Thursday, January 2, 2014

Time of the Doctor: I'm glad I watched it on January first, so I can spend all of 2014 hating it

I'm going to open with some stuff that's tangential to Time of the Doctor, but that's okay, because, as it doesn't have anything to do with Time of the Doctor, it, at least has the potential to be interesting.

Yeah, it's going to be one of those reviews.

There is large consensus that the titular Aliens from the series with Sigourney Weaver have a pretty great design, and I happen to agree with that. I've listened to a lot of James Cameron's commentary, and I remember something that he said, that the human eye can recognize the movements of another human being with remarkably few clues, so he took pains to ensure that the operators of the Aliens never made them move like human beings.

Giger Aliens are frightening on a number of levels. They're stronger than a human being, and they could kill you in a straight fight, but they're not going to do that. They're going to steal you away like a witch in a fairy tale and use you as an incubator to make more of their kind. They're intelligent, but they don't look like or think like a human being. They are the ultimate "Other".

The very first thing I ever read on the Internet, many years ago, was William Gibson's Alien 3 treatment. (Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor) was in the version of Alien 3 that finally got made, but that's just a meaningless coincidence.)

Here's a link to it:

Alien 3 is not particularly well regarded. I don't think it's as terrible a movie as some of its detractors claim, and I think it could have actually worked as a sequel to Alien. The problem is that it has fuck all to do with Aliens, the movie that immediately preceded it, and it spends a couple minutes essentially undoing everything that happened in Aliens in order it can tell the story that it wants to tell.

Aliens also worked to expand the scope of the Alien threat, and it's hard to go back to the more intimate danger of the earlier installment once you've upped the stakes like that. (Since I feel one of the problems of Doctor Who is that ever-escalating scope of the threats encountered in the season finale, maybe this isn't as orthogonal to my larger point as I had initially thought.)

Gibson's treatment looked incredible. It took everything I liked about Aliens (Bishops, Hicks, lots and lots of aliens) and ramped it up to eleven. And a good script is only one component to a good movie, but I liked it a lot. It didn't diminish the sci-fi action elements, but it also continued and expanded on the body horror present in the original.One of the concepts I really liked was, that due to experimentation by the Company's bioweapon division, the aliens can also reproduce through spores.  I think it was pretty neat.Anyone exposed to them eventually undergoes a rapid transformation into an alien and, with the limited resources available to the protagonists, it's impossible to determine who has been infected.

And to return to Doctor Who...I guess the Daleks do this too now. Except instead of transforming into a Lovecraftian nightmare monster...a Dalek penis pops out of your forehead.

Pictured: Dickhead
This Dalek puppet thing is something that had been previously established earlier in Matt Smith's run, but I had stopped watching the show regularly by then, because I assumed it contained too many moronic concepts, like, well, this.

And I'm all for making making the Daleks a legitimate threat. They lose all the time and you can be assured that any encounter that opens with a Dalek will conclude with a Dalek rolling away with its whisk and its plunger between its bumps 45 minutes later.

I think that they can, and should augmented until we're capable of taking them seriously. However, that augmentation should take place within the context of elements already present. I've seen the arguments that Who writers in general and Terry Nation in particularly grew up in the WWII era and this influenced elements of the Daleks' design. I think that any improvement has to take place within this framework. A Ghost Dalek, for instance, would be potent, but it wouldn’t make any sense.

The problem is that Steven Moffat is still running the show, and he tends to think his own ideas very clever and to shit all over the idea of maintaining any kind of continuity.

It’s only a staffing difficulty, that’s all it is. It’s a clever way to solve a staffing problem. It’s not real. We just make this nonsense up, you know.

So Dalek spores that turn you into a penis-head Roboman are a (theoretical) good idea in a vacuum, they fail because they don't mesh with existing Dalek technology, which still requires line of sight with their death rays. Perhaps they should have raided some of the World War 2 tech when they were off serving tea to Winston Churchill, because humans had already been using indirect fire for a good quarter of a century by that point.

All right, enough about the penis people.(God, this post is going to really skew my blog's search results.)

The story opens with every alien in the universe orbiting around a planet that's broadcasting a super-mysterious message. The Doctor pokes around briefly before showing up Clara's family's Christmas party.
I wish I were kidding, but even Clara's gradmum wants to shag the Doctor.

I watched the episode while some friends were visiting from out of town. While they were here, we watched a bunch of junk on Netflix, including some episodes of the G.I. Joe cartoon from the 80s. The show was terrible and it had a large number of problems, but it also crammed a tremendous amount of story into every 22 minutes. I found myself thinking back to that, because this episode had an appalling amount of padding. It ranged from the boring (Clara's family) to the truly offensive (Ho ho, you think you're wearing clothes, but you're not!)

I've said it before that Moffat is a talented writer, but what he thinks Doctor Who should be is so different from what I think Doctor Who should be that there is no way to reconcile our views.

I'm of the opinion that science fiction is at its most interesting when it posits something new to an environment and then looks at what the ramifications of that new element might be.

Moffat is of the opinion that that science fiction is at its most interesting when it posits something new to an environment and then gets a couple dick jokes out of it before forgetting about it and moving on to the next new element.

(Of course, Doctor Who was never science fiction as much as it was fantasy wrapped up in sci-fi trappings, but let's not muddy the water at this late date)

With this review, I've kind of been lurching from griping about one thing I hated about the special to another, with no rhyme or reason. I was going to tighten it up and see if I could unify all my points under a single theme, but you know what? I think this word salad of nerd rage is as good a metaphor as anything for the problems with this special and Moffat's writing in general.

I wouldn't call the story incomprehensible, because it's pretty easy to understand what's happening on screen at any given moment. The word that really springs to mind is "pointless". It's easy to understand "what" is happening, but the story never asks "why". Things happen, but never as a consequence of anything that has happened before. B might follow A chronologically, but A never leads to B. Events happen because they would be (theoretically) interesting, or they would further the plot.

For example, the Doctor and Clara beam down to a town inhabited entirely by white people in Victorian era garb, like some kind of Dickensian J. Crew ad. The town is covered by a Truth Field, where speakers are compelled not simply to answer honestly, but to blurt out truths.

The big question about this place from our heroes? Why the town is named Christmas?

Really? REALLY?

We have towns with stranger names in Amish country.


It's a moronic question and an idiotic line and it only serves to set up the Doctor's glib comeback about an island called Easter.

(I might have forgiven it if he ran around Christmastown asking "What's this? What's this?" but it was not to be.)

What's this? What's this? It's a shitload of white people, that's what.

Anyways, our town called (White) Christmas houses a weak point between universes into which Gallifrey was shunted by the War Doctor in the last big event. The voice of the Time Lords is whispering through the cracks, calling "Doctor Who, Doctor Who", in a bit of meta-textual reference that's too twee by half. I imagine somebody has already sampled this for use in a remixed Doctor who title theme, unless they were too embarrassed to be associated with this production.

If the Doctor says says olly olly oxen free, his name, the Time Lords will know that it's safe to come out and will return.

This leads directly into the other hugely problematic part of the episode.

Tasha Yar Tasha Lem is another woman directly out of Moffat central casting. She's a powerful woman (ruler of the naked space church, or whatever it's called) but powerless to resist the siren song of the Doctor's rubbery faced sexual allure. Ugh. Stop me if you've heard this before.

There is a stalemate. The Doctor can't release the Time Lords or else the Time War will start again. If he tries to leave, the assembled Rainbow Coalition of Space Monsters will kill him. And it's not made absolutely explicit, but Tasha Lem enforces a blockade to prevent the standoff from escalating.

The thing is, I'm not sure why A.) Tasha Lem's giant head
Please, Time Baby! Have mercy!
would assume that the Doctor would want to release the Time Lords, who have been increasingly been a bunch of jerks for whom he has no love, and B.) this turns out to be the correct assumption.

However, the players do as the plot demands. Fortunately, nobody had anything to do for the next couple centuries

Space Secretary! Clear my meetings for the next 300 years!
So, the Doctor lives in the magical village of Christmas, whose principle import seems to be unconvincing old man makeup.

Sorry, Matt. We used up our fx budget on that wooden Cyberman. Rub this Elmer's glue on your face instead.

And we're subjected to an excruciating montage of the Doctor's time in the village. (Ordinarily, I would complain that this episode tells us instead of showing us far too often, but the last thing I wanted was MORE of it, so I will refrain) It seems that the best plan he could come up with was just to hang out there until things got better.

Also, it seems Moffat's Doctor is the only one capable of saving the universe, and seeing as he was in the same place for three hundred years, the logical assumption is that no threats arose during this time, that it was simply an unprecedented period of universal harmony? (The Doylist interpretation, which is doubtless the correct one is that Moffat failed to consider the ramifications of what he had proposed)

The Doctor gets older. Clara suffers through dinner with her family. (The Doctor sent her home) The Doctor gets older. Clara returns. Pulse pounding.

They're summoned to Tasha's Papal Mainframe, but it's a trap.


I've already had my rant about how stupid the whole shape of a gun on her forehead thing is, so I shan't repeat it here.

The Doctor forces himself upon Tasha and sticks his tongue down her throat, a trope that Moffat seems to like, since he uses it all the time, and apparently has no idea how disturbing it is.

This breaks the Dalek control and she remembers her place. Clara is sent away again, but Tasha Lem returns her to the Doctor's side. Some people have interpreted her line" Flying the TARDIS was always easy, it's flying the Doctor that I've never quite mastered" to mean that she's somehow related to River Song after she was uploaded into the computer in her first outing. I don't think that's the case. I think Moffat just writes all of his women the same.

Aliens attack with infantry tactics lifted directly from the Crimean war! But the Doctor fights back! But he's losing! Oh, noes!

I was talking with my friend Jen, who had seen this episode when it initially aired on Christmas. We both thought that the whole issue of this being the last regeneration was a bit of artificial tension, seeing as there were canonical workarounds, and it was part of the Master's plan to steal himself more regenerations ever since the concept of a twelve regeneration soft cap was introduced in the Deadly Assassin. (Also, the Master says in the Sound of Drums, that the Time Lords gave him a new cycle of regenerations.) I asked her how the question of how the Doctor gets new regenerations is addressed, and she said, and I quote, "The Time Lords say, 'Here! Have some more regenerations!"

I assumed that she was kidding. Oh, naïve Josh!

Clara whispers to the crack in the wall that the Doctor is here, which is what gets the Time Lords moving. It also kind of highlights one of the problems with the episode, what with the Doctor living for a couple hundred years on planet while under the influence of a "Truth Field" that compels everyone to blurt out answers to questions put to them, while the constant techno drumbeat of "Doctor Who?" droned on in the background. I thought the Truth Field would be used for something other than a one-off joke, but I see I overestimated Moffat again.

Anyway, the Time Lords poke through their Firefly Opening Credits screen saver

As if I needed more reasons to hate this special
and say "Here! Have some more regenerations!"

And then death rays start shooting out of every orifice
I'm so loud and incoherent, Boy this oughta bug your parents!

For contrast, here's William Hartnell regenerating. 

Back in my day, we could regenerate without exploding all over the place.

The Doctor blows up the Dalek mothership that's hovering about twenty feet overhead, an act that one would think would kill the Doctor all over again, but it doesn't, because this is a Steven Moffat production and effect became entirely uncoupled from cause ages ago.

The Doctor is regenerating in the TARDIS, and he imagines Amy Pond. Karen Gillan reprised the role, and I understand that, because she had shaved her head for Guardians of the Galaxy, she was wearing a wig made from her own hair. That "Look-at-me-aren't-I-clever?!", needlessly complicated solution that ads nothing to the experience is the perfect metaphor for Moffat's tenure.

Then he's like, Hey, Presto! I'm Capaldi!

I'm trying to think of something good about this episode and I'm failing. I've slowly come to the conclusion that it's not Matt Smith I dislike as much as it is Moffat. The Doctor has a steady power creep over the new series, and that's not terrible, in itself. Powerful characters are fine, but the nature of the narrative has to change beyond a simple ramping up of the power level of their adversaries. I've written about Superman elsewhere, and the question for more powerful characters becomes increasingly "Should he do this?" rather than "Can he do this?"

The Doctor's power creep was accompanied by a kind of swagger. And this kind of hectoring arrogance, coupled with the knowledge that he's always going to win, sometimes makes him look like a bully. The fact that he forces a kiss on a number of women, including at one point, a lesbian does nothing to dispel this notion. The Doctor takes what he wants.

I'm hoping that Capaldi reverses this trend. I had written earlier in this post about the difficulties with putting the high stakes genie back in the bottle. Once you've saved the universe, the galaxy is small potatoes. (Well, you never know. In Classic Who, the tended to use galaxy and universe interchangeably and that always drove me nuts, even at twelve years old.)

Capaldi asked Clara if she knew how to pilot the TARDIS, which hints at the possibility that he might have some of his tedious omniscience stripped away. I've read the explanation that Time Lords are so different in demeanor from their immediate prepossessor because they are subconsciously trying to avoid the behavior that got them killed. That's a Watsonian answer to a Doylist question, however. The real reason is that no one in the viewing audience wants to see Jon Pertwee pretending to be Patrick Troughton. (Heck, most of the audience barely tolerated Patrick Troughton being Patrick Troughton.)

(Hi, Jen! Were you still reading?!)

So, even though Moffat is still in charge, I have some small hope that we'll see some improvement, because a Moffat-written Matt Smith was such a perfect collection of things I hated that any change will be for the better.


  1. Oh the Doctor's companion was named Clara. I'm glad you included her name Josh because I thought this last one was named Mary Sue.

    1. Ha! I knew that mentioning the Amish in my review would summon you forth!

  2. Hey, no directing your word salad of nerd rage at Patrick Troughton!

    1. I'm sorry! Have mercy, Time Baby! The Daleks scooped out my brains with their whisks and replaced them with a Dalek penis! I was a Dalek Puppet when I said that! Fortunately, Matt Smith came along and stuck his tongue down my throat and some rough lovin' from his healin' lips cures all ills!

  3. As usual, I don't disagree with anything you said, but have a different opinion anyway. Actually, I take that back. I do disagree with one thing you said: "Things happen, but never as a consequence of anything that has happened before." I think that's key to where we differ, here. I've watched every episode of Matt Smith's entire run. I can appreciate how this episode was the culmination of everything he's been building toward in that time. It provided *almost* satisfying answers to *almost* every major question that's been raised and *almost* satisfactory resolutions to *almost* every major plot thread. It even actually addressed the issue of limited regenerations in a way that *almost* makes sense.

    That puts it head and shoulders above what I expected from Moffat.

    And, the cherry on top, he killed off Matt Smith's doctor.

    I know the problem is Moffat, not Smith. I know putting Capaldi in a role that's still being written my Moffat isn't likely to improve things any. But Smith was the visible face of everything the new Who has become. His role's death feels like the end of an era I wasn't overly fond of. And until the new season airs, I can imagine that just maybe it will bring something better.

    1. You're doubtless more informed than I am. I've mostly just read recaps or reviews and only actually watched a mere handful of episodes, mostly when my friends have suckered me in with linkbait-like appeals like "This one crazy episode will change how you feel about Matt Smith!" I'm not informed enough to offer an opinion if it answers questions to the satisfaction of someone who has been watching regularly, because I'm not in that position myself.

      I guess the Silence are a good example of what I was getting at. The answer feels flat because it's just thrown out there, and previous events hadn't built towards it. They're bioengineered confessors, and while that origin doesn't contradict what has been previously established, this reveal isn't a consequence of what had been established before, either. Nobody was slapping his head, saying "Of course! I should have seen it!"

    2. Eh, yes and no. The Silence were known to be somehow nebulously tied to some kind of militaristic space church, but how or why was never exactly clear. So while the idea that they're bioengineered confessors came a bit out of the blue, it does explain something that had always seemed a bit odd in a way that fits with what's previously established well enough that it seems to *almost* make sense.

      ...Notice how I keep qualifying with that word "almost"?


      I will say, though, that since this episode was less of a real Christmas Special and more of a finale to Matt Smith's run of the Doctor, it's not entirely fair to judge it outside of that context. It's a bit like watching the last 5 minutes of a movie and saying "Well, that sucked. I didn't have any idea what was going on!"

      That said, I'll admit that my main defense of this episode is that, having watched all the episodes preceding it, 1) my expectations were so low that it wasn't terribly hard to exceed them and 2) it actually wrapped up a lot of loose ends (which I was pleasantly surprised by, because, well, see point 1).

    3. I think you're right. I believe my review is generally correct on most points of fact, but it's in no way *fair*. I'm snarky, I'm partisan, I've certainly got an axe to grind.

      I don't have the viewing figures handy, but I would assume that many more people watch a Christmas special than usually watch the regular broadcasts. It's a pretty complicated arc they've had going on, so even if casual viewers have been watching the show, they probably don't have the detailed knowledge required to follow or appreciate everything that was going on.

      As you observed, it was a send off to Matt Smith as much as it was anything else, and, had they their druthers, they wouldn't have done it as part of a Christmas special, but I think it was their last chance to do it.

  4. If nothing else, this post has given us the phrase "Word salad of nerd rage" and I think I'm going to have to incorporate it into the description of the blog.