Review [DW]: “Battlefield”

26×1. Battlefield
Writer: Ben Aaronovitch
Director: Michael Kerrigan
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: A strange signal draws the Doctor and Ace to near-future Earth, where a UNIT convoy guarding a nuclear weapon become caught between the forces of Morgaine of the Fey and those of Ancelyn, both seeking control of the legendary Excalibur – and both of whom believe the Doctor to be Merlin.

Review: I get the feeling that I might have appreciated “Battlefield” more fully if I knew the ins and outs of Arthurian legend in more detail. Unfortunately, my familiarity with that particular mythology is limited to having read The Sword in the Stone nearly thirty years ago and seeing it sent up in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and in watching “Battlefield” I sometimes felt like I was just watching a bunch of strange characters fighting and chasing each other around for reasons left frustratingly vague. Is Excalibur literally supernatural or just very advanced technology, for example? Why does Morgaine want it and what power would she gain by capturing it? I’ll grant for the sake of argument that the average British viewer might understand the references better than I did, and perhaps this is best considered not so much a traditional Doctor Who serial as a “crossover,” in this case with the Arthurian mythos in general rather than with another television program. On the other hand, it was written and filmed to air as a Who serial, and as such I’d argue that it still has *some* obligation to explain itself to us Arthurian-illiterates in the audience as well. Fortunately, there’s still enough here to mark this as a clever and entertaining serial if not an entirely satisfying one from my perspective. The idea that the Doctor will one day become Merlin is an imaginative one, and he responds adeptly to this revelation about his future, memorably bluffing Mordred by threatening to “unleash a terrible something” and correctly guessing that the underwater spaceship will comply with his voice commands. His disdain for armed conflict also shows through, as he remarks at the “graveyard stench” surrounding the missile convoy and manages to talk Morgaine down (with an assist from a note from his future self!) from detonating the nuclear weapon and delivers her alive into UNIT custody. Speaking of UNIT, “Battlefield” also boasts a strong guest cast between the welcome return of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, the introduction of his successor Winifred Bambera, a friend for Ace who shares her skill with explosives in Shou Yuing, and of course Morgaine, Mordred, and Ancelyn, all of whom are fishes out of water in 20th-century Britain and whose archaic manners of speaking feel appropriate and authentic. And at some level, I can’t help but admire a script with the nerve to take the premise of “Arthurian knights from another dimension cross paths with UNIT soldiers and the Doctor discovers that he’s Merlin” and run with it, whatever its shortcomings. Like several other entries in the McCoy era, this is an experiment that doesn’t fully succeed, but I certainly respect its intentions.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

Review [Doctor Who]: “Earthshock”

19×6. Earthshock
Writer: Eric Saward
Director: Peter Grimwade
Script Editor: Antony Root
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS materializes in an underground cavern on 26th-century Earth, where a military team are searching for members of an archaeological expedition that came under unexplained attack. The Doctor disarms a bomb in the cavern and traces it to a freighter where a group of Cybermen are planning to sabotage an interplanetary conference on Earth where several species are likely to agree on a pact to fight the Cybermen. In light of the bomb’s failure, the Cybermen attempt to crash the freighter into Earth and cause a catastrophe that would likely wipe out humanity.

Review: “Earthshock” may be remembered primarily for Adric’s death, but it also deserves a mention for rehabilitating the Cybermen as a genuine threat after their last appearance in the disappointing “Revenge of the Cybermen.” While the purely emotionless Cybermen that we first met back in “The Tenth Planet” may be gone for good, this serial does at least portray them as more detached from emotion than humans or most of the other villains-of-the-week that we’ve seen on Doctor Who. What makes them most intimidating is that while they may not feel compassion or friendship themselves, they have clearly come to understand what these things mean for others and are more than willing to manipulate their enemies’ emotions. In one scene, they are accused of being deliberately cruel and their leader responds, chillingly, that they are in fact testing human emotional responses. The Cyberleader also explains that they are targeting the interplanetary conference partly for the psychological impact that it will have when their enemies’ leaders are killed. They may not be quite as emotionless as they claim to be (the Cyberleader seems to have a grudge against the Doctor, among other things), but the script successfully gives them an identity and viewpoint that differentiates them from Daleks, Ice Warriors, Sontarans, or any other prominent enemy.

As for Adric, both the script by Eric Saward and Matthew Waterhouse’s performance should be commended for not trying to soften the sharper edges of his personality in his swan song, instead letting him exit as the flawed but likeable person that he is. As the serial begins, Adric is actually asking to return to E-Space to rejoin his own people, feeling that he is too much of an “outsider” among the TARDIS crew. The Doctor initially responds somewhat dismissively, simply stating that returning to E-Space is too dangerous, but it’s clear that Nyssa and Tegan are actually partly on Adric’s side, and the Doctor does later concede that he could be more patient with Adric. All the same, Adric can, in fact, be annoying, immature, and whiny at times, and the script doesn’t shy away from that, such as when he insists that the Doctor explain his plan even when they are all scrambling to keep the Cybermen at bay. His death scene appropriately reflects his multifaceted personality. At once intellectually-driven, self-absorbed, and willing to risk his life for others, he had nearly completed a logic puzzle that would have let him unlock the ship’s controls when a Cyberman destroys the console. “Now I’ll never know if I was right,” he laments as he steels himself for the fatal impact and clutches his lost brother’s belt.

While “Earthshock” is an important entry in the Who canon, I wouldn’t quite call it a classic one. For starters, there are a few plot or character points that don’t make much sense or feel contrived. The ship happening to travel 65 million years back in time to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs feels like the script trying too hard to be clever, and the justification for it – that the Cybermen’s device somehow accidentally caused it – strains suspension of disbelief about as far as it can go. Ringway, the collaborator who betrays the freighter to the Cybermen, never has his motivations explained, and meanwhile Nyssa stays in the TARDIS for the entire second half of the serial and is so slow to accept that something may be going wrong outside that I started to wonder if she was under some sort of mind control. Finally, the leaders of 26th-century Earth are meeting with other species to form an alliance against the Cybermen, and yet Lieutenant Scott’s military squadron and the freighter crew don’t even seem to have heard of them – only the Doctor knows who they are when they emerge from hiding on the freighter.

Adric’s death also contributes to a sense of the Doctor’s real fallibility, which can be a good thing, except that the serial ends so abruptly that we’re not sure how this turn of events has actually affected him and his companions beyond the immediate shock and grief. It’s worth noting that he is pretty thoroughly outmaneuvered by the Cybermen in Episode 4, even to the point of  having to let the Cyberleader board the TARDIS. And what are we to make of the fact that he shoots the Cyberleader twice after he’s seemingly gained the upper hand by attacking him with the gold badge? Are we meant to see this as a more violent turn in his character? Did he see some sign that the Cyberleader was still about to try to kill him or one of the companions and thus feel compelled to fire in self-defense? Again, I’m not sure, because neither he nor Tegan nor Nyssa really have anything to say about it. I was left with the same uncomfortable feeling as I had at the end of “The Brain of Morbius” – not only had I seen the Doctor resort to more violence than usual, but I wasn’t sure if the creative team even realized what they were doing.

“Earthshock” is certainly flawed, and it suffers a bit from the action-heavy style of the third and fourth episodes that can’t help but look hokey by contemporary standards. But it has enough positive points for me to give it a recommendation, and the creative team deserve credit for a genuinely tragic ending even if they don’t fully address its implications.

Other notes:

– The theme of the more emotion-driven approach of the protagonists vs. the detached frigidity of the Cybermen is reinforced in the scene where the Doctor, having failed to disarm the bomb on Earth via logic, announces that he’ll try “blind instinct” next.

– This is nitpicking, but the script probably shouldn’t have had the Doctor use the term “spatial coordinates” to explain that the freighter was still on course for Earth after traveling back in time. Given that the Earth is in motion around the Sun, the Sun is in motion around the center of the Milky Way, and the galaxies are in motion within the universe, it seems literally impossible for Earth to have been in the same place 65 million years ago as it would be in the 26th-century timeline.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [Doctor Who]: "Black Orchid"

19×5. Black Orchid
Writer: Terence Dudley
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor is mistaken for an expected guest at the home of the 1920s upper-class Cranleigh family, where what seems like a light-hearted cricket match and costume ball gives way to a murder mystery with the Doctor as a suspect. The culprit turns out to be George Cranleigh, a former explorer who had his tongue cut out and has since gone insane, kept hidden in the family’s home under the cover story of having gone missing. Nyssa, whose appearance is near-identical to that of Ann, George’s former fiancee who is now engaged to his brother Charles, finds herself in danger when George gets loose.

Review: “Black Orchid” is an odd little serial that has its appealing elements but relies a little too much on “because-the-writers-said-so” plotting for me to give it a full recommendation. It’s the first two-part serial since “The Sontaran Experiment,” and much of the first episode is spent in a light-hearted “TARDIS crew on vacation” mode, but then it steps into more serious territory and raises questions that it never completely answers.

Seeing the main cast in a more relaxed setting is a welcome change of pace, especially with a larger-than-average TARDIS crew. Tegan, who has typically been the most easily intimidated by the dangers that they encounter, has nevertheless decided that she’d like to continue traveling with them for a while and clearly enjoys the party at the Cranleighs’ house. Meanwhile, Nyssa shows herself to have a playful side when she agrees to wear the same costume as Ann and keep everyone guessing as to who’s who. The Fifth Doctor continues to emerge as a more relatably human incarnation than his predecessor, proving himself to be a skilled cricketeer and revealing that he had wanted to drive a train car as a boy. (It’s actually a little strange to hear the Doctor refer to childhood – I don’t recall seeing children in any of the Gallifrey serials, and it doesn’t seem like the Time Lord aging process works the same way as that of humans.)

Underneath all the mirth, however, is a story of an upper-class family that has prioritized keeping up appearances, even to the point of keeping George as a virtual prisoner in their own home. When the initial murder victim is discovered, Lady Cranleigh asks that it be kept quiet until the party is over, and later she allows the Doctor to be blamed for the killings in the assumption that he’ll eventually be cleared. What exactly do the Doctor and his companions think about all this? It’s not entirely clear, because a considerable portion of the second episode is occupied with the Doctor getting arrested and eventually winning over the skeptical police by showing them the interior of the TARDIS. The Doctor initially agrees to keep quiet about the first death until the police arrive, but if he recognises the social customs that prompt Lady Cranleigh to behave as she does, he never really says anything about it.

At a more basic level, the serial employs two rather blatant contrivances to set these events in motion. One is the near-perfect resemblance between Ann and Nyssa, which is apparently meant to be nothing more than a coincidence. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree given that Doctor Who has so many humanoid aliens in the first place, but this feels like a stretch given that Nyssa is not only unrelated to Ann but is not even human — it seems incredibly unlikely that this would “just happen,” much less in a situation where people also “just happened” to be expecting an unnamed “Doctor” right when the Doctor turns up. The other is the nature of George’s mental illness — whatever it might be. I say that because the serial tells us nothing other than that he’s insane. Okay, fine, but plenty of people suffer from mental illness, even severe mental illness, but still don’t just randomly murder somebody the way George does. Does he have PTSD? Is he delusional? Psychotic?

All this culminates in a somewhat ham-handed ending, where Charles convinces George to let Nyssa go and moves to embrace his brother, but George recoils or flinches and falls off the roof to his death. Perhaps this could have been convincing if we understood more about George’s mental illness or what sort of relationship Charles has had with his brother, but without that background, it feels like the script forcing an abrupt tragic ending rather than letting the story and characters develop naturally. There’s a brief epilogue in which we see that the TARDIS crew have stayed on to attend George’s funeral – as has Ann. Is she still planning to marry Charles? Again, the script is simply silent.

While I wouldn’t argue that “Black Orchid” should have been four episodes, I might say that three would have been more suitable – the extra time might have allowed for more substantial development of the guest characters and a clearer understanding of George’s behavior. As things stand, it has a promising setup but doesn’t fully deliver on its potential.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

Review [Doctor Who]: "The Visitation"

19×4. The Visitation
Writer: Eric Saward
Director: Peter Grimwade
Script Editor: Antony Root
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS materializes in England in 1666, where Terileptils have established themselves in a small village, using control bracelets and an android that resembles the Grim Reaper to manipulate the residents for their own purposes. As escaped criminals from a violent society, they plan to wipe out Earth’s population and claim its resources as their own.

Review: “The Visitation” is perhaps most noteworthy for further exploring the contentiousness, inexperience, and occasional mistakes of this TARDIS crew. Davison’s Doctor is proving to be a bit irritable at times and sometimes struggles to control the situation – he is forced to leave Adric and Tegan behind at one point when menaced by the Tereleptils’ android, and the final fight with the Tereleptils results in the Great Fire of London breaking out. While the Tereleptils are certainly dangerous and had to be stopped, it’s also clear that they come from a pretty brutal culture, and the Doctor and Nyssa both show noticeable regret at their rather gruesome demise (they are trapped in the fire). Meanwhile, Adric is noticeably frustrated when he feels as if he can’t contribute much and gets himself captured. On the other hand, the Doctor’s light-hearted reaction when someone points out that they’re partly responsible for the fire seems inappropriate – not that I expected him to intervene, but a more sober “we can’t change history” response would have been more appropriate. Still, this is a solid entry that makes good use of the setting, and Richard Mace – the thief who gets reluctantly drafted into helping the Doctor -proves to be an entertaining guest character.

Rating: *** (out of four)

TL:DR, or, why I started this blog

When I first thought about starting this blog, I considered naming it “TL;DR” – the popular internet short-hand for “too long; didn’t read” in response to an overly long post on a message board. Or, as I’ve occasionally used it, for “too long; don’t read” as a warning before one of my own posts. I quickly discovered that it was already taken as a title on Blogger, and I figured it wasn’t all that catchy as a title anyway. However, I wanted to find a title that acknowledged that what I’ll probably be writing for the most part – analysis of pop culture products like television shows and video games, as well as occasional Excel-fueled amateur data-nerd musings – is the sort of material that often prompts people to say, “Why are you thinking about this so much? Stop overanalyzing everything.” So “Signal to Noise” seemed like a reasonable choice in place of “TL;DR.” Needless to say, most of my posts should be assumed to have a TL;DR warning.

Anyway, the reason I started this blog was that I have often caught myself writing TL;DR posts on the Bioware Social Network forum (where I also post as FlyingSquirrel) and figured that perhaps these sorts of long-winded ramblings would be better-suited for a blog than a message board. And since I’ve always enjoyed writing, this seemed like a good outlet for it, plus I figure it might give me a reason to finally finish the classic Doctor Who reviewing project that I started an embarrassingly long time ago.