...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Day 4530: BioShock: Finite


This may be a bit of a departure from the usual PG movie and telly reviews you find on here: an ultraviolent console game.

But this is a game that has won all sorts of awards and much critical praise for the way that it deals with themes of freedom and conformity, American Exceptionalism, racism and white supremacy, religion gone berserk, and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. All the sorts of things that I bang on about, in fact. Plus LOTS of shooting.

The game I'm talking about is Bioshock: Infinite. And it's actually not very good.

For a game that is supposed to be about the infinity of possible choices, it is incredibly linear.

Oh, there's a decent, interesting story in there, with good plot twists, some telegraphed, others only obvious if you have the stomach to replay the game and pick up on them, and the setting – a floating city called "Columbia" after the spirit of America (Columbia is to the US what Britannia is to the UK) – is remarkable and beautiful, mixing above-the-clouds sunlit American mainstreet with the darker recesses of capitalist exploitation.

And of course it's all too good to be true. You may find yourself cast into the role of Serpent in this new, flying Eden, but as your investigations continue you soon learn that Columbia is a haven for White Supremacists who have made an insane religion out of the Founding Fathers of America (Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, with Lincoln as their Devil figure for freeing all those slaves), and then seceded from the Union after bombing the Boxer Rebellion in China. This comes over as a mash-up of Mormonism and Big Finish's "Minuet in Hell", and that's never a good sign…

The problem, though, is that the game consists of discovering this one plot development at a time, wandering from each plot point to next in strict sequence, shooting, mauling or otherwise magically zapping the usual ever-increasing hosts of bad guys and collecting the usual ammo, health packs and power-ups along the way. Each level, in spite of distractions, backtracks and three-dimensional leaping around, is a pretty straightforward walkthrough from beginning to end with cul-de-sacs off the sides where the collectibles are hidden. There's no option to hop on a skyline and go flying off to explore Columbia the way you want to see it. And there are no consequences to the choices you make along the way.

Phil Hartup writing in the New Statesperkin identifies the problem:

This is what a game as scripted as Bioshock: Infinite comes down to: an interactive movie where the totality of the player capacity for interaction is our old friend, violence.

Now, I'm not here – and neither is Phil – to complain about the sex and violence.

For a start, there isn't any sex. And not really any sexism beyond the first-person character being a man: aside from being set in 1912 America-land, where all the fashions are thoroughly buttoned-up and non-exploitative, there are three main female characters (Elizabeth, the girl you're notionally there to rescue but who turns out to be far more in control that you are; Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the rebel Vox Populi faction; and Rosalind Lutece, who used to be a world-class physicist and now appears to have evolved into one of Sapphire and Steel) who are all characterised as clever, competent, confident women who need your help mostly in the fish/bicycle fashion.

As for the violence, well the initial instance is a bit of a hand-brake turn from a walk in the park contemplating the unpleasantness of miscegenation to sawing off a policeman's head with some kind of hand-held mechanical grapple. But he's not a very nice policeman!

(Sorry! If you're not familiar with the BioShock franchise, the "shock" element is as much to do with the predictably splattery results of abruptly interposing steampunk weaponry with vulnerable human bodies – usually with the excuse that they're "mutants" or in this case "racists" – as it is with the notionally shocking alteration of DNA though what are effectively "magic potions". You can pretty soon pick up a pistol if you want tidier assassination, or the ability to throw fireballs, electricity or the hilarious "Murder of Crows" if you want it even messier.)

The game is very violent – notwithstanding the odd unintentionally comic moment where you are urged to pause between slaughtering Columbia's population of policemen, religious zealots, and mechanically and genetically enhanced warriors, to not murder innocent bystanders because they might turn out to be working for the underground anti-slavery front. If that's not your thing then this really isn't for you.

But Phil is bang on the money about the interactivity.

The big twist of the game – pause for major spoilers – is that your character, Booker de Witt, and the principal villain, Zachary Hale Comstock, the Prophet and Founder of Columbia are... one and the same person, from alternate quantum-state universes, whose lives differ by one crucial choice. Elizabeth, who has the ability to open tears between the many different universes, eventually reveals a multiverse of different universes based on different choices.

So it's either some kind of ironic commentary or a major league missing of the point that the choices you make during the game have so little effect on the outcome.

There are three main explicit onscreen moments where you are asked to make a moral choice:

First, near the start of your visit to Columbia when it becomes clear what sort of people you've found yourself among, you're offered a baseball to throw at a mixed race couple – you have the choice to do so, or to throw it at the sneering compere instead.

Second, as you begin the second stage of the game, having rescued Elizabeth from Monument Island where she was being kept prisoner, you're offered two possible brooches for her to wear – you have to choose a bird or a cage (it don't get less subtle than that).

Third, after a major battle midway through the game, you have crazy General Slate at your mercy, only it turns out he's been trying to provoke you into killing him because he hates what Columbia has become and wants an honourable death – you have the choice to give it to him or spare his life.

Now the outcomes of these choices are – spoilers again – whether you get given a useful piece of kit by one person... or by another person; whether you find the General again and get another chance to shoot him; and, most egregious of all, what brooch Elizabeth wears for the rest of the game. Really!

You see, to me, these three choices ought to be the most important part of the game.

The first, which obviously is a very easy choice to make in the comfort of your Twenty-First Century home, is between the safety of conformity or the danger of taking a stand against something that is wrong.

The second, which since I'm a Liberal is for me the most important, is the choice between control and freedom.

The third, probably the most difficult, is about sacrifice and mercy, because if you spare the General you later find that he's been captured and tortured.

These choices ought to have consequences; it's basic "Choose Your Own Adventure" stuff, and I've been writing "Choose Your Own Adventures" since I discovered "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" when I was eleven.

All that shooting and frying of the wacky citizenry of Columbia is the equivalent of having to roll the dice every now and then to deal with the wandering monsters; the real meat of the game is choosing the right path through the maze so you can defeat the Warlock at the end.

For example, there's a minor choice at a point shortly after Elizabeth joins you, when you find yourself in a situation where you suspect a trap and can chose to pull your gun or not – not results in you getting heftily stabbed, which really just means you get to wear a bandage for the rest of the game. But it could have been set up that if you pull the gun you avoid damage but Elizabeth trusts and respects you less. Or you let yourself get stabbed and take a permanent reduction in your ability to shoot straight but Elizabeth is more inclined to help you and becomes a more useful ally. So it would be a trade-off. Except it wasn't.

Three binary choices means up to eight possible outcomes, and these really, really should materially alter the direction of the game, even to the point of changing your goals as a character.

Let me explain by way of suggesting how I might have written the final levels and conclusion of the game:

If you choose conformity and control, then you are Comstock, and the last few levels ought to be about you seizing control of the city and of Elizabeth and beginning your reign of terror.

If you choose conformity and freedom, then you are Songbird, Elizabeth's guardian and keeper, and the endgame would see you transformed into the bio-mechanoid and rescuing her and returning her to the tower.

If you choose rebellion and control, then you're Booker the Revolutionary, and your mission becomes to take charge of the Vox Populi and overthrow the Founders, and see Elizabeth gets to Paris.

Finally, only if you choose rebellion and freedom do you get to become Booker the Martyr and complete the game as the version delivered plays out.

Success or failure should probably be, in part, determined by how you answer the third question (and indeed, might be different in the different endings I describe – e.g. if you're Comstock, you should spare him and let him be taken for torture!).

Now the "Choose Your Own Adventure" is a pretty crude format, especially as outlined with only four storylines. But it would still have made for a better game, more replayable with four campaigns for the price of one, but also more in keeping with the many worlds philosophy that the developers seem to want to express.

The earlier BioShock games did have conclusions that at least slightly reflected the choices you made along the way, mainly whether to spare or harvest the "little sisters" who were the basis of the genetic alterations/magic powers in the underwater Randian dystopia of Rapture, and it is a shame that the developers have stepped away from that, in contrast to, say, Batman Arkham City or the Assassins Creed series where, although there is a main linear plot, extensive side missions and enormous open-world environments lead to a far more satisfying feeling of freedom to explore and choose.

If you happen to like shooting tin ducks... or electrocuting them, exploding them, tossing them in the air or flushing them off the side of a city in the sky, then this is great fun and looks magnificent. Along the way it might give you a falsely-reassuring warm feeling that racism was BAD and we're over that now.

But it's far from Infinite.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Day 4529: No New Powers for the Security Services At Least Until They Explain Why They Failed to Use the Ones They've Got!


World War Z is upon us this summer – not the Brad Pitt monster flick, but the return of ZOMBIE LEGISLATION that we thought Cap'n Clegg had laid to rest with his trusty Silver Veto in the Quad (or Crus-he-fix).

Let's hammer this point hard: reports suggest that the security services KNEW about the murderers in advance and had all the powers they needed to find out what they were up to but just DIDN'T.

And there is a REPORT being prepared to EXPLAIN what went wrong.

Until we've had that report, calling for NEW powers is WILDLY IRRESPONSIBLE!

Normally, we ROUNDLY CONDEMN people who use the MURDER of a soldier to further their political agenda through a CAMPAIGN OF TERROR... so why do we let the Home Secretary and the alliance of Sinister Ex-Ministers from Hard Labour and Mr "something of the night" Howard to get away with it?

Watching the FAWNING Mate-of-Dave Nick Robinson standing in for Andy Marrmite (POOR Ms Facility Kendal must have needed at least two showers afterwards), we were "treated" to the vile former Hopeless Secretary and even more Hopeless Shadow Chancellor Mr Alan "I'm Selling A Book You Know" Johnson & Johnson appearing to agree with Mr Eric Pickled (and how have we come to such a pass when we have to say, "Hurray for Eric Pickled"?!) that it was "difficult in a free country" to surviel every citizen 24/7... only to go on to expound "these things are so much easier in CHINA".

Well OF COURSE massive intrusion on ordinary folks and trampling on their civil liberties is "easier" in China – China is a FLUFFING COMMUNIST DICTATORSHIP WITH THE WORST HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD ON THE PLANET.

What a NUMPTY!

But, alas, Mr Johnson & Johnson was not alone in the NUMPTY stakes, as Nick Mate-of-Dave soon demonstrated with his penetrating line of questioning:

"So, Home Secretary, are there any other ways in which we can roll over and let you PROBULATE us for our own good?"

Yes, Mrs Theresa Nuts-in-May (coincidentally it IS May and she is...) was on to say how she had ALWAYS been in the "I want to open your every private letter and know every person you ever meet or talk to" camp.

We'd HOPED Mr Mate-of-Dave had set up the opening questions about the inquiry into the FAILINGS of the security services so he could follow through with the OBVIOUS line of "How can you ask for MORE powers when you can't even operate the EXISTING legislation?"

Sadly, he seemed to prefer a line of: "Isn't it true that we'd all be much safer if you knew what colour KNICKERS we were all wearing, oh SAINTLY Theresa?!"


If someone crashes the car, you DON'T reward them with a faster car. They've shown they cannot control the car they've got.

If someone blows a fortune on the gee-gees, you don't reward them with a BIGGER fortune. NO, Mr Oboe, you don't. They've shown they cannot handle the money they've got.

So why if someone is a failure with the powers they've got should we even THINK about giving them extensive and intrusive new powers? It's MADNESS.

Captain Clegg needs to be answering the question FIRMLY and FAIRLY: the Home Secretary should be EXPLAINING why her department FAILED before making ANY power grab for MORE legislation.

He should ask her WHY, if the security services seem like they're saying that monitoring the THOUSANDS of people they ALREADY have powers to monitor is TOO DIFFICULT, WHY is the solution to monitor MILLIONS of people?! And she'd better have a good answer!

In fact, Liberal Democrats should go further and say there is now a BIG case for Parliament to conduct POST-LEGISLATIVE scrutiny on some of those DRACONIAN laws that the Home Office have had passed in the last few years – remember R.I.P.A? – and ask some SEARCHING QUESTIONS about where those powers have been used, have they made us any safer and have they gone FURTHER than Parliament intended when MPs were told that those laws too were "necessary" to fight the War on Terra too.

World War Z says that if we can trace their zombies back to where it started we can put a STOP to it.

Time Parliament was doing the same!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Day 4521: DOCTOR WHO: The Hurt Doctor


A History of the Time Lord, as recounted by Lawrence Miles, Kate Orman & John Blum, Paul Cornell and Kate Orman again:

"Once Upon A Time, the Doctor died, and because he was a time traveller, perhaps the most travelled time traveller ever, his body, or rather his "biodata", the "time DNA" of his journey through eternity, was a source of incredible energy, a fountainhead of information, a weapon of unspeakable power. And, by a quirk of fate, the Doctor crossed his own timeline to discover his body and fight his enemies to stop them taking advantage of it...

"Once Upon Another Time, the Doctor nearly died when he was in San Francisco, and this little death left a scar on the surface of the Universe. And the Doctor was travelling with a perfect companion, too perfect a companion, who was everything he wanted in a friend and assistant, and was impossible. And one day they came to San Francisco again and in order to save the Doctor's life, his companion jumped into the scar and was rewritten...

"And Once Upon A Time Again, Ace died on the Moon – having mistakenly believed it to be Norfolk – and found herself inside the Doctor's mind where she met with versions of his earlier selves who dwelt there now that they were passed...

"And Once Upon One Final Time, the Doctor, living in fear and dread that one day he should fall and become the dark future self he had witnessed, the Valeyard, denied a part of his own past, a part of his own memories, a part of his own self, and walled up his earlier incarnation in a Room with No Doors, and in doing so became the thing he feared, for although he was Time's Champion, he had become ruthless and calculating and without the passion for life that had made him that earlier self, and so he set his foot upon the path that led to the Valeyard, and healing came only with sacrifice and opening the Room with No Doors, and only in realising there are not three Doctors or Five Doctors or Seven or Eleven, that he is and always was and always will be the One Doctor."

"Alien Bodies"; "Unnatural History"; "Timewyrm: Revelation"; "The Room With No Doors" (and most of the rest of the New Adventures).

(And I'm not even going to mention that a certain blogger might once have suggested that the Doctor's name was such a big secret because it was used to lock away the Medusa Cascade...)

Why is it that when Mark Gatiss copies the tropes of Universal or Hammer Horror, of ITC drama or The Avengers, or borrows from Conan Doyle or even Who's own long history we call it "pastiche" and applaud in delight, and when Steven Moffat does this it feels like stealing?

That's not to say that it's not done exceeding well, pleasing both to fans who get the references and to the public who are impressed by the spectacle. And although it's almost all lifted from, particularly, Miles's "Alien Bodies", Moffat has a gift for translating those ideas to the screen and even adding a thing or two of his own – I'm thinking specifically the dying TARDIS grown to enormous size as the internal dimensions leak out (which Marie did in "Alien Bodies", if less grandly) and the bits of his relationship with River (even if she is herself stolen from the Time Traveller's Wife).

For once Moffat delivered on the promises made, with a real "reveal" of the Doctor's secret. Typical of Moffat, it was a smoke-and-mirrors reveal of a different secret to the one he was leading you to expect: not the Doctor's name, but a Doctor you never knew about, and because that Doctor didn't live up to the name of "The Doctor". (He even takes the trouble to foreshadow this twist with the wordplay double-meaning of "The Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave, and it is discovered".)

And it is a genuinely satisfying answer to the puzzle of the Impossible Girl, and this time around it appears to have been worked out properly in advance, i.e. knowing what the answer will be and fitting the questions together to frame it, rather than trying to stick a "solution" that she never needed onto River Song, or frankly closing your eyes and saying really hard "I do believe in fairies" to unkill the Doctor in "The Big Bang".

(Although... does this retroactively mean that "The Snowmen" is a paradoxical alteration of the Doctor's past by the Intelligence as Dr Simeon going back and creating the events that lead to it adopting the guise of Dr Simeon? Worse, is the present day Clara a paradoxical echo of herself?!)

There are hugely moving moments along the way: Madam Vastra's tears for Jenny; the Doctor's tears for himself; the fate of River Song; or of the TARDIS, with her dying console room dressed as the "Logopolis" cloisters too; most of all the clips and look-a-like extras of the earlier ten Doctors. Whoever it was doing Colin (...could it be Sylv in the wig again?), they get the walk exactly right, just the pace and arrogance; the one doing Tom is ever so very nearly on the money too, with just about the right sort of bounce to the run and swish to the scarf. And of course the colourised Hartnell is a delight, no matter how imperfectly the colour is done. (Least said about the poorly rotoscoped-in second Doctor the better, though.) The clips used ("Dragonfire" aside) appear to be from stories set on Gallifrey – "Invasion of Time", "Arc of Infinity" and "The Five Doctors". Is that significant? There's also probably some sort of gag to be made about mining "The Five Doctors" for past-Doctor footage; sadly no one clipped the clip from Shada and photoshopped Clara onto the Clare bridge in Cambridge.

It's actually quite a thin story, though: in danger of being, like the Great Intelligence's Richard E Grant-shaped avatar, fruity on the outside and hollow on the inside. The Paternoster Gang are lured into a trap by some, excuse me, "intelligence" about the Doctor from a condemned murderer, and then kidnapped to Trenzalore (and how? and when did the Intelligence obtain Time Travel? or Space Travel for that matter? Isn't it still stuck on the Astral Plane?), and the Doctor comes to get them. Cue intriguing explanations of what the tomb is, and what's inside, and why it's a really bad thing that the Intelligence does next. But ultimately it comes down to the Intelligence stepping into a special effect, and then Clara stepping into a special effect which we're told cancels the Intelligence out, and finally the Doctor going in after her, and rescuing her from a BAFTA anniversary montage.

Where was the real sense of threat? Yes, we see the stars winking out (again) – surely more of a reference to Moffat's own "He's saved every planet in the Universe at least twice" speech in "Curse of the Fatal Death" than to Russell's season four "The Darkness is Coming" arc – but even if we hadn't seen that before (twice, nod to "The Big Bang" as well) it's still a distant and anaemic threat of disaster. And other than that, we get the Doctor writhing on the floor going "arrgh arrgh". Which, to be fair, does happen quite often as well. (Perhaps if his regenerations had unpeeled and he'd vanished in a poof, it might have been different... Though it would have denied him the agonised "no, don'ts" as Clara contemplates sacrificing herself for him. And it might have been nice to have an idea of how she changed from the girl who needed double-daring to go ghost hunting in "Hide" to being the sort of companion who'll die literally in a ditch for him.)

I could probably have done with at least one more story this season with the Great Intelligence getting its plans for universal domination thwarted, and – since it was the one I didn't particularly like – I'd have stuck it in where "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" was. It seemed pretty phlegmatic about its set-back in "The Bells of St John", rather than the vengeful/suicidal character expressed here; I'd have liked something more to get from there to here, to set this up as a real grudge match – Buffy structured its seasons that way, with a "Big Bad" introduced at the start, getting a major plan beaten in the middle and then their apocalypse gambit for the finale. Also, where did those "whispermen" come from? And do the "whispermen" and the "Silence" have anything to do with one another?

Richard E Grant's lugubrious performance as the Intelligence was not given the screen time that it richly deserved (and along with the sort-of Eccleston looky-likey and that reveal at the end, was this the episode with the three Ninth Doctors?)

However, the Eleventh Doctor is really coming into his own, with Matt Smith out-Tennanting Tennant (and in a good way) in the moment where he learns he has no choice but to travel to Trenzalore. Implicitly mirroring the end of "The End of Time" where the tenth Doctor throws a stroppy fit when death and destiny come to stare him in the face, here the eleventh weeps for himself but faces the inevitable with a determination to do his duty.

Meanwhile, Alex Kingston gave us a more subdued River Song than before, a post-mortem River who seems ready to drift away, if only she could say goodbye to the Doctor, if only he wold let her. Does it seem that Moffat is resiling from his earlier "nobody dies" ending to the Library story when he has the Doctor tell River's (data) ghost that she's only an echo? It seems like the right moment and the right way to let River go, although not without some regrets; I had wanted to see her develop her relationship with at least one other Doctor, not least because her remarks to Ten in the Library implied she was familiar with several faces, and that she really ought to be able to sort out the order if she only actually knows two of him.

Is Trenzalore, ruined and burnt, actually Gallifrey? (And in which case, is Moffat robbing Craig Hinton's "The Crystal Bucephalus" too?)

Does this episode fulfil the prophecy of Trenzalore as imparted by Dorium at the end of the previous season? Maybe. Arriving on the planet by falling from orbit might count as "the Fall of the Eleventh". We might not have guessed that the "Fields of Trenzalore" would be lava fields. And River's silent answer to the Great Intelligence's question might satisfy "Silence must fall when the question is asked". But how does the Doctor manage to get out of "When no living soul can lie or fail to answer"? And why were the Silence so damn keen to shut him up before he could get there and (not) answer?

The fact is, the battle, the tomb and above all the Doctor's remains all prove that the Doctor must return here again.

And Moffat's been setting up the mystery of the Doctor's name for a long, long time, ever since "The Girl in the Fireplace". It could have been just a bit of chicanery to add some deeper-seeming mystery, but he's kept on coming back to it. This may be all the explanation we get. He has, after all, got form for stumbling on the dismount. But it seems to me that there is still more of this story to tell, and that he's probably keeping it for when he, or Matt, choose to call it a day.

So is he planning on doing "Curse of the Fatal Death" with live ammo? That is to say, using up all of the Doctor's remaining incarnations and outright killing him?

Let's start by asking which Doctor that John Hurt is playing, then? The dialogue and the costume (Eccleston's leather jacket over McGann's waistcoat) surely point to Hurt playing the Time Lord who fought in the Time War, although you can make a case for him being a future incarnation, with Clara claiming to have seen all the Doctor's eleven faces and the – unexpected and pleasing to my fan heart – namecheck for the Valeyard. There's also the possibility that he might be a pre-Hartnell incarnation.

And perhaps without intending it, Moffat has opened this possibility up, solving the contradiction of the "Morbius Doctors", those eight mysterious faces (also known as "the production team") that appear during the mind-bending contest in "The Brain of Morbius" between the eponymous once-President and our hero. How can there be "pre-Hartnell" incarnations? And is this not flatly contradicted by the (faux) Hartnell incarnation's own statements: "So there are five of me now," and "The original, you might say," in "The Five Doctors" (themselves engineered by Nathan-Turner to "correct" the earlier "error" of the Hinchcliffe production team). Well, now it's clear that they could be earlier incarnations of the Time Lord who later calls himself "The Doctor" but he doesn't acknowledge them as among his proper selves as they had not yet chosen that name.

Having said that, the accusation against Hurt's incarnation was that he broke the promise implicit in choosing the name of "The Doctor" not that he'd never made the promise yet. Still, the possibility that the "first" Doctor was fleeing Gallifrey because he'd just regenerated after doing something truly terrible must exist. (In fact, I used to toy with the idea that the Valeyard in the future was doing what he was doing because he was the only incarnation to remember what the pre-first Doctor had done in the past and was trying to put it all right.)

Wherever he goes, though, Moffat has now managed to use up twelve of the Doctor's supposedly thirteen lives. And answering the question of "What happens after thirteen" is very likely something that appeals to him. Having mentioned the Valeyard (and "the Storm" and "the Beast") the possibility of a "dark" incarnation as the literal "final enemy" might be one that appeals to the adaptor of "Sherlock", or another possibility that was raised was that the Doctor actually burned up a regeneration in "Journey's End" (an example of, consequences, the things Russell usually got right but failed so terribly on there, ironically to be fixed by Moffat who never has any?), meaning David Tennant was actually the eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and Matt is the thirteenth and potentially last.

I've raised before the possibility that the Doctor was infected by Dalek nanogenes during "Asylum of the Daleks", and on top of that the way that the Doctor killed Solomon (as referred to by the Great Intelligence this week) and his behaviour in Mercy. Season 7b seems to take this even further, with each episode this half-season alluding to the idea of "The Doctor as Monster". Literally in the case of "The Crimson Horror", where Ada calls him "Monster" while Matt Smith does the "Frankenstein thing" with the arms (actually from "Ghost of Frankenstein", even though the Monster and blind person is from the original "Frankenstein"). But in "The Rings of Akhaten" we drew parallels between the Doctor as Grandfather and the Mummy that was called "Grandfather"; in "Cold War" the Doctor is reflected in Skaldak, the Ice Warrior who lost his world and his granddaughter; in "Hide" the Doctor himself says "Every lonely monster needs a companion"; in "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" Clara says he's scaring her more than anything in the Ship, and he's destined to become a time zombie; while in "Nightmare in Silver" the Doctor is literally being turned into the monster in the form of the Cyber-Planner.

None of this gets paid off. Yet. But could still be taken as an indication that Moffat (a) knows what he's doing after all and (b) is aiming for Matt to go all Dark Side on us before the end.

And if the question "What happens after thirteen" appeals to Moffat, then the answer "We get a woman Doctor" – see "Curse of the Fatal Death" – is also one that doubtless appeals to him.

Whether that means calling in "the Doctor's daughter" or handing the TARDIS keys over to River Snog, or to Clara or creating a new female character (or letting his successor do so... as if!), I would not be at all surprised if that was his game plan.

The 2013 series has done a lot to redeem Moffat's reputation from the unsatisfactory and unfinished arc of 2010 and the morally-bankrupt convolvulations of 2011. Although episodes, particularly early on, have suffered from perhaps too few redrafts, a "that'll do" attitude, and perhaps the forty-five minute format being just too short for a one-off movie of the week every week, more thought seems to have been given to the series as a whole piece, with it feeling more unified and with an arc that was actually answered, and a Doctor who was a little less likely to commit whoops genocide. (Even if he does then permit the blowing up a planet-full of Cybermen!)

Next Time... Rose wakes up and finds the Tenth Doctor taking a shower and... what? What? WHAT?


Obviously, his name is actually Doctor Whotraveleswithsusanianandbarbaravickistevenkatarinasaraoliverdodobenandpollyjamievictoriazoedrelizabethshawalistairjojograntsarahjaneharryleelaknineknineagainromanasharonadricnyssategansirjustinturloughkamelionperierimemfrobisherevelynhenrygordonandgeorgegrantmelaniedorothycalledacebennysurprisesummerfieldrozandchrisdrelizabethkleincharleyluciesamfitzcompassionanjitrixizzyfeykrotondestriirosejackjackiemickeymarthadonnawilfamyroryriversongandclaraoswinandlovesthemallalungbarrow. The Second.

(Hat-tip Andrew Hickey via Facebook for the graphic.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Day 4514: DOCTOR WHO: Nightmare in Silver


Neil Gaiman's second episode for Doctor Who, in spite of doing everything humanly possible to touch the fans' buttons and warm the cockles of their cold hearts, seems to have produced something of a backlash, at least among those fans whose opinions I've been reading. Despite polling in the same mostly-about-8-out-of-10 range on the forums as the last few episodes, people voicing their thoughts have been a touch, er, negative about it.

Well, as this week's guest star Warwick Davis might put it, life's too short for the haters, so here are ten reasons I thought this was brilliant:

1. A properly constructed story with beginning middle and end. I know that that really only counts as "competence" but after several stories this year that have overdone, mistimed or generally cocked up one part or the other, this shows how decent it can be when you actually getting the mechanics right.
To take you quickly through it, in the traditional four parts of a Doctor Who story we are:

part one – introduced to the planet-sized fun-park of Hedgewick's world, reintroduced to the Cybermen and told that they're all dead, have it heavily flagged for us that Warwick Davis' character "Porridge" is – spoilers – emperor of the universe, and muse a little on the price paid for defeating the Cybermen a thousand years ago...

part two – guess what, the Cybermen aren't dead after all and we do some cool new stuff with Cybermites (a logical and yet ingenious and very creepy evolution of the Cybermats) and introduce the main threat – which evolves nicely from those musings in part one – that the humans will react to the presence of Cybermen by destroying the planet as very nearly a first resort. Unfortunately, the platoon of troops we thought would be useful turn out to be rubbish and the two children in Clara's charge have been possessed by the Cybermen...

part three – to make matters worse, so has the Doctor, and we get a face-off between the Time Lord and the invading Cyber-Planner inside his mind, while Clara and the punishment platoon try to secure Sleeping Beauty's castle...

part four – the full Cyber-army emerges from their tombs and march on the castle but the Doctor reveals that he's way ahead of the Cyber-Planner after all and springs his trap, allows the Emperor to set off the bomb and saves the day.

2. Robert Holmes used to construct stories "in the shadow of great events", so – for example – "The Ribos Operation" sees the Graff Vynda-K after he's lost his empire or "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" sees Magnus Greel's last stand after fleeing from a World War in the year Five Thousand. Obviously the model here is "Revenge of the Cybermen", script-edited and largely re-written by Holmes, where the base under siege events on the Nerva Beacon and Voga are a sequel to the unseen story of the Cyberwars.

Gaiman does much the same here, sketching in for us a Universe-spanning human Imperium which defeated the wonderfully-named Cyberiad of the Cybermen in a terrible war and at a terrible price: the destruction of the entire Tiberian Spiral Galaxy. Simon, incidentally, reads this as the destruction of the Cybermen's home galaxy, but I rather thought that the implication was that the Cyber-army was lured into a trap in a human-occupied galaxy which was then destroyed to wipe out the Cybermen en masse.

(Or, if you prefer, after the Cybermen where annihilated from our galaxy, a surviving ship managed to escape to intergalactic space. They are, after all, always establishing "new" homeworlds.)

"Tiberian" suggests the river Tiber, on which of course Imperial Rome was founded, and into which Roman traitors were thrown after execution, particularly by the Emperor Tiberius – though for Alex it suggests not the Cybermen's home but the Empire's, with the Emperor sacrificing his own people and home to destroy the enemy before running away because he can't deal with guilt of double-genocide. It makes Porridge an explicit mirror of the Doctor (and tragically suggests not just a mirror of Season 2005 but a prefiguring of next week: Porridge / Emperor has been running but must in the end return to face up to his responsibilities, just as the Doctor / [insert name here; no, don't do that] must go to Trenzalore…?), just as 'Nightmare in Silver' suggests a "dark dream mirror" all over, and the Doctor mirrors himself as the Cyber-Planner, and indeed the Cyber-Planner Doctor starts mirroring earlier Doctors. Badly.

Are the chess game and wonder-world for children from "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Clara Found There"? If the Cybermen are dark mirrors of ourselves, we see through the looking-glass darkly a lot.

And Jason Watkins' look manages to suggest a dishevelled, disreputable version of the Doctor, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter and (sigh) the Great Intelligence, all at the same time, which is quite impressive multiple mirroring.

It also suggests James Tiberius Kirk, and having a galaxy named after him would fit.

What this cleverly hinted-at backstory enables Gaiman to do, though, is to establish that the human empire is huge and powerful and so take the threat from the Cybermen to the next level.

3. Making the Cybermen actually dangerous in a way that they have only really ever been in "Earthshock".

Ever since their first home planet of Mondas blew itself to bits in "The Tenth Planet", the Cyber-race has been on the verge of extinction and basically a bit rubbish. Their ranking as Number Two monster in the Whoniverse (see "Doomsday" for who is definitely Number One) has always been a bit of a mystery, compared to galaxy-crushing foes like the Sontarans, the Rutans or, er, the Dominators and their fearsome Quarks (look, BAFTA thought so!). Skulking in the shadows became their modus operandi for the rest of the Sixties, as they tried various hare-brained schemes to survive by taking over the Earth before they finally buried themselves on Telos. "Revenge of the Cybermen" explicitly describes the few we see as the last survivors – and the Doctor goes out of his way to tell them how rubbish they are. "Attack of the Cybermen" sees them desperate at the end of the Cyberwars, stealing time technology and blowing up Telos. The Cybermen in "Silver Nemesis" are a bit of an anomaly: everything about them suggests the very last survivors of Telos, escaped in the stolen timeship (which Ace blows up), until they pull a cloaked Cyberfleet out of their handles. Post-facto justification, if not logic, suggests that these must be ships from "The Invasion" rather than a whole new foe from the future.

Thanks to the invention of CGI, the new series has seen the Cybermen adopt the Dalek tactics of creating a huge army out of nowhere only for them all to get killed again. (Perhaps a strategy bought in from Skaro along with using imaginative, creative children for their battle computers.)

"The Age of Steel" saw the Doctor end the Cyber-threat to a parallel Earth almost before it began by making their heads go pop, and then, when they tried to invade our Universe, he vacuumed them into the void not once but twice, and their bonkers Cyberking with them. This, however, did not stop them attending the Party at the Pandorica or crash-landing a Cybership under Colchester (can we appeal to "The Invasion" again?). And they crashed another ship into the actually-not-bad "Blood of the Cybermen" downloadable game.

But if a man is judged by the quality of his enemies, then a Cyberman is even more so. Having set up the great and bloody powerful human empire, if this universe-sized empire is so threatened by the Cybermen that they resort to blowing up planets the minute they know the Cyber-threat has arrived, then you know that the Cybermen are now quite hard bastards.

The far-future setting allows for some hefty evolution of the Cyber-species along the way, and giving them some seriously dangerous new powers such as the ability to adapt and survive very quickly and to begin conversion of downed enemies via Cybermite at a touch. The fact that if you don't kill them fast enough they will, first, become immune to your weaponry and, second, then come and turn you into one of them finally gives them the tools to become a universal threat.

And anyone complaining that this also makes them too like the Borg should remember the recent Star Trek/Doctor Who comic crossover from IDW which saw the Borg allied to (and then, obviously, betrayed by) the Cybermen. Stealing Borg technology from an alternative universe is a very Cyberman thing to do.

The new Cyber-suits were sleeker and more menacing than their Cybusman predecessors, and I liked some of the movement, particularly the attack where one snatched a mace out of Clara's hands. And the baby-faced look was, I thought, a sign of them upgrading to psychological warfare too, since humans are known to have difficulty killing anything that looks like a baby.

As the Cybermen might say: clever, clever, clever.

Their plot: to bury a new Cyber-tomb underneath a pleasure planet and pick off the – as the Doctor says – "Spare Parts" that they need from the visitors is reminiscent of Paul Cornell's "Love and War", which sees similar abuse of the dead of two empires on the idyllic memorial world of "Heaven". And the irony that the Doctor himself triggers the reawakening by bringing children to the planet is recognised as the second time – after Marc Platt's near-perfect Cyber-genesis story "Spare Parts" – that the Doctor has been hailed as saviour of the Cyber-race.

(May 13th is, as it happens, the anniversary of "Rise of the Cybermen" which, as it happens, is not very based on Marc's "Spare Parts" but does at least give him a credit in the titles.)

So much for the opposition; how about the heroes.

4. A strong guest cast included, in particular, Jason Watkins as the seedy but sympathetic Mr Webley and also as the sinister Cyber-Webley when he falls victim to his own Cyberman exhibit. It's one of the better uses of the "horror of conversion" themes that underlies the Cybermen since the shock Jackie Tyler conversion in "The Age of Steel", and it takes an actor of Jason Watkins' calibre to make you warm to Webley in the small amount of screen time before he gets "turned", and so regret his subsumption into the Cyber-collective.

In fact this "horror of conversion", while allegedly central to the Cybermen's character, is rarely touched upon by the TV series, and notably when it does – "Attack of the Cybermen" – it's accused of going too far. Russell's "scoop and serve" version, that sees the Cybermen reduced to tin suits with a human brain stuck in, is visceral and yet oddly clinical. Big Finish audio have played it up more, perhaps because you can go further on audio, in particular in Gary Russell's "Real Time", but the real go-to book on conversion is Steve Lyons Virgin "Missing Adventure" "Killing Ground", where we get the full convertee's eye view of the process. Eew!

The members of the punishment platoon don't get a lot of screen time to make their presence felt, and consequently some seem to have found them disposable, but I like them. And Tamzin Outhwaite as their Captain manages to squeeze quite a few moments out of what she's given. It's pretty clear that she's worked out who Porridge is, and what it probably means. And it's nice too that she's a do-the-right-thing soldier rather than just following orders, so she tries to give the Doctor and Clara time to save the kids but when it comes down to it, she's going to set off that bomb anyway.

The real kudos, though, has to go to an outstanding performance from Warwick Davis as the world-weary Emperor who has just run away in search of a quiet life, who also has the cheek to (King Peladon-like) ask for Clara's hand in marriage once it's clear he has an empire and a Temple of Peace -shaped flagship to offer her.

Porridge's sadness for the poor bloke who had to push the button is clearly self-pity, by the way, but also forms a bond between himself and the Doctor.

The story is a little bit fast and loose about how long ago the Cyberwar was; Webley suggests a thousand years, but the ongoing paranoia suggests either a more recent conflict or that Cybermen have continued to pop up in the centuries since "the big one". It's therefore not completely certain that Porridge isn't hinting that he himself was the one to push the button, or whether it was an ancestor of his, but that he empathises as the responsibility should it happen again will fall to him. As indeed it does, and he isn't found wanting.

Mind you, that far into the future humans living for a thousand years might be commonplace.

And yet, in the light of all that, Matt still manages to top that by giving us...

5. Two Matt Smiths for the price of one. The Cybermen have clearly bitten off more than they can swallow when they try to turn him into their new Cyber-Planner. And Matt shines as he turns in a Superman III -esque contest of Doctor versus evil-Doctor.

The view from inside the Doctor's head, reminiscent of Tegan's trippy trip into the Wherever where the Mara dwell, is done beautifully, with the left side (the left brain?) all golden regeneration-energy fairy-dust in Time Lordy swirls and circular writing, while the right side is all cold steel-blue dots joined up into an electric network. It's a perfect representation of the conflict between the Doctor's creative energy and the Cyber-hive mind. It also suggests that Time Lords are the highest culture and the Cybermen are still at the level of dot-to-dot in comparison.

Back in the real world, the fact that the Cyber-Planner seems positively berserk – Matt turning it up to, er, eleven – is a nice recognition of the way that the Cybermen have no experience of and no preparation for dealing with emotions. The fact that this drives them nuts goes all the way back to "The Invasion" and it's nice to see it referenced here.

Matt as the Cyber-Planner is quite deliciously evil, revelling in cruel deceits and taunting Clara, and by proxy the Doctor. And also dropping hints about this year's "big story arc", which sits rather nicely with him being an out-of-control version of the Doctor's personality, wanting to tell Clara and at the same time thinking "secrets keep us safe". And it tricks her into bringing the detonator for the bomb within its reach. Destroying the detonator is, of course, part of escalating the peril. It's a "rule of three" - we know the Cybermen will be killed by the planet bomb, but first the unfortunate Tamzin is shot, so she cannot detonate it; then Clara looses the detonator here... but we've already been shown how (third times the charm), there's still a way to win.

Alex though, asks if destroying the remote activator is about saying 'This stick-shaped-tech-thing you're carrying as a magic wand to solve the plot? Not so much.' Which is a criticism / more mirroring from Neil that he quite likes.

If there is a weakness to the episode, it's that the Cyber-Planner, as performed by Matt, has the same effect on the Cybermen that Davros has on the Daleks, namely he is so interesting and so charismatic that it reduces the titular villains to extras in their own show, and makes them seem more like dumb robots. They aren't, but the bias of the short screen time robs them of some of the necessary balance and layers to show that properly. What we were missing, I think, was a Cyberleader to interact with Clara and give some (entirely logical, of course) personality to the serried ranks of troops.

Of course, the Cyber-Planner may like playing the Doctor – nice that Clara sees through it; nice the way the Doctor later passes her test for being himself again – but it isn't as in control as it thinks it is, as evidenced by the way the Doctor plays...

6. The Curse of Fenric gambit of "I bet you can't work out how I'm about to beat you at chess". And, as in "The Curse of Fenric" the Doctor's winning move is to, er, alter the rules.

The chess motif suggests that the anniversary celebrations that have so far seen a first Doctor type story in "The Rings of Akhaten", a second Doctor monster-era one from "Cold War", a third Doctor Quatermass crossover in "Hide" and then allusions in dialogue to fourth and fifth Doctor's eras (while arguably getting the actual stories the wrong way around) in "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" and "The Crimson Horror" have – alas poor Colin – skipped ahead to a story for the devious seventh Doctor.

(Or is the Sixth Doctor hiding in plain sight, another Valeyard?)

Rule One is that the Doctor lies, and it's a bit of a screaming clue when the Doctor says that the Time Lord and the Cyber-Planner allegedly control exactly the same share of his brain when he makes his chess-based challenge. The Cyber-Planner may not smell a rat (Cybermen have no noses) but I do.

Obviously he's got another motive, and like Sylvester McCoy's grandmaster on a thousand boards, he's thinking many moves ahead. He knows that the humans are going to blow up the planet as soon as they realise that the Cybermen are in charge. Plus he's recognised the Emperor. (It's not just a case of if Angie can do it, so can he; he drops hints repeatedly to Porridge that he knows the true situation.) So he can safely deduce that the Cybermen are not his real problem; Porridge will destroy the planet and because he's Emperor all human survivors will be transmatted to safety.

No, the Doctor's problem is that the two children he's brought with him, Angie and Artie who Clara is helping to look after, are currently under cyber control and will be left behind by the Imperial flagship.

Of course, he's made a monumental error of judgement by leaving them in Webley's Emporium rather than sending them back to the TARDIS, because tucking them up among the scary exhibits is really such a good idea – and it is a shame that Gaiman had to delete the scene where the Doctor explains that he's paranoid about letting children into his ship because they "push buttons".

So the whole business with the chess match, indeed quite likely the only reason he allows himself to be infected by Cypermites in the first place, is in order to fool the Cyber-Planner into releasing Angie and Artie.

And as soon as it's let the kids go, the Doctor "Fenrics" it out of his cranium with extreme prejudice.

Think about it: is it remotely logical for the Planner to make the offer to release the kids?

I realise that the Planner isn't being logical, but even in its warped, sadistic way it has nothing to gain from this. So why do it? Unless it's not the Planner's idea at all, but one that the Doctor has cunningly slipped into its mind, and it's so dizzy with the pleasures of emotions that it doesn't realise that it doesn't really make sense.

7. Gold of course has never really made sense as the Cybermen's Achilles' Heel – except that, alchemically, it feels right, in the "gold beats silver" sense.

In fact, the New Adventure "Iceberg", written by David "the Cyberleader" Banks, has it that this is a vulnerability that the Doctor himself added to the Cybermen when they were seeking to, well, upgrade themselves following their defeats in "The Invasion" and "The Tenth Planet", and this would certainly help to explain why it's their software that reacts badly to interaction with gold (something that makes more sense than it plating their respirators, especially when in "Earthshock" they seem quite happy to survive in the vacuum of space but retain they old gold weakness.)

Here the Doctor gets a wonderful moment of ingenuity, turning the Willy Wonka reference that he's been waving under our noses since the start of the story into an instant patch to disable the Cyber-Planner.

8. Clara gets to go totally baddass, leading the troops of the punishment platoon like a pro, improvising defences and seeing through the deceptions of the devious Cyber-Planner, even if it still manages to get the trigger for the bomb off her.

It's actually quite a dramatic shift in her character – I mean it's really good to see her in full-on Sigourney Weaver from "Aliens" mode, and it's definitely Sigourney Weaver from "Aliens" not Sigourney Weaver from "Alien", and Jenna-Louise Coleman rises to the challenge of making her strong and just a very little bit cold – but you have to admit that it's not quite where she's been at so far. It's almost as though she's adapting to be exactly the companion that the Doctor needs.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but what with the Cybermen upgrading all over the place, it did strike me as a subtle in a blatant-if-you-think-about-it way of Clara the perfect companion "upgrading" to be perfect here too.

9. References to classic series Cyber-stories that I spotted include: regeneration ("The Tenth Planet"); bouncing on the surface of the moon, and explicit mention of a moon base ("The Moonbase"); the tombs of the Cybermen ("guess", but the design incorporates some nice touches to allude to the design work of the Sixties classic; mind you, it also resembled the galleries of "Attack of..."), also a single Cybermite / Cybermat left at the end; the destruction of an entire galaxy ("The Wheel in Space"); the Cyber-Planner doing all the talking the Cyber-arm largely silent, and the reaction to emotion ("The Invasion"); the last of the Cybermen, gold (see above), and bombs that fragmatise – is that even a word? – a whole planet ("Revenge of the Cybermen"); bombs that destroy a whole planet (again), and "My army awakes", with three columns of Cybermen advancing on the camera ("Earthshock"); the Cybermen get their own "Raston Warrior Robot" moment, moving faster than can be seen ("The Five Doctors"), which makes sense as they'd upgrade to defeat an future Raston warriors they encounter (lord knows how they'd deal with Raston Lap Dancers ("Alien Bodies")); partial Cyber-conversions, in particular the way half Webley's face gets covered ("Attack of the Cybermen"); the secrets of the Time Lords, chess (see above) and silver in the title ("Silver Nemesis").

You can work out for yourselves if there are nods to new series stories "Rise of the Cybermen"/"The Age of Steel", "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday", "The Next Doctor" or "Closing Time", but...

10. "The Silver Turk" by Marc Platt was the opening story for Big Finish's 2011 series of adventures for Paul McGann's Doctor with Mary Shelley. Yes, that Mary Shelley. (And we've already had a "Witch from the Well" reference in "Hide", which leads us to wonder if the "Army of Death" might have something to do with Trenzalore next week.) Apparently no one knows how the historic Silver Turk automaton really worked, although a dwarf concealed under the table is one of the more popular theories.

And, as a bonus, Marc's "Spare Parts" gets a name-check slipped into dialogue.

Alas, no place to slip in a mention of the excellent (sorry) sort-of-trilogy "The Reaping", "The Gathering" and "The Harvest". And couldn't Briggsy have persuaded the Emperor Porridge to name his flagship the "Sword of Orion"?

So, I've now written three-and-a-half thousand words of good things about this episode and only skimmed the surface, and the fact that there is so much to write about surely, surely is the real sign of just how great, how packed with ideas and whimsies and things to make you think this was.

I think the 2012 half of series seven was, in spite of a couple of episodes not quite ending well, a marked improvement on the convoluted disappointments of series six, and the 2013 half, in spite of a couple of episodes not quite ending well, an improvement on 2012, and – a wobble for "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" aside – getting better week on week ,with these last two episodes real triumphs.

What could possibly go wrong now?

Next Time... As Alex and I keep singing when we watch the Prequel "She Said He Said", didn't we have a loverly time the day we went to Trenzalore... Much is promised. Will it be delivered? Or will it be "A Good Man Goes to the Wedding of River Song" all over again? If his name turns out to be "St John" I will scream. Time for the answers? And everything that's been done in "The Name of the Doctor".

There has been what can only be described as a bit of a FLUFF up, and the BBC's American distributor has sent out copies of Series Seven Part 2, including the series finale, a week early. Fans are being advised to spend a week in a medically induced coma to avoid spoilers.

So I doubt anyone is reading!

Friday, May 03, 2013

Day 4493: DOCTOR WHO: Hidden Gems


Sorry for the delay. Sometimes you just end up stuck for what to think.

"Hide" is a really terrific spooky story that, even on repeat watchings, plays with the tropes of the haunted house mystery to stay tense and scary even though you know what is coming. And boy does that make a difference because, right at the last minute, it pulls the most astounding, genre-smashing hand-brake turn.

It was that ending that left me, mouth flapping open like a fish, without a real handle on the episode. It's just so... outré! And yet very, totally, brilliantly Doctor Who.

To wind you up to fever pitch and then plant a big soppy kiss on you was... weird. And I can see why people have reacted as though the ending is somehow "wrong", but actually it's completely part of the story, resolving what would otherwise have been plot holes (how do the creepy effects affect anyone in the house if the "monster" is actually stuck in a whole different universe?)

The Doctor's right: it was a love story all along.

"Sometimes love lasts forever," was already flagged up early in the episode, and a lot of the story is about the pull of love against barriers, social, emotional, even temporal, with the implicit attraction between the two guest leads and the pseudo mother-daughter bond that arguably rescues the time traveller from her fate. And of course the in-story physics of the bubble universe that lasts three minutes in its own time, but the whole length of the Universe from our perspective is perfectly symmetrical with that: the monster-that-isn't-a-monster, called "the Crooked Man" in the titles, really does have a love that lasts for the whole of time.

And why should every alien be an enemy? Indeed, it was getting to be a problem of the Russell era that for all the Doctor's talk – or all of Sarah Jane Smith's monologues – about life out there being wonderful, it seemed that every non-human who turned up was out to destroy the world. So Neil Cross is to be mightily commended for having the alien not equate to evil (again! – Akhaten's alien inhabitants were not hostile either).

The thing that Alex particularly noticed is that this is very much the third Doctor tribute story, after "Cold War" had taken us back to the Monster Era of Patrick Troughton and with the exploration feel and the reference to Susan and grandfathers, "The Rings of Akhaten" had had the air of a Bill Hartnell.

(Not so much for "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" as a fourth Doctor story though, in spite of the "Invasion of Time"/"Logopolis" referencing exploration of the Ship's interior, and asides about conceptual geometers, and the presence of the Eye of Harmony.)

What's really clever though is the way that this is almost entirely an "arc" story episode, hidden (as it were) in plain sight. There are (at least) four big developments: "Don't trust the Doctor"; "We're all ghosts to you!"; "You really are a cow!"; and "She's just a normal girl". And they all arise very naturally from the story.

Is there something actually wrong with the Doctor?

Emma Grayling, the empathic psychic played by "Call the Midwife" and soon to be "An Adventure in Space and Time" star Jessica Raine, warns Clara that "there is a sliver of ice in his heart".

That's quite a scary departure from "never cruel, never cowardly" without actually being a contradiction of it. But it's also, I'm sure you know, a reference to the fairy tale "The Snow Queen", and the detail there is that the ice sliver was stabbed into a boy who was otherwise good, and when the ice was removed or melted, then the boy's goodness was restored. So is this suggesting that the Doctor has been "got at" in some way? Obviously, this brings us back to "Asylum of the Daleks" – a frozen planet, by the way – where the Dalek nanogenes "deducted love and added hate". At the time, there were concerns that the Doctor had exposed himself to the nanogenes when he gave his protection to Amy, but there seemed to be no consequences. Or so we thought...?

Having said that, of course, this is also the same Doctor who committed jolly genocide against the Silence back in "Day of the Moon". And old Kazran Sardick in "A Christmas Carol" was likewise a man with a sliver of ice in his heart, (and Clara is doing that "ghost of past, present and future" thing too) so it may be that Moffat has been setting up this material for quite a while. Or is it that he just keeps writing the same shtick?

It's not original, of course, as the early New Adventures (specifically from "Witch Mark" to "Deceit") feature an arc where the Doctor and the TARDIS are infected with a speck of malign protoplasm, exaggerating his, er, more ruthless qualities, which results in driving Ace away (by using her boyfriend to blow up the Hoothi – it was that sort of a year).

Know anyone who's been going rather too far recently?

The sequence of photographs as the Doctor travels the length of Earth's history – much to Clara's developing horror – is again doubly ingenious.

On the one hand it serves as an original – and terribly clever – answer to the "where do ghosts come from?" question, and one that is smoothly in keeping with the "ghosts from the future/ghosts from the past" vibe of the third Doctor era (see in particular "Day of the Daleks" for the way that time creates ghosts). It's a rather better abstract of "Narnia" than Moffat himself used in the other Christmas special, "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe", with a real "Wood between the Worlds" vibe to the pocket universe. If you recall your CS Lewis, "The Magician's Nephew" sees the eponymous Digory jumping into pools (or "wells" perhaps) to travel between our world and others, including doomed Charn whose pool disappears when the world ends. Lots of themes there having resonances within "Hide", without anything so crassly obvious as just lifting a wood within a magic box. Ahem. The Witch even escapes from Charn by clinging onto Digory's ankle, just as the Crooked Man tries to do to the Doctor, or indeed as the Doctor does do to the TARDIS.

On the other hand, it also establishes that the Doctor "walks in Eternity", that he has, from time to time, a very alien perspective on life the universe and everything. That he does this without even thinking is, in some ways, even more shocking. And his response to Clara's assertion that we mean nothing to him, "You're the only mystery worth solving" is not terribly comforting, either. He may be thinking it's quite profound, but it could be taken as reducing his companions to organic Rubik's Cubes to keep him occupied as he wheels through the cosmos.

Cleverly, this reinforces Clara's paranoia, already stoked by Emma's cryptic warning not to trust the Time Lord.

And then we add to the mix whatever the hell is going on between Clara and the TARDIS. When she couldn't get into the TARDIS in "The Rings of Akhaten", it was a bit odd – because we don't know if she had a key at that time, but she didn't try to use one and just seemed to expect the doors to open for her. But now it's clearly a "thing". (You might even add in the HADS escape from the sub in "Cold War", leaving Clara to potentially drown.) There's certainly some mixed messages here: one minute, the TARDIS is locking Clara out even though the Doctor is in danger and lecturing her using the holographic display; the next she's allowing Clara to fly her! (Probably leading to the flying lessons that lead to so much trouble at the start of "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" too.)

No one else, aside from River, Romana and, under the Master's direction, Adric (though Tegan thought that she was doing it) has flown the TARDIS. (And Leela does it, in the same story where the authors mock her for being 'stupid', showing how stupid they are…) This at the very least would suggest that Clara is pretty darned special. And in spite of the Doctor's fairly extensive researching of her past, people (and maybe he) are determined to come up with theories: is she a surviving Time Lord? Or River's daughter? Or River in a different not-seen-before incarnation? Don't forget Clara's reference in "The Bells of St John" to a "woman in the shop" (probably River) who somehow gave her the TARDIS telephone number as "the best helpline in the universe".

Or is she the Doctor's daughter? Or even the twelfth Doctor? I'm intrigued by the Pharos boys' suggestion that she might be a humanoid TARDIS, a surviving Type-103 that escaped the Time War. Or even going the Compassion route: Clara is going to become a TARDIS as a child of the TARDIS. (Mining Lawrence Miles for plot ideas: the gift that keeps on giving!) But actually, I think that's a bit obscure for the telly.

All of which tends to play against Emma's assertion that there's nothing up with Clara at all.

Well, it could just be as simple as Emma is lying to the Doctor. She's already told Clara not to trust him, so she may, with the very best of intentions of protecting her friend, be telling the Doctor outright porkies.

There's also the possibility that Emma isn't actually psychic at all – that her connection with the "ghost" isn't parapsychological but because of the sort-of time paradox of being her however-many-greats grandmother. (Arguably, the events of November 25th 1974 bring Emma and Dougray Scott's duffle-coated Alec Palmer together without which their descendent Hila Tukurian won't exist... but they might have got together anyway.) It would certainly explain why Emma can't recognise the fact Alec fancies her even when he's waving it under her nose.

Mind you, the Doctor believes her to be psychic and he can usually tell, as Professor Clegg found out to his somewhat fatal cost in "Planet of the Spiders".

Ah yes, that Metebelis crystal. My Alex wonders if this isn't a sly dig at Mr Pertwee's habit of, ah, liberating souvenirs. We know that all of the blue crystals ended up in the Great One's web – we know that because the spiders made such a fuss about the one last crystal that the Doctor nicked on his first visit, and that was why they came to Earth in the first place. And weren't they all exploded by the feedback loop as the Great One tried to increase her mental power to infinity?

So imagine the third Doctor, staggering back to the TARDIS, dying of radiation from the cave of crystal, but still taking a moment to snatch up one of the blue shards that have just recently exploded all over the planet when the Great One's web went up.

I guess he didn't learn his Buddhist lesson after all.

Still, the headdress is rather more fetching than the very Seventies earmuffs that Clegg gets to wear in the UNIT lab (themselves half-inched from BOSS the year before! See! He must have picked up those from that smouldering wreckage! Though I suppose in a "green" story, he'd say it's an ethical act to reuse and recycle… I'm drifting).

Kisses to the past aside – and there are Stone Tape and Quatermass references to be found too – the archaeology of the episode shows in a couple of moments, notably where the Doctor refers to the pocket universe, just once, as "the hex" and in the allusion to the "Witch from the Well", both apparently, from former titles for the story: "The Phantoms of the Hex" and "The Witch from the Well", as well as the (very Lovecraft) "The Hider in the House" which eventually became just "Hide". Hide as in "hide and seek", I guess, briefly suggested by the Doctor as the Crooked Man's modus operandi; although hide as in "skin" might also be plausible given the skeletal appearance of the "monster" and the "getting under the skin"ness of the tale; you could even have hide as in "a unit of area sufficient to support a household", given the house and its environs and/or the tiny area of the "hex".

And what is it with "The Witch from the Well"? It's the title of a (fairly good) Paul McGann adventure from Big Finish too. It sounds like it ought to be a quote or a reference, but somehow isn't.

Alex suggests an Arthurian nearly-connection. Caliburn is Arthur's other sword, the Sword in the Stone, which he breaks in an unchivalrous act (as Excalibur, the Sword in the Lake, is Ex – after – Caliburn). "The Witch in the Well" is nearly-but-not-quite "The Witch in the Wood", the original title of the second volume of T H White's "Once and Future King", to which the first volume was, of course, The Sword in the Stone.

Back to the point. If Emma is right, though, and there really is nothing wrong with Clara... is this, along with each of the other points raised, pointing the finger back at the Doctor? A grand case of "It's not you, it's me", if it's the Doctor that's somehow wrong and splintering Clara across time something to do with him not her.

Every lonely monster needs a companion. So he says. And then very quickly pulls his arm away from hugging her. Which is probably more of Matt Smith's slapstick. But might mean something more than that.

Interestingly, lovely though Matt's work is – especially in the wood between the worlds, confessing he is afraid – he's at the more Scooby Doo end of his spectrum for a lot of this story, something shown up by the rather more subtle performance of Dougray Scott, who is rather wonderful as the diffident Professor Palmer.

(What's that? A spy called Palmer in the Seventies? Interestingly, he is easily convinced that the Doctor is a "Man from the Ministry" and goes on to describe the "type". The man he describes is... John Steed.)

The scene between Matt and Scott in the darkroom, where they discuss Palmer's past, his wartime activities, is a beautiful performance. On both parts, in fact. And of course it's really about the Doctor's wartime past too. Going on living after so much of the other thing is, after all, what both of them have to do. And it's what's brought them both to Caliburn House on this dark and stormy night.

Jenna-Louise is given more time and space to give Clara a bit of depth this week, and it helps, particularly the "we're all ghosts" outburst. There's also a nice exchange where the Doctor expects her to come looking for the ghost with him and she initially turns him down. It adds up to a sense that "typical feisty Moffat girl" is actually a front that she's putting on, and deep down she's scared out of her wits by this strange and almost threatening man who had dragged her off into who knows when and where.

The suspicions set up here lay the groundwork for conflicts that spring up next week and, who knows, the rest of the season arc. We've had suspicious companions before – well, Turlough – but aside from maybe Ace in the New Adventures, not a companion who has reason, good reason, to be suspicious of the Doctor, though perhaps Amy should have been.

Where, as Buffy might sing, do we go from here?

Next time... Everything gets torn apart – in more ways than one – in the story I have to confess I've been most anticipating this year, but will it be another "Logopolis" or another "Invasion of Time" when we "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"?