The Things You Find on Netflix: The Serpent (dir by Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots)

Some shows require a bit of patience on the part of the viewer and that’s certainly the case with The Serpent, an uneven but ultimately rewarding 8-episode British miniseries that can currently be viewed on Netflix.

The Serpent tells the true story of Charles Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim), a career criminal who spent the 70s smuggling diamonds and killing hippies. Living in Bangkok, Sobhraj and his two associates — his French-Canadian lover, Marie-Andree LeClerc (Jenna Coleman) and his henchman, Ajay (Amesh Edireweera) — preyed on travelers who had come to Asia in search of adventure and sometimes enlightenment. Using the name Alain, Sobhraj would befriend his victims and then drug them. When they were violently ill, he would nurse them back to health. He would also steal their money, use their passports, and he ultimately killed a huge number of them. Sobhraj was a serial killer but, unlike other serial killers, he didn’t kill for pleasure as much as he just killed because it was a part of his business. Sobhraj was also frequently described as being charming and witty, a sort of real-life Bond villain. When he was captured, he would inevitably find a way to escape. When he had finished serving his sentences, he would go to the media and give self-promoting interviews. Indeed, his need for notoriety would ultimately be his downfall.

It’s an interesting tale but it’s also not an easy one to break down into a collection of easy story beats. Sobhraj committed so many crimes and victimized so many different people in so many different countries that it’s hard to know where to ever start with him. The Serpent focuses on the time Sobhraj spent in Bangkok and the efforts of a Dutch diplomat named Herman (Billy Howle) and his wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), to prove Sobhraj’s guilt and to bring some justice to his countless victims. Working with Herman and Angela are a cynical Belgian named Paul Seimons (Tim McInnerny) and, ultimately, Sorbhaj’s French neighbors, Nadine (Mathilde Warnier) and Remi (Grégoire Isvarine). Throughout the film, we get to know not only Sobhraj’s gang and the people investigating him but also Sobhraj’s victims, the majority of whom were just happy to see a seemingly helpful and friendly face in an unknown land.

As I said, The Serpent requires some patience. The show makes heavy use of flashbacks, continually going back and forth from Sobhraj first meeting his associates and his victims and Herman and Angela investigating his crimes months later. Especially during the first two episodes, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening in the past and what’s happening in the show’s present. As the series progresses it becomes easier to follow the plot and the show’s flashback structure actually starts to pay off. You find yourself watching the same scene a second or a third (or even a fourth time) but this time, you have new information and what once seemed odd or obscure suddenly makes terrifying sense. The show’s third episode — which deals with a French tourist (Fabien Frankel, giving a harrowing performance) who finds himself practically a prisoner of Sobhraj and his associates — is especially powerful and suspenseful. It’s the type of thing that will make you wonder about every time a stranger has ever offered to help you out. At its best, The Serpent is a hell of a paranoia generator.

The show divides it’s attention between Sobhraj and Herman. That Herman becomes obsessed with capturing Sobhraj and understanding his crimes is not surprising. That often happens to amateur sleuths. (Michelle McNamara’s self-destructive obsession with the Golden State Killer comes to mind.) Unfortunately, as played by Billy Howle, Herman comes across as being slightly unhinged before he even starts investigating the murders and, as such, we’re kind of left wondering whether it’s his obsession that’s destroying his career or just his own self-righteous personality. As for Tahar Rahim, it took me a few episodes to really appreciate his performance. At first, Rahim’s performance seemed almost too restrained for a character who was charismatic enough to fool an untold number of victims into trusting him. But, as the series progressed, I came to see that Rahim was essentially playing Sobhraj as being an empty but attractive vessel, someone upon whom his eventual victims could project their desires. For those who wanted a lover, Sobhraj projected charm and sensuality. For those who wanted a friend, Sobhraj projected compassion. But, ultimately, it was all projection because there was nothing going on underneath the surface. Sobhraj knew how to manipulate humans but he didn’t know to actually be one.

For me, the series was pretty much stolen by Jenna Coleman, Ellie Bamber, and Mathilde Warnier. Coleman, especially, does a good job of playing Marie-Andree. It’s easy to just say that Marie-Andree was brainwashed by Sobhraj but Coleman suggests that Marie-Andree knew exactly who and what Sobhraj was but chose to pretend otherwise because the glamorous fantasy of their life was preferable to the drab reality of her life back in Quebec. Mathilde Warnier is the story’s often unacknowledged hero, as she repeatedly puts her life in danger to find and photograph evidence of Sobhraj’s crimes. She’s at the center of the majority of The Serpent‘s most suspenseful moments. Ellie Bamber, meanwhile, brings Angela to likable life despite the fact that the script often seems to be trying to sabotage her by giving her some of the show’s worst lines. (In real life, Angela played as active a role in investigating Sobhraj as her husband. In the show, though, Angela is often just portrayed as being wearily supportive even as she worries about Herman’s growing obsession.)

That said, the heart of the show is with Sobhraj’s victims, all of whom are portrayed with more compassion and respect than one typically expects from a true crime series. All of them, from the American girl looking for one night of fun before becoming a nun to the Danish tourists who make the mistake of trusting Sobhraj and Marie-Andree, are portrayed with compassion. Your heart breaks for them and also for what their deaths represent. All of them are too trusting. All of them are, in the beginning, too naïve. All of them are looking for something more than what they had in the boring safety of their old lives. In the end, their murders represent the death of innocence.

As I said, The Serpent requires some patience but it’s ultimately more than worth watching.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Alice Through The Looking Glass, Gods of Egypt, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Me Before You, Mother’s Day, Risen

Here are six mini-reviews of six films that I saw in 2016!

Alice Through The Looking Glass (dir by James Bobin)

In a word — BORING!

Personally, I’ve always thought that, as a work of literature, Through The Looking Glass is actually superior to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  That’s largely because Through The Looking Glass is a lot darker than Wonderland and the satire is a lot more fierce.  You wouldn’t know that from watching the latest film adaptation, though.  Alice Through The Looking Glass doesn’t really seem to care much about the source material.  Instead, it’s all about making money and if that means ignoring everything that made the story a classic and instead turning it into a rip-off of every other recent blockbuster, so be it.  At times, I wondered if I was watching a film based on Lewis Carroll or a film based on Suicide Squad.  Well, regardless, the whole enterprise is way too cynical to really enjoy.

(On the plus side, the CGI is fairly well-done.  If you listen, you’ll hear the voice of Alan Rickman.)

Gods of Egypt (dir by Alex Proyas)

I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to describing the plot of Gods of Egypt.  This was one of the most confusing films that I’ve ever seen but then again, I’m also not exactly an expert when it comes to Egyptian mythology.  As far as I could tell, it was about Egyptian Gods fighting some sort of war with each other but I was never quite sure who was who or why they were fighting or anything else.  My ADHD went crazy while I was watching Gods of Egypt.  There were so much plot and so many superfluous distractions that I couldn’t really concentrate on what the Hell was actually going on.

But you know what?  With all that in mind, Gods of Egypt is still not as bad as you’ve heard.  It’s a big and ludicrous film but ultimately, it’s so big and so ludicrous that it becomes oddly charming.  Director Alex Proyas had a definite vision in mind when he made this film and that alone makes Gods of Egypt better than some of the other films that I’m reviewing in this post.

Is Gods of Egypt so bad that its good?  I wouldn’t necessarily say that.  Instead, I would say that it’s so ludicrous that it’s unexpectedly watchable.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (dir by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan)

Bleh.  Who cares?  I mean, I hate to put it like that but The Huntsman: Winter’s War felt pretty much like every other wannabe blockbuster that was released in April of last year.  Big battles, big cast, big visuals, big production but the movie itself was way too predictable to be interesting.

Did we really need a follow-up to Snow White and The Huntsman?  Judging by this film, we did not.

Me Before You (dir by Thea Sharrock)

Me Before You was assisted suicide propaganda, disguised as a Nicolas Sparks-style love story.  Emilia Clarke is hired to serve as a caregiver to a paralyzed and bitter former banker played by Sam Claflin.  At first they hate each other but then they love each other but it may be too late because Claflin is determined to end his life in Switzerland.  Trying to change his mind, Clarke tries to prove to him that it’s a big beautiful world out there.  Claflin appreciates the effort but it turns out that he really, really wants to die.  It helps, of course, that Switzerland is a really beautiful and romantic country.  I mean, if you’re going to end your life, Switzerland is the place to do it.  Take that, Sea of Trees.

Anyway, Me Before You makes its points with all the subtlety and nuance of a sledge-hammer that’s been borrowed from the Final Exit Network.  It doesn’t help that Clarke and Claflin have next to no chemistry.  Even without all the propaganda, Me Before You would have been forgettable.  The propaganda just pushes the movie over the line that separates mediocre from terrible.

Mother’s Day (dir by Garry Marshall)

Y’know, the only reason that I’ve put off writing about how much I hated this film is because Garry Marshall died shortly after it was released and I read so many tweets and interviews from people talking about what a nice and sincere guy he was that I actually started to feel guilty for hating his final movie.

But seriously, Mother’s Day was really bad.  This was the third of Marshall’s holiday films.  All three of them were ensemble pieces that ascribed a ludicrous amount of importance to one particular holiday.  None of them were any good, largely because they all felt like cynical cash-ins.  If you didn’t see Valentine’s Day, you hated love.  If you didn’t see New Year’s Eve, you didn’t care about the future of the world.  And if you didn’t see Mother’s Day … well, let’s just not go there, okay?

Mother’s Day takes place in Atlanta and it deals with a group of people who are all either mothers or dealing with a mother.  The ensemble is made up of familiar faces — Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, and others! — but nobody really seems to be making much of an effort to act.  Instead, they simple show up, recite a few lines in whatever their trademark style may be, and then cash their paycheck.  The whole thing feels so incredibly manipulative and shallow and fake that it leaves you wondering if maybe all future holidays should be canceled.

I know Garry Marshall was a great guy but seriously, Mother’s Day is just the worst.

(For a far better movie about Mother’s Day, check out the 2010 film starring Rebecca De Mornay.)

Risen (dir by Kevin Reynolds)

As far as recent Biblical films go, Risen is not that bad.  It takes place shortly after the Crucifixion and stars Joseph Fiennes as a Roman centurion who is assigned to discover why the body of Jesus has disappeared from its tomb.  You can probably guess what happens next.  The film may be a little bit heavy-handed but the Roman Empire is convincingly recreated, Joseph Fiennes gives a pretty good performance, and Kevin Reynolds keeps the action moving quickly.  As a faith-based film that never becomes preachy, Risen is far superior to something like God’s Not Dead 2.



Trash TV Guru : “The Time Of The Doctor” — The 2013 “Doctor Who” Christmas Special


I highly recommend that you remember this moment , not just because it’s Christmas (for a few more hours, at any rate) and that’s always (hopefully) nice — oh, and Happy Holidays to you all, by the way ( just out of curiosity, does me saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” mean I’ve picked a side in the imaginary “War on Christmas” cooked up by Fox “news”?) — but because, for once, yours truly is genuinely at a loss for words.

I know, I know — me not having an opinion (or keeping it to myself if I do have one) is something a lot of people have been waiting a long time for. Consider it my Christmas gift to all of you, then. I just wish I knew  why I didn’t have much to say. It’s not that the finale of the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who, the just-concluded (here in the US, at any rate) “The Time Of The Doctor” was so awesome that it left me speechless. Nor is it the case that it was so lousy that I have no idea where to begin cataloging its list of atrocities. It’s just — shit, I dunno.  And like I said, that’s the problem.

Look, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that I was more than ready for the Eleventh (or should that be Twelfth? Or even Thirteenth?) Doctor to be done. I thought Smith and series head honcho Steven Moffat got off to an interesting, if wildly uneven, start back in 2009 with the fifth season of Who 2.0, but that the show itself, and Smith’s character, have been pretty stagnant and predictable ever since. Change, my dear, as the Sixth Doctor might say, is coming not a moment too soon — I just hope it’s not too late, ya know? Because I could seriously use something to shake me out of my full-time state of disinterested ambivalence in regards to my favorite show ever, and I’m sincerely hoping that Peter Capaldi is it. He makes a nice first (okay, second) appearance at the tail end here and my optimism got a shot in the arm just seeing the guy but, as with all things, time will tell.

Beyond that,  though, well — I guess this episode was okay enough for what it was, but considering that three-plus years have been leading up to this one story, it all seemed a bit flat to me. And the pacing was a fucking mess. And the direction by Jamie Payne seemed listless and uninspired. And Moffat’s script was all over the map. And — well, let’s not kid ourselves, it may not have been an un-watchable disaster, but it wasn’t exactly good, either, was it?


I’m well aware that the very nature of these “big event” specials makes them something of a bitch to write, and that Moff’s bound to feel obligated to throw everything and the kitchen sink into the works here, so to that end we’ve got Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, the Silence (though, curiously, no River Song, guess once she and the Doctor got married Moffat had no further use for her) — even that crack in the wall comes back out of nowhere and hangs around for over 300 years in the town of Christmas, on planet Trenzalore.

Yup, after saying he was headed home at the end of The Day Of The Doctor, it ends up that the Doctor, Clara in tow, is headed for Trenzalore after all. Where he generally stands around doing nothing for centuries while the people in the village around him are blown to smithereens. They all, apparently, love him to pieces even though he’s responsible for bringing all this trouble down on their heads in the first place, but maybe they’re just all stupid or something. I’m not gonna hold that against them.  After all, it’s Christmas.

Anyway, there’s a transmission from Gallifrey coming through the other side of the crack, apparently the Time Lords are itching to break back into our universe from whatever other one they’re in, and all they need is for the supposedly-age-old question of “Doctor — who?” to finally be answered, and they’re in. Don’t ask me how that works. Or why this is the place where it has to happen. Or why they’re not all trapped in a painting as appeared to be the case last time around. I. Just. Don’t. Know.


do know that the Doctor’s best friend in his three-century exile on Trenzalore is a disembodied Cyber-head, and that there’s a wooden Cyberman he fights that looks pretty cool, and that Clara pops up a couple more times as the Doctor ages, and that very little of the Eleventh Doctor’s “life” has been seen on screen which means Big Finish and BBC Books and the like can have all kinds of fun filling in the gaps over the next x-number of years, and that the “big battle” that promised “silence will fall” ends up being a big stalemate and that this story doesn’t make much sense from word “go” to word “stop.”

But I don’t know that I disliked the proceedings here, either, and that’s because even though it was undoubtedly a mess, it’s at least a mess that’s trying to do something a little different, and “a little different” is something Doctor Who has been sorely lacking lately.

Think about it : the Eleventh Doctor dies not from radiation poisoning, or Spectrox Toxemia, or falling from a telescope, or mind-fighting a giant spider — he dies the way, hopefully,  we all will : of old age. Whereupon the Time Lords, from the other side of the crack, promptly grant him a new regeneration cycle because, as it turns out, the Eleventh Doctor was the Thirteenth all along.


To their credit, Moffat and Smith don’t throw an extended pity party for “their” Doctor on the way out the door the way Russell T. Davies and David Tennant did, and Jenna Coleman, who’s fast become the best thing about the show, handles her “companion present for a  regeneration” duties admirably, but things do go a bit barmy when said regeneration is so powerful that it kills off all the Daleks, Silence, etc. battling on Trenzalore in one go. Or actually, the pre-regeneration cosmic energy surge (or whatever) does that, the actual regeneration itself being a rather “bang! And it’s done!” sort of affair occurring within the confines for the TARDIS.

And ,just like that, it’s over. And I’m left with the feeling that we really didn’t see much of the Eleventh Doctor. Sure, we saw him age — not terribly convincingly — here, but we didn’t see much of his life in Trenzalore/Christmas at all. We didn’t see the century he spent wandering alone after the Ponds flew the coop. We didn’t see any of his married life with River Song, or even find out what the hell really happened to her. We didn’t see him scouring the universe for her as a child. We didn’t see many of the major events that we’re told played such an enormous part in making him who he was. It’s enough to make a person say “Sayonara, Eleven — we hardly knew ye!”

Sure, I guess that’s frustrating in a way — but it’s also kind of mildly intriguing, is it not? And it’s apparently got a lot of people howling, which is a good thing. The fans wanted drama, anguish, and pathos — a huge, epic send-off for Matt Smith’s iteration of the Doctor. Instead, they got 300 years in 30 minutes, a “New Time War” that never happens, and a Doctor who dies because he gets old.  And besides, given how clumsy and formulaic Who has become in Steven Moffat’s hands, it’s probably doing the character a big favor to give him plenty of unseen “life” free from his show-runner’s heavy hand.

So maybe it’s the hand-wringing and controversy and downright caterwauling of so many on the internet that I’m enjoying more than The Time Of The Doctor itself. Maybe I appreciate the effect it’s having off-screen more than I did anything it presented on-screen. Maybe I like what it’s doing more than I like what it actually did.

Or maybe I’m just glad this era of the show is over and we can turn the page. I’ve long maintained that a “back to basics” approach free of excess baggage in terms of continuity, backstory, etc. is precisely what Doctor Who  has needed for a long time. Give us a mysterious traveler in a rickety old police box that’s bigger on the inside and can go anywhere in time and space, and leave it at that. I don’t know if Moffat will be able to resist the temptation to layer the mythology on thick all over again when Capaldi takes the reigns, but given that three-plus seasons of his purportedly meticulous and careful and calculated planning led to a quick, go-nowhere, non-resolution haphazardly cap-stoned by one of the least dramatic regenerations the series has ever seen will finally be enough to convince him that writing himself into a corner with all that “timey-wimey” nonsense just doesn’t work.

When the Ponds left, it felt more like a relief than anything else, and the same applies here — doubly so, in fact. All that shit’s out the window now. The deck has been cleared off. Steven Moffat has never had a better chance to strip the show back down to its core elements and start afresh than he has right now.

And with that, I’m out. For a guy who promised at the outset that he didn’t have much to say, I’ve just spent over 1,500 words blathering on about an episode I still don’t quite now what to make of. So I guess I was wrong.

I’ve also been saying for some time that I don’t think Steven Moffat is the right guy to be running Doctor Who anymore. My sincere hope is that he uses this clean slate he’s given himself to prove me wrong again.

Trash TV Guru : “The Day Of The Doctor” — The “Doctor Who” 50th Anniversary Special



First off, a couple of disclaimers : this is one of those reviews that’s going to pre-suppose a fair amount of knowledge about the BBC’s Doctor Who  from the outset, so if you’re not at the very least a casual viewer of the show, you’re going to feel pretty lost right from the word go. So, ya know — newbies beware. Secondly, it’s well-nigh impossible, at this point, to discuss The Day Of The Doctor without indulging in some pretty serious “spoiler talk,” so if you’re part of the legion of “spoiler police” that apparently have nothing better to do than troll around the internet looking to play seagull (fly in, make a lot of noise, shit all over everything, and fly back out) with any review that gives away any plot points whatsoever, now would be a good time fuck directly off. Major “spoilers” do, in fact,  abound here, so — you’ve been warned.

Now, with all that out of the way —

For those of us who have been “Whovians” for a long time, the 50th anniversary really has been something of a “pinch me, I gotta be dreaming” type of year, hasn’t it? Especially for us sad souls who stuck with fandom during the so-called “wilderness years” between 1989 and 2005, when the 30th anniversary gave us the debacle that was Dimensions In Time, the 35th anniversary gave us — well, nothing, I guess — and the 40th anniversary essentially went unnoticed, even by us, because we were all too busy speculating about what the  just-announced-at-the-time new series would end up looking, feeling, and being like.

Our only frames of reference, then, for how the BBC would celebrate a major anniversary with the show as a going concern were the 10th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries. For the tenth, there wasn’t much by way of hoopla and tie-in merchandising and the like, but we did get The Three Doctors (why I’m saying “we” here I have no idea, as I was barely two years old at the time and had never, to my knowledge at least, seen the show — but whatever), which was not only the first big “reunion story,”  but a pretty cracking good adventure, as well, that introduced the now-legendary figure of Omega into the Who mythos.

For the 20th, it has to be said that the Beeb pulled out all the stops. For one splendid year there they seemed to be willing to acknowledge that this creaky little cheap show that they tried their best to keep out of the public eye really was a genuine global phenomenon despite their best efforts to make it anything but, and we got a slew of anniversary-themed books, toys, magazines, posters — you name it.

And there was Longleat. Ah, yes, Longleat. Fandom’s own Woodstock. The biggest single Doctor Who-related event ever, tales of it still abound — and, like fish stories, grow with each re-telling — to this day. I wasn’t there. I was a 12-year-old kid in the US. But  we heard about it,  even without the benefit of instantaneous online communication. It sounded great then. It sounds even better now. Memories, real or imagined, of Longleat frankly eclipse anything else as far as the 20th anniversary is concerned, especially since the special 90-minute “reunion story” we all got to see, The Five Doctors, was a rather tepid affair at best.

I’ll tell you what, though — warts and all, The Five Doctors was a key moment for American fans for one simple reason : we got to see it first. That’s’ right, us poor yanks, who had yet to see William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, or, in most cases, even Jon Pertwee reruns — we sad former colonists who had been subsisting on a diet of the same Tom Baker and Peter Davison stories over and over again ad infinitum — we got the anniversary special a matter of hours before it was shown on its own native soil. There was a quiet message being sent here — try as the suits at the BBC might to present an image on the home front as a broadcasting organization that specialized in period costume dramas and in-depth news (remember when there was such a thing?), internationally, they knew which side their bread was buttered on. Doctor Who was their number one worldwide property, and the booming American fan market was where the action was. Let’s just not tell the folks back in the UK, shall we?

Following on from that, though, something curious happened — more or less immediately after admitting that an international breakthrough was taking place, with a Doctor Who  convention going on, quite literally, every weekend in one major American city or other, Auntie Beeb suddenly remembered that the show was an embarrassment. At the very same moment that an ever-hungrier North American fan base was clamoring for more Who, the powers that be decided to give us less. In these days before mass-released DVD or even VHS, a famished fan can only subsist on the same set of re-runs over and over again for so long, and the BBC effectively killed its own golden goose by putting the show “on hiatus” for 18 months — then giving us drastically shortened seasons when it did, in fact, quietly return.

As a result, the 25th anniversary was a complete disaster, both at home and abroad. Very little recognition was given to the occasion from official quarters, and the “special story” broadcast to commemorate what should have been a proud milestone instead was a limp little Cybermen three-parter called Silver Nemesis that essentially followed the exact same plotline as the recently-concluded (and far superior) Remembrance Of The Daleks, only with different villains.

All in all, it was an anniversary well worth forgetting.

Fast forward a quarter century and things couldn’t be more different. Doctor Who is the shit, as far as the BBC is concerned. This is is a new iteration of Who, of course, broadcast by a new BBC that, for good or ill,  has its eye more on its balance sheets than its purported reputation.  Fans around the world are lapping it up, Who-themed merchandise is ubiquitous, and the money machine is rolling. Of course the 50th anniversary is going to be the biggest multi-media juggernaut the BBC has ever undertaken, what do you think they are — stupid?

Full disclosure — I’m something of a curmudgeon when it comes to Doctor Who. I miss the days when the cracks showed and the creaks could be heard. I loved the inventiveness that the Philip Hinchcliffes and Robert Holmeses and Barry Lettses and Malcolm Hulkes (among too many others to mention) were forced to either find or fall back on to make silk purses out of sow’s ears. I loved the first season of the new series, to be sure, but it’s been leaving me feeling increasingly unimpressed ever since. Under Russell T. Davies’ stewardship, I felt it became bland and formulaic. Under Steven Moffat’s.  it’s become bland, formulaic, and overly impressed with itself.

But never once did I consider throwing in the towel and walking away. No sir (or madam). You always keep hope alive for the home team.

And so here we all are — November 23rd, 2013, exactly 50 years to the day from the broadcast of An Unearthly Child, and all of us, everywhere around the world, get to see The Day Of The Doctor, the culmination of an entire year of set-to-overdrive mass-marketing, at exactly the same time.

But was it any good?  And, furthermore, are we all still a bit too giddy to even care?

Well, having watched it twice now, I feel the time has come to give it at least something  of a fair-minded analysis, even if the glow of the occasion hasn’t faded entirely just yet.



Indications were that we would probably very well be in for a monumental-type story that would shake the foundations of everything we knew and shake up the Etch-A-Sketch all over again. After intense months of speculation, the Night Of The Doctor mini-“webisode” (and thank you thank you for bringing  back Paul McGann !) confirmed that John Hurt was, indeed, a “missing Doctor” that none of us had known about before — furthermore, he was no ordinary Doctor, he was “The War Doctor,” whatever that means. We figured there would be Daleks. We knew David Tennant and Billie Piper were returning. We assumed we’d be plunged back into the Time War — and, once it was announced that Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith would be departing come the Christmas special, we guessed that we might finally get some inkling as to what his (far too heavy-handedly) forthcoming demise at a place called Trenzalore was all about.

We got some of that. And something else that we probably weren’t expecting, as well — an accessible, “stand-alone” story featuring the return of fan- favorite monsters the Zygons. For a time, at any rate.

There’s some rather bland set-up material (that once again bastardizes the memory of U.N.I.T., this time doubling the insult by throwing The Brigadier’s daughter into the mix) with Smith and current companion Clara (played by Jenna Coleman) at the outset, then we do, in fact, go back into the Time War with John Hurt’s War Doctor, then we get re-introduced to Billie Piper (not, mind you, as Rose Tyler — in fact, she seems to still think she’s working on The Secret Diary Of A Call Girl here), and then, after cribbing much of the basic multi-Doctor story set-up idea from both The Thee Doctors and The Five Doctors, writer/head honcho Steven Moffat takes a turn and gives us a somewhat nifty standard-issue Zygon -invasion story that pretty much works, even if he did rip the core idea straight from Grant Morrison’s old Doom Patrol story “The Painting That Ate Paris.” No real harm in that, mind you — Doctor Who has often been at its best when liberally “borrowing” from other works.

Then, though, things do go a bit pear-shaped (again). After lots of fairly successful three-Doctor banter, some good, old-fashioned breaking out of jail cells (that were never locked, but that’s another story), some running around in corridors (yes!), and some nifty little doppleganging that should adequately thrill n’ chill the kiddies in the audience (and ,okay, some of us grown-ups, as well), Moffat does something — I dunno. Curious, I guess, if you’re being generous, and stupid and/or lazy if you’re not.

After spending over 40 minutes bringing the human/Zygon confrontation to a head, getting them all in a room, and employing a very nifty conceit to flat-out force them to negotiate, he drops the whole story. We never find out how it ends. And we’re back in Time War territory again. Only this time with a bigger Deus Ex Machina at the center of it than even anything RTD ever gave us — a big Hellraiser-box-on-steroids with a gleaming red button that the Doctor can push to just end everything.

And he does. Or did. But he doesn’t anymore.

Doctor Who – 50th Anniversary Special - The Day of the Doctor


Look, we all know that this show has strayed pretty far from its roots. “You can’t change history, Barbara! Not one line!” has given way to a new “philosophy” of “time can be re-written.” But this, well — let’s just say that the very events that gave birth to the Ninth (or I guess that should now be Tenth) Doctor, Christopher Eccelston, and in turn his successors in the role — well, they’re just no more. The past seven seasons of the show? Well, I guess they still happened — but now, apparently, not the way we saw them. At least not anymore. And the Doctor is most certainly no longer the “Last Of The Time Lords.”

So — what does it all mean? Shit, I dunno. Gallifrey still exists. In a painting.  It never stopped existing (except, ya know, when it did). And whereas the entire history of Doctor Who is based on the concept of a Time Lord running away from home (even though that mythology was developed nearly a decade after the show first aired) — a point that was re-emphasized in The Five Doctors with Fifth Doctor Peter Davison”s famous “Why not? That’s how it all started!” line — now we’re told that the Doctor is going “where I’ve always been going — back home.”

So, ya know, all that Trenzalore stuff we’ve been building up to? Forget all that. It’s Gallifrey or bust now, folks!

I guess all this should be exciting — and maybe, on paper, it is. I like being thrust into unknown waters as far as Doctor Who goes. Even though I’m a bit of a self-admitted sad old traditionalist, as stated earlier. In the days when all we had going were the Eighth Doctor BBC novels, Lawrence Miles’ much-maligned Interference, which basically set all of Who continuity on its ear (for a time, at any rate) excited me. And all this could well do the same — if I had more confidence in the current show-running regime to get things right. Which I don’t. Buuuuuuttttt —

They did get some things here right, unquestionably. The “old school” opening shots in  black and white, complete with vintage theme music, were marvelous. The direction by Nick Hurran was energetic, pacy, and cinematic (in a good way) throughout. The Three Doctors redux portion of the story, with John Hurt functioning as a William Hartnell stand-in, was a joy to watch. Clara seems to be coming along nicely as a companion and was essential to the proceedings here without overshadowing them — as Davies had a tendency to do with Rose, in particular.  And as for that ending —



Okay, it was about as subtle as a neo-Nazi march through downtown Tel Aviv in broad daylight, I’ll grant you — Clara : The curator wants to see you. The Doctor (sitting, as Clara exits) : Okay. A curator. I’d like to be a curator. I’d be a good curator. Curators are cool. I should retire one day. Maybe I’ll be a curator when I retire. Yes, that’s it, I’ll retire and be a curator. In fact, I bet in some “timey-wimey” way I’ve already done that. And this curator guy who’s about to talk to me, shit, who are we kidding? It’s me. Or another of me, at any rate. It’s Tom Baker. He’s here. In the building.  That’s Tom Baker standing right behind me — but still : it was. Tom Baker. Standing right behind him. And yes,  the dialogue was trying too hard to be mysterious and momentous and came off instead as clumsy, but cone on, people. There he was. The Doctor. My Doctor. And I deserve to smile for the rest of the day for that reason alone. And so do you.

So who knows? Maybe a partial changing of the guard is all that’s in order here. Maybe Moffat just needs to scrap all the baggage that’s hanging on Matt Smith — baggage that, okay, “The Moff” himself put there, but let’s not nitpick here — and start fresh with Thirteenth (did I get that right?) Doctor Peter Capaldi, who actually makes his brief debut in this story in another very cool (if, yeah, very gimmicky) moment. Maybe a re-write of the last seven-plus seasons is just what — sorry! — the Doctor ordered. Maybe it’ll be good for him to go home again. If — and only if — once that’s all over,  he follows the best advice his Ninth (excuse me, I guess that’s Tenth) persona ever gave : “run for your life!”

I’ve been waiting a good few years now for Doctor Who to relieve itself of the burden of its own excesses and get back to the strength — and dare I say beauty — of its core premise, as so splendidly told in Mark Gatiss’ awe-inspring TV movie (and the real highlight of the 50th anniversary so far) An Adventure In Time And Space — a mysterious traveler making his way through the the past, the present, and the future of the whole,  entire universe in a rickety old blue police box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That, right there, is all we’ve ever needed.

The Day Of The Doctor did enough , glaring flaws notwithstanding, to make most any fan — including this one — feel more than just a little bit giddy throughout, and I’m reasonably thankful for that,  but it came up short in terms of re-setting the table in the kind of fundamental fashion I’m still hoping to see. It rattled the cupboards, and that’s a good first step, but we’ll have to see where and how the pieces fall after the Christmas special, which has rather stolen its thunder as the big “event” piece of Doctor Who for the year. We seem to be heading straight into the heart of Who mythology and continuity for one last (I hope, at any rate) big blow-out. So, yeah — let him go home again. If that’s what he needs to do to run away.

After all, that’s how it all started.