Doctor Who: “The Girl Who Died”

For the first time in what feels like a very long time, we have in “The Girl Who Died” a nearly flawless episode of Doctor Who. (Not to be overly cynical, but I do feel it’s too bad this is a two-parter, as I’m convinced they will only muck it up. Prove me wrong, Doctor Who!)

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

The story is an enjoyable one right from its rather zany pitch: a ragtag team of Vikings with no battle skills takes on an alien warrior race considered the most fearsome in the universe, with the Doctor and Clara tasked with forging a plan to make sure the Vikings survive. In usual Doctor Who fashion, the solution is kind of random and nonsensical (electric eels? what?), but the episode is so much fun I just went with it.

Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame is a welcome guest star, although I felt her role of Ashildr was somewhat underwritten. There’s a concept at the heart of this story about the power of storytelling, Ashildr’s in particular, but it’s only brushed upon before it becomes part of the Doctor’s big plan. We never see Ashildr telling a story, for instance; never see her hold the entire village in thrall with her words and imagination. That would have been better. As it was, the idea felt rushed. I wish they’d had time to explored it more. Unsurprisingly, I’m intrigued by the power of storytelling and would have liked to see this concept coaxed more to the surface.

The other thing I really liked about this episode were the references, and it was chock full of them. Not just references to Doctor Who, but to other pop culture mainstays. The Doctor refers to one long-bearded Viking as ZZ Top. There’s a hat-tip to “Yakety Sax,” the 1963 pop-jazz tune made famous when The Benny Hill Show turned it into its de facto theme song. The stupid sonic sunglasses get snapped in half by a Viking right away (yay!) but apparently still work (boo!). The Doctor claims he’s “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow” at one point, which is a nod to the Third Doctor’s famous and oft-repeated words. He also says, at the end, “Time will tell. It always does.” These are the same words the Seventh Doctor used at the end of the classic 1988 serial “Remembrance of the Daleks.” (He talks about creating “ripples in time” in that serial as well.) Clara gets the funniest line of the episode, if not the season so far: “The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me, it’s unbearable.”

The reason I call this a nearly flawless episode is because there are still a few things I don’t like about it. (You know me, I can nitpick anything to death!) I think Doctor Who makes a narrative error every time it opens an episode with the tail end of some other, untelevised adventure the Doctor and Clara are currently having. Not only does it run the risk of being more interesting than the episode we do get to see (I’m looking quite pointedly at you, “The Caretaker”), but it also runs the risk of setting the wrong tone, as it very nearly does here. A lot of fast talking and things exploding (two elements Moffat-era Doctor Who continually mistakes for viewer-grabbing excitement) precede an episode that is thoughtful, quiet, humorous, and dialogue-driven. Someone needs to send a memo that not every episode requires people talking really fast and things blowing up.

Then there’s the episode’s title. There’s nothing really wrong with the title “The Girl Who Died.” As titles go, it’s fine. However, at this point, the instant I see anything in Doctor Who with the word “girl” in it, I sigh heavily and roll my eyes. That’s because we’ve already had Amy Pond as “the girl who waited,” and Clara Oswald as “the impossible girl,” and before both of them we had Madame de Pompadour as “The Girl in the Fireplace.” I’m a little over the “girls.” At least the next episode is called “The Woman Who Lived.” Maybe that’s a step up?

The bit about the Doctor having somehow chosen this particular face unconsciously, and the reason why, felt extremely forced to me, retrofitted into the story rather than something they gave a lot of thought to. I’m against the idea that the Doctor can unconsciously choose what he looks like, because A) it implies he has too much control over the process, which he clearly doesn’t, and B) he definitely would have been a ginger by now. It’s even harder to imagine he can or would choose his face in order to send a vague message to himself. But Steven Moffat, who co-wrote this episode, can never let a chance go by without tinkering with Doctor Who canon somehow.

And now, my theory on this season’s arc! Back in “The Witch’s Familiar,” Davros mentions something about the Hybrid, a mixed-race warrior that the Time Lords had a prophecy about. Davros mistook the prophecy to mean a creature half Time Lord and half Dalek, but he was wrong. Now it’s possible the Hybrid is Ashildr, half Viking and half alien technology. In “Before the Flood,” O’Donnell mentions the Minister of War as one of the Doctor’s foes, but it’s not someone he’s met yet. Is it possible Ashildr, now made immortal by the alien tech, becomes the Minister of War, whom the Doctor will have to face at the season finale? I’m leaning toward yes. After all, why hire Maisie Williams if you’re not going to give her a super juicy role?

But time will tell. It always does.

 

The End of Everything

The End of EverythingThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read DARE ME last year, I was so blown away by it that I immediately knew Megan Abbott was an author I was going to keep reading. THE END OF EVERYTHING is just as exquisite a novel as DARE ME. The prose is more or less a thirteen-year-old girl’s stream of consciousness as she assumes the role of amateur detective to find out what happened to her best friend, who has mysteriously disappeared. Abbott takes you deep inside Lizzie’s head, a place of unending questions and only half-understood answers, where her curiosity about (and yearning to be a part of) the world of grownups leads her to take an overly romantic and at times even mystical approach to all things sexual, which may not be for the best. There are twists a plenty, and a satisfying resolution to the central mystery, but at its heart the novel is about yearning for things you don’t fully understand, whether it’s the innocent attention of a neighboring father or the not-so-innocent attention of someone in the throes of a dangerous obsession. In many ways it’s also about the desperation of the young to be older than they are, to be accepted as more than they are. It’s a coming of age story that uses the loss of emotional and psychological innocence to let Lizzie finally see beneath the surface of things. The answers she seeks are terrible and life-changing, the truth about her friend devastating in its revelation of banal psychopathy, but Lizzie can’t let it go. Because if those answers spell the end of Lizzie and Evie’s epic, earth-shattering friendship, then it’s the end of everything. To Abbott’s credit as a writer — and boy is she a great writer — she makes you feel every turn of the screw. She puts you so deep inside Lizzie’s head that, upon finishing the book, I couldn’t help but feel her absence. This novel is something is something special, and this author is one to keep reading.

View all my reviews

The Scariest Part: Robert Masello Talks About THE EINSTEIN PROPHECY

Masello-EinsteinProphecy-19352-CV-FT-v9

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Robert Masello, whose latest novel is The Einstein Prophecy. Here’s the publisher’s description:

As war rages in 1944, young army lieutenant Lucas Athan recovers a sarcophagus excavated from an Egyptian tomb. Shipped to Princeton University for study, the box contains mysteries that only Lucas, aided by brilliant archaeologist Simone Rashid, can unlock.

These mysteries may, in fact, defy — or fulfill — the dire prophecies of Albert Einstein himself.

Struggling to decipher the sarcophagus’s strange contents, Lucas and Simone unwittingly release forces for both good and unmitigated evil. The fate of the world hangs not only on Professor Einstein’s secret research but also on Lucas’s ability to defeat an unholy adversary more powerful than anything he ever imagined.

From the mind of bestselling author and award-winning journalist Robert Masello comes a thrilling, page-turning adventure where modern science and primordial supernatural powers collide.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Robert Masello:

Even though my books always have a supernatural element to them, and they get routinely described as “scary” in the promotional material and reviews, I seldom find them very scary myself. It’s not that I don’t try — I sit at my computer into the wee dark hours of the night, trying my best to give myself the shivers, but I’m usually too absorbed in questions of craft — have I set the scene up properly? have I chosen the right word? am I being too graphic, or, on the other hand, am I exercising too much restraint? — to lose myself in any visceral way. Sometimes, and this is the avenue into the scary for me, I’m able to tap into, or draw on, something from my own life that genuinely spooked me, and with any luck convey some sense of it to the reader.

In The Einstein Prophecy, there’s one scene in particular where I was able to conjure up some fear from my own past and insert it into the novel.

Most of the book takes place in the town of Princeton and on the campus of the university, where, when I was an undergraduate there, I spent a lot of time, as did most of my classmates, buried in the lower levels of Firestone Library. In your senior year, you were assigned a carrel, a private cubicle the size of a coat closet and with all of the same charm. It was furnished with a sliding metal door with a tiny window in it, and a desk and chair inside. There were a couple of shelves for the books you were using for your thesis research, a wastebasket, and that was about it.

My carrel was on the lowest level of all, at the very end of a long, dimly-lit corridor (they were all dimly-lit) and working late at night, I often found myself the last one there, surrounded by acres — and I’m not kidding — of towering book racks, groaning under the weight of over two million volumes. The university had one of the largest open-stack libraries in the world. The only sounds were the hissing of heating pipes and the occasional squeak of a book cart being pushed along, unseen, somewhere in the stacks, by an equally invisible librarian. In the novel, my heroine, a young Egyptian scholar named Simone, has been waiting for some maps she had requested from the Special Collections to be delivered, when she hears the book cart, and follows it on an increasingly maddening voyage into the labyrinth…until she hears something strange and realizes she might not want to catch up to it, after all.

The labored breath came again, closer than before. Lowering her head, she peeked through the stacks into the neighboring aisle. Something moved there, dark and indistinct, its back to her.

Ducking down and swallowing hard — her mouth was suddenly as dry as the Sahara – she inched away, down the narrow passage between two rows of books, and when she thought she’d put enough distance between them, stopped to take another glance back.

Over the top of a collection of atlases, she saw a pair of eyes staring back at her. Sunken, black, buried deep in a face the color of mud.

She bolted down the aisle, turning left at the end, then racing down another and turning right. She could hear the sound of padding feet — or was it paws? — keeping pace with her.

She ran harder, desperately trying to orient herself. Was she heading toward the stairs or another dead end? She had the vague notion that she was being deliberately stampeded, that her pursuer had no intention of overtaking her yet — that it was only playing with her, like a cat with a mouse. Tying to scare her to death.

Now it’s true that I was never actually chased by a menacing creature — real or unreal — through the murky corridors of the university library, but there was many a winter night, alone in my isolated carrel, when I got a serious case of the willies. Whether or not I’m able to pass that sensation along to my readers is a question only they can answer. But I’ve given it the old college try.

Robert Masello: Website / Facebook / Goodreads

The Einstein Prophecy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Robert Masello is an award-winning journalist, television writer (Charmed, Sliders, Poltergeist: the Legacy), and the author of many bestselling novels and nonfiction books, including Blood and Ice, The Medusa Amulet, and The Romanov Cross. His most recent supernatural thriller, The Einstein Prophecy, takes place during the Second World War, when Albert Einstein was attached to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the Allies were racing against time, and the Axis powers, to unlock the lethal secrets of atomic energy. Published this past summer, the book occupied the number one slot in the Amazon Kindle store for several weeks. He now lives and works in Santa Monica, CA.

Doctor Who: “Before the Flood”

“Before the Flood” is the second part of the second two-parter in a season that will be all two-parters, because Steven Moffat has heard your complaints about the lack of two-parters in seasons 7 and 8 (minus the finale), which would have given the stories room to breathe (and also make sense), and he has decreed, “You dare to criticize me? Fuck you, now you get a season of all two-parters!”* And then he curled up in a ball and cried and wondered why he’s still executive producing this show, just like a lot of us are wondering. Anyway…

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

The previous week’s episode, “Under the Lake,” was pretty good and set up an interesting, semi-supernatural mystery. The conclusion, “Before the Flood,” wasn’t quite as good, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. You see, I guessed the Doctor was in the stasis chamber pretty much right away, because I know how this show works now, its formula has become all but set in stone, but I was expecting some timey-wimey bullshit to be the explanation. Instead, it actually made logical sense this time! (Although I suspect it was not a surprise to anyone else, either.)

In this episode we get to see the Doctor facing certain, unavoidable death in a way that puts the events of the lake in Utah, Trenzalore, and even just the previous story in this very season, to shame. Here, the Doctor just fucking deals with it instead of all that nonsense we’ve seen before — no confession dial, no weeks of partying beforehand, no all of time and space in jeopardy, just quiet resignation of his fate and the hope that he can save Clara before it’s too late. I like seeing the Doctor try to figure a way out while understanding that history can’t be changed, rather than breaking that rules with timey-wimey nonsense to save himself at the last minute. (I’m looking rather pointedly at the two of you, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” and “The Wedding of River Song.”) This story gets many, many points for not letting the Doctor use time travel as a way out, which always comes off feeling cheap.

Another thing I liked in this episode was the Fisher King, the presumed dead but not really dead alien in the Tivoli hearse. Not only was the creature itself very well designed, but they let it be really, really intelligent instead of just scary. I loved how it knew about the Time Lords and threw the Doctor’s unwillingness to change the future back in his face. Good stuff.

Also, the electric guitar version of the theme song? Please make that the actual, recurring theme song! It’s leagues ahead of the shrill, electronic version they’re using now.

Unfortunately, parts of the episode felt stale to me. It wasn’t just that I knew how the stasis chamber was going to play out (although that felt like it was right out of “The Pandorica Opens” in season 5), but other elements, too. O’Donnell’s nerdy excitement that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside ought to have been joyously contagious, except we’ve seen it so many damn times already that I really think from now on they’d be better off not having anyone say anything about it at all. O’Donnell’s off the cuff mention of the Doctor’s previous companions Rose, Martha, and Amy also felt weird to me. Usually I like these kinds of callbacks, but — the fact that everyone was supposed to have forgotten about the Doctor during his season 7 computer memory banks wipe aside — the show feels so different now from the days of Rose and Martha that it felt jarring to hear their names. I felt strangely protective, like, “You don’t deserve to talk about them anymore, show!” Which is pretty ridiculous of me, I admit.

I didn’t care for the opening monologue. Not all the stuff about Beethoven and the bootstrap paradox, that was interesting, but rather the way it felt entirely removed from everything else in the episode. A smarter script would have integrated that speech into a scene with Clara or maybe O’Donnell and Bennett so the call back at the end would feel more deserved. As it was, it felt completely outside of the story, and if you were to trim both the monologue and the callback nothing about the episode would be any different.

Lastly, with the Doctor’s ghost turning out to be a hologram he projected from his sonic sunglasses** there’s a sense of disappointment when we learn that part of his message was just randomly ordered names. Why not just end the list with Clara’s name? It would have had the same result, without the verbal shrug of admitting the rest was added for no reason. It makes the Doctor’s plan sound sloppier than it was, and makes the script feel unnecessarily manipulative.

Overall, not a bad story, but it could have used some polishing and more fresh moments. The show might benefit from having someone who can go through the scripts and cross things off that have been done to death already.

Oh, and one last note: I’m wondering if the “Minister of War” reference will be this year’s “Bad Wolf,” with hints of things to come.

 

 

*To be fair, though, I think a season of all two-parters might be a good thing in terms of allowing the stories more time to develop, like those old four-parters of the classic series.

** The sonic sunglasses have to go. They have to go. Changing the screwdriver to shades does not mitigate the show’s over reliance on a sonic device, it just alters the shape of the device. This is no fix. If you want to get rid of the sonic screwdriver, have the guts to actually get rid of it.

 

 

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