Monday, 26 June 2017
Doctor Who: World Enough and Time (Episode Review)
Welcome to your latest episode of Doctor Who, the show where a Time Lord must veer and navigate his way around the growing plot holes in the universe. That would be a joke, but it's sadly reached the point here where it's next to impossible to actually ignore just how many of them there are. In a script like World Enough and Time, something which had the potential to easily be the kind of smart, interesting and high concept story which made the modern series great, getting it right should have been easy. Yet, the kind of addiction to complexity which has marred the later years of Moffat's run rears its head again, so at one point you're starting to admire some of the ideas behind it, only to be left bashing your head against a wall in the very next moment.
The story here is one the series has - supposedly - been building towards for some time now. Missy has been released from captivity and is being given the chance to prove that she is capable of good by resolving a crisis situation on another vessel. Tumbling into a black hole, time has been warped with one end of the ship travelling faster than the other. With most of the crew missing and thousands of unknown figures now stalking its decks, things are only made worse when Bill is taken captive by a very old enemy of the Doctor, and held in a nightmarish hospital...
Even the worst two-parters of this era always made the point of raising interesting questions, or at least fun possibilities for great stories. That's the case here again, and the actual use of time dilation as the cause of the ship's major problems is a big mark in its favour. It's not immediately clear just what has happened, but enough information is offered that a smart viewer can pick up on the situation before the facts are fully laid out. The actual initial execution of the tale's staging elements, the subjects and ideas which gradually establishes the story, are also well executed as you start to see just where and how things are going horribly wrong. This relates as much to the Doctor and his companions as the bigger picture on hand, with some interesting glimpses of world-building and a very Warhammer 40,000-esque setting showing up.
The actual situation Bill finds herself in is also a good one, as she is trapped at one end of the ship while the Doctor and his companions are at the other. As such, ten minutes for them is almost three years for her, and we do get glimpses of her adapting and being forced to work in a hellish environment. Well sort of, we'll get back to that point, but it's at least enough to show her settling in for a long wait and almost starting to accept her home, as she follows the Doctor's subconscious order. Yet, that is ultimately what ends up damning her here, and the gradual hellish transformation of all present around her - and the fact it is done seemingly out of necessity - is also a terrifying strength of the story. The people there seemingly have no other choice but adapt to their environment, no matter the cost.
Naturally, as you might imagine, that point above this ties into the Cybermen themselves. The BBC heavily promoted the presence of the original Cybermen in its material, and they have shown up in everything from magazine covers to major trailers. Being the original set from the 1960s, with only just a few general upgrades in places, you would expect them to look and seem ridiculous. Well, that's true, they are, but the story is good enough to twist that element into a strength. There's an odd charm to their makeshift design, from the bulky chest piece to the lack of armour on the head, and even the eerily human hands. They generally look like something which was made from makeshift parts in the name of survival above all else, and were built out of pragmatism rather than simply to destroy an enemy, and this manages to make them oddly more terrifying than even the much more advanced designs.
World Enough and Time also pairs up the Cybermen's archaic look with a number of new, quite horrifying, additions from a detail surrounding just what the handlebars were actually for initially to the cloth faces. They're the result of years of medical treatments, and we see many of the early stages which led to their creation. Each is horrific, looking like something out of a more PG rated Silent Hill and you are always painfully aware of just how human they are. There's no brief illusion that these are robots, and even the sing-song voices have a very sinister edge to them. It's honestly an incredibly effective execution of something from the Classic series which could have so very easily torpedoed this entire story.
The cinematography is top notch and the depiction of the environment via so few very limited scenes is a new benchmark for the series. There were few times when the sets themselves seemed artificially limited or restricted to a single location, and what little is glimpsed of the world beyond is grimy and failing. It's exactly the sort of place you would't want to be, the kind of hellish failing environment which makes Blade Runner's Earth look good, establishing the hellish hospital as a safe haven.
The actual presence of the Master here is interesting, as it's very much a throwback to an old classic series mark of the character. While we ultimately see little of him, there are very strong suggestions here which work in favour of the character. How much behind the scenes influence he has had on the Cybermen, just what he has been doing or even how he has gotten there are all engaging questions, and there's even value to be found in re-watching the story to pick up on a few points. Plus it helps that John Simm is playing him more along the lines of Anthony Ainley and less Joker this time around, where he does display a bit more menace over gibbering madness.
The plot holes. There are some very, very big ones here which you can pick up on even if you're not trying to watch for them. Almost all of these link back to the time dilation element of the story, starting with how Bill herself was kidnapped. A group which are not only kept under guard and on life support are capable of making a seemingly deadly journey up to the other end of the ship, but they do so within a minute or two of detecting new arrivals. Keep in mind, this should take them months if not years to do so, and to grab one person is bizarre bordering upon insane. It also undermines the whole "exodus" angle which keeps bring brought up with the Cybermen, pushing the conversion angle to try and claim that they all need to be transformed to make the journey, only for the opening scenes to show that they can easily pull it off. Yes, some of this could be answered in the next episode, but that seems unlikely.
In that, that's a big problem with the story on the whole. Like so many past releases, it's all questions and no answers, leaving everything for what might follow. In most tales this might be okay, but given the track record of these finales, that seems unlikely. This is also paired up with the writer's need to be complex for complexity's sake and, as a result, sadly making it much weaker overall. The time dilation element is an interesting twist and showing her slowly adapting to her environment is a nice twist. The problem is that there's nothing else done with it. She waits, keeps waiting, speaks with a few people, and that's it. This is no The Girl Who Waited, as it honestly does little to nothing with the idea save for building up the Cybermen over time. If the TARDIS crew had started at the other end of the ship, it could have saved time, allowed for a more focused story, and showed off more of the makeshift city as a whole with little lost.
In fact, even the main impact of the Cybemen is downplayed. They're present for a shock ending and the initial stages of being built up are genuinely great, but there's little done to properly explore their presence here. There's no effort to land on the world, give a story about how their presence has impacted society or even the sort of situation which desperately required they be made. This is something the classic show has often outdone the new one on, to the point where I can stop and point to a tale which did this perfectly - Spare Parts. A Cyberman audio set in Mondas' early days with the Fifth Doctor arriving there to uncover no end of cybernetic nightmares on the failing world. The problem is we might have lost that one thanks to this now being presented as the true "Genesis of the Cybermen", undermining the whole angle that the audio dramas are largely in continuity with the show.
The whole cleverness issue keeps rising again and again, where the episode will opt for spectacle and impact over actual logical storytelling, or even sticking to previously established points. Throughout their history, even in their very first appearance, the Cybermen have stated that they feel no pain, yet here it tries to claim that they simply don't care about it. You can call this a minor thing, but it's one of a multitude of points where the story throws things in purely for their own sake, but all without ever bothering to actually have it work within the greater narrative or have any meaning within the story itself. This even extends to the very idea that the colony ship itself was the start, which undermines the tragedy of Mondas' fate. The whole original idea was that Mondas' out-of-control flight from the solar system rendered it so increasingly uninhabitable that the very mentality behind the Cybermen was brought about thanks to necessity over actual choice. Here, it just seems that a few people did it on one ship out of necessity, an then promptly flew back to Mondas and did it there because they could. After all, if the planet is good enough to be sending off colony ships and accepting intergalactic travelers, it can't be that bad off, can it?
Even if you ignore the plot holes or the episode wasting its potential of exploring the setting, there is no denying that the story is simply dragging its feet and fails to make use of what it has on hand. This goes for the characters, where it limits their presence or even their intended use. Missy, for example, is stuck making fun of the story (and trying to drive the fans insane) for a few minutes before she fades almost entirely into the background, and it seems that the script has no idea what to do with anyone besides Bill and to a much lesser extent the Doctor himself. Yes, you can blame the time dilation for this issue, but that comes down more to the problem of failing to make use of a good idea over it actually limiting the involvement of their best actors.
Plus, if we're going to be honest, there's a lot of stuff being recycled here in terms of storytelling. Stop and compare this with Dark Water and you'll see more than a few very, very similar staging elements and ideas cropping up.
Upon first viewing this one seemed okay on the whole. Despite the insane contradictions to Spare Parts, there was a decent sense of purpose to the events at first, but when you actually sit down and start to consider how it all plays out, you realise how little sense was made and how much was wasted. Even without getting into the whole issue surrounding the opening scene depicting the regeneration, and all the drama related issues that causes, the episode defeats itself so often that you are effectively required not to think about anything that is going on in order to enjoy it.
Perhaps next week's finale will resolve all of this, but unless we see a lot of answers and a massive up-swing in coherent storytelling, that seems unlikely.