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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Doctor Who - "The Big Bang"

WHOSCALE: 7 out of 10

This episode marked the completion of the first season under Moffat's supervision, and served to tidy up a lot of open threads Moffat has started over the course of the season. I remember seeing the previous episode for the first time, and for a whole week pondering who on Earth The Doctor could get himself out of a sealed Pandorica, and I always came up with nothing.

In addition to showing the usual "Previously..." clips from "The Pandorica Opens," the pre-title sequence for this episode opens identically to the post-title sequence scenes in "The Eleventh Hour," only this time no TARDIS crashes in Amelia Pond's backyard, and stars have become something of a fairy tale, considering that they disappeared along with the rest of creation in Roman times. Amelia is lead to the local museum, where the Pandorica is on display - having been preserved throughout history. The Pandorica opens (again), but reveals the occupant to be Amy Pond, which is of course the aged-to-early-twenties Amelia Pond. I remember being so utterly confused at that moment, and wondered if Moffat could explain such a twist logically, if it could be explained at all.

After the title sequence, the episode picks up where we left off, with Rory mourning the death of Amy. The Doctor appears in a flash, donning a Fez and a mop, and instructs Rory to open the Pandorica (which at the time had just been sealed with The Doctor inside) using his sonic screwdriver. Rory follows his instructions, and Amy is then placed in the Pandorica to be preserved in stasis until her younger self (Amelia) makes contact with the Pandorica in 1996. You follow? It's always been my intent with my reviews to avoid explaining the plot and synopsis of a particular episode, but when dealing with some of the stories Moffat dreams up, it's almost necessary to explain his paradoxes in lament terms just so my readers can understand what I'm commenting on. The first few minutes explains how Amy ends up in the Pandorica, as well as explains how The Doctor is able to escape captivity to even materialize in front of Rory in a Fez.

From this point, the episode shifts from the Stonehenge location to the interior of the museum in 2010, where most of the story is resolved. There were some absolutely terrific Doctor moments in this episode, that I felt truly represented the mentality of the classic Doctors. One such occasion was when a near-death future Doctor appears, and moments before dying whispers something to his "younger" self. What was so reminiscent was how carefully The Doctor listened to himself, knowing that anything he had to tell himself is always important. This is further alluded to at the beginning of Series 6/Season 32, where it's indicated that The Doctor trust no one more in the universe than himself. The rooftop scenes were done well, also.

Another similar instance is when it's revealed that The Doctor's words with Amy in the forest aboard the Byzantium is actually from a future version, explaining why the "Flesh And Stone" Doctor was without his tweed jacket, but when he holds Amy's hands, he's wearing it again. The Doctor assures Amy that he isn't sure what the cracks are in her wall, but that he's "working it out," referring to himself in third person, having seen his past self several feet away analyzing sonic screwdriver readings.

As I mentioned in the last review, it was nice for once not to have an alien invasion as the blockbuster season finale plot line. Something I wanted to be sure and note was the fact that The Doctor took matters into his own hands on several occasions, and effectively took it upon himself to restore the universe to it's previous form. I say this mainly in contrast to Russell T. Davies' first two part finale, "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting Of The Ways," where the companion saved the day.

Moffat took care to not overlook any obvious plot holes, and even chose to incorporate some of the questions viewers might be asking into the episode. The Doctor verbally ponders how a petrified Dalek could be restored - or even exist at all for that matter - considering the Daleks' home planet, Skaro, would have been wiped out along with the rest of the universe; therefore preventing their creation altogether.

The resolution of the story seemed to be wrapped up rather quickly - within the first half of the episode. It wasn't because it was rushed - on the contrary, the pacing of this episode seem to relatively match that of the previous, and it didn't feel like key plot points were having to be crammed into 30 minutes. The story was wrapped up evidently in order to reserve the last half of the episode to closing open threads regarding Amy and Rory's personal life. The couple are married, and in what is perhaps the least explicable thing Moffat has ever wrote, an otherwise erased from history Doctor is restored to present time by the almighty powers of Amy's memory. Once again, we're on this mental thing. It was clear this was a recurring theme throughout the season - that of major events changing according to a character's willpower. I let the resurrection of Rory slide because it was reasonably explained - whomever looted Amy's home for tidbits to build a scenario on included a picture of Amy and Rory in centurion dress. This doesn't however excuse the fact that Rory was nothing more than an Auton, and yet again by sheer power of will, he's turned into a human - that still retains Auton characteristics, such as immortality (maybe this means he won't die anymore?) and a still fully functional flip-down hand gun. I don't mean a sidearm, either. I mean an actual HAND gun. But the business of The Doctor being restored simply because Amy remembered him - how does that work? It was never explained how Amy's thoughts alone could resurrect someone who was otherwise non-existent.

The soundtrack was a bit better this time, being much more subtle during the museum scenes, but it later seemed to escalate into full orchestrated mix again for The Doctor's reappearance.

After the reception, The Doctor scurries off back to his TARDIS, exchanging a few final words with River Song, and moments later is joined by newly weds Amy and Rory.

On that note, the season closes. The change in production staff was showing considerable promise, as fans of the original series had been treated a full course meal with Series 5/Season 31. The show still had a long way to go, but seemed to be slipping back into the imaginative science fiction it was during it's first 26 seasons.

Doctor Who - "The Pandorica Opens"

WHOSCALE: 7 out of 10

Steven Moffat was next in line to write the season's two part finale. This was perhaps one of the most anticipated episodes of the season, as a lot of viewers were expecting to get some answers to many questions that had arisen throughout the season.

We all knew that Moffat was capable of writing some clever plot twists, but I have to say he outdid himself with Series 5/Season 31. If you're one of the casual fan girls that watches only because "Tennant was hot," then this definitely wasn't your favorite. I'm a seasoned sci-fi fan, and it took me at least two viewings to figure out what all was coming together in this episode.

However, to be fair to my readers, I'm going to set aside the fact that the plot was top notch, and conduct this review as a comparative to the original series.

One of the first things that kind of put me off was the length of the pre-title sequence, which essentially took eight to nine minutes setting up the backdrop for the episode. It's not a real biggie for me, but as I've said many times, I'm not a big fan of a "Star Trek/X-Files/Babylon 5" style pre-title sequence. I know almost every modern day television show uses the format, but the three I named are the ones I most associate it with.

This may have been intentional considering the episode dealt with digging up old hidden artifacts, but the music score for this episode seemed to have the ring of Indiana Jones, particularly during the scene where The Doctor, Amy, and Song enter the Pandorica chamber.
Speaking of Dr. Jones, there was another scene during the pre-title sequence that was almost plucked word-for-word from "Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom," where River Song slips some micro-explosives (in place of poison) into Dorium's drink, forcing him to sell the Vortex Manipulator in exchange for a diffuser (instead of the antidote).

While I'm on the subject of music, the episode seemed to be well over-scored. Apart from a couple of dialogue scenes between characters in the underhenge, everything else was coated with a John Williams-ish orchestral score.

Moffat seemed to continue the running theme of recurring characters, a theme that was common during the Davies era. Virtually all of the major characters from the season have a role in this episode - Liz 10 from "The Beast Below," Bracewell and Churchhill from "Victory Of The Daleks," River Song from "The Time Of Angels" and "Flesh And Stone," and Vincent Van Gogh from "Vincent And The Doctor." Although each character seemed to have a relevant role, I think it could have been communicated without having to touch on every past encounter by The Doctor. If one had to be pointless, it was Liz 10, who was doing nothing else other than guarding the Royal Collection in the 52nd Century, which actually doesn't make a whole lot of sense, considering she's the Queen, and should be tending to her space-bound kingdom of citizens, Smilers and Winders.

Rory is resurrected (again) in this episode - this time as an Auton, although once again no character addresses them as "Autons," only as "duplicates."

I think Moffat handled another chapter of River Song's story well again, electing to not have the episode focus on River, but rather have her tag along as another companion to The Doctor. River's universal and temporal experience is only matched by The Doctor's, so it's kind of like getting a Romana on occasion.

Perhaps the most notable part of this episode is the climax, in which a season's worth of wondering what's inside the Pandorica is revealed. I don't think many viewers saw that one coming, because it certainly hit me broadside.

The episode closes on a cliffhanger, in traditional multi-episode Doctor Who form, with The Doctor trapped in the Pandorica, Amy shot dead by the Auton Rory, River trapped in the exploding TARDIS which would seem to be the cause of the mysterious cracks, and more seriously, the erasure of the entire universe, save for Earth itself. (Go figure.) Probably what got Moffat the biggest score with this one was the fact that for once, we weren't in downtown London or Cardiff fighting off a Dalek invasion for the season finale.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Doctor Who - "The Lodger"

WHOSCALE: 6.5 out of 10

Tackling the "character-lite" episode for this season was Gareth Roberts, who had previously penned "The Unicorn And The Wasp" for the Tenth Doctor. It should be noted that this episode is based on a short comic strip that was published during the Tenth Doctor's run, and as such was written for Tennant's Doctor. However, Roberts seemed to see the problem with having the episode soley focus on The Doctor living as a flatmate, and so a mystery element was introduced.

This was yet again another episode that I have mixed feelings about. So many things were done well, and so many weren't. As an episode of Doctor Who, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but when I look at it through my Whoscale goggles, I'm not so sure what to think.

Roberts loosely followed the same format that Moffat did with "Blink" by having the character with minimal screen time (in this case, Amy) still be actively involved in the story. Amy's absence from the episode is explained in a logical manner. Instead of just having her out of the episode altogether like Davies did with "Love And Monsters," Amy continues to offer information, clues and advice from the confines of the dematerialized TARDIS. It's always a good thing when the writer intertwines the two lead characters' roles in a way that we as viewers don't suspect it's a "character-lite" episode.

There were several nods to the original series in this episode, and some less obsessive fans might not have caught them. Some were obvious - The Doctor giving Craig a brief biography of himself, with flashes of the first three Doctors, and others weren't so obvious - If anyone's seen "Spearhead From Space" with the Third Doctor, then you couldn't help but be reminded of it during Smith's shower scene. Another that was tremendously vague was when Craig recruits The Doctor for his local football match, and The Doctor asks, "Football...is that the one with the sticks?" - harking back to the Fifth Doctor's skilled cricket abilities. It would seem that he also possesses top notch football skills, as well. In addition to sprinkles of classic Doctor Who, there were numerous other quirks about this episode that fit the bill for what you'd expect from The Doctor, such as his football jersey number being "11." Another was The Doctor's reactions to indications of romance. Craig explains the "understanding" in case The Doctor needs some alone time with wink, and The Doctor winks back in acknowledgement, immediately following the response by questioning why he would want alone time.

The episode did well to keep us on the edge of our seats with the volume a little higher so we wouldn't miss a beat after the clocks starting going awry at Craig's and The Doctor's flat. Since I'm in the States, I had to watch new episodes online, and when the time loop at the end of the football match started, I remember thinking that my video played had froze up.

I think what may have me so undecided on this episode's score is because it kept weaving back and forth between two separate stories - one of The Doctor experiencing domestic life with Craig, the other of the mystery upstairs. Now, don't get me wrong - the "weaving" this episode was doing was not so abrupt that it felt like two plot lines running parallel to each other (i.e. "Boom Town"). Roberts did well in mixing the mystery of what was upstairs in with the premise of the comic strip, also titled "The Lodger."

As with a lot of new episodes since the revival in 2005, this one took the biggest hit on the Whoscale in the last ten minutes. Something about the resolutions of plots just isn't sorted with the writers. Like so many before - to the point of almost becoming a revived series tradition - the "companions" for this episode save the day, and not by some clever thinking or application of logic - no, by using the same incredible mental powers that Bracewell used in "Victory Of The Daleks." Basically, by "wishing" the baddies away, Craig saves The Doctor and Sophie. If you're a diehard reader of this blog, this be sure to remember that resolution when reading my review of "Closing Time" in Series 6/Season 32. The phrase "kiss the girl!" just seems like it was plucked out of a Disney film, so it just didn't feel very Doctor Who-ish.

There were some VERY intriguing aspects about this episode. I remember my reaction the first time seeing the interior of the upstairs flat, and immediately thinking, "OH, S***! IT'S A TARDIS!!!" The fact that we never actually find out who owns that TARDIS makes it even better, with the mysterious visitor getting away scott free. I recall speculation floating around after it aired - fans were guessing The Master, Omega, River Song, Susan Foreman and everything between.

It wasn't has close to original Who has Chibnall's Silurian story, but it seemed to have roughly enough ingredients to make it fair well on the Whoscale.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Doctor Who - "Vincent And The Doctor"

WHOSCALE: 6 out of 10

Following the Silurian two part story, Richard Curtis penned the next episode. This story was intended to be the season's historical installment, as was "Tooth And Claw" for Series 2/Season 28, "The Shakespeare Code" for the Series 3/Season 29, and "The Unicorn And The Wasp" for Series 4/Season 30. While all of these previous installments have featured a historic figure as one of the main characters, in each case the stories were generally set around the Doctor Who style mystery/monster format, with the historic character being "along for the ride" so to speak in much the same way The Doctor's companions were meant to be.

However, in the case of "Vincent And The Doctor," it's clear that Curtis abandoned this format to focus more on teaching viewers about Vincent Van Gogh, and less about making it an episode of Doctor Who that features a historic character.

First off, I'll point out a technical oversight that I noticed before the title sequence. The episode opens with The Doctor and Amy visiting an art museum that contains all of Van Gogh's paintings. The Doctor is intrigued by one painting in particular of a church, where a mysterious creature was depicted in one of the church windows. This odd depiction convinces The Doctor to travel to the past to talk to Van Gogh personally about the painting, which serves as The Doctor's reason for visiting Van Gogh to begin with. Clearly, the creature would have wreaked havoc on the Earth by the time 2010 had rolled around, but oddly enough, the creature seemed to keep quiet all those years. Now, one might could explain this by saying that the painting was the same one done when The Doctor and Amy were with him at the church, but at the close of the episode, the church painting is shown to NOT have a creature in the window, which would seem to indicate THAT painting is the one Van Gogh did with The Doctor.

Throughout the course of the episode, I had mixed feelings about it. Sometimes it felt like Doctor Who, sometimes it didn't - but more often than not, it didn't. The problem I think was that Curtis was so wound up in trying to educate viewers instead of telling a gem of Doctor Who. Granted, the purpose of a "historical episode" is to be a rough history lesson, and the original series did several of these during Hartnell's first two seasons, but having not been told they were historic episodes, I never would have known because the plot was so tastefully done. "The Aztecs" comes to mind - one of my favorites from the Hartnell era - where a history lesson about the ancient Aztecs spanned four episodes without requiring a single monster. My point is, educational episodes are great, as long as you don't make it OBVIOUS that being educational is what you're trying to be. Besides, most children are more inclined to absorb such facts if they aren't aware that's they're being fed educational data.

Curtis minimized the use of CGI in this story by having the Krafayis be invisible to everyone in the episode except Van Gogh. This turns out to be the reason behind some of the accusations Van Gogh had got by the townspeople about being mad. Kudos for that, but it was one of those CGI-dodging gimmicks that's a bit obvious to the trained viewer. OF COURSE it's invisible. I'm not encouraging the use of CGI by no means, but there are other ways to get around it besides simply having the appearance of the monster absent for the most part of the episode, and writing it being invisible (and blind, apparently). Animatronics comes to mind. Yeah, it's a lot more time consuming to build a puppet and shoot some forced-perspective shots with it, but the pay off is worth it. If you look on YouTube, you've got five-year olds posting tutorial videos about using Adobe AfterEffects. Most kids know the difference between CGI and real, tangible puppets, so they're more likely to be scared behind the sofa by a physical puppet than a CGI monster. There's some body language that CGI just can't mimic, and it's a dead giveaway. The kids may know it's a mechanically operated puppet, but to them, its a REAL puppet nonetheless, and they can't help but wonder if it's going to be hiding under their bed later that night. The worst a CGI monster can do is crash your PC or Mac.

The episode also had atleast 30% t0 40% of it's shots done in shaky-cam, so do I really need to rant again about why I subtract points for this?

What really killed this episode's score was the final ten minutes, where it effectively drops into a modern day primetime drama format for Van Gogh's visit to the 2010 museum. Having an emotional, heart wrenching Lifehouse-ish song over the epilogue of an episode has been the norm for television dramas like "Grey's Anatomy,""E.R.," and "One Tree Hill" for years. I'm not sure if this was Moffat's experimental attempt to "see how the fans like this format," but it's been my understanding that hard core Whovians were outraged by it, myself included. If there's one thing that has no place in an episode of Doctor Who, it's modern day music with lyrics! Thankfully, so far this episode has been the only one to do so, having already seen Series 6/Season32.

It was an OK episode, but as the title implies, it was mainly about a particular character, to the point that the inclusion of a monster made little to no sense at all.