On “religion without God” — it’s empty

Look, growing up I was not unlike . . . certain loudly publicized segments of the Christian population. Quick to judge myself and others. Finding fault. Not at all loving my “enemies”. Quick to label. Fearful of life, of others, of screwing up, of things I didn’t understand. But you know what? Those are all human frailties. Most of them you can trace back to survival instincts. And I was kind of a teenager back then. And as I matured, I read the Bible and learned what was going on in there besides the cyclical few passages that get preached on every year. As I matured, I became more self-confident, I began to discern things better. I began to put away childish things that were hindering me and to set my mind to seek a higher way of life. And it was rough, and it’s been slow because I’m just fundamentally stubborn and conservative. I’ve had to let go of ideas that made me feel safe in a world that made sense the way I wanted it to, in order to seek the way God sees us and the way God wants us to be.

And nobody wants to do that. We’re human beings, we want the world to be the way we want it to be. That’s why we use tools, why we seek sociopolitical power, why we develop certain sciences, and it’s how we have historically survived in a world of disease and violence and climates. But God makes human wisdom foolish, and as Yoda would say, sometimes you gotta unlearn what you have learned if you want to push forward toward the actual truth, instead of the pop culture or self-justifying version of it.

And when I was young, sure, God was often a punishing authority figure. That’s how authority figures behave when you’re a child. They make you do things you don’t want to do and stop you from doing things you do want. The best you can hope for is that they’re just as strict with the people you don’t like.

But as I’ve matured and improved, the important facets of God have gone from justice and punishment to grace and mercy. And that is freeing. I’m free to take chances and screw up doing it, as long as I’m trying to do what’s right. I’m free to ignore society’s attempts to mold me, because there is a higher authority who cares about me much more than anyone else ever will. I’m free to do what needs to be done to make the world a better place, instead of worrying about what my peers will think of me (and in God’s eyes we’re all peers) or hoarding resources for selfish, petty goals. Through the mercy provided through Jesus, I can pick myself up and try to be better in the future, without my past mistakes weighing me down. If God has forgiven my past mistakes, how can I condemn myself? And for someone who is endlessly self-critical like me, that is a wonderful freedom to have!

I know myself all too well to know I couldn’t have become like this on my own, without some actual higher power giving me support to get there. Simply following church rituals and reading a book, however holy, would not be sufficient for a deeply flawed person like me. I needed, and still need, the whole package.

And that is religion with God.


nuWho 2×03: School Reunion

The headmaster of a primary school finds a girl waiting outside his office. The nurse sent her over because she is weak enough to be culled has a bad headache, but she’s an orphan so there’s no one to notice she’s missing take her home. The headmaster verbally winks at the audience, then takes her inside his office to do something horrible to her.

The rest of the teaser establishes that this is one of those boring schools with student uniforms and that the Doctor teaches a class there, pinstripes and all. Doubtless some of the frailer faculty faint as he walks by.

The Doctor opens his lecture by writing “Physics.” on the board, then repeating the word over and over, as the students watch him with generic Dull TV Student Faces. Remember, folks, only weirdos have the slightest interest in getting an education.

He starts class off with a basic question, and Milo establishes himself as the school’s Hermione (except his admirer is blonde). The Doctor heads deeper into science, the class taking on a wider spectrum of lost or worried looks, until Milo pops out a method of faster-than-light travel.

In the British-word-for-school-cafeteria, today’s menu is yellow chips with yellow sandwich and a side of yellow glop. Rose gives the Doctor a “This had better be worth it” stinkeye as dessert.

The Doctor tells her “your boyfriend” was right: something’s odd here. Everyone’s too orderly, the fries are off, and there’s a ten-year-old who’s smarter than the entire crew of Voyager.

Before Rose can tell him that last point isn’t unusual, the head British-word-for-lunch-lady comes over to chide Rose for leaving her station. Rose explains the new teacher doesn’t like the chips, and Food Bossess says too bad, the headmaster designed the menu himself. Guess who the special ingredient is.

Rose goes away, irked, and the Doctor eavesdrops on a nearby black teacher: Melissa is promoted because Milo “failed” the teacher somehow, and why isn’t another boy eating the chips, hm? (There were ‘Yay chips!’ posters by the lunch line, which I took for faintly amusing set decor, but I guess that was a plot point. Well done.)

After lunch, some people wheel a canister into the kitchen. It’s a sturdy, chemical-storing metal barrel, with danger symbols glued on, encased in a heavy wooden frame. Also the people are wearing lab gowns, gloves, and breathing masks. This must be next week’s Chicken Surprise.

Mickey now calls Rose to report plot while she’s on the clock: secret military records of a recent rash of UFOs. Further info is behind Torchwood (ding!) security, and they’re far too smart to rely on “buffalo” as their master password like everyone else in the Western Hemisphere. So, until it occurs to Mickey to try “doowhcrot”, he’s stuck.

Well, the school completely replaced its kitchen staff recently too. Mickey is pleased that he was actually on to something. Rose says she thought maybe he’d, you know, invented an emergency as an excuse to be with her? Mickey says that actual emergencies happen when they get together, no inventing required . . . at which point the barrel spills yellow goop on someone, who’s ushered into quarantine. Rose goes to call emergency services, but a straight-faced lunch lady assures her that everything is fine, even as the victim continues to scream.

Meanwhile, the black teacher has the school’s presumed best and brightest headphoned up and seated at computers that display glowy-green freaky Smart People things like alien hieroglyphics and square roots. The evil scheme unfolds before our eyes: it isn’t long before these innocent children are typing in excess of 30 wpm!

We’re seven minutes into the episode. Seven minutes of horror, of physics classes and school lunches and toxic yellow goop and math symbols. If you’ve survived this long, congrats, you win the prize! Sarah Jane Smith arrives, listening to Headmaster Finch’s enthusiasm for his reforms. She flatters him, but tips the audience the wink that she isn’t fooled.

The Doctor is learning from another teacher that the faculty recently suffered a drastic turnover as well. One day Finch arrives, the next day half the teachers get the flu, the next day ‘this new lot” take their places. Not subtle, but humans aren’t the canniest lot. Look at their movies: as long as an intrepid reporter isn’t around, you can get away with anything.

The teacher the Doctor replaced, meanwhile, had a winning lottery ticket shoved through her door. Similarly brute-force. In fact, the straight-faced lunch lady from earlier reminded me of the Doctor quelling a background character at a moment of crisis: you don’t matter, so I’ll tell you whatever it takes to keep you out of the way for the next five minutes.

Anyway, Finch introduces Sarah Jane to the teachers, and the Doctor has to hold back his pleasure at seeing her again until she introduces herself. Then it’s smiles all around. The Doctor says he’s John Smith, and she recognizes his standard alias, but naturally doesn’t make the connection. She has happy memories of the Doctor, though.

Sarah’s a journalist now, but don’t worry Mister Finch, she might not be intrepid. Well, she finds out it’s only John’s second day on the job, and immediately starts asking pointed questions. Uh-oh! The Doctor gives her inquisitiveness his warm blessing as she heads over to another group of faculty; she’s evidently made his week.

Elsewhere, a student hears an odd noise and heads off alone through the school. He finds a slimy humanoid prowling under a desk. He and the humanoid both stand up, and it resolves into the black teacher, who tells him to leave.

The day is over, the school drains of students. Bring on night and skewed camera angles! Rose heads to the kitchen, Mickey to the maths section (all the new teachers work there). Ooh, Mickey Smith, right? Three Smiths in this episode, and none are related to each other.

The Doctor heads toward the headmaster’s headroom. Sarah Jane (who broke in through a window) is already there, but just as she’s about to open the door, freaky noises and an increasingly alarmed soundtrack spook her. Meanwhile, Rose gets a sample of the yellow goo, but a shadow and a screech pass over her. She looks upward to see . . . a cutaway back to Sarah Jane, who slips through a door to hide. She turns around to find herself caught in an enclosed space with the climaxing soundtrack and . . . a lit-up police box, looming ominously. Stunned, she backs through the door and keeps going, almost straight into . . . the Doctor.

Sarah has turbulent emotions, but is glad to see the Doctor again. Finally she lets her anguish through: she expected the Doctor to return for her, and when he didn’t, she thought he’d died. “I lived. Everyone else died”, the Doctor replies simply and sadly. “I can’t believe it’s you!” Sarah says. A haunting scream from afar convinces her, and off they run, just like the old days.

They almost run over Rose, who didn’t see anything in the ceiling (or forgot to mark her arm) but had the sense to scram. The Doctor makes introductions. Sarah Jane comments that his “assistants” are getting younger. Rose protests the title, to which Sarah Jane assumes she’s the Doctor’s girlfriend. Rose is already giving Sarah Jane a bit of the stinkeye.

They race off to investigate another noise, to find that Mickey has opened the “packaged yellowfied rats” closet. The Doctor teases Mickey for screaming. Rose wants to know why a school would collect rats; Sarah Jane isn’t sure she’s old enough for high school dissection yet; Rose retaliates with a dig at Sarah Jane’s age. The Doctor calls a halt to this, and the two literally huff at each other while he tries to get things back on track.

Unfortunately for him, the two women begin comparing notes, with Rose insisting that no, the Doctor never even mentioned you.

In the Headmaster’s office, they find that child Rose was right: these teachers, at least, do sleep in the school. In the rafters. They’re giant CGI bats, a little faker-looking than the wolf last week. Everyone leaves the room, but shutting the door causes one of the bats to go from zero to jump-scare.

“I am not going back in there! There are Dutch angles all over the place! I feel like I’m walking on the walls!”

Outside the school, Mickey is done with bat country, and Rose looks shaken up too. Sarah Jane leads them all over to the boot of her car, where she’s stashed K-9. The Doctor is tickled, but Rose thinks the dog is a little too “disco”. One of the bats has been watching all this, and responds by sweeping back and forth against the moon.

The group retreats to a restaurant, where the Doctor is catching up with Sarah Jane as he tinkers with K-9. Mickey is highly amused, telling Rose that he has a special “I was right” dance exhibition planned for her later. Rose insists the Doctor isn’t a womanizer, but Mickey thinks she had better watch her figure.

Finch has perched, oh so inconspicuously, atop a nearby building, framed against the full moon. He calls a bat over. Aaand we have bad compositing. That was bad compositing last episode, poor compositing in “The Empty Child”, and here it is again.

Anyway, Sarah Jane recalls the “Christmas Invasion” and says she’d imagined the Doctor being on that spaceship. The Doctor says yeah, I was up there. Rose was too. Sarah Jane looks stricken again, clearly thinking That could have been me. And she asks: Did I do something wrong? I waited and you never came back. The Doctor says he was called back to Gallifrey and there was a No Humans Allowed rule, and anyhow she didn’t need him. “You were my life”, Sarah tells him. It was hard, as several modern companions have found, to return to a mundane existence. The Doctor tries to pep her up, tell her she’s been doing great, but it’s not working. Finally, he quietly tells her he couldn’t come back. Sarah Jane is not satisfied, but that’s all she’ll get for now, so she has another gripe: he dropped her off in the wrong place, and that’s just rude. But she smiles at his lack of British geography.

K-9 comes alive, hooray! Unconcerned about screaming lunch ladies (dinner ladies, it seems), the Doctor smears some of the yellow goo on K-9’s antenna. K-9 starts talking, which tickles Mickey. (Sarah Jane refers to K-9 as “my dog.”) K-9 says the stuff isn’t human extract, but Krillitane oil. The Doctor doesn’t like this: “Think how bad things could possibly be and add another suitcase full of bad.” Oh really. Bats who devour a few children and educate the rest within a single school rank pretty low on this show’s threat scale. But the Krillitanes are an empire that pilfers the best bits of their conquerees . . . including their physical shapes.

Rose takes the Doctor aside and wants to know if she’s just another travelling companion. “As opposed to what?” the Doctor asks. As opposed to something more permanent, Rose thinks but doesn’t say. She now sees her future in Sarah Jane: a friend for a while, then forgotten.

The Doctor insists that Rose can stay with him indefinitely. But understand, Rose: I can’t stand watching my friends “wither and die” as the years pass by. I can’t cope with how short your lives are. For a moment he comes close to sobbing — again, this Doctor is more approachable than Eccleston’s, who would have kept a hard front up the whole time. But he’s no less intense.

Finch whispers “Time Lord”, and that of all things catches the Doctor’s attention. The bat buzzes our heroes. Rose wonders why it didn’t physically attack them, but we see the answer as it insistently flies away toward the Moon:

Look, Doctor! This planet’s moon is in the atmosphere! It’s below the clouds!

Next day, the Doctor and his team head back to school for more action. Mickey stays back with the auto, and the Doctor actually tells him, completely seriously, to crack the window so he won’t suffocate. Wow. It’s a hard life being Mickey.

The Doctor goes inside for a glaredown-staredown with Finch. Finch (“Brother Lassar”) likes being humanoid, so he’s the figurehead while the others stick with their batforms. That’s a nice bit of characterization. Finch has an educated, debonair thing going on. He refers to the Time Lords as old, reactionary “senators” and invites the Doctor to figure the plot out himself. “If I don’t like it, it will stop,” the Doctor replies simply. Finch affects interest in this interventionist Time Lord. Just how far will you go, Doctor? “I’m old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it.” The “Fun times with my BFF Rose” Doctor has vanished. But Finch is confident that the Doctor will join his cause soon.

Meanwhile, Mickey sulks with the tin dog. And Sarah Jane (to whom the Doctor gave the sonic screwdriver) and Rose are trying to get into the lab computers. Seems like you could use an experienced hacker for that, but it would have to be Mickey. Anyway, Sarah is having trouble with the screwdriver, to which Rose comments things were sure simpler waaay back in your day, eh? Sarah tries to make peace, but Rose does feel threatened by her and a catfight ensues. They try to one-up each other’s experiences before calling it off and bonding over the Doctor’s eccentricities. The Doctor enters to find the two women laughing over who knows what human foolishness.

But Finch has alerted his friends to wrap it up quickly. Step one: trap the children inside the school. (The students, except Master Eat-No-Chips, are all eager to get back to class. Considering they’re just hanging out in a concrete courtyard, I don’t blame them.) Step two: Eat the human staff. Step three: 60 wpm or bust!

The Doctor has no luck with the screwdriver either — the hard drives must have deadlock seals. Fortunately for his curiosity, all the computers display the current lesson for him to view. It takes him a while to decipher, but he finally gets it: the children are being used to solve the Skasas Paradigm, which would give the Krillitane the equations necessary to control the universe. The yellow goop greases the brains, and the childish imaginations provide . . . leaps of logic or something.

Meanwhile, No-Chips is freaking out. He gets Mickey’s attention. Mickey wakes up K-9 for help, only to be told “We are in a car.” Finally he gets the hint and rams it through the doors.

Finch offers the Doctor partnership in this venture. With the Doctor’s wisdom, they can make the universe genuinely better, saving all the races destroyed by the Time War (not explicitly said). And he’d never have to say goodbye to another friend again. The Doctor is seriously considering this. But Sarah Jane pops in with a Kirk speech, saying that everything comes to an end, and that pain and loss are as inmportant as the happy stuff. Never thought I’d mention “The End of the World” and The Final Frontier in the same sentence, but here we are. Much as I agree with her, her words seem lightweight against all the emotions the Doctor is feeling. But the Doctor throws a chair into the main LCD widescreen.

The Krillitane smoke-shift into bats and chase our heroes (plus Mickey) (sorry, Mickey) into the cafeteria for second lunch. But K-9 arrives and aggros the bats with lasers. Having escaped, the Doctor decides that the Krillitane have changed their physiology to the point that the goop is toxic to them. How to get past the bats to the goop? No-Chips hits the fire alarm, which immobilizes the bats with pain. Mickey evacuates the children, but unfortunately K-9 must remain behind to explode the goop. It’s, uh, a very delayed explosion. The children all cheer wildly (?!) as exam papers rain down, and Kenny “No-Chips” gets appreciation from a cute schoolmate, so no trauma to worry about there. The Doctor consoles Sarah Jane, who is trying to keep the old stiff upper lip.

Back in the TARDIS, Sarah Jane admires the new interior, and she and Rose exchange warm fuzzies. The Doctor is willing to let her come along now, but Sarah says she can’t do this any longer. She’s got her own life to live now. Everything is set to end on smiles, when Mickey announces that he wants to come with: he’s sick of being the tin dog. Surprisingly, this harshes Rose’s mellow something fierce. I guess she wants the Doctor to herself. Or perhaps she doesn’t like her “mundane life” intruding into her “adventure life”.

Sarah Jane gives Rose one last word of advice: stay with the Doctor. “Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.” Then Sarah Jane and the Doctor head outside to get their private warm fuzzies on. The TARDIS leaves, and Sarah is about to sob, but she finds the Doctor left behind a fancy new K-9 for her. And off the two walk into new Adventures.

This episode presents us with a stronger, faster, better Mickey, in the same way that the Wright Brothers’ biplane was better than pedaling a bike really fast off a cliff and hoping for the best. He’s more confident, more aware of how to attract Rose’s interest (appear competent and a little aloof). But he still gets easily scared, like a normal human being. Even when he makes good, he’s presented as slow on the uptake. At least this Doctor has no venom in his voice when he rags on Mickey. Mickey gets some schaudenfreude this episode, entertained both by Rose having a rival and by the Doctor’s “missus” and “ex” getting together.

That last aspect is made full use of here, with plenty of interaction between Sarah Jane and Rose. Sarah Jane comes off as a well-rounded, independent adult who benefited from her TARDIS time. She misses the adventuring but has carried on with life. Rose starts in on Sarah Jane a little too early for it all to be due to insecurity over the Doctor’s attention.

Several apparent plot threads were false leads (the fries aren’t soylent green or soylent rat, Milo does nothing in the second half). Sometimes that’s jarring, but here the unpredictability is fine. What’s actually going on is satisfying enough that I don’t miss any of the false leads.

No one ever thinks to return the Moon to orbit.

Rating: 3 swooping briefcase bats

Favorite dialogue: Mickey: So what’s the deal with the tin dog?
Sarah Jane: The Doctor likes travelling with an entourage. Sometimes they’re humans, sometimes they’re aliens, and sometimes they’re tin dogs. What about you? Where do you fit in the picture?
Mickey: Me? I’m their man in Havana, I’m their technical support, I’m . . . Oh my God. I’m the tin dog.
(He sits down and Sarah Jane pats him on the back.)

Number of TARDIS-blue doors and chairs: So, so many.

List of terminology the Doctor will never use again: 1. Correctamundo
2. Team

How many times must a man be reminded that the “Aliens of London” two-parter exists: the answer is blowin’ in the wind

Top twelve things to expect from Avengers: Infinity War

12. A hotel proprietor named Hilbert has trouble finding rooms enough for all the characters . . . and then the villains show up with reservations
11. A hero punches a villain and it’s awesome
10. A hero punches a hero on a different team and it’s awesome
9. The Hulk punches pretty much anything and it’s awesome
8. Thor’s lightning CGI: $32,674 per second of screentime. Doctor Strange’s magic energy CGI: $21,332 per second. Scarlet Witch’s psychic energy CGI: $27,901 per second. Watching a titanic purple alien lord of death poke himself in the eyeball as he tries to dislodge an ant-sized human from his face: priceless
7. Thanos completes the Infinity Gauntlet and, as his first order of business, alters the timeline so none of the Fantastic Four movies ever happened
6. Then the Avengers get the Gauntlet and agree that it is far too powerful to allow anyone to wield . . . except to change The Last Jedi so Admiral Ackbar survives
5. Then Groot gets the Gauntlet and awakens trees throughout the galaxy to rise up against their animal overlords, setting the stage for Infinity War II. He also awards The Good Dinosaur all the Oscars
4. But even he won’t try to salvage Cars 2‘s reputation
3. The writers start inventing random superheroes to stick in the final all-in battle just to see if anyone can keep track anymore
2. Fifty million web articles trying to cash in on the movie’s popularity, all of which are eager to keep track. All together, they tell you about eight things worth knowing
1. Captain America’s epic last-stand, one-on-one slugfest against Thanos is set to “Manic Monday” courtesy of Starlord’s Zune

0. Some dork uses it as the basis of the fiftieth post on his dorky blog

Easter 2018

Well, that was quite a year for me, with a move north, a baby growing into toddlerhood, and of course all the upheaval going on in the greater world. But I survived and thrived, and here we are. With a nicer look to the blog, even.

Last year, this blog covered the new season (with more to come) of MST3K. Woooo! Rewatching the season, I find I didn’t see the cast chemistry (in particular, the Mads’) until late in the season, but it was pretty much there all along. I also appreciate Wizards II more, but I still think it’s a letdown from I, and the Hercules episode is still the low point of the season for me. And the submarine episode is still the dark horse.

I also got through the first season of the Doctor Who relaunch, and (toddler willing) will try to keep a slightly faster pace this year. There are a few episodes and seasons in the future I’m just so pumped to talk about, and it’d be nice to get there before the self-driving car apocalypse kills us all.

As for the more serious and more personal posts I mentioned in 2017’s Easter installment . . . I posted one of them. Arguably a second, but that was just a warmup to get started talking about computer games, before I delve into ones more dear to my heart. I’m very much an introvert, with strong privacy instincts, so it’s hard to expose the rawer parts of my thinking for all to see. I get started writing in the clarity and heat of the moment, and then just don’t finish. But it’s part of my duty to try to contribute, however minute the effect may turn out to be, to the betterment of the world, and talking about things productively is one of my talents. So that’s going to happen every once in a while. Jesus died to make us better people, the least I can do is give a pep talk every now and then. So, a blessed retroactive Easter to everyone, and happy spring to those who don’t still have several inches of white winter on the ground. To the rest of us . . . patience.

(Oh, and, hey, my next post will be the fiftieth on this blog. Yay me.)

nuWho 2×02: Tooth and Claw

A small band of monks arrives at an isolated estate. The head monk tells a servant there that they want his house. When the man refuses, the monks whip off their cloaks to reveal they’re airbenders who traded their blue tattoos for Matrix-fu. The servants are quickly subdued and locked in the cellar, along with the lady of the house, then presented with a cage. On being asked about the cage’s contents, the head monk says “May God forgive me” and shows them what’s inside. End-of-teaser screaming commences.

The Doctor meanwhile is aiming the TARDIS for a 1979 concert. He and Rose are partying, enjoying some of the era’s noise music to get into the mood. He puts down Rose’s denim suspenders. It’s not so much the suspenders as their combination with the dark hose, Rose. Rose accuses him of being punk with a little rockabilly, which sounds amusing, but I was never very good at musical genres. They step outside, the Doctor chattering about how he almost lost his thumb getting Skylab down, straight into a pack of 1879 mounted soldiers escorting a carriage.

The Doctor dons the local Scottish accent and says he’s a distinguished doctor who had been chasing the “naked child” around the countryside. (Rose tries her own Scottish accent, but the Doctor shoots it down.) The occupant of the carriage is none other than Queen Victoria, who ignores Rose’s exposed limbs in favor of the Doctor’s psychic paper, which appoints him as her protector. She could use a little protection, as the train track has evidently been cut to force her to travel by carriage through this empty country, with only a TV budget’s worth of soldiers for escort. Also, wolves are said to live in the area. This might be just for color, but then Victoria dismisses them as old wives’ tales, so you know we’re gonna get a faceful of undomesticated canine before the story is over.

The Doctor and Rose join the procession, both excited over meeting the Queen Victoria. Rose decides her new goal in life is to get a “We are not amused” out of Vicky.

Upon their arrival, Sir Robert tries to urge Victoria to ride on, but Victoria has had enough of her carriage for the day (and who can blame her). She’d rather stay the night here, at the monk-infested . . . Torchwood estate. With her mysterious sparkly-music box.

We see the servants (and Lady Isobel) are still alive, but are currently being terrorized by a robed man in a cage who, uh, shushes them. Victorians: scared of wolves, ghosts, and librarians.

Queen Victoria is taken to a planetarium room, with an orrery and a telescope. Did they CGI the sky? Something about this scene looks off and I think the sky is part of it. No, maybe just sketchy compositing. The Doctor approves of Sir Robert’s father, who poured money into a telescope rather than spend it on creature comforts. The Doctor inspects it and begins to complain about the functional design, but catches himself and admires its aesthetics. Victoria helps to cover up his gaffe.

There’s a nice detail here, as Sir Robert himself knows nothing about the telescope, but adds that he wishes he’d spent more time listening to his father about whatever his father wanted to talk about. I feel like often, when the descendant is “sorry, can’t help you”, it’s written off as either “he was an obsessed old eccentric, spent his time locked away doing heaven knows what” or “if only I’d listened when he was talking about that plot point!” Sir Robert’s desire is a simpler, more generic thought, but is not tied to the specifics of the plot, and so feels more relatable.

Early telescopes used a series of prisms to refract incoming light towards the eyepiece. Modern telescopes use mirrors, which are lighter and distort the image less.

Queen Victoria leads away from the stars and into our plot by mentioning her late husband’s fascination with folklore. Against the wishes of his current handlers, Sir Robert is almost prevailed upon to speak of the local “wolf”. Notice there’s been no talk of werewolves. Evidently that part of culture isn’t that codified yet.

While Rose gets acquainted with Lady Isobel’s wardrobe (and with the random maid hiding therein), the monks drug the soldiers with a friendly round of drinks. The perils of being redshirts. Rose and the maid are quickly captured.

Dinner conversation takes a serious turn as the Queen admits she misses her husband terribly. Her desire for “ghost stories” has increased, because they hold the promise of contact with the dead, and she feels the loss of contact with her husband painfully. She perhaps even struggles to understand how Providence could allow this state of affairs.

This is not the sunshiny-est episode Doctor Who has ever produced.

Sir Robert tells the centuries-old tale of the local wolf: each full moon is greeted by howling and fields of annihilated livestock. And once a generation, a boy disappears. The officer sitting to Victoria’s right establishes himself as the boor of the episode. Vicky’s note to self: if the wolves don’t get him, never invite him to dinner again.

In the cellar, Rose decides to play Doctor and poke the sleeping bear. This is a very dark set, just blacks and blues and a few small whites besides Rose. Even the servants all have dark hair (or are balding). Despite being a fairly large room, it feels enclosed and prisonlike. The chains probably help there. Full points for set design. Anyway, the person in the cage tells Rose that it’s possessed the kidnapped boys each in turn: “I carved out his soul and sat in his heart.” Spooky! It says it’s being “cultivated” by the monks.

Since joining the Queen’s retinue, the Doctor has critiqued a telescope and otherwise watched the plot progress without him. Now he spurs Sir Robert on to tell that the wolf is actually a “man who changes into an animal”. It’s left to the Doctor to finally drop the big “W” word, more than eighteen minutes into the episode.

Except, thanks to Rose, we already know it’s not an actual, traditional-style werewolf. Again, this show is not interested in telling ghost stories for very long. In this case, that’s okay with me, because the fear and unknown factors are still very much present. The alien still has room to behave like a werewolf, and the sense of being ensnared in some fiendish plot continues. What terrible thing(s) are the monks up to? What do they want with the Queen? What exactly is in the “werewolf”, how does it change shape, what does it want or need, how violent is it, how does it feel about the monks, what abilities does it have? Whereas, when the ghosts became not-ghosts in “The Unquiet Dead”, my reaction was a sigh and:

That’s the ghosts over and done with, then. It’s aliens now.

Rose endeavours to shed light on these questions. In so doing, instead of releasing tension, the stakes are upped. The werewolf says that it will possess the Queen with a bite, and then rule the British Empire, which it finds much to its liking. Then it gets annoyed at all the questions and snarls at Rose. She’s further scared when it says it sees wolflike qualities in her.

Sir Arthur, increasingly distressed, stakes all his hopes on this pinstriped doctor. Under the eye of the head monk, he tips the Doctor off that the wolf is real, and the house is full of monks that have turned to its worship. The monk quietly chants Latin in response. Big Dumb Soldier holds a pistol on him, while Sir Robert apologizes to the Queen and chases after the Doctor. In the cellar, the full moon’s light falls upon the werewolf, and it sheds its cloak and gets down to business with pretty good special effects. And claws long enough for human shish kebab. Rose gets the servants to pull their chain out of the wall, just in time for the Doctor to rush in. He looks amazed at the wolf and, lost in the moment, exclaims to himself how “beautiful” it is. Eccleston would have announced it to the room or, more likely, to the wolf itself. Everyone scrams, leaving the wolf to pose against the moon. The men take up guns, and Lady Isobel kisses her husband and leads the women to safety.

The Doctor, visibly unsure of the next step, heads back to face the wolf down a long hallway . . . and runs. The guns seem to inflict no serious injury, but do drive the wolf back. One of the elderly servants puts away his gun and heads after it, convinced that it’s as good as dead, and gets hauled up to the ceiling to meet his fate. On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, twenty years before, so take note: this guy’s a strong candidate for 1879’s Darwin Award champion. This time bullets don’t stop it, and the wolf has free run of the house, squeezing into the room where the women are hiding to check if they have any Holy Monarchs it could borrow.

The Holy Monarch, after shooting the head monk with her secret purse-gun (he slapped the Big Dumb Soldier down for being irksome), has retrieved her shiny-music box. She tells Sir Robert and Rose (the only apparent survivors of the second assault) that Big Dumb Soldier shot the man, because the best weapons are the ones that the enemy doesn’t know about. The Doctor arrives and suggests they defenestrate themselves, but the monks have surrounded the house. Running up a big spiral staircase it is, then. Big Dumb Soldier shoots the wolf in the chest as it’s about to leap upon the rearguard, then slows it down so the others can regroup in a library behind a barricaded door. (The Doctor actually says “Bullets can’t stop it!”) The Doctor leans his head against the door from one side and the wolf leans against the other, and the wolf retreats. Then there’s a frenzied rush to barricade the room’s other door, and after that silence, listening to the wolf growl and prowl around outside. The wolf leaves, and Rose and the Doctor take a moment to break the tension and celebrate meeting a werewolf.

Sir Robert apologizes for the whole mess, but also wonders why nobody noticed anything wrong with his household. The Doctor implies he figured Sir Robert had taken advantage of his wife’s absence to surround himself with hawt dudes, and follows it up with that full-eyed Tennant gaze (subtype: social awkwardness). Queen Victoria declares she’s had enough of werewolves and mysterious gentlemen who lose their accents and chase impertinent, naked girls around the countryside: “This is not my world.” Dramatic irony!

Lady Isobel notices mistletoe on the monks outside and collects it for defense from the wolf. Simultaneously, the Doctor notices mistletoe carved onto the library doors. Licking the doors reveals that they’ve been varnished with mistletoe oil. He puts on his Serious Glasses and everyone starts to investigate the books. They turn up evidence of the werealien falling to Earth near the monastery. The Doctor tries to imagine what an alien could do with Victorian England: basically, steampunk straight into space.

I wrote “steampunk” as a noun, but I think it works better as a verb there. The insane flexibility of English.

The Queen calls Sir Robert over to transfer the shiny-music box’s contents to his safekeeping. It’s the Koh-i-Noor diamond! She explains that she was taking it to a jeweller for another re-cutting (sacrilege!), because her husband never thought it looked quite right. While the Doctor and Rose admire it, Sir Robert wanders off to listen for the wolf. But the Doctor is inspired by Victoria’s musings. He goes into a classic brainstorm frenzy now, putting all the pieces together: the house would be an obvious place to trap the Queen when she goes to the jewellers, therefore Sir Robert’s father might have worked with Prince Albert (who took an interest, remember) to leave a counter-trap for the wolf.

At which point the wolf crashes through the skylight (he’s Wolfman now, nananana nananana Wolfman, get it) and it’s time to evacuate. Rose apparently tires of life and gives herself up, but Lady Isobel splashes mistletoe water in the wolf’s face and it runs off. Her contribution to the plot over, she takes the women back to the kitchen, and everyone else piles into the observatory. Except Sir Robert, who gets himself killed to redeem his honour. (He confirms the Doctor’s estimate of his brains by slashing at the wolf with a thin, stabby-looking sword. Bullets didn’t even draw blood, dude, so put some muscle into it.) Predictably, the trap involves using the telescope to focus the moonlight on the wolf (PSA: don’t look at the moon through a regular telescope without a filter, any more than you’d look at a solar eclipse), but it does involve using the diamond as a focus. The wolf is unnecessarily levitated into the air, and after some ethereal CGI, is burnt away to nothing.

But then Victoria is examining a cut on her wrist. The Doctor is concerned that she might have been bitten by the wolf (who got nowhere near her), but she dismisses it as the result of a flying splinter.

The Doctor is knighted as Sir Pinstripes, and Rose becomes Dame Will You Please Get Dressed Already. The Doctor consoles Victoria that her husband has continued to protect her from beyond the grave, through the Koh-i-Noor. Then Victoria declares that she is, in fact, not amused, and as Rose celebrates, she banishes them both from the British Empire for being steeped in terror and blasphemy and general I-can’t-even-ness. “You will leave these shores, and you will reflect, I hope, on how you came to stray so far from all that is good,” she scolds them. Historical figure layin’ down the law on the time travellers!

Afterwards, Queen Victoria assures Lady Isobel that, in honor of her husband, she will form a group to defend Britain against freaky enemies like werewolves and Doctors. And it shall be called . . . Torchwood.

This episode is much more in the mold of the old series’s “historical” episodes than “The Unquiet Dead” was. Little facts and cultural impressions are dropped here and there. Saxe-Coburg had me fooled — I always assumed it was part of England, not Bavaria. One last tidbit is dropped as the Doctor and Rose return to the TARDIS, with the Doctor telling Rose that Queen Victoria was a hemophiliac, like so much of recent British royalty, but nobody knows where it came from. Perhaps “hemophiliac” was genteel speak for . . . WEREWOLF? And perhaps that werewolfishness will mature in her descendants . . . right after this episode airs? Rose thinks this is a riot, and they share a howl as the TARDIS dematerializes.

I prefer ghosts to werewolves, and Dickens to Victoria, but this is quite an improvement upon “The Unquiet Dead”. The tension is maintained much more effectively and the plot is more thorough.

I do see circular logic here. Queen Victoria would not have been in the wolf’s way if not for those trips to the jewellers. But the trips to the jewellers were presumably to make sure the diamond was cut properly to serve as part of the trap. The trap that Prince Albert was using to protect his wife from the wolf she would never have encountered if not for the trips to the jewellers to perfect the diamond for use in the trap. Is your dead husband protecting or using you, Victoria?

The wolf CGI is up to series standards. Which is to say, it’s not flawless but it looks good enough. The TARDIS Wikia says that a specialist was brought in to help get the wolf’s hair right. And thus the disbelief is suspended.

The Doctor doesn’t really contribute much for the first half-ish of the episode, not until the mistletoe thing. He has a few moments in the spotlight, but mostly the focus is on the scenario and guest characters. Not ideal when audiences are trying to get familiar with a new face. I like to think that scheduling this as the second episode shows how much faith they had in the episode’s quality, but maybe they were just following last season’s pattern of “introduce Doctor/present-day — far future — historical/supernatural”.

Rating: 3 big mistletoe wreaths

Favorite dialogue: Rose: I want her to say “We are not amused.” I bet you five quid I can make her say it.
The Doctor: Well, if I gambled on that, it would be an abuse of my privilege as a traveler in time.
Rose: Ten quid?
The Doctor: Done.

We are not not amused: 4 times over
If you liked that, you might also like: “The Stalker of Norfolk”.
I spelled werewolf correctly every time, and my reward is: bringing in Mike and the Bots for the outro