On TV: ‘Doctor Who: Into the Dalek’

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Into the Dalek” was weaker than the season opener of “Doctor Who.”

The Daleks are headline bad guys in the fiction of “Doctor Who,” but there hasn’t been a good Dalek story since “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End,” the two-part capper to Series 4. There they were scary and deadly, nearly indestructible.

doctor_who_series_8_ep2___into_the_dalek_poster_by_umbridge1986-d7wlzogBut in the era of show runner Steven Moffat, the Daleks blow up like Christmas crackers. Sometimes they serve tea to Winston Churchill during World War II (“Victory of the Daleks“) and often they’re getting run over by a flying TARDIS (“Day of the Doctor.”)

This time, a Dalek has gotten sick. And now it’s a good guy. It sees its own race as a terrible, destructive force that must be stopped. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) arrives. He’s miniaturized with a couple soldiers and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and they journey inside the Dalek, a direct rip off of “Fantastic Voyage,” which the Doctor references either in homage or apology.

Capaldi is still a master craftsman. He renders his Doctor as harsh, detached and rude. He delivers sharp, staccato and sometimes ruthlessly funny dialogue as if the episode were written by Aaron Sorkin.

But the Doctor is the hero of this piece. Much of the time, though, he’s an ass. He’s so much of an ass that Clara properly slaps him.

The Doctor and crew repair the Dalek, which promptly turns evil and starts killing all the regular-sized people in the spaceship. Clara convinces the Doctor to try and get the Dalek to be good. He tries, but the Dalek, whom the Doctor calls “Rusty,” looks into the Doctor’s soul and sees beauty, divinity and hatred — especially for the Daleks.

Rusty murders his Dalek compatriots and pledges to return to the Dalek ship to do more murdering. The Doctor is sullen, realizing his own hatred has fueled more killing.

One character whom we scarcely meet, sacrifices herself to aid Clara and the Doctor inside the Dalek. The woman, Gretchen, reappears in the mysterious “heaven” — the same spot where the Two-Headed Man popped up at the end of the season opener — in time for tea with the equally baffling, Missy, a plot thread to be picked up later, one supposes.

Another character, Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton), asks to join the Doctor in his travels. He says no, because she’s a soldier and apparently he doesn’t like soldiers anymore. He spent years working with the Brigadier, but he’s dead now. So it is a mystery for another episode, too.

We also meet Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). He teaches at the school with Clara. He was a soldier and the experience has made him very sad. He and Clara decide to go out for drinks.

The special effects, which have generally been very strong in the revived series, were dodgy in this. When the Doctor confronts the one-eyed biological mass at the heart of Rusty, it looks like the kind of rubbish green screen work one would expect from “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and not one of the most successful programs on BBC.

I’m still enjoying Capaldi’s Doctor, even if he is cruel and distant. And even a below-average episode of “Doctor Who” is still better than most of the dreck on my idiot box.

But it was disappointing. For having a new Doctor in only his second full episode, it felt very much like I had seen most of this before.

Great Paragraphs: On eyebrows and Scots

It’s all right up until the eyebrows. Then it goes haywire. Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle tops off with these. They’re cross! They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross! They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own state of eyebrows! … That’s Scot! I’m Scottish. I’ve gone Scottish. Oh, no, that’s good. Oh. It’s good I’m Scottish. I’m Scottish. I can complain about things. I can really complain about things now.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), “Deep Breath

On TV: Peter Capaldi shines in ‘Doctor Who’ Series 8 premier

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Peter Capaldi makes a magnificent debut in the title role of “Doctor Who.” While predecessors Matt Smith and David Tennant, and to a lesser extent Christopher Eccleston, hid their menace behind cheerful, boyish faces, Capaldi lets his rage and anguish boil right on the top.

The departure is wonderful. Capaldi’s Doctor is fierce, feisty and quarrelsome. He calls Earth the “plant of the pudding brains.” His catchphrase seems to be “Shut up!” He isn’t afraid to be harshly critical of dainty Clara (Jenna Coleman), who had a flirtatious relationship with Smith’s Doctor.

Doctor_Who_diamond_logo_by_gfoyleThe story, “Deep Breath,” is more character building than adventure. The straightforward approach, though, is welcome. The Doctor is discombobulated after his regeneration. The TARDIS crash lands in Victorian London, accidentally dragging a Tyrannosaurus Rex into the future.

The trio of detectives — ancient Silurian lizard Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and the dim-witted, dome-headed Strax (Dan Starkey), a Sontaran warrior turned nurse and carriage driver — arrive to find the Doctor confused and helpless.

Clara is angry with the Doctor because he can’t remember her name and has somehow turned into an older man, with gray hair and a wrinkled face. Vastra confronts Clara on her vanity and suppositions about the true nature of the Doctor.

Vastra supposes the Doctor has worn the face of a younger man to gain acceptance in a world that would reject him. Clara rumples at this, but the truth of it damning. Clara is just as shallow as the rest of us humans.

And the boyish face of the Doctor made her feel beautiful and wonderful as they shared adventures. But the face of a codger throws off the dynamic and the bubbling romantic feelings she denied having now have nowhere to go.

“Deep Breath” is excellently written by show runner Steven Moffat. He and Capaldi have a delightful time describing his new face, in terms both sad and farcical. Capaldi delivers a rant about his own eyebrows that is uproariously funny. He follows that with a delightful celebration of his own Scottish heritage. It’s a high point in the episode.

Another great moment comes when Clara and the Doctor meet in a restaurant and bicker over who is vain, manipulative and self-centered. The back-and-forth is, at times, harsh. The Doctor uses a hair he rudely plucks from Clara’s head to discover they’re surrounded by killer robots. Clara protests. The Doctor snaps, “Sorry, it was the only one that was place. I’m sure that you would want it killed.”

I think that was the moment I fell in love with Capaldi’s Doctor.

The new Doctor is rougher. At one point, when he and Clara attempt to escape killer robots, she is trapped. The Doctor attempts to raise the door she’s stuck behind but stops. “Sorry, no point in us both getting caught.” She pleads with him to give her his sonic screwdriver. “I might need it.” Then he wanders off, leaving Clara to fend for herself.

It’s a cruel act and my heart sank when he did it, but it was yet more beautiful writing. Our hero is the same hero, only completely different. Clara, left to fend for herself, learns lessons taught her by the Doctor and her own life as a schoolteacher to keep the villain at bay and doling out information.

The Doctor, of course, rescues her with the help of Vastra, Jenny and Strax. And he is beginning to sound like he knows who he is, threatening to destroy the robots’ power source if he sees “one thing I don’t like. And that includes karaoke and mimes, so take no chances.”

The Doctor goes to confront the villain, a robot who has become more man than machine. And a cold, calculating moment, the Doctor sits at a table and pours two drinks. The machine man asks what he’s doing. The Doctor replies, “I’ve got the horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you. I thought you might appreciate a drink first.”

The villain is defeated, of course. The day is saved.

Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor admits he’s made many mistakes in his 2,000-year life. “Clara,” he says directly, “I’m not your boyfriend.” She protests, as women do, that she never said he was. The Doctor, politely replies, “I never said it was your mistake.”

Clara decides she can’t handle the new, darker Doctor. But she receives a phone call on her mobile. It’s Matt Smith’s Doctor moments before his regeneration on Trenzalore. He pleads with Clara to help his future self.

The Capaldi Doctor is saddened that Clara cannot see him for the man he is beyond his features. She softens and hugs him. She decides to stay, at least for now. And the two friends go off for coffee.

Capaldi’s delivery is wonderful. He fully and masterfully embodies one of the biggest characters in all of television and genre fiction. He is what the Doctor always needs to be: the most interesting man in the universe.

Morning Mixtape: ‘In The Year 2525′ By Zager And Evans

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My friend Jessica and I were driving home from a late dinner at Perkins when Prince’s “1999” came on the radio station. I recalled how far away the year 1999 seemed when we were children. Now 1999 is 15 years in the past and the song itself is some 32 years old. She asked me if there were any hit songs that mentioned future dates that hadn’t passed yet. The only one I could think of was then 1969 record “In The Year 2525” by Zager and Evans, a group from Lincoln, Nebraska. This song is a bit of a downer, though it’s quite melodic. Most science fiction, even pop music, imagines things will end badly for the human race. That’s probably why I like the optimism of “Doctor Who” so much. I recall the revived series’ second episode when the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) chided Rose (Billie Piper): “You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you’re gonna get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Like maybe you survive.” Enjoy this song and, for the matter, enjoy today. Tomorrow might be a bit of a bummer if Zager and Evans are correct.