“The War Games”

The War Lord, the War Chief, and the Security Chief

The War Lord, the War Chief, and the Security Chief

There’s just so many classic Doctor Who episodes that it’s often very difficult to choose one to watch. So, one night recently, we decided to roll a die to choose the Doctor, and it came up ‘2’. I then listed out the Second Doctor episodes we have, and we both yelled out at the same time, “The War Games”! I believe we both had the same idea in choosing that one: we wanted to see the Second Doctor’s regeneration into the Third Doctor.

I pulled down the DVD and opened the case and read the labels on the discs: Episodes 1-5 and Episodes 6-10. Ten episodes! That’s nearly five hours for one story! With a bit of trepidation, we started it up and settled in. We ended up watching the first four episodes on one night, then the last six three nights later.

Summary first, so spoilers!

The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe land in the trenches what seems to be World War I, where they are arrested by the British forces for possibly being German spies. The commander of the British forces, General Smythe, runs them through a farce of a trial, condemning the Doctor to death, declaring Jamie a deserter from the Scottish regiment and ordering him to be sent back there, and sentencing Zoe to return back to civilian lands. However, it’s very obvious that he’s using some kind of hypnotic suggestion to convince the soldiers to believe that the three outsiders are spies. After the Doctor escapes being executed, the three of them, plus Lieutenant Carstairs and Lady Jennifer (a nurse), who seem to have broken through the hypnosis, begin investigating and find that they’re not on Earth, but instead are on some alien world which is partitioned into multiple areas, one for different Earth wars, and the soldiers there have been lifted from their times on Earth to fight the battles here instead. This turns out to be all an experiment run by an alien called the War Lord, to find the best human soldiers to create an army with which to take over the universe. The War Lord is assisted by a renegade Time Lord called the War Chief, who provided the space-time machines (the SIDRATs) used to transport the soldiers to the battle zones. The Doctor defeats the War Lord, but cannot contain him or return all the soldiers to their appropriate times, so he is forced to call in the Time Lords to take care of it. After finding the War Lord guilty of his crimes and dematerializing him, they also find the Doctor guilty of interfering and force him to regenerate, exiling him to Earth.

Ok, summary done.

With such a short summary, it’s impossible to convey just what happens during the episode that takes five hours to tell the story. There’s a lot of fleeing different armies that consider the TARDIS crew spies, traveling around trying to find out what’s going on, and then later, the aliens trying to contain the Doctor and figure out why he’s there and what he’s trying to do. There’s a bit of cat and mouse going on as the Doctor learns more and more and starts trying to sabotage what the aliens are doing. The most amazing thing about this episode, though, is that though the story takes five hours, it is riveting throughout the whole thing. It is paced a little slow for modern tastes, as are most of the classic episodes, but there actually was never a moment the entire time in which I sat there unentertained. There was always something going on, and it all was important. I have a tendency to play Doctor Who: Legacy on my iPad while watching shows, and I kept it next to me during “The War Games”, but never once had any urge to play it – I wanted to keep my eyes on the screen. As a counterexample, I play DW:L all the way through Arrow episodes, because though they’re interesting enough, the plots of the individual episodes and the characters are never compelling enough to warrant my full attention.

One of the side plots of the episode was the relationship between the War Chief and the Security Chief. The Security Chief didn’t trust the War Chief, especially when he found out that the Doctor was a fellow Time Lord, suspecting that the War Chief called him in to assist him in overthrowing the War Lord. The War Chief did intend to overthrow the War Lord but not with the Doctor’s help, and he hated the Security Chief because he was always in his way. Both characters were played almost to a hammy extent, but it worked well, giving them both very alien personas.

It’s always a little difficult taking the special effects seriously in these old serials, and the thing that made us giggle the most were the computers and the SIDRAT controls. In this episode, they were basically refrigerator magnets of different shapes. Need to dematerialize the SIDRAT? Twist that U-shaped magnet on the panel. How about deactivating the control panel? Just take the magnets off the panel. It was absolutely hilarious, but on the other hand, it was rather ingenious. Why do highly-advanced Time Lord controls need to look like levers and toggles and dials? Why can’t they be simple-looking inscrutable shapes on a flat panel?

So, bottom line, this was an excellent episode that was completely worth the time. I’m not sure I will watch it again, simply because it is so long, but it was enjoyable and I highly recommend it as a fantastic classic story.

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Thoughts on Series 9

DWTMAI realized today that Series 9 has been in production for a few months now and I hadn’t even thought about it. I mean, not at all. And that saddened me. At this time last year, we were barely able to hold in our excitement for the next season and didn’t know how we would be able to survive the anticipation until August. What a contrast! This year, I don’t even know when the show is slated to return. A co-worker mentioned that he heard it was this fall, and my first thought was simply, “Yes, that’s a reasonable time.” I didn’t even bother to go look to see if there was a more precise date.

What happened? Was Series 8 that disappointing? I have to admit, yes. I try very hard to keep this blog positive, and because of that, you might notice that I’ve posted very little about Series 8. There were a couple of great episodes – “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline” had me on the edge of my seat – but for the most part, I found them to be average or below, with a couple of real stinkers. (Sorry, Mr. Moffat, but if you have to tell the media that you believe that despite popular opinion, you think that in a few years that people will realize that “In the Forest of the Night” was fantastic and that it will be emerge to be a classic, you’ve pretty much tacitly admitted that it was terrible.)

But you know, one bad season doesn’t doom a show, at least in my eyes. The presence of some good episodes and interesting themes and plots demonstrates that the show has the potential that captured my imagination two years ago. The thing is, in order for me to have faith in that potential, it also has to demonstrate that something’s going to change, and that, unfortunately, hasn’t been evident.

My problem with the current show centers around Clara. During Series 7b, she was a non-character: simply a chipper, bubbly companion that served as a puzzle for the Doctor to solve, with a personality and skill set that changed depending on what the episode plot needed her to do. Sometimes she was bold and confident, other times she was scared and timid. Sometimes the TARDIS disliked her, other times the TARDIS did what she wanted and talked directly to her (something the TARDIS doesn’t do with any other companion and was explicitly mentioned in “The Doctor’s Wife” that the TARDIS doesn’t do, even with the Doctor). Then she became the Doctor’s savior, making everything he’s accomplished dependent on her, which was both an interesting mechanic and a disappointing deconstruction of the hero. And then suddenly, in “The Time of the Doctor”, she fancied the Doctor, something there was no hint of before this.

Once the Clara puzzle was solved, we hoped that she’d be developed as real person. For the first time since Moffat took over the show, the companion was given some other person in her life to interact with that wasn’t a member of the TARDIS crew: Danny Pink. I’ll admit that I didn’t really like the character of Danny – ill-defined, whiny, kind of always had a deer-in-headlights expression – but it always felt to me that he existed not to be Clara’s life beyond the TARDIS but to provide someone to oppose the Doctor. He was presented as an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD, and yet the PTSD never manifested except in his reactions to the control-happy Doctor; meanwhile, the Doctor, having been designed as soldier-hating, only viewed him as a soldier and refused to consider him anything else.

The writers worked really hard to bring Clara and Danny together – making Clara to basically force herself on him after Danny refused her multiple times, and then again after Danny told her to get lost at the end of their disastrous date – almost as if they couldn’t imagine that these two people would normally hook up. But once they kissed, suddenly they were in love. I remember Clara talking to him on the phone and saying, “I love you,” the episode after that first date, and it was shocking to hear that; no show time was spent showing that their relationship had gotten serious. That’s one of the major problems with Series 9: it tried to give Clara a life and a relationship, without actually developing them on camera. And since Danny was only important as Clara’s hanger-on, he never developed on his own. Danny only appeared whenever they needed to make the point that Clara had a reason to not want to travel with the Doctor, to show Clara lying to one or both of them, or to have Danny argue directly with the Doctor. To me, the only time that Danny actually appeared to mean something to Clara was in “Last Christmas”, in the dream sequence where she’s celebrating Christmas with him. In all other interactions, I wondered why Danny (or Clara, for that matter) was sticking around.

So, Clara’s normal life didn’t work well, but what about her self? She didn’t start well, trying to deny that the Doctor had changed and hoping to find a way to bring the old Doctor back, even though she’s the one person who knows exactly what regeneration means and how the Doctor changes faces and personalities. Then, throughout the season, she fixates on two things: lying and trying to be the Doctor. Multiple storylines dealt with her calling the Doctor to task for what she decided was lying, while simultaneously lying to both the Doctor and Danny. Then she starts trying to be the Doctor without really understanding what being the Doctor actually means. After a series and a half of adventures, you’d think she’d know that the Doctor is a complex blend of exploring, universe-guarding, moral choices, and self-sacrifice, but instead, she thinks it’s a formula that she can follow to lead people out of danger. And when she does successfully follow her formula, she demands to be complimented on  her performance.

All in all, Clara comes across as very self-absorbed, obsessive, and controlling. I disliked Rose Tyler because of the way she manipulated her men – the Doctor, Mickey, Adam, Jack – leading them about by their noses and flaring with jealousy the moment they looked away, but Clara actively sets hers against each other to secure their devotion to her. And unlike Rose, who was a teenager with a background that explained how she became the woman she was, Clara had an about-face in personality between Series 7 and 8, as if the writers suddenly decided she needed personality flaws to be interesting and started adding them. There was no character development, just sudden shifts, much like the sudden shift from her first date with Danny to being deeply in love with each other.

Then, at the end of “Death in Heaven”, Clara and the Doctor has one of the best scenes in the entire series. For each character, things have turned out poorly, but the other believes they’ve turned out well. Both characters realize that their lives and their relationship has been terrible for the past year and that it would be better for the other person if they went their separate ways letting the other person think that everything turned out well for them: the Doctor thinks that Danny is alive and that Clara will be happy with him, and Clara thinks that the Doctor found Gallifrey and is going to return to his people. Sacrificing their own welfare, each of them puts on a happy face and tells the other that everything’s great, and they part.

Oh my god: character growth! Two selfish characters (yes, the Doctor was selfish all the way through the series, too) learn to give up what they desperately want, for someone else. It was a gorgeous scene, and with Clara in particular, it strengthened her in a similar manner as Martha’s departure strengthened her… only to be dashed one minute later with Santa appearing to tell the Doctor to go fix her. Yes, it doesn’t completely negate her moment of growth, but she no longer needs to follow through on her sacrifice for the Doctor (and vice-versa). And at the end of “Last Christmas”, everyone’s happy and she doesn’t have a care in the universe again, because she’s back in the TARDIS. She’s not even mourning Danny anymore, because a dream her mind invented told her that she doesn’t need to. I once read an article which talked about how the story arcs of the Eleventh Doctor moved him away from working through moral problems and towards “cheat codes” so that he didn’t have to make choices, and this trend continues in the current show.

And that’s why I am not enthusiastic about Series 9. No, I don’t like Clara, who is returning, but that’s only a very small part of the problem. It’s the writing, the poor plots, and the schizophrenic character and development design that’s turning me off, and all the way to the end of Series 8, that trend continues. Is it likely that it’s going to change in Series 9? I don’t see any evidence of that. I could see myself enjoying Clara if her story and personality and reactions were in any way understandable (I point back to my opinion of Rose, another character I don’t like, but whose story I liked because the character was well-developed and progressed naturally in response to her experiences), but it doesn’t seem likely that their handling of her, or the Doctor or any other character, is going to change. I’ll watch the new series when it debuts, and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

“Ghost Light”

GLight2“Ghost Light” features the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and is the second story in the rather excellent 26th and final season of classic Doctor Who. What’s really impressed me this season is that on top of the usual twisty-turny plot mechanics that we’re used to with classic Doctor Who (and is often lacking in modern Doctor Who), this season has a greater reach, with villains that have motivations reaching farther than just the story at hand and with more relevance to the Doctor and companion than just landing themselves in the trouble-of-the-week.

Spoilers, of course!

The Doctor brings Ace to 1883, to a house that Ace, when she was younger, had burned to the ground a hundred years later because she had felt something evil there. The house currently belongs to a strange man named Josiah Smith, who lives there with his ward Gwendoline, a housekeeper named Lady Pritchard, an explorer named Redvers Fenn-Cooper, who has gone insane, and a Neanderthal butler named Nimrod. Also visiting is the Reverend Ernest Matthews, who staunchly opposes the theory of evolution that Smith has been spreading. All of the people they encounter are very strange, and the serving staff carry guns, making this a very surreal episode.

I’ve actually had quite a problem trying to write this review because it relies so heavily on the surreality of the situation, the reveal of all of the secrets, and the motivation behind the main villain. It’s difficult to talk about it without rewriting the entire plot out, and I really don’t want to do that, so I’ll try to hit the major points here. Through the first two episodes of the story, you encounter strings of images that simply make no sense, from the Neanderthal butler to the gun-toting maids to the transformation of the reverend into an ape to the owner who seems to consider all of this perfectly normal. You’re just as confused as the Doctor as things begin to develop: there’s a spaceship beneath the house, in which an observer called Light arrived millenia ago to catalog all life on Earth. When it completed its work, it went into sleep, and its servant, the survey agent now known as Josiah Smith, continued to experiment. His current plan was to overthrow Queen Victoria to take control of the British Empire and make it a better place. The Doctor releases Light, who is upset that life on Earth has evolved, making his catalog obsolete, and decides to extinguish all life on the planet to stop it from changing. While the Doctor argues with Light and convinces it of the futility of opposing evolution, causing it to dissipate, Josiah Smith’s experiment control, a being named Control, rebels against him and gains the upper hand, and leaves with Cooper and Nimrod in the spaceship.

Now that summary doesn’t sound particularly interesting, or coherent for that matter, but that’s part of the brilliance of the episode. You spend the nearly the first half of the story trying to make sense of all of these strange things going on, and you find that they do make sense, though it’s sense on a more grand, cosmic scale. Then there’s the story of Light. I am fascinated by stories of nearly-omnipotent beings that are bound fast by rules that are barely comprehensible to humans (which is one of the reasons I love Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman). Light has only one purpose, to catalog life, and when he’s stymied by evolution, he can’t handle it. The only weakness to this episode, in my mind, was Smith’s plan. It’s very interesting that his purpose was to make the Earth a better place, but the method, taking over the British Empire, was odd.

Add to all this the Doctor. Not only was he in his fine manipulative form, his purpose for coming here was to investigate an important event in Ace’s life. He wasn’t just wandering as he normally does. Other than possibly “The Key to Time”, the latter half of the Seventh Doctor’s run has the most coherent and intricate storyline of the classic show, revolving around his relationship with Ace, and this episode is significant in establishing both Ace’s past and how much the Doctor treasures her, setting up the emotional basis for the next episode, “The Curse of Fenric.”

Sometimes I feel that every time I watch an episode of Doctor Who, I have to rethink who my favorite Doctors are, because the one I’m watching always pops to the top. After a bit of time, the list usually reorders to my usual favorites, but the Seventh Doctor keeps bubbling up the list, because of episodes like this one.

“Battlefield”

I find it very interesting that my non-fan friends are surprised when I tell them that such-and-such episode is not very good. For some reason, they think that if I’m a fan of the show, I must love every episode, and to me, that’s a very unrealistic expectation. In any fiction of a serial nature, some installments will be good and some will be bad, and they don’t always have the same type of quality. I love “Human Nature’/ “Family of Blood” because I feel it’s one of the best stories in the entire show, but I’ve probably seen “Smith and Jones” more often, simply because it is such a fun adventure. This goes for the classic show as well: you can’t run a show with seven different lead actors over twenty-seven years without some variation in quality.

Merlin and Morgaine

Merlin and Morgaine

And so we come to “Battlefield”, the first episode in the very last season of classic Doctor Who, featuring the Seventh Doctor with Ace as his companion. I watched it completely fascinated, and while I’m not sure that this was a good episode plot-wise, it was a lot of fun and I came out of it smiling.

Spoilers ahead! Not a complete episode synopsis, but instead a recap of the elements and twists.

When the Doctor and Ace arrive in present-day England this time, there’s a nuclear missle convoy stalled near a lake, and UNIT is called in to take care of it. Though the current brigadier, Brigadier Bambera, is on the scene, the Brigadier, our faithful Lethbridge-Stewart, is called in to assist. However, unknown to the Doctor or UNIT, men in chain armor begin appearing in the area.

To make a long story short, Morgaine, a sorceress of great power, comes to Earth from her dimension to find King Arthur, who supposedly is in a state of suspended animation beneath the nearby lake. Ancelyn, one of Arthur’s knights, comes to Earth first to defend Arthur and wake him, while Mordred, Morgaine’s son, chases him. When they (separately) encounter the Doctor, they immediately recognize him as Merlin; though they knew him with a different face, they could identify him simply by the power in his form.

The Doctor figures out that a future incarnation of himself visits their dimension and defends Arthur, and leaves hints to his former self to try to find and protect Excalibur, the artefact Morgaine needs to open the portal between dimensions. They discover the Doctor’s spaceship beneath the lake, but Arthur is long dead. It then becomes a race to convince Morgaine that Arthur is gone, so that she ends her war.

The plot itself is not as twisty-turny as many of the Seventh Doctor’s episodes, but it was still interesting, as you find out just what Morgaine is after and why, after all these years, she still wants to battle Arthur. Morgaine is also very interesting in her own right. She has a very solid sense of honor, even stopping to pay respects in a graveyard to the fallen soldiers from World War II, even though she had nothing to do with their conflict. At the end of the episode, when she is mourning Arthur’s death and frustrated with her centuries-long quest that she threatens to fire off the nuclear missiles, the Doctor dissuades her by appealing to her sense of honor, explaining what the missiles will do and pointing out that they are not honorable weapons of war.

The appearance of the Brigadier, the first (and only) one since “The Five Doctors”, wasn’t wasted. He starts at home, where he’s living a happy life with his wife Doris, and she’s upset that he’s being called back for a mission, even though he’s retired; she is, of course, afraid of him getting injured or killed. The Doctor is very happy to see him, and they solve the mystery together, but when Morgaine’s big monster, the Destroyer, appears, the Brigadier knocks the Doctor unconscious and faces it himself, knowing that the Doctor would not want to kill it and wanting to spare his friend the onus of having to do so. Doris was very right to worry: the Brigadier faces down the Destroyer and kills it, but nearly dies himself. It was a glorious last episode for the Brigadier, fighting as Earth’s Champion.

Ancelyn and Brigadier Bambera

Ancelyn and Brigadier Bambera

Another side plot which was fun to watch was the relationship between Bambera and Ancelyn. At first, Bambera views Ancelyn as an enemy, while he attempts to disarm her with rogueish banter. At different times, they argue and duel and fight, but by the end, they have formed a strong friendship with hints at future romance. One of the strengths of the classic show is that it takes the time to develop the guest characters, and this episode continued that tradition.

There’s nothing deep or profound about “Battlefield”, but it’s a great example of a fun and satisfying episode. It’s probably a great popcorn muncher, and if you’re anything like me, it’ll leave you happy.

My fifteen favorite episodes – Dec 2014

Ok, yes, it’s no longer 2014, but good enough. As I’ve done a year ago and six months ago, here is the list of my fifteen favorite episodes. Note that this is not necessarily my ranking of best episodes. It’s a ranking of ones that I like the most. It’s interesting comparing this back to my old lists (here and here), because you can see that not only have my tastes changed, but my definition of “favorite” has changed as well.

15. 42

burn-with-me-martha-oThis isn’t a popular choice, but I do love this episode. The time limit keeps the pressure on, and action keeps moving back and forth around the ship, but meanwhile, the characters get to explore their relationships and histories. And the Doctor fights a losing psychic battle against a solar entity, something that I always enjoy. The psychic part, not the losing part, though the fact that Doctor does succumb makes it even better.

14. The Eleventh Hour

A spectacular Doctor-introduction episode, it shows us all of this Doctor’s defining traits and sets up the Doctor’s and Amy’s relationship during a fun and interesting adventure.

13. Turn Left

Due to a tiny, ordinary decision, Donna never meets the Doctor and the world is thrown into chaos. It’s a fantastic exploration of a divergent timeline, showing what would happen if the Doctor wasn’t around to protect the universe.

12. The Waters of Mars

lawsoftimeThe downfall of the Tenth Doctor, when his need to help the people right in front of him overwhelms his greater responsibility to the universe and he convinces himself that he is above the rules. The situation was bad enough, with the creepy Flood, but the conclusion of the episode is chilling.

11. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead

This episode combines a fantastic story, a very creepy monster, and the introduction of River Song, back when she was actually intriguing.

10. The Caves of Androzani

The Doctor and Peri, poisoned from the outset, find themselves bounced back and forth between political factions trying to control a lucrative mine on the planet Androzani Minor. Throughout all of the intriguing conflict, which occurs on many levels, all the Doctor tries to do the entire episode is find the antidote to save Peri. This is one of the greatest episodes of classic Doctor Who, with the Doctor at his most heroic.

9. Remembrance of the Daleks

remembrance-of-the-daleks-1When two different factions of Dalek appear on Earth to retrieve an artifact, the Doctor and Ace seem caught in the middle without any way to stop or deflect the war between them. However, it turns out that the Doctor had the upper hand all along, and this episode shows just how cunning this incarnation of the Doctor can be.

8. The Fires of Pompeii

This episode cemented Donna as the best of the modern companions, as she starts out as making a stand against the Doctor for what she believes is right, but through the episode learns that the Doctor has more to consider when making a difficult decision than just who might die. And yet, she is still willing to stand up to him and make him see when he’s wrong when she needs to. Behind all this was a great adventure as well as a story of a family who learn what’s important in life through their contact with the Doctor and the events of that befall them.

7. The Lodger

This episode is lots of fun, as a normal guy has the Doctor move in with him for a number of days.

6. School Reunion

drwhoschool3Ah, the return of Sarah Jane! Even if you’re not a classic show fan, this episode communicates just how important she is to the Doctor, and their reunion is bittersweet. The background story, of the Krillitanes and their quest to become gods, tests the Doctor’s moral firmness, and he almost loses.

5. The Doctor’s Wife

This one is all about the TARDIS made flesh and her interactions with the Doctor. The rest of the story is great, but it’s Idris and the Doctor that makes this episode brilliant.

4. Midnight

This intense episode, set entirely in a tiny bus, is absolutely chilling, with an invisible enemy that controls first one person and then the Doctor, and a panicking group of humans who latch onto the one different person in the group – the Doctor – and brand him as the enemy instead, attempting to destroy him despite evidence to the contrary. This is Doctor Who at its rawest and most real.

3. The Day of the Doctor

9191_4Despite the numerous flaws in its plot and its disappointing handling of the Time War, this episode is great fun, with lots of banter between Doctors, adventure, and thirteen Doctors descending on Gallifrey.

2. The Runaway Bride

This episode has a fun, action-y plot, but its real strength is the development of Donna, from an angry and shallow bride at the outset to a far more sober and understanding woman at the end; the Doctor brings out the best in her.

1. Human Nature/The Family of Blood

I really can’t see a time when any other story will take my #1 spot. This episode builds up the story and life of John Smith, then tears it from him as he discovers the truth about himself. It explores how the Doctor’s presence can destroy the lives of the people around him, and, at the end, highlights his alien nature and reveals just how cruel he can be when he’s angered.

 

Honorable Mentions

Time Crash: If this could be called an episode, it would be #1 or #2. Beautifully written and produced.

The Night of the Doctor: This webisode was brilliant in and of itself, but also connected the Eighth Doctor to the beginning of the Doctor’s involvement in the Time War.

Dalek: The Doctor’s rage and what it does to him.

The End of Time: The Doctor, the Master, and the Time Lords. ‘Nuff said.

Father’s Day: This is a great exploration into Rose’s background.

The Ark in Space: I didn’t expect this episode, with its larvae made of actors wrapped in green bubblewrap squirming on the ground, to be any good, but halfway through, I was just riveted.

Arc of Infinity: Omega is one of my favorite characters in the Doctor Who universe. This was a fantastic episode, except for the last twenty minutes, which was just terrible.

The Christmas Invasion: The first part of this episode drags a bit, but it establishes its point very well: the human race isn’t well-equipped yet to deal with aliens. Then the Doctor wakes up and it’s an incredible ride from that point to the end, establishing every detail of his character so well, even foreshadowing his eventual downfall.

The Five Doctors: While the “getting to the tower” parts of this episode are boring, having so many Doctors and companions in one show was brilliant, and for the most part, this is one of the most fun episodes ever made.

It’s so volcanic!

It amazes me sometimes how much I miss things that I really should have noticed. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of Doctor Who episodes multiple times, and I love them, and then one day, it just hits me what it is about a particular episode that I love so much. Today’s revelation talking point is “The Fires of Pompeii”. I know that when I first viewed it, I enjoyed it, but it didn’t stand out to me in any particular way. I enjoyed all of Series 4 (there wasn’t a single bad episode in the entire bunch), but certainly “The Fires of Pompeii” didn’t hold a candle to the incredible episodes “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, “Midnight”, and “Turn Left”. It had a fun adventure, with the Doctor battling lava monsters that had lost their planet and were trying to make Earth their home by taking over the indigenous sentient species, while he was also trying to figure out why Pompeii wasn’t going to explode like it should.

fop_donna_doctor-angry

Don’t think she’s just going to back down, Doctor!

Then, months later, I rewatched it, along with all of the other Series 4 episodes. They were all better on second viewing, but “The Fires of Pompeii” was surprisingly very good. This time, with the advantage of hindsight, I saw how this episode established Donna’s character as the Doctor’s conscience and the only one who can and will push back against him. “Donna, human, NO!” is the iconic scene which shows that she’s willing to stand against him when she feels she’s right, something few companions ever have the nerve to do. Then, in the end, in the stone capsule, she sees that yes, he has good reasons for what he does and that he makes those difficult decisions no matter how much suffers for them, and she continues to support him. This episode contributed a huge amount to the overarching story of Series 4, in which the Doctor is bound by coincidences (or destiny) to the one companion that travels with him as an equal rather than a subordinate.

It’s only been recently that I realized that “The Fires of Pompeii” is even deeper than that. There’s a third story hidden behind all of this: that of Caecilius’ family. The characters are drawn beautifully from the start, as we meet them when Caecilius has bought the TARDIS as a “modern art” piece, in order to demonstrate that he’s cultured and savvy. From the first moments of their appearance, we know that he and his wife Metella are social climbers, doting on their daughter Evelina and pushing her into the Sybilline Sisterhood because that will increase their prestige in the city, while dismissing the damage it’s causing her.  They also ignore their son Quintus, who they think is a wastrel, trying to hide him whenever anyone of importance appears. It’s very telling that when the first earthquake hits, they run to save the vases and statuary rather than make sure their children are safe. Quintus is the only one in the family who actually cares about Evelina and is appalled as he watches his sister degrade.

4x02-The-Fires-of-Pompeii-doctor-who-1885014-960-528

Misplaced concern: Metella’s only worried that Evelina’s going to insult someone of status.

As events unfold, the parents watch as Quintus steps up to defend his sister and the family, and when Pompeii finally erupts, they learn that the material aspects of life are transient and that the things they’ve been blind to, their children, are the real treasures they should have been protecting. The Doctor saves them, and when they rebuild their lives in Rome, while they’re still trying to climb the social ladder, they do so while also caring for their family.

This whole storyline is carried out behind the bigger sweeping story of the Pyroviles and the Doctor and Donna’s developing relationship and is nearly invisible, and yet it glues together the episode. It adds a layer of complexity to an otherwise straightforward story, providing a cast of secondary characters that you immediately understand and relate to, and grow during the course of the events, getting you invested in their lives without detracting from the main conflict. It’s even more amazing to consider that this was done with very little focus on the family, as most of the scenes and dialogue were focused on the Doctor (of course) and the Pyroviles’ scheme.

It’s this complex plotting and attention to the secondary characters, building them into a story of their own, that really appeals to me about Doctor Who. Yes, I love the Doctor and his companions, but it’s the rest of the universe that’s so interesting, even down to one single family and how their encounter with the Doctor changes their lives.

Merry Christmas!

Doctor-Who-Last-ChristmasI hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas and whole holiday season, with family, friends, and lots of love and cheer! I’m having a perfectly fine day: we don’t live anywhere near our respective families, so Christmas is just a day of staying at home and enjoying each other’s company. In a few, I’m going to go cook up some steaks for a nice dinner.

We just finished watching the Doctor Who Christmas special, “Last Christmas”, and, well, opinion is divided in our house.

Spoilers, by the way.

My husband was really hoping for Clara to depart at the end of the episode, and since that didn’t happen, he’s running around the house in a really bad mood. I was hoping the same, but I’m not as disappointed as he is. To me, the episode could have been really good, but it fell flat in so many places.

The general concept, of dreams within dreams within dreams, was fun and deftly handled, and made me forget that each new reality could be a dream as people woke up. It was very nice to be surprised over and over again as new dreams were discovered. Having Santa and his elves as real characters very much challenged my suspension of disbelief, but as they also turned out to be dreams (maybe), it all worked out fine. Those characters were terrific, though – very fun to watch, with some of the best lines in the entire show.

However, I felt that they were trying too hard again to have sweeping emotional scenes, especially centered around Clara. Clara’s initial dream, of a happy life with Danny, was beautifully done, making me feel very sad for her that she’s trapped in this dream that she really wants, and the blackboards appearing and trapping her were terrifying, one of the few successful terrifying moments this series has had all year. Then the Doctor appears to tell her that it’s all a dream, and Danny transforms from a dream construct that’s meant to keep her happy in her dream to a real Danny, telling her to get out of the dream and go have a happy life. He can’t be both, and the tender moment is ruined by this. And then the ending. The Doctor comes to Clara to remove the facehugger and finds he’s come 60 years in her future and she’s had a good life without him, though she has missed him. It was an absolutely beautiful bittersweet story, showing that Clara does have the emotional fortitude to move on and live her own life… and they threw it down the drain, revealing it’s another dream, and instead, the Doctor saves Clara and they reunite happily and run off into the sunset. Another “everyone lives, everyone’s happy” Moffat ending. I always knew the Christmas special was going to end all happy-happy – Moffat can’t allow his characters to not be happy, ever – but I don’t have to like it. I am actually surprised he didn’t resurrect Danny. He must have been sick when he wrote this episode.

Beyond that, though, the show was decent enough, so much so that I could rate it at least average in Series 8. There were pacing problems that broke me out of story. (How many times do the humans, after being convinced their in a dream, need to keep asking how this or that happened? Maybe it’s time to start trying to break out before you’re dead?) And there are continuity errors that probably can be attributed to how hard it is to keep an Inception-like story consistent. (For example, if the facehuggers were supposed to be injecting dreams to keep their prey happy and dormant, why were the three women all dreaming they were trapped in an arctic base cowering from facehuggers? Not exactly the happiest of dreams.) I would definitely have liked the other human characters to have had some actual personality.

So, another Doctor Who year has come and gone, for good or bad, depending on your tastes. Hope your year has been wonderful, and looking forward to brilliant new year!