Doctor Whosday – S12 E4 “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”

The Doctor and Fam meet with the Man Who Invented the 20th Century.

SUMMARY

Nikola Tesla (Goran Višnjić) and his aide Dorothy Skerritt (Haley McGee) are attempting to gain funding for a new project, but is interrupted by reports of a problem at the Niagara plant. After finding out that parts are missing, Tesla finds a small glowing orb and sees a humanoid figure attack him. He, along with Ms. Skerritt, are rescued by the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), who reveals that the orb is an alien device. The Doctor, Tesla, Skerritt, and the Fam (Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill), get attacked by the same figure, but they manage to escape. Following Tesla to his New York office, they find that Tesla is being protested by many people and spied upon by agents of Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister). 

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Hey, it’s image recognition on a Tesla that actually works!

The Doctor confronts Edison, only for the same mysterious figure to appear and kill everyone in Edison’s lab except the man himself. They manage to trap the figure, who is revealed to be a giant scorpion in a bodysuit. The Doctor tries to warn Yaz and Tesla of the threat, but they’re abducted. The scorpion creatures are revealed to be a race of interstellar thieves known as the Skithra, ruled over by a queen (Aniji Mohindra). They’ve been tracking Tesla to try and have him repair their ship, choosing him because he was the only scientist able to detect their signal. The Doctor pulls Tesla and Yaz back from the ship and uses Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower to shoot beams of electricity to drive off the Skithra’s ship. Yaz is saddened to learn that Tesla’s future is unchanged by the events of the episode, and that he still died penniless and mostly unappreciated. 

END SUMMARY

Much as how the last episode felt like a poorer version of “Voyage of the Damned,” this episode feels like a poorer version of one of the figure-centric episodes like “Vincent and the Doctor” or “The Girl in the Fireplace” and suffers from the exact same problem as the last one: Nothing ever makes the impact it should. The episode constantly feels like the team is running from place to place only for the Doctor to deliver a short exposition about its importance or the importance of the people in it. While the Doctor usually explains things to companions, this episode felt a lot like overkill in that department, mostly because she was talking AT the listeners like they were audience surrogates, rather than WITH them like they were characters in the same scene. 

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They literally run down all the stuff that exists in New York at this time period.

What may upset me the most is that I was seriously anticipating this episode. Nikola Tesla was an underappreciated genius who either did, or was rumored to have done, some of the craziest stuff in the history of science. There is so much you could work with in an episode like this that would be both interesting and potentially scientifically accurate, but this time they focused instead on his relationship with Thomas Edison. Now, it’s hard to talk about Tesla without bringing up Edison, due to the confirmed occasions in which Edison screwed Tesla over, the most famous of which was not giving him a promised $50,000 reward mentioned in this episode. But it would have been so much more interesting to just focus on the mind of a mad genius, rather than have to bring up and explain an already-existing conflict and try to show it and also the alien plotline. Instead, we basically just get a pair of half-portraits of the good parts of Tesla and the bad parts of Edison. Rather than seeing them as people in the episode, they’re both just the archetypes the writers wanted to associate with them.

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Even while Edison is trying to help, he has to slander Tesla.

Now, Thomas Edison, while a giant d*ck, was not a total villain. He got his start in technology by rescuing a small child from a runaway train, leading the boy’s father to give him a job at the telegraph office, which allowed him to fund independent experiments in chemistry and electricity. He invented a ton of devices and was one of the first people to encourage funding of science for the sake of science. Unlike Tesla, Edison vowed never to make weapons or sell them, believing that non-violence was the only correct way to resolve conflict (something this episode directly contradicts).  Tesla, while he did have much more noble goals in regards to helping the world through his research, also believed in some less-progressive ideas, like eugenics. They both are extremely interesting people because they were so complicated.

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Reminder: The guy on the right tried to make a Death Ray, not a Hug Ray.

This episode just feels like another missed opportunity. I like the message that the episode takes against people like the Skithra who just use the work of others rather than producing themselves, but it gets muddled when you have to exposit it, rather than let us feel it. Despite the fact that Tesla was, in many ways, a sympathetic character, I don’t think they ever do more than have him try to get “genius” or “impressed” moments. You know, some people who were important also had things they liked outside of those things, guys, or they talked about them with passion and dedication. This episode just felt flat on that account. 

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Doctor Whosday – S12E3 “Orphan 55”

The Doctor and the Fam take a relaxing vacation that of course goes off the rails because it’d be boring otherwise.

SUMMARY

Graham (Bradley Walsh) assembles six coupons he’s collected into a transport cube to an all-inclusive stay at Tranquility Spa. Graham, Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill) all hope that this will lighten the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) mood after the destruction of Gallifrey in “Spyfall.” Ryan quickly gets infected by a “Hopper” virus that the Doctor cures just as the Spa declares an emergency. The Doctor goes to investigate why people are carrying guns, leaving Ryan behind to meet another guest named Bella (Gia Ré) who goes with him to investigate on their own. Graham meets with the Spa’s mechanic Nevi (James Buckley) and his son Sylas (Lewin Lloyd) while Yaz joins them with elderly couple Vilma and Benni (Julia Foster and Col Farrel). 

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They’re very cute. 

The Doctor bluffs her way into a security room and finds out that there are a number of creatures invading the compound. Kane (Laura Fraser), the security chief, tries to kick the Doctor out, but the Doctor manages to build an “ionic membrane” which kicks the creatures out. They’re revealed to be Xenomorph-esque creatures called “Dregs.” It turns out that the Spa was built on a desolate planet, Orphan 55, which is populated by the monsters who view the Spa guests as intruders. The area outside of the spa is uninhabitable to most life. It turns out that Benni has been abducted, so most of the characters we’ve named so far all go out after him (despite the fact that many of them are civilians, because narrative gotta play out). The Dregs set a trap for the group, disabling their vehicle. It turns out that the monsters’ strength is their adaptability, allowing them to survive Nuclear Winter, lack of oxygen, and even gunfire. It’s revealed that the Dregs are using Benni as a hostage. The Dregs attack, killing Hyph3n and Kane kills Benni to spare him an agonizing death. 

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They are indeed creepy.

The group makes it to a maintenance tunnel where Bella steals a gun and reveals that she’s Kane’s daughter. Kane, it turns out, owns the Spa and is planning to terraform Orphan 55 so that she can own the planet. Bella, who was essentially abandoned by her mother, wants to destroy everything her mother owns as revenge. The Dregs attack and Ryan teleports with Bella back to the Spa, leaving the rest behind to run. The Doctor finds a sign in Russian, confirming that Orphan 55 is just Earth in the future. The Dregs are the people who got left behind when the elites abandoned the planet due to climate change, horribly mutated by the subsequent nuclear war. Vilma sacrifices herself to save the group, who make it back to the Spa. The Dregs surround the facility, but the Doctor captures the lead Dreg and appeals it to change. It buys the group enough time to fix the teleport and all of the survivors return to safety except for Kane and Bella, who remain on Orphan 55. The Fam is depressed by the fact that Earth is doomed, but the Doctor reminds them that all of them have the power to help change the world.

END SUMMARY

Last week, I said that I thought “Spyfall” allowed the show to finally find the balance between getting the message across and telling a complete story. This week that fell to sh*t. This story felt more rushed than almost any Doctor Who story I’ve seen in a long time and that should have been completely avoidable. Part of it is that they attempted to introduce a large number of characters so that there could be a larger bodycount in the episode. Unfortunately, that’s not how you properly raise stakes in this kind of series. We need strong emotional connections to the people that we’re losing if their deaths are to mean anything, and adding more characters inherently dilutes those connections. Now, you can pull off a large number of quick emotional connections to characters using strong visual storytelling or some very, very skilled dialogue combined with the proper framing, but that’s not this episode. 

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Hair color and some generic whining isn’t actual character development, guys.

Instead, the bulk of the work seemed to go into figuring out what cliche the characters were going to indulge in. We have the vengeful daughter, the greedy developer, the loving old couple, the repressive father and the brilliant son, and a bunch of other characters who were more likely to have weird names than any actual character traits. There are a ton of Doctor Who episodes that have pulled off similar structures better, but they always used the right balance of archetypal and more original characters to make sure that the deaths had more impact. “Voyage of the Damned” comes to mind, but even that episode had difficulties making all of the deaths feel meaningful. Here, many of them just feel empty.

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We could just have focused on her story and that would have been interesting.

The message that “Climate change is bad” is undercut a bit by the fact that it’s represented by the monsters from Feast blended with Pumpkinhead. We aren’t seeing the suffering, we’re just seeing the sci-fi remains. It so far removes the effect from the cause that it really doesn’t give us any kind of actual connection. Even though I believe the point of the episode is right, it’s still just a bad story to use for it.

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We’ve seen it done much better in less time.

The companions were pretty much scattered throughout the episode, much like everyone else. The dialogue wasn’t particularly notable. The monster designs were pretty good, but the CGI was shoddy in places. The performances were fine, but they didn’t have much to work with.

Overall, this feels less like Doctor Who and more like someone who doesn’t understand the nature of effective storytelling using the character. 

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Doctor Whosdays (Series 12) – Ep. 1&2 “Spyfall”

The Doctor returns, fam in tow, to deal with a global spy crisis and an old enemy.

SUMMARY

All around the globe spies are suddenly being killed. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill) are summoned to MI-6 by C (Stephen Fry), the head of the clandestine organization. C is quickly killed, but after telling the Doctor and the Tardis Trio to find O (Sacha Dhawan), the spy tasked with monitoring aliens, and to look into Tech CEO Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry). Yaz and Ryan discover that Barton is partially alien while the Doctor and Graham find O. Yaz is pulled into another dimension by aliens called the Kasaavin, only to pop back out after exchanging places with another alien. The group, including O, follow Barton onto a plane, only for the Doctor to realize that O is not who he seems. It turns out that he is actually the latest incarnation of the Master. He abducts the Doctor via the Kasaavin and leaves the rest in a crashing plane.

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Walking out of a vineyard in a tux is very Bond.

The Doctor leaves a message from the past in the plane that saves the group and emerges from the Kasaavin’s dimension in 1834 along with Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs), the first computer programmer. The Master attacks the Doctor at an inventor’s convention, only for Ada to shoot him. The Doctor and Ada meet with Charles Babbage (Mark Dexter), who inadvertently gives the Doctor a way to travel in time through the Kasaavin. Ada grabs her, throwing off the trip and bringing them to 1943 in Paris, where the Master is commanding the Nazis. The Doctor and Ada are saved by spy Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion). 

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And he did make a “Master Race” joke in “The End of Time,” before you ask.

The Master reveals that he had the Kasaavin kill spies to draw out the Doctor. He also reveals that Gallifrey, the Time Lords’ home planet, was destroyed, before the Doctor reveals his non-Aryan nature to the Nazis and frames him as a spy. The Doctor, Ada, and Khan all return to the present using the Master’s own TARDIS. Barton reveals that he made a deal with the Kasaavin to rewrite humanity’s DNA to use as data drives. The Master, having lived through the 77 years since the Nazis, helps set the plan in motion until the Doctor arrives and reveals, in the nick of time, that she used his TARDIS to create a failsafe. The Kasaavin, now aware that the Master was planning on betraying them, abduct him. The Doctor returns Ada and Khan to their times and visits Gallifrey, finding that the Master destroyed it. He left a confession saying that all of Time Lord history is a lie, citing something called the “Timeless Child.”

END SUMMARY

Upside, this was a well-done episode that managed to feel a lot more like an old Doctor Who episode that still has the updated sensibilities and motivations of the more recent series. Downside, Gallifrey is dead again for reasons that are not yet revealed and the “does it, doesn’t it” nature of the planet is starting to get old for me. Still, this was the most I’ve just enjoyed the show in a while. 

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They nailed the badass entrance again.

The spy aspect of the episode, while ultimately mostly only the inciting incident, does provide an excuse for both a wardrobe change (which everyone rocks) and also a reason for Graham, Ryan, and Yaz to have high-tech gadgets independent of the Doctor. I also would be lying if I said I didn’t relish any opportunity for a few James Bond references. Stephen Fry’s appearance as C, though brief, was a nice throwback to the original M from the Bond series. It’s made only a little more meta if you know that M was a position named for Mycroft Holmes, the supposed original spymaster for England, who was portrayed in Sherlock Holmes by… Stephen Fry. 

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Also, the nature of the spy killing is like if Jason Bourne tried to fight the Chitauri. One-sided.

The main improvement in this episode was how seamlessly it worked in the themes that Chris Chibnail seems to be trying to put out there with the narrative. It celebrated the achievements of women while also never coming off as “preachy” or aggressive with it. The narrative was also paced much better than most of the previous series, where there often was a feeling of rushing to the conclusion. 

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They let the Master ham it up, and that’s always good.

The return of the Master was pretty much inevitable, but I admit that I thought he/she would stay dead longer this time, particularly since the Master was not present for either of the previous odd-numbered Doctors. This incarnation, though, appears to be able to blend together all of the best aspects of previous Masters/Mistress, with elements of humor, madness, and ruthlessness, but also adding an amount of seeming introspection that he only showed at the end of his last run as Missy. Having him destroy Gallifrey for apparently moral reasons is a good way to set up what I assume will be the central story of the season, because what could be so bad that the Master finds it morally reprehensible?

Overall, I thought this was a good return to the series. I look forward to seeing if the show has really now found a way to be different enough while also still the same.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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