As we rapidly approach the end of this series, I’ve created an index page for all my Ten Things About… posts. And here are this week’s rambling musings about Neil Gaiman’s episode – which, far from being a nightmare, felt more like a bad dream brought on by a surfeit of cheese.
1. The Mechanical Turk
Did the concept of a ‘magical’ chess-playing automaton sound familiar to you? The Mechanical Turk, a life-size dummy built to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Just like the equivalent on Hedgewick’s World, the Turk was controlled by a human inside, whose presence was hidden away:
…if the back doors of the cabinet were open at the same time one could see through the machine. The other side of the cabinet did not house machinery; instead it contained a red cushion and some removable parts, as well as brass structures. This area was also designed to provide a clear line of vision through the machine.
For a more recent parallel, Big Finish’s 2011 audio drama The Silver Turk by Marc Platt features a similar machine which the Doctor identifies as a Cyberman.
2. The Cyber-Planner
The concept of a central supercomputer leading the Cyberman armies is not new. The Cyber-Planner would aggregate data from a large variety of sources, formulating strategies and directing troops in 1960s adventures The Invasion and The Wheel in Space. I’ve seen some reviews of this episode which compared the Cyber-Planner’s takeover of the Doctor to Picard’s transformation into Locutus in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s The Best of Both Worlds. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that – but the alternative would have been to personify the Cyber-Planner using another actor. And then critics would have compared it to the Borg Queen from First Contact. The Doctor’s conversation with the newly cybernated Webley shows how that would have gone down – potentially interesting, but just like every other conversation with a bad guy. By making Matt Smith play against himself – either in the split screen forays into the Time Lord’s memory, or in his quick fire personality changes – it at least gives us something a little out of the ordinary. I wouldn’t say it’s completely effective – just why the Cyber-Planner is quite so camp is a mystery – but in an episode which misfires so often elsewhere, I’ve got to take my enjoyment where I can. By the way, was anybody else reminded of this performance when watching Matt Smith converse with himself? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5effaImHsU
3. The secrets of regeneration, part 1
With only David Tennant’s past Doctor confirmed for November’s anniversary special, we must take our previous appearances where we can. The photographic sequence running through the Doctor’s mind was a pleasant surprise – but having Matt Smith’s Cyber-Planner do a pisstake of both Christopher Eccleston and Tennant was great.
4. The secrets of regeneration, part 2
For one of the series’ most frequently recurring monsters, the Cybermen have rarely looked exactly the same from appearance to appearance. (If you followed my advice last week and bought a copy of Who-ology, illustrator Ben Morris has created some great iconography for all the variations of design). This is really the first time that the Cybermen’s upgrade path has been so accelerated. The changes to the design this time round – a smoother face, reminiscent of their Troughton-era appearances, and sleeker, more sculpted bodies – work well, especially when complemented by the updated choreography. The use of popping to suggest artificiality of movement is fundamental to “the robot”, of course – in many ways, it’s amazing it’s taken so long for the Cybermen to move like this. The evolution of Cybermats into the “funny insect” Cybermites works, as well. But what was the “super speed” Cyberman about? If Cybermen have upgraded to be able to move that quicky, how come they resort to stomping around a moment later?
5. Returning monsters
According to Cavan Scott and Mark Wright’s Who-ology, the most frequently returning alien races in the series’ TV history are, in order, Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Silurians, Ice Warriors, Autons, Cybermats, and Yeti/The Great Intelligence. All but the Autons have been featured in this seventh series. Where are the new breed of recurring aliens? It doesn’t feel as if the post–2005 series has yet created adversaries with the same scope for longevity. Okay, so next in Scott and Wright’s list are the Ood and the Weeping Angels – but both of those feel like they have come to the end of their potential as Doctor Who monsters. Actually – and, I suspect, controversially – I think one of the more successful Doctor Who recurring aliens have been the Slitheen, although not necessarily down to their limited appearance within the original TV show. They were unpopular when they made their debut in Aliens of London/World War Three, mainly because they precipitated the first use of the word “fart” in Who history. But if that story had been better directed, the end of the first episode – as the policeman interviewing Jackie Tyler has to apologise for a rumbling stomach, turning a little gastric problem into a major threat – could easily have been a spine-tingling moment. As it is, the Slitheen (and their orange brethren, the Blathereen) ended up being recurring villains on The Sarah Jane Adventures, and worked well within that environment. And on the subject of that spin-off series, I think it created one of the better villains of the Doctor Who universe, with the reality-altering antics of The Trickster. While one of his brigade turned out to have been responsible for Donna’s experiences in Turn Left, The Trickster himself has so far not turned up in the main show – but now that the CBBC sibling is no more, it would be nice to see the villain upgraded to BBC1.
6. Pesky kids
Angie and Artie. Horrible concept, poorly executed (not necessarily by the young actors, more by the middle-aged men who try and put words in their mouths). I think the best thing to say about their short trip in the TARDIS is that it demonstrates why having children that age along for the ride just doesn’t work.
7. The impossible nanny
Odd how Clara starts asking the important questions about herself and the Doctor’s interest in her, but lets the subject drop instantly. Each episode, we’ve not felt that we’re any the wiser about the apparent mystery. Asking the same question for seven episodes without any answer is feeling like less of a plot arc and more of a stuttering dead end. And yet, I’m still curious. Two weeks ago, I wondered if the TARDIS’s architectural system – which can build “anything you require… according to your needs” – had something to do with the multiple Claras. Last week, I reiterated my suspicions that River Song is culpable somehow. I continue to believe that both could be true, and the online/red button teaser She Said, He Said confirms my belief in that. One more thing to ponder – in both Victorian London and the present day, Clara has been looking after two children whose mother has died. At the end of Forest of the Dead, River Song is left inside CAL’s virtual world, looking after two children whose “mother” – Donna – no longer exists within that world. Coincidence?
8. She Said, He Said
Steven Moffat’s short, a couplet of solo monologues set in and around a collection of memorabilia from the past several episodes, is quite a clever structure considering that, in its red button incarnation, viewers could in theory start watching at any point. Some people may see the Doctor’s speech first, then Clara’s – others may see it the other way round. In this short pair of scenes, though, we get more of a sense of progression than we have had in nearly two months’ worth of episodes. That doesn’t feel right.
9. Still not a prequel
https://twitter.com/scottm/status/332521993465368576 I do wish the BBC would stop abusing the word ‘prequel’. A true prequel is set earlier, but written after – and, crucially, consumed by people who have knowledge of events that come later. Star Wars Episodes I-III are prequels. The Snowmen is a prequel to The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. There isn’t enough wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey in the universe to make She Said, He Said a prequel. A prologue, possibly. I can understand a reluctance to use a portmanteau word like “minisode” – or even TARDISode, the name given to similar teaser scenes that preceded every episode of David Tennant’s first season. I just wish that a word that has a very clear, defined meaning wasn’t being abused so.
10. Next week…
Ever since Doctor Who returned in 2005, each series has felt that it was building up to an explosive finale. The Parting of the Ways, Doomsday, Last of the Time Lords, Journey’s End, The End of Time (in the case of the specials), The Big Bang, The Wedding of River Song – there was a sense of anticipation. I don’t know about you, but I just haven’t felt the same this time round. That’s undoubtedly partly down to this series being cleft in twain. And while at the start of Series 7, Steven Moffat did emphasise a shift away from long series arcs, we’ve still had ongoing threads – the imminent departure of the Ponds, the identity of Clara – which should have provided a sense of narrative progression that contributed to a sense of excitement. This year, I’m just not feeling it. I’ll still be watching next week, for sure, but I had hoped that, in the series’ anniversary year, Doctor Who would be punching above its weight. And it’s not.