Tuesday 28 October 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-9 & 8-10



After half a series in which the new Doctor put his stamp on recognisable types of stories – the post-regen story, the Dalek story, the historical romp, the scary one – Doctor Who has begun to try new and more experimental things, bringing in new writers to shake the series up. The past two weeks have given us two very different episodes, but they both display a push towards new approaches and visual styles.

Because Doctor Who fans are never happy, the same people who were complaining that Clara had no character a month or two ago are now moaning that this is “The Clara Show.” These types are not going to be swayed by Flatline, this year's Doctor-lite episode in which, cleverly, the Doctor is largely confined to the TARDIS allowing Peter Capaldi to film almost all of his scenes in one go. While the Doctor tries to coordinate efforts from within his little prison, it's up to Clara to take his place as the intergalactic problem-solver. Clara gets to be the Doctor for a week, giving us just a little taste of what a series with a female Doctor might be like. She even gets her own young, male companion, in the shape of Joivan Wade as young offender Rigsy, proving himself in the face of an invasion from beyond space and time.

Jamie Matheson's second episode in a row, but his first written, as evidenced by a stronger central idea and a sharper script than in Mummy on the Orient Express. The TARDIS has been shrunk before, but rather than a way to dump the heroes in trouble or to provide an episode-ending cliffhanger, here Matheson makes it the visual crux of the episode. Flatline is a visual spectacular, from the hilarious yet unsettling image of the Doctor's eagle-eyed face looking out of the tiny TARDIS to the bizarre dimensional collapse of an everyday sofa. Douglas Mackinnon displays the same skills as he did on Listen, making a reasonably cheap episode into something visually striking. The Boneless, the two-dimensional beings invading our world, manage to be equally as effective as living graffiti as they are as twisted, shifting facsimiles of their victims.

In spite of his limited screentime, Capaldi is excellent as ever. He finally gets his big “I am the Doctor” moment, his natural gravitas selling what might otherwise be a rather naff speech, but is just as good almost giving up in the TARDIS or when performing his spectacularly awful dad dance when he, momentarily, pushes the Ship out of danger. But this is Jenna Coleman's episode. Coleman holds the whole thing together, taking the Doctor's role in the story in that most vital way. She gives the story something to pivot around, so while there are some real weak links, they do not damage the episode as a whole. Christopher Fairbank is very good as the loathsome Fenton, but he becomes repetitive and surplus to requirements rapidly, and the remaining community service bods are nothing more than monster fodder. Even though having one called Stan, after Flat Stanley, is beautiful. Nonetheless, Coleman's excellent central performance brings the best out of even the weakest characters.

The language is sometimes confusing, with “dimension” being used both in a more solid scientific sense of two- and three- dimensional spaces, and in the wishy-washy sci-fi parallel universe sense. The science itself is pretty shaky, as well. Flat images aren't actually two-dimensional, they're just very, very thin along the third dimension, and the whole switching being 2D and 3D spaces is very questionable. But this is Doctor Who, and sometimes you just have to accept that we're dealing with bollocks science and run with it.

This is especially the case with the following episode In the Forest of the Night. This episode displays some of the wonkiest science this series has ever committed, and despite talk of solar flares and oxygen levels, it can only be approached as an out-and-out fairytale. Once again, this is a visually striking episode, albeit beautiful rather than unsettling. We should expect nothing less from Frank Cottrell Boyce, the man who gave us the outlandish 2012 Olympic opening ceremeony, but a great deal of the credit has to go to director Sheree Folkson. This is another cheap episode, utilising little more than a forest with a few judiciously strewn props, although that Trafalgar Square lion must have cost a little. Undeniably effective as the scenes of the overrun London are, the lack of money is apparent due to the lack of people around. There should be panicked Londoners everywhere, fending off packs of wolves. Nonetheless, the limited cast does allow a focus on the core group. If there's one major problem with Flatline in regards to the ongoing story, it's that Danny Pink was severely short-changed. Here, though, the relationship between Danny and Clara is centre stage. Both Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson are on perfect form in this episode, displaying an easy chemistry that sells their relationship well. Bringing a gaggle of children along could have gone badly wrong, but the dysfunctional class are all likeable, particularly peculiar little Maebh.

While most critics are questioning the dodgy science and the fairies at the bottom of the forest, perhaps the most controversial element of this episode is its attitude towards mental illness. It might be viewed as crashingly irresponsible to encourage children not to take their prescribed medication, but personally, and I say this as a mentally ill person who relies on regular medication, I agree with the message. There's a tendency for doctors today to immediately prescribe medication for every genuine or perceived behavioural problem in children, when the first thing they should be doing is talking and listening to them. Of course, in reality disturbed children aren't talking to forest spirits, but the Doctor is right: the first thing to do is to let them speak to us, not shut them up with tablets.

Tying both episodes together is the developing relationship that Clara has with both the Doctor and Danny. Her turn as “Clara Who” unsettles the Doctor deeply, forcing him to confront how he is perceived by others, and the effect he is having on his companion. Throughout the two episodes, Clara lies to Danny, over the phone in his brief appearance in Flatline, and repeatedly to his face in Forest. While it seems as though this aspect of their relationship has been resolved as of the end of this episode, more troubling is the change in Clara's character as she becomes more like the Doctor. There's a clear difference in how she behaves when with Danny and with the Doctor, as each man influences her in her responses to situations. Danny's concern is with her safety and that of the children, and the pleasures of an ordinary life, while the Doctor sees the bigger picture, and puts the fate of worlds above the comfort and safety of individuals. Both heroic in their own way, they have wildly different ways of approaching the situations they find themselves in, and it certainly seems that the Doctor is beginning to wonder if Danny's attitude isn't better. Certainly, his effect on Clara is something he sees as negative, even as she finally rejects him in Forest. Clara displays a shockingly defeatist attitude when confronted with what appears to be the end of the world, refusing to allow the Doctor to save her and the children as their species faces extinction. As her character is explored further, Clara is developing some very unappealing traits.

Finally, both episodes end with a reveal that the mysterious Missy has been watching events as we have. (With the exception of Forest's one big failing, the overly sugary final scene in which Maebh's missing sister miraculously reappears after a year of hiding in a bush.) Aside from putting the viewer in the same position as the Doctor's newest enemy, these little snippets push the ongoing arc plot of the series onwards towards the upcoming finale. Each time, however, these vignettes feel entirely separate from the main story; as intriguing as they are, they would perhaps have worked more effectively if better integrated with the episodes as a whole.

Minor flaws aside, both Flatline and In the Forest of the Night prove that Doctor Who has plenty more tricks up its sleeve. The way forward for the series seems to be a larger pool or creative talents, with new writers and directors vital to keeping the programme fresh. While both episodes may prove to be loved or hated by individual viewers, it cannot be denied that trying something different it just what this series needs to keep it going into its ninth (or 35th) series. 

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