Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World”

***SOME SPOILERS BELOW***

I don’t have a lot to say about this episode. I didn’t think it was great, but it wasn’t bad, either. It’s clear the invasion of the Monks is meant to be this season’s centerpiece, but two episodes into the three-episode arc it’s actually interesting me the least of any of the stories so far. I’m still having trouble with the idea that the Monks can simulate all of Earth’s history, from the very beginning, including every single person on the planet and all their memories, with their technology. It just doesn’t make sense. You would have to know a great deal about the planet to create that simulation, and if you already know that much about the planet you wouldn’t need the simulation. Additionally, I suspect there would have been — or would be in the projected future — plenty of other times when the Earth was vulnerable besides this weird lab accident involving genetically modified bacteria that, thanks to a stray decimal point in an equation, is somehow turned into an airborne threat to all life on Earth. It’s all a bit hard to swallow. The invaders’ insistence on being invited to rule the Earth out of love, with consent specifically not given out of fear or strategy, also strikes me as needlessly convoluted. I get that the episode’s co-writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat didn’t want a run-of-the-mill alien invasion with the villains simply stating that they’re taking over, but as I said it’s all a bit hard to swallow.

The Monks themselves, however, are kind of fascinating. It’s revealed in “The Pyramid at the End of the World” that what we’re seeing isn’t their true form, that they took it to simulate humans. The reason they look like corpses is because, to them, that’s what humans are, short-lived and doomed. The pyramid itself is also an illusion, a specific Earth icon purposely chosen for its recognizability. There’s an implication that the Monks are somehow outside of the normal flow of time, able to accurately simulate and observe both the past and future with their technology. They have an empathic or even possibly telepathic ability, which lets them understand people’s motivations, as well as the ability to disintegrate people with a touch. I’m hoping the third and presumably final episode of this arc next week will answer some of my lingering questions about the Monks, such as why this so-called pure form of consent is so important to them and why they seem so out of phase with time around them. I mean, even their mouths don’t move right when they speak!

I didn’t know where they were going with the Doctor’s continuing blindness, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a plot point that eventually leads to the Monk’s invasion going forward. When Bill makes a deal with the Monks to restore the Doctor’s eyesight, and thus save his life as he tries to escape the soon-to-explode bacteria lab, in exchange for the planet, I realized this had been the writers’ plan since two episodes before. It pays off very well and very organically.

Next episode, it looks like our heroes enlist the help of Missy to kick the Monks off of Earth. That won’t go well for the Monks, although I imagine it won’t go well for anyone else, either.

Doctor Who: “Extremis”

***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!***

“Extremis” is one of those episodes where the more I think about it, the more it collapses under the weight of its own logic holes. There’s plenty love in “Extremis”: the hilarious scene where the Pope interrupts Bill’s date, the secret Vatican library of heretical books, an ancient text called Veritas that causes anyone who translates it to commit suicide, and of course the mind-blowing revelation as to why they commit suicide: the text reveals to them that this world isn’t the real world. But it’s in that last, very cool bit where things fall apart.

If the world of the episode is actually a simulation run by aliens planning an invasion of Earth, I find myself with a lot of questions: If you’re planning an invasion, wouldn’t you focus your energies on simulating Earth’s defenses? Why waste your time replicating every single person on Earth as well as their complete, lifelong memories? How would the aliens, who know nothing of Earth, which is why they’re running the simulation, know what memories to program the replicants with? And how would they be able to accurately replicate a being as complicated as the Doctor, who shows up in different time periods with different faces, and somehow also include memories of his off-world adventures, which presumably they wouldn’t know anything about? If the Veritas text stands to destroy the integrity of their simulation, why allow it to exist in the simulation at all? Why not remove it after the very first translator kills himself? It’s clear the aliens are able to remove people from the simulation, so why not objects? Are they just not paying attention? And if the Doctor is a computer simulation along with the rest of this world, then surely his sonic shades* would be a simulation too and incapable of emailing the real Doctor in the real world. None this makes sense. As enjoyable as the story is, it’s rife with episode author and showrunner Steven Moffat’s classic style over substance approach. (The cartoonish sticks of dynamite hidden under the tables in the CERN cafeteria was particularly laughable.)

There’s a nod to Pope Benedict IX being a woman in disguise, which is cool, but of course the Doctor has to mention that he had a romantic relationship with her. It’s not enough anymore for the Doctor to simply know famous women from history, he has to sleep with them, too. (I’m so ready for someone new to take this show in a new direction!)

We also learn that it’s Missy in the vault. Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise, although the manner in which she gets there does. We haven’t seen her since she was trapped on Skaro with the Daleks in last season’s “The Witch’s Familiar,” and it’s intriguing to wonder what happened between then and now. She mentions the Daleks were abuzz with news of the Doctor’s retirement — which makes me wonder why they didn’t try to take over the universe again while the Doctor was out of commission — so it sounds like she and the Daleks came to an understanding. But now she’s being executed either for a new crime or her many crimes, and her body is supposed to go in the vault. The Doctor fast-talks his way around the execution part but he does have to keep her in the vault and guard it for 1,000 years. So far so good. But then the vault rises up out of the water on the executioners’ planet for the Doctor to put her in, and I start having questions again: Why does the Doctor bring the vault to Earth afterward? Why bring it to a university where he’s forced to take on the role of teacher in order to explain his presence there? Why doesn’t he go somewhere remote in case Missy breaks out so she won’t endanger an entire university of young students, let alone an entire planet of human beings? I’m hoping for an explanation down the road, but I’m not holding my breath. Moffat tends to leave plot threads dangling. (Whatever happened to Madame Kovarian in season 6? Why was the Doctor going around erasing himself from memory banks in season 7? Etc., etc., forever.) Of course, all of this could have been explained away if the executioner had simply asked if the Doctor had a place for her body and he said yes, he knows of a place and it’s all prepared. It’s the moving of the vault to Earth, as opposed to the vault already being on Earth, that raises all these questions for me.

Continuing the Doctor’s blindness is a bold move. I don’t know where they’re going with it, but I respect it. His sonic screwdriver is back, although that may have only been in the simulation. Nardole is great in this episode because he isn’t being a nag; he has a chance to be funny and do important things. Logic holes and my obviously mounting frustration with Moffat aside, “Extremis” is an enjoyable episode and I’m eager to see how things develop over the second half of the season.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! If Missy and the Daleks did come to some kind of understanding, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve worked together. In the 1973 Third Doctor serial “Frontier in Space,” the Master and the Daleks become allies in order to start a war between the universe’s two most powerful empires, Earth and Draconia, hoping they will destroy each other and allow the Daleks to become the rulers of the universe with the Master getting part of it for himself. The plan fails, of course, and that spells the end of the alliance. In fact, at the start of the 1996 TV movie, the Master is executed by the Daleks on Skaro! (Of course, he’s not really dead, but there’s no indication that the Daleks were in on the ruse.) Also in this episode the Doctor mentions that he is a Time Lord of the Prydonian Chapter. We first learn that there are several different Times Lord chapters, including Prydonian, Arcalian, and Patrexes, in the 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin,” which is the first story to take place entirely on Gallifrey. And of course I have fond memories of the infamous Prydonians of Princeton, the Doctor Who fan club from the ivy league university that were always answering phones in the background during the Doctor Who pledge drives on WNJN, the public TV station out of New Jersey!

 

 

* Yes, the sonic shades are back. But at least they serve a purpose now that the Doctor is blind and relying, Daredevil-like, on their electronic input in order to “see,” unlike last season when the Doctor just thought they were cool. Ugh.

2017 Summer Schedule

I’ve got a pretty busy summer coming up with lots of appearances around the Northeast. Here’s where you’ll find me in the coming months:

Saturday, June 10th, at 12 PM – Speaking to the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers at the Old Bridge Library in Old Bridge, NJ. My presentation is called “No Way To Slow Down: Writing Fast-Paced Novels That Will Keep Readers Turning the Pages” and is open to the public!

July 13th-16thReadercon 28 in Quincy, Massachusetts. The schedule isn’t set yet, but you can expect to find me on panels as well as doing a live reading and possibly a kaffeeklatsch.

July 20th-23rdNecon 37 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The schedule isn’t set yet, but you can expect to find me on panels as well as co-hosting the annual Necon Roast with Jeff Strand.

Saturday, August 5th, at 3 PM – Reading at the Line Break Reading Series at Q.E.D. in Astoria, Queens. I’m excited to be reading with Olena Jennings, Rajan Khanna, and some other great writers!

August 17th-20thNecronomiCon Providence in Providence, Rhode Island. I’ll be attending this one as an interested and excited audience member, not as a programming participant, so you’ll likely find me milling about or in the bar.

I’ll update the list if more events and appearances are scheduled. In the meantime, please come on out and say hi! I’m always happy to meet readers and sign books!

Doctor Who: “Oxygen”

We’re approaching the halfway mark of Peter Capaldi’s final season in Doctor Who, and so far the season has been pretty strong. “Oxygen,” the fifth episode, is quite good, but it could have been great except for the fact that, like “Knock Knock” before it, it suffers from not having the courage of its convictions.

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

A hypercapitalist future where oxygen is sold to space workers instead of freely provided leads to a lot of great worldbuilding: space stations where there’s no oxygen except for what’s provided by the automated company space suits you’re forced to wear; distances measured not in meters but in how many expensive breaths would be used up on the journey; what human labor (and life) means to an emotionless bottom line when people can be replaced by automation. We’ve had episodes featuring the walking dead in space suits before, of course (the two-parter “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” springs immediately to mind), but this is handled in an original enough way not to feel repetitive. There’s a lot of great character work going on in “Oxygen”: the discussion of prejudice with the blue-skinned alien, Bill asking what happens if you throw up inside a space helmet, Nardole getting to be a part of the action (although I’m still not liking what a nag they’ve made him), the Doctor and Nardole arguing the proper sound a space door should make, and of course the Doctor’s sacrifice to save Bill’s life in the vacuum of space. His blindness, presented as a temporary side-effect, is played in a very understated and organic fashion, at least until the end when it is revealed somewhat over-dramatically that the treatment hasn’t worked and he’s still blind, a fact he’s hiding from everyone but Nardole. It’s interesting stuff, and it will be interesting to see where it goes. Doctor Who has never tried something like this before.

We also get some more tantalizing clues as to who is in the vault. Thanks to Nardole’s dialogue at the end of the episode, we know that they will be able to sense and exploit the Doctor’s condition, and somehow they pose a threat to, as Nardole puts it, the Doctor’s “precious Earth.” I still think it’s the Master/Missy, but I’m more than willing to be surprised.

So it’s generally a good episode, but, in my opinion, “Oxygen” does something so egregious it’s hard to forgive. It kills Bill in the same manner that the rest of the station’s crew was killed, through the suit she’s forced to wear, but then, through some handwaving nonsense about her suit’s low battery power, brings her back again none the worse for wear. And of course the Doctor claims he knew she wouldn’t really die — although the other crewmembers really are dead, so it’s just Bill who is somehow only fake dead, despite looking and acting exactly like the other bodies. Was she only unconscious? Was she in a coma? Was she hanging on to life by a thread? The script doesn’t bother to explain or elucidate. It’s such a bullshit move it very nearly ruined my enjoyment of the episode as a whole. Either have the courage of your convictions to actually kill her off (which I don’t want them to do, I’m liking Bill) or do something else altogether. But relying “she’s not really dead because of [handwave]” is frustrating and ridiculous.

And now, some Doctor Who neepery! In this episode, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is destroyed by one of the space suits. The screwdriver was destroyed by the baddies before in the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “The Visitation.” A Terileptil blasts it with a weapon, upon which the Doctor states, “I feel as though you’ve just killed an old friend.” In fact, that was the last time we saw the sonic screwdriver during the classic series. After “The Visitation,” the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors all traveled without it. It wouldn’t make a reappearance until the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 TV movie. We also know from the classic series that Time Lords can survive in the vacuum of space longer than humans can, thanks to the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “Four to Doomsday,” in with the Doctor gets stranded briefly in space between an Urbankan spaceship and the TARDIS. (Astonishingly, he bounces a cricket ball off the side of the spaceship, then catches it and uses its momentum to push him the rest of the way to the TARDIS!)

The next episode, “Extremis,” looks interesting, with its Da Vinci Code setup involving Vatican secrets, a book that kills everyone who reads it, the Doctor’s continued blindness, and the possible return of Missy.

 

 

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