Making Peace with Doctor Who Season 8

There’s a moment in the first episode of Season 8 where The Doctor turns to Clara and says: “You can’t see me. You look at me, but you can’t see me.”

Re-watching the episode recently, along with the rest of the eighth season, I felt that line was delivered from Peter Capaldi to me, to the audience, a plea for us to give him a chance, to let go of anything we thought we knew about The Doctor and just see him, see his version of The Doctor, and judge him based solely on that.

I’m glad I gave him that chance, and watched Season 8 all the way through, because Capaldi’s Doctor is in many ways amazing, and very fun to watch.

He’s got the grumpiness I liked from the First Doctor, the alien perspective of the Fourth, and the arrogance of the Third. Those happen to be some of my favorite Doctors, and his blend of their characteristics, combined with his own no-nonsense take, is fantastic.

Capaldi’s no-frills, no apologies, no sentimental nonsense version of The Doctor is a refreshing change after Smith and Tennant. Gone are the dewy pauses and the hand-wringing. Instead, we get a Doctor that doesn’t waste time over the lives he can’t save, not when he can spend that time saving others.

The perfect expression of all this is in the Mummy on the Orient Express episode. The Doctor doesn’t hesitate to use the mummy’s victims to gather all the information he can, asking them question after question even as they’re dying, with no apology for not being able to save them and no comfort offered — save that their answers can help the others escape the same fate. He’s splendidly hard-nosed, which makes his last-minute gamble in directing the mummy away from its next victim and onto himself all the more powerful: you know this is a Doctor that would not put himself in danger lightly.

Granted, in order to enjoy Capaldi’s performance, I had to drop a lot of habits I’ve built up watching the new seasons of Doctor Who. I had to let go of any need for continuity, taking each episode as it came and forgetting anything that had gone before. I also had to drop my need for plausibility in plot and circumstance; most (ok, all) of the episodes contained elements that stretched beyond the merely fantastic and into the completely impossible or nonsensical.

In this, it helped that I’d just come off watching a lot of Classic Doctor Who episodes. The same approach let me enjoy them: don’t worry about continuity, don’t worry about the special effects, don’t worry about the setup making any sort of sense. Just watch The Doctor and his Companion having adventures, enjoy the dialogue, and let your imagination fill in the rest.

Rewatching: The Matrix Trilogy

I was happy to find that the first movie still holds up. I think part of why it works is because it is largely set in a 1999 that is frozen in time. It also helps that the basic structure of the movie is classic: naive youngster is shown a wider world, told of a prophecy where they will save the world, then begins to fulfill that prophecy.

The relative roles of the other main characters in the story bothered me this time, though, where they didn’t before. Morpheus is still amazing, but step back a bit and he’s one more wise black man guiding a white kid to a greatness that he can’t achieve. Trinity kicks ass, but squint and she’s a kung-fu wielding female who’s only there to fall in love with and support the male hero. For a film set in the future with a nominal theme of breaking down mental boundaries, these elements feel distinctly old and out of place.

The second and third movies are still complete failures, though. I enjoyed the second movie at the time, and remember hating the third one along with everyone else. But rewatching them showed me how much the two final films are really one film, and it’s not a good one.

I think a large part of the problem with the last two movies is that they violate the narrative expectations set by the first movie. The trilogy sequence setup in The Matrix was: a nobody becomes special (first film), then learns more about their specialness (second film), then pursues and achieves the mission for which they became special (third film).

But they skipped the second step, and padded the third step out over two movies. Mistake.

There’s a whole chunk of story missing, where we’d normally see Neo rescuing people from the Matrix — maybe getting frustrated that he can’t convince more people it’s fake? — and learning about what he can and can’t do. For example, he can’t do the Keymaker’s trick with doors: if we saw other people do it for an entire movie, but didn’t know how they were doing it, the Keymaker reveal would have a lot more punch.

Skipping that piece of the story prevents us from watching Neo learn and grow, and drops an opportunity to deepen the characterization of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar along the way.

Given the current structure — and the large narrative hole in it — the last 2 movies should have been compressed into one. Cut out Zion, the attack on Zion subplot, the scenes with the last stand on the docks, etc. Stick to the thread of Neo and his crew chasing down the Keymaker and getting to the Source, then Neo taking a ship to the Machine City and ending the war.

Everything else — the machines attacking the docks, the sabotage of the ships by the Smith-infested human — can come to us as reports that Morpheus relays to the crew. This lets us keep the focus on Neo’s story, since we don’t have time to give the other plots and characters their due. Trying to squeeze them in — like the second and third films do — weakens Neo’s plot and doesn’t deliver any emotional heft. There’s simply not enough screen time.

The best course would have been to make the second bridging movie that’s missing, and then made the trimmed down third movie to wrap it up. Instead, we get one and a half good movies: the original Matrix, and the half a movie buried inside the latter two.

Re-Watching: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

As I thought watching the first one, this sequel is a better movie in all respects: a better villain, with a better plot, and with better companions for Watson and Holmes.

In particular, I think this movie handles Holmes’ sacrifice at the Falls perfectly. Using Holmes’ calculated-combat trick here is sheer mastery: we get a physical climax which is reflective of the combatant’s mental sparring — especially when Moriarty gets into the act — and we still get the proper climax of Holmes throwing himself off the falls, legs wrapped around Moriarty, sacrificing himself for the greater good. The fact that we haven’t seen Holmes’ calculated combat since the start of the movie lends this scene extra weight; we’ve been waiting for them to repeat the gimmick from the first movie, so this is a payoff on multiple levels.

Altogether I think Jared Harris makes a brilliant Moriarty, easily my favorite on film, and second only to the portrayal of Moriarty in tv’s Elementary. He’s threatening and clever and cultured, all at once, with a calm exterior that belies a rage bubbling up underneath. He’s not surrounded by stupid minions that have to be cursed every five minutes, he’s surrounded himself with other master criminals, all working to implement his well-thought-out schemes. I don’t think he raises his voice once in the movie, and yet everything he says feels like the important words of a powerful man.

As for the other rough edges from the first movie — the extended action sequences and Irene Adler — those have been polished out.

Adler’s death early on removes a weak actor while lending Holmes’ character more depth and giving him — and therefore us — a personal stake in what had been, till then, a very abstract criminal plot.

The extended mass fight pieces have been entirely cut. We get one acrobatic sequence with Holmes, Madam Simza, and the Cossack, and then the flight sequence where everyone is fleeing the factory. But neither of these degenerate into the general face-punch-kick-ouch-hold-turn-kick tedium from the first movie. The flight sequence in particular is a fantastic use of slow-down effects and running the actors at a different speed from their surroundings to give us a good sense of what’s happening and convey some of the otherwordliness of being on the receiving end of an artillery barrage in that era.

Re-watching: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Recently re-watched Sherlock Holmes, the first of the two Guy Ritchie movies with Robert Downey, Jr as the famous fictional detective. I’ve seen both movies multiple times, but on this re-watch several things struck me that I hadn’t noticed before:

  • Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler is the weakest part of the movie. Her acting doesn’t hold up very well – especially compared to the actress who played Irene Adler for the recent Sherlock TV series – but within the film itself she seems stiff and dull compared to the performers around her. I came away with a greater feel for Mary – Watson’s fiancée – as a character than Adler, which is perhaps why McAdams was dropped so early in the sequel, while Kelly Reilly’s Mary got a larger role.
  • The villain is entirely wrong. He was cast incorrectly, coming off as cartoonish and silly rather than threatening. The whole occult mis-drection angle is outside the mood of a Sherlock mystery, and clashes with the otherwise steampunk-lite industrial trappings of the movie. It’s a constant distraction to be rolling my eyes every time the villain shows up and starts mumbling about hexes and spells.
  • The action sequences where we see Holmes calculate each move in advance are still amazing. They make what would be standard – and therefore boring – fight sequences interesting again, giving us insight into how much calculation Holmes puts into every part of his life, and completely justifying the film’s emphasis on more physical roles for both Holmes and Watson.
  • In comparison, the extended action scenes toward the end of the movie – shots fired, martial arts employed, multiple fights going on at once – just seem busy, and not that interesting. They don’t have any of the comedy or setting interest that the first fight sequence between Holmes and Dredger has, nor do they use the Holmes-fight-calculation technique that made the other fights interesting to watch (would it have been so bad to show Adler or Watson trying to do the same fight planning during this sequence?).

Overall, still a good movie, and an interesting take on the Holmesian mythos, but with some glaring flaws. As I recall it, the second movie fixed these mistakes and kept what worked from the first film, making it the better movie. I’ll have to re-watch it soon to check if that still holds true.