I thought Neil Gaiman’s previous episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” was pretty much the highlight of last season. Which is why, I suppose, “Nightmare in Silver” felt like such an enormous letdown. It wasn’t just bad, it was terrible, and it was written by Neil Gaiman, which adds an extra layer of disappointment. Cybermen! The distant future! Warwick Davis in a major supporting role! Neil Gaiman scripting! It should have been magnificent. Instead, it was a litany of squandered opportunities and lazy storytelling that with every instance only made me grow angrier. By the end, I was ready to swear off Doctor Who for good. Because if there’s one thing in the world that turns me into a ridiculous fanboy drama queen these days, it’s how far Doctor Who has fallen in the past three years.
Spoilers follow! Be warned!
What do I mean by squandered opportunities and lazy storytelling? Well, for starters, suddenly Clara’s charges Angie and Artie are traveling in the TARDIS, too. When did that happen? How did Clara bring it up to the Doctor? What was the initial meeting between the Doctor and the children like? We’ll never know because it’s never shown to us. Instead, they’re just there, and as a result some scenes with truly amazing potential are simply skipped over. Instead, we get the children acting like spoiled brats (What? You’ve been to space before?) and then being almost immediately kidnapped. Once the Cyberiad (what?) has them and begins to upgrade them into Cybermen, it tells the Doctor that it needed children to revive the Cybermen, for reasons never actually explained, and the Doctor has brought it children, thereby unwittingly becoming the savior of the Cybermen. Oh no! Except after it claims the children are vitally important, the children do nothing at all. They spend the rest of the time standing around in cyber-comas while the Doctor plays chess with himself. Because nothing is more exciting than watching someone talk to himself while playing chess!
Of course, the whole chess match with the cosmos at stake thing was already done, and done better, in the 1989 Sylvester McCoy 7th Doctor serial “The Curse of Fenric.” Speaking of, “Nightmare in Silver” has a weird atmosphere and tone problem that reminded me a lot of the worst of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years, where everything was either literally or tonally about juvenilia and carnivals gone bad. Here, it’s a far future amusement park, where our heroes decide to hide from the Cybermen in something called Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle. “Does it have a moat and drawbridge?” Clara asks, wondering if it’s a defensible spot. “Yes,” comes the reply, “but…comical.” And when we get to the castle? There’s nothing comical about it. Like, nothing. It’s just a castle. “Squandered opportunity” doesn’t even begin to describe this.
As for lazy storytelling, how about “We’re all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it” being answered with “But wait, I’m secretly the Emperor of the Universe and even though this plot twist was not earned in any way by anything that came before it, I can get us all off the planet before it explodes!” Yes, you read that right. Someone is secretly the Emperor of the Universe and will use that to save everyone at the last minute. No, really. Here’s another example: The same person explains his situation with, essentially, “I didn’t want to be Emperor anymore because it’s so lonely, so I ran away so I could hide inside a box where no one will ever see me and operate a fake Cyberman chess game.” Or how about there not being a smidge of romantic chemistry between Clara and Porridge, what with them having maybe four scenes together, but he asks her to marry him anyway, because Steven Moffat? Or how about the Doctor fixating for a moment on how tight Clara’s skirt is, which is not just lazy storytelling but bad storytelling, since there is not a smidge of romantic chemistry between them, either, no matter how much this show likes to try to force romantic chemistry between the Doctor and his companion. Give it a rest already, people! There’s nothing there!
Once again it’s mentioned that the Doctor has been erasing himself from historical records, and once again it makes zero sense. One might assume the Cyberiad (or the Daleks, or any race, really) has its own memory banks and record books, rather than everyone jacking into the same cloud storage or whatever. So how did the Doctor get into the Cybermen’s memory banks and change it? When did he do that? Did he have to fight or trick his way in? What else did he find in there? Wouldn’t that have been a much more interesting story? You don’t have to answer that last one.
I could go on, but why bother? The episode is crap and I’d rather forget it. Like the worst of the Moffat years, it doesn’t even feel like Doctor Who. It feels like some weird, cheap, tonally deaf mix of Doctor Who and bad SyFy Original Movies. There’s only one episode left this season, plus the 50th Anniversary special in November. If those aren’t any better, I might just finally give up on Doctor Who.
The great Ray Harryhausen passed away Tuesday. He was 92.
I have a lifetime’s worth of fond memories of his work in stop-motion animation: Jason and the Argonauts, the Sinbad trilogy, Clash of the Titans, Mysterious Island, and so many more. He meant the world to me before I even knew his name. I have a feeling it was that way for lots of Monster Kids, who only learned who Harryhausen was years — maybe even decades — after his films had already burned themselves indelibly into their minds.
I loved the sense of awe and wonder that emanated from his best work: Talos the living statue from Jason and the Argonauts, the cyclops vs. dragon fight in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, Medusa in Clash of the Titans, Joe in Mighty Joe Young, the enormous cephalopod in Mysterious Island, the centaur vs. griffin fight in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. God, I could keep listing things until dawn. Everything he created was magic.
The Sinbad movies were my favorite of his oeuvre. (One of my earliest moviegoing memories is of seeing 7th Voyage during an early-1970s re-release at a New York City movie theater with my grandmother and brother. I cried when it was time to leave, because I didn’t want the experience to end.) The Sinbad movies launched a thousand daydreams of my own adventures with magic and monsters, and set me on the path to becoming the writer I am today — a job where I’m allowed to continue those same daydreams. So thank you, Ray Harryhausen, for everything you gave us. They just don’t make movies like yours anymore, and I think we’re all the poorer for it.
After last week’s frustratingly dreadful “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” Doctor Who is back with a much better, much more enjoyable episode: “The Crimson Horror.” Even the title is better!
No spoilers here, but they tend to turn up in comments, so consider yourself forewarned!
“The Crimson Horror” is a very entertaining episode, and it’s probably no coincidence that the Doctor doesn’t even show up until 15 minutes in. I had no idea how much I needed a break from Matt Smith! Well, yes, I did know, at least theoretically, but in practice it works very well. Instead of the usual ham-handed opener of the Doctor and Clara getting lost on the way to somewhere or other (though, rest assured, that scene is shown to us anyway in flashback because WHY), we open with a mystery in Victorian Yorkshire that draws Vastra, Jenny, and Strax to the scene. This threesome, first introduced sans origin story in “A Good Man Goes to War” and reappearing in the most recent Christmas special, “The Snowmen,” provide excellent comic relief (especially Strax, who keeps wanting to blow things up and often mistakenly refers to Jenny as “boy”) and nice stay-at-home companions for the Doctor. I’ve heard there is some fan demand for a spin-off series, but I suspect they work best in small doses as special guest stars. Thirteen episodes of Strax offering to blow something up would get tiresome, I think.
The real meat of the episode, however, comes from Diana Rigg as Winifred Gillyflower and Rigg’s real-life daughter Rachael Stirling as Winifred’s blind daughter Ada. (I’m convinced the scene where Jenny beats up the baddies while wearing a black leather catsuit is a direct homage to Rigg’s Emma Peel days.) With two such amazing actors in the cast, even a terrible script can shine. The script for “The Crimson Horror” isn’t terrible (despite being written by Mark Gatiss, who, after this and “Cold War,” seems to have taken a class on how to write better) but like so many other Doctor Who stories, especially during Steven Moffat’s tenure, it falls apart if you examine the details too closely. I promised no spoilers, but as usual it’s an overcomplicated plot on the part of the baddies that really doesn’t come to much of anything, and also as usual, sadly, Matt Smith goes for comedic mugging in spots where he should be acting with outrage or concern (such as when Ada takes her revenge on Mr. Sweet). Though his Frankenstein’s monster-like performance in his first few minutes onscreen is actually pretty funny. So is the running gag of the fainting client. (The “Thomas Thomas” joke is less so. I mean, is the TomTom GPS so culturally relevant as to warrant a nod?)
There’s a giant missed opportunity here when Jenny and Vastra ask the Doctor how Clara can still be alive. Instead of answering in a way that would let the audience share the Doctor’s sense of irresistible mystery, he pretty much blows off the question. I found that lazy and disappointing. There’s also a coda with Artie and Angie, the children Clara takes care of, that felt forced and didn’t quite work for me. The kids accept the possibility of time travel much too readily.
Ultimately, “The Crimson Horror” isn’t a great episode, nor a bad one. It is funny, thrilling, and entertaining, though, and for Doctor Who in the overcomplicated, overwrought Steven Moffat era, that’s enough for me.
And now, some brief Doctor Who neepery: When the Doctor and Clara leave the TARDIS upon arriving in Yorkshire when he meant to go to London, he mentions he “once spent a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport.” This is a reference to Tegan Jovanka, an Australian stewardess who wandered into the TARDIS in the final Fourth Doctor serial “Logopolis” after the Master killed her aunt, helped the Doctor through his regeneration, and then accompanied the Fifth Doctor for the majority of his adventures. Tegan once described herself as “a mouth on legs,” and indeed she spent most of her time arguing with or yelling at the Doctor. (There’s a story about a young fan asking Peter Davison if the Doctor and Tegan are married because they argue so much.) Tegan was never all that well suited for adventuring — really, she just wanted to get back to Heathrow and resume her work — and whenever danger arose the Doctor would tell her, “Brave heart, Tegan.” That line is echoed in “The Crimson Horror” right after the Heathrow line with “Brave heart, Clara.”
The nominees for the 2012 Shirley Jackson Awards — my favorite literary award for psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic — have been officially announced! And they are:
- The Drowning Girl, Caitlín R. Kiernan (ROC)
- The Devil in Silver, Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
- Edge, Koji Suzuki (Vertical, Inc.)
- Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishers)
- Immobility, Brian Evenson (Tor)
- 28 Teeth of Rage, Ennis Drake (Omnium Gatherum Media)
- Delphine Dodd, S.P. Miskowski (Omnium Gatherum Media)
- I’m Not Sam, Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee (Sinister Grin Press/ Cemetery Dance Publications)
- The Indifference Engine, Project Itoh (Haikasoru/VIZ Media LLC)
- “Sky,” Kaaron Warren (Through Splintered Walls, Twelfth Planet Press)
- “The Crying Child,” Bruce McAllister (originally “The Bleeding Child,” Cemetery Dance #68)
- “The House on Ashley Avenue,” Ian Rogers (Every House is Haunted, ChiZine Publications)
- “Reeling for the Empire,” Karen Russell (Tin House, Winter 2012)
- “Wild Acre,” Nathan Ballingrud (Visions, Fading Fast, Pendragon Press)
- “The Wish Head,” Jeffrey Ford (Crackpot Palace, William Morrow)
- “Bajazzle,” Margo Lanagan (Cracklescape, Twelfth Planet Press)
- “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate,” Dan Chaon (21st Century Dead, St. Martin’s)
- “Little America,” Dan Chaon (Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, William Morrow)
- “The Magician’s Apprentice,” Tamsyn Muir (Weird Tales #359)
- “A Natural History of Autumn,” Jeffrey Ford (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2012)
- “Two Houses,” Kelly Link (Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, William Morrow)
- Crackpot Palace, Jeffrey Ford (William Morrow)
- Errantry, Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer Press)
- The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, Andy Duncan (PS Publishing)
- Remember Why You Fear Me, Robert Shearman (ChiZine Publications)
- The Woman Who Married a Cloud, Jonathan Carroll (Subterranean Press)
- Windeye, Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press)
- 21st Century Dead, edited by Christopher Golden (St. Martin’s)
- Black Wings II, edited by S. T. Joshi (PS Publishing)
- Exotic Gothic 4: Postscripts #28/29, edited by Danel Olson (PS Publishing)
- Night Shadows, edited by Greg Herren and J. M. Redmann (Bold Strokes Books)
- Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle (William Morrow)
Congratulations to all the nominees, but especially to my good friends Victor LaValle, Jack Ketchum, Ian Rogers, Nathan Ballingrud, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Robert Shearman, Christopher Golden, and Mort Castle. Not that I’m playing favorites!
The 2012 Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented on Sunday, July 14th at Readercon 24 in Burlington, Massachusetts and will be hosted by Guest of Honor Maureen McHugh.