John Barrowman, Jack was similar to River in that he was overflowing with vitality. Like River, he pushed the Doctor’s buttons. He was also groundbreaking: Jack Harkness was openly, and actively, bisexual. And he was fearless. The character was spun off into his own show, Torchwood, which was darker and more adult. Torchwood also revealed Harkness’s deep sadness, as a man who could live forever would have to watch his loved ones die.

In this interview, Moffat addresses the possibility of bringing River Song and Jack Harkness back to Doctor Who. To sum it up, never say never. But it would have to be done right, he continues, and that would be hard to pull off.

If you read between the lines, then we won’t be seeing either return to Doctor Who in the near future. That’s disappointing. Both characters brought much vitality to the show. Hopefully we’ll see the introduction of new iconic characters instead.

Mars attacked!

Was there once a grand civilization on our neighboring planet that was annihilated by a nuclear attack? One researcher says yes. While it’s impossible to prove (for now), the sci-fi geek in me loves this story.

mars

Mars has gotten some, but not enough, attention in the world of sci-fi. H.G. Wells got the ball rolling with War of the Worlds, where we were attacked by Martians (I loved the Tom Cruise movie as well). There have been sporadic Martian-themed stories, including Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Blue/Green Mars trilogy. And there have also been one-off stories, like Doctor Who‘s The Waters of Mars episode.

mars and earth

But these are all fictional. What about the real Mars? The red planet is smaller than ours, colder, and less hospitable to human life (and any life, so far). It’s long been theorized that the Mars of the distant past was a very different planet, one capable of supporting life.

John Brandenburg, a plasma physicist, speculates that Mars once had a civilization as advanced as the ancient Egyptians. But this civilization caught the attention of some nasty aliens, who nuked these Martians, and rendered the planet uninhabitable. His evidence? The large number of nuclear isotopes detected on Mars.

Nuclear-Explosion-001

The takeaway, according to Brandenburg, is that we’d better get our butts (and not just rovers) to Mars ASAP, and figure out exactly what happen, lest it happen to us as well. See, we’re too noisy, blasting our radio signals out into the universe. Eventually, the Martian killers are bound to notice us.

He has a point. If there is a superior civilization out there, they may very well decide to rid themselves of any competition. And we’re pretty much defenseless. But what can I do about a high-tech alien force attacking? Not much of anything, so I’ll file that away in the “Things I cannot control, so therefore I won’t worry about it” drawer.

The idea that there were advanced civilizations on Mars that suffered a nuclear holocaust intrigues the sci-fi fan in me. Was Mars nuked? I don’t know nearly enough about the science to say no, though I think that Brandenburg is taking one too many leaps of logic. Nevertheless, the nuking of Mars makes great sci-fi fodder.

The brilliant failures of Doctor Who

Doctor Who‘s season 8 two-part finale overflowed with action and emotion, but it exposed the flaws consistent with the Steven Moffat era of this classic show.

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All season long I’ve been wondering what the heck was going on with Doctor Who. A hallmark of the show is that it constantly changes its stars while keeping its core: the story of a double-hearted alien who travels through time with a human companion—typically young, female, and pretty.

Last season we learned who Clara, played by Jenna Coleman really was, and then Matt Smith’s Doctor died, to be replaced by Peter Capaldi.

When season 8 began, we had a prickly new Doctor in Capaldi, and an equally cranky companion in Clara. These two never meshed, and they never really tried. In some ways it was a welcome change from the usual template of wise Doctor and awestruck ingenue. Clara was similar to Donna Noble in that she wasn’t as impressed by the Doctor as Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, or Amy Pond were. But Donna Noble’s Doctor was at least vivacious, happy, and wacky. Capaldi was dour and sarcastic.

ClaraConfused

I’m not complaining. It was refreshing to see a different, edgier take on the Doctor/companion dynamic. This year was also a nice change from the past few seasons, with their increasingly complex and convoluted plotlines. This year, any casual viewer could watch any random episode and be able to get 80% of it. The episodes were simpler, more self contained, and frankly, more fun.

But then came the series finale.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. Doctor Who at its worst is dazzlingly fun. I grant it a wide berth when it comes to writing and storytelling, which is good, because this show needs it.

The two-part finale was a milestone in one respect: we saw the death of one major character, and the deaths of some minor ones too. In the UK, Doctor Who is billed as a children’s show; it usually shies away from getting too dark. This time it didn’t. The deaths were sudden and vicious.

But in other ways, the finale, though entertaining, exposed the flaws of the Moffat era.

We saw the return of classic Doctor Who villains the Cybermen. We also sat the return of the Doctor’s arch nemesis, the Master, though this time in female form. The Master (or Misi now, short for the Mistress), is written as crazy. Pure crazy. And she was played brilliantly as a deranged Mary Poppins type figure. So far so good.

Missy-Doctor-Who

But here’s where the plotting goes off the rails.

It turns out that the Master/Misi was the one who brought the Doctor and Clara together in the first place. Why? We’re never given a solid enough answer, other than some mumblings about how they bring out the worst in each other or something like that. I don’t know. We’re never given a strong enough reason, other than the Master is nuts. Insanity, like convoluted plotting, does not make for good storytelling.

And then we have UNIT, a UN/paramilitary type organization that comes in and nearly saves the day. It was a thrilling turn of events—especially when the Doctor is named President of Earth—but nothing comes of it. His presidency doesn’t even last a full day. No decisions or plans are made. While riveting, it didn’t amount to much in the end.

And now we come to Clara and her ill-fated love with Danny Pink. This was the strongest part of the whole finale. I felt their frustration and pain over having to lose what they had together. I understood how Clara—and Danny—bitterly resented her habit of lying about the Doctor, and where it had led them. (though her lying skills did save her life when she pretended to be the Doctor)

Clara Danny

Something dawned on me, however. Why was Clara always so hostile to the Doctor this season? She acted as if she couldn’t relate to him just because he was in a different body. But last season we discovered that she had interacted with ALL previous incarnations of the Doctor. His changing bodies was nothing new to her. While I appreciated their tension, in the end, it was out of character for what we knew of Clara.

As I said earlier, this season of Doctor Who was a break with previous seasons in that the complicated mythology took a back seat to simply told stories, and for the most part it was a success. The series finale tried to be slick and complicated when it didn’t need to. What this season was about, at its heart, was the complicated relationship between Clara and the Doctor, and also Clara and Danny. Luckily the finale nailed those elements perfectly.