Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Doctor Who: Monks and Warriors

These Doctor Who reviews have slipped down a wormhole in the time / space continuum to become monthly ( -ish ) instead of weekly, so I have five (!) episodes to catch up on, starting with:

Extremis
This was a bold, challenging episode with a very divisive twist ( which I personally loved ) and some memorable new monsters, the ( meddling ) Monks. These corpse-like creatures were trying to get their claws into the planet Earth with the help of the Veritas, a fabled ancient text in the Vatican's restricted library which causes anyone who reads it to commit suicide. Quite a dark theme for a Saturday evening TV show and one which strangely reminded me of that old Monty Python sketch about the funniest joke in the world, which no-one could read or tell without instantly dropping down dead.
And the Doctor was in the dark too  -  still blind after the previous story's shocking final scene and managing to get by with the aid of the dreaded sonic glasses... and a little help from Nardole. Apart from a hilarious scene of poor Bill's latest date being interrupted by the Pope himself, this was a gloomily Gothic episode with some head-spinning twists and turns. Moffatt says this was his last chance to push at the boundaries of the format and I think he did a fine job. The final revelation that all this story had taken place in a computer simulation may have borrowed from The Matrix ( and possibly Warren Ellis' Planetary ) but I loved the audacity of it, and also the idea that even Sim City versions of our heroes can be heroic when it counts. I'm giving this one
Four Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or VR headsets )

The Pyramid At The End Of The World
Part Two of the "Monk Trilogy" saw the red-robed revenants return and this time actually put one of their world-conquering plans into place. Even though it was a bonkers one. A 5000-year old pyramid suddenly appeared from out of nowhere, in a disputed region of Absurdistan ( or something like that ) where the Russian, American and Chinese armies were facing off against each other, while the President of Earth ( aka Doctor Twelve ) was called upon to help decide the future of the planet. Meanwhile scientists in a bio-research lab had inadvertently created a substance that could kill all life on Earth. And the Doctor was still blind...
While the script ( by Moffatt and Peter Harness ) didn't always hang together  -  there were a lot of unanswered questions  -  the scale and sense of impending doom made for a slow-burning but intense episode. And Pearl Mackie as Bill yet again played a blinder ( sorry! ) when she was forced to choose between condemning the Doctor and subjugating humanity to the Monks' rule. I really think Pearl brings a breath of fresh air to the show and it would be a shame if she were to leave along with Moffatt and Capaldi... although I suspect that's what will happen.
Three And A Half Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or Sonic Glasses )

The Lie Of The Land
The finale of the Monk Trilogy saw Toby Whithouse ( sort-of ) tie up the loose ends of the walking cadavers' story as Bill and Nardole found themselves lost in a grim Dystopia where the Monks ruled over all ( and had done since 1975 apparently ) and the Doctor appeared to be their propaganda mouth-piece. A kind of Lord Who-Haw if you will... and you won't see a more obscure reference than that ladies, gents and Gallifreyans...
Reminiscent of Martha's night journey way back in Season Three, this story took Bill across a subjugated world, and across a sea, to point a gun at a Time Lord. But this time the Doctor and not the Master ( remember him? ) was the supposed bad guy. Of course, this all turned out to be a double-bluff with the Doctor playing the Monks at their own disinformation game, and making some acid observations about democracy on the way. While not terribly convincing ( would Bill really shoot the Doctor? ) it still gave our Tardis companions some meaty drama to chew on and held up a distorted mirror to our own post-truth times. ( The biggest disappointment of the episode was the surprisingly passive portrayal of the Monks themselves  -  they didn't put up much of a fight and didn't utter a single line of dialogue... ) The final showdown, with Bill's love for her long-lost mum beating the cynical manipulations of the Monks, could have been corny but was in fact quite moving as it reminded us that love is really all you need...
Three And A Half Sonic Screwdrivers ( or Levitating pyramids )
Empress Of Mars
Mark Gatiss! Ice Warriors! Mars! I was hoping for a lot from this episode and thankfully it delivered. Gatiss has had his ups and downs on Who in recent years, from the dull and juvenile Night Terrors to the campy Gothic of The Crimson Horror, but the Ice Warriors obviously bring out the best in him, as seen in the tense and claustrophobic Cold War.
After a fun pre-credits sequence involving Bill and Nardole bumbling around NASA HQ, the story got its ass to Mars where a jingoistic platoon of displaced Victorian redcoats were digging for treasure under the Martian surface. Supposedly helping out "last of his kind" Ice Warrior "Friday", the soldiers were in fact being used to uncover an Ice Warrior hive full of the resting reptiles... and also a new Martian  -  Iraxxa the Empress of Mars.
This was a proper, old school Who episode which wouldn't have looked out of place in, say, Season Nine ( home of the Ice Warriors-starring Curse Of Peladon )  -  except for the budget of course. The Doctor's attempts to broker peace between the Earthmen and the Martians had a definite Pertwee vibe about it, although in this case the Empress was more interested in Bill's opinion than those of young soldiers or old Time Lords. Add to this a very post-modern running gag about science fiction movies and some deftly-sketched character work, and this hybrid of The War Of The Worlds and The First Men In The Moon ( or Mars ) was a hugely enjoyable slice of Saturday night entertainment.
Four Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or Mars bars )
The Eaters Of Light
The Tardis trio go on an educational trip to find out what actually happened to the fabled Ninth Legion of the Roman army  -  were they wiped out by Pictish warriors or maybe slaughtered by some tentacled, chlorophyll-loving alien creature? It's an age-old question...
I'd been looking forward to this one as it was written by playwright Rona Monroe who had scripted Survival waaay back in 1989, the last episode of "classic" Doctor Who. Survival hadn't been the greatest Who story and has certainly gained stature because of its end-of-an-era position in the canon, but it had some great moments and in many ways anticipated the form of Nu Who. Unfortunately, this story didn't reward the wait as far as I'm concerned. Again there were some lovely moments ( Bill's scenes with the young Legionnaires, the Doctor's "Grow the hell up!" speech ) but the episode just didn't hang together for me.The justification for the Doctor and co. to be in ancient Caledonia in the first place was very weak and ( just for a change! ) the nature of the alien threat was poorly realised. I'm still unsure of what the locust-like creature was actually doing to the humans it killed. It supposedly ate light but how was that killing the humans? And I did expect to see the creature's light-eating abilities having more impact on the environment but this again was very poorly explained.
I've only seen this episode once ( I usually watch an episode twice before blogging about it ) so I may be being unfair here and there were indeed some nice images and ideas in this story, especially the theme of the Romans and Picts uniting to stand forever at the gate to the other dimension, but ultimately I will have to give this one
Three Out Of Five Sonic Screwdrivers ( or Roman coins )

And next Saturday... Old Cybermen, New Cybermen, Two Masters, a Black Hole, a 400-mile long spsceship...
Really looking forward to this two-part finale!

7 comments:

Steve Does Comics said...

Hi, Simon. My feelings on the episodes are as follows:

I enjoyed Extremis a lot.

Pyramid at the End of the World was a bit slow and clunky but did set things up well for the next episode.

Lie of the Land was a big letdown, with our heroes managing to deal with all obstacles far too easily and giving us yet another menace defeated by the power of love.

Empress of Mars was derivative, uninspired and throwaway but inoffensive and probably Gatiss's best script for the show (which says it all about what I think of his other scripts).

The Eater of Light was deadly dull, with poorly developed characters, an under-used monster and a resolution that made no sense. Easily my least favourite episode of the season. It wasn't actively bad, as such. It just seemed to have no reason for existing.

cerebus660 said...

Thanks for the comment, Steve. Do you really think Empress... is Gatiss' best script? What did you think about The Unquiet Dead way back in Series One? I personally don't think he's ever beaten that one.

As for last week's episode, I have to agree - it had no real reason to exist. And this was the story that so many reviewers had been calling haunting, elegiac - you know the kind of thing. The sad fact is that Doctor Who Magazine printed some quite evocative dialogue from this story in their preview, dialogue which seemed to explain some of the plot... and which was cut in the final episode. This has happened a few times this series which is a real pity.

Anyway, like I said, I'm really looking forward to the two-part finale. Fingers crossed!

Steve Does Comics said...

I liked The Unquiet Dead at the time but, watching it now, my familiarity with Gatiss's weaknesses (such as his obsessive fixation with hollow pastiche) and having seen much better episodes by other writers has seriously diminished it for me. Also, RTD was in the habit of massaging other writers' scripts and there are places in it where it feels like there's more of RTD's hand at work than Gatiss's.

Kid said...

The first two or three episodes of the new series were okay, but the ones you review here were disappointing. Some nice moments, sure, but disappointing overall. The monks trilogy was two episodes too long, and once again demonstrated Moffat's seeming propensity for building a story around what he thinks are great images. Monks flying around in a 5,000 year old pyramid? These episodes were a load of old pants, and totally underwhelming - though with some nice moments of characterization between the Doc and his companion.

cerebus660 said...

Steve, I have to admit I haven't actually watched The Unquiet Dead in a long time, so maybe I'll give it another go to see how it stands up today.

"The ones you review here were disappointing" - Kid, do you ever use the qualifying phrase "in my opinion"??? ;-)
Don't worry, next year you'll have a new showrunner to complain about...

Kid said...

Who else's opinion would it be? "In my opinion" is the equivalent of saying "...he thought to himself". People only ever think to themselves. And people expressing their view on something are expressing their opinion, which may or may not be shared by others. What a curious thing for you to say.

John Pitt said...

The best of all these for me was the Empress of Mars, but only because it featured an old adversary. I have to say though, the Empress herself was nowhere near as alluring as that female Silurian was!
As for Simmo as the Master, I KNOW that I'm in a minority of one, but he is my all-time favourite Master! - Loved him in the Toclefane and the Master Race!

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