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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

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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

nuWho 2×01: New Earth

It’s a new season and a new incarnation, so we ease in with the Doctor powering up the TARDIS while Rose says her goodbyes. She gives Mickey an extra-long kiss on the lips but he doesn’t seem comforted in the slightest. He knows full well where he ranks.

The Doctor takes Rose to AD 5 billion and a bit, to what he claims is a planet called New Earth in another galaxy. But what they step out into is clearly a “futuristic city” level in a racing car game.

Player 1 presses Spacebar for nitro boost.

Rose bounces with excitement and tells the Doctor how much she loves running around spacetime with him. The Doctor smiles (no Eccleston smirk here) and says he loves it too.

But what’s this? A scaly-tattooed crazy-eyed dude has spied the duo in his crystal ball! He gasps at Rose’s perfect, er, blood, and sends a flying monkey a little tentacled droid to spy on her. The Doctor is shaking out his new chatter routine. He tells Rose about how the Earth blowing up finally got humans to care about it long enough to find and settle on this planet, which is as near a carbon copy of the original Earth as you can find without serving under James T. Kirk. Rose wants to tour New^15 York City, but the Doctor has business at a nearby hospital, having been sent an invitation via his psychic paper.

The chemistry between Tennant and Piper is already, dare I say, in full bloom. The Tenth Doctor just wants to pal around the cosmos with Rose, rather than show off to her.

A female voice near Crazy Cardassian gets all het up over Rose. It’s Cassandra!? She decides that Rose’s visit must be a fated chance for revenge. The Ironic Foreshadowing Of Next Companion continues, with the Doctor telling Rose that he doesn’t like hospitals. He does like hospital shops, and while he comes to terms with this place not having one of those, Rose adjusts to the nurses being catpeople in silly big hats.

There’s an amusing bit as the two take separate elevators and Rose finds out the hard way that “disinfectant” is a three-course meal of full-body shower, powder, and hair dryer. But Crazy Cardassian has rerouted her to his grungy little floor, and beckons her with a creepy inflection and body language. Rose, ever improving at self-preservation, picks up a shank before following.

Meanwhile the Doctor has had a run-in with the Duke of Manhattan, or rather his personal assistant. Apparently viruses have been playing D&D to get new ideas for keeping up with humans, because the Duke is turning to stone. The Doctor’s escort nurse presses him to forget Dukes and hospital shops and find whoever he’s supposed to be visiting. The Doctor has already zeroed in on his correspondent: the Face of Boe. Boe came up in two episodes last season, “The End of the World” and “Bad Wolf”, so points for worldbuilding via a recurring background character.

The Doctor’s new escort nurse, Hame, has a very human voice. I don’t know how else to put it. The catface CGI/makeup is just fine, but that voice clearly does not go with that face. Anyway, the Face is dying of old age, mercifully free of the ravages of arthritic limbs.

Rose finds an old-school film projector. It’s showing faded film of a tuxedo party. Rose recognizes Cassandra’s voice and shallowness in one of the people onscreen, and wheels around to find herself flesh-to-face with the villainess!

Cassandra introduces Crazy Cardassian as Chip, a clone who is devotedly faithful and faithfully devoted to her. I’d wonder if this was a setup for a betrayal but I just don’t see Chip doing it. Cassandra’s brain and eyes somehow survived her death, and she had some backup skin from her back, so, well, here she is again! That’s a big brain way over in the nearby vat. How does she control her mouth and eyes?

Anyway, Cassandra tries a woe-is-me, last of my race line of talk, but Rose isn’t having any. Cassandra then tells Rose that the nurses are hiding something, come close and I’ll whisper in your ear. Rose wants none of that either, but blunders into the wrong spot and Cassandra transfers her own mind into Rose’s body using the mind-transference device she had tucked away in that corner. Just in case a sufficiently pure human ever came along, I guess. Rosy!Cassandra is initially excited, but gets a good look in a mirror and realizes that she’s a “chav”. She also demands that Chip moisturize her, but to the disappointment of the male audience there is no white T-shirt to be had. She does unbutton her top and admire her upper and lower curves, so we’re getting served a full helping of fanservice this week, boys.

Meanwhile Hame shows her fascination with FoB. The two plot bits she reveals are that Boe-face is the last of Boe-kind and that just before dying he will tell someone like him (guess who) a great Boe-secret.

Cassandra says in so many words that Rose is still in her body too, then gleans from her memories that she’s still travelling with the Doctor. Cassandra is not pleased that the Doctor survived his own death. And then the thing in her pocket rings. The Doctor ignores her attempts at Cockney rhyming slang, then finds that the Duke is healed and credits the Doctor’s presence for it. The Doctor is alarmed that the hospital could cure stoneitis, but Matron Cusp assures him that it was merely the “tender application of science” that did the trick. The fact that she needs to acknowledge that “primitive” people would consider it magic, in a place where we’re all hyper-advanced friends here, is rather a heavy bit of foreshadowing. Then a nurse whisks her away to deal with a problem: someone woke up during a “perfectly normal blood-wash” and got upset. It becomes clear the nurses are meddling in cat-God’s domain, and the malfunctioning patient is incinerated.

The Doctor shows Rosy!Cassandra a few more patients who ought to be dead instead of cured. It’s marvelous, but why are the cats being so secretive? He also gets concerned about Rose’s new voice. (I’m surprised that he can hear the change too, and it’s not just a meta thing like Star Trek aliens’ lips forming the English their speech is translated into.) Cassandra tries to convince him everything’s normal before pulling him down for a liplock. The Doctor lets it happen, then, a little flustered but uninterested in pursuing the matter, concludes that he’s “still got it.”

Cassandra, who is genuinely curious about what the cats are up to, helps the Doctor break into the computer system with technical advice beyond a 21st century department store clerk’s capacity. They discover the secret ICU and enter. The ICU is your standard industrial stairs leading to your standard pit with thousands of glowy-green stasis pods lining the walls. The Doctor opens a pod randomly, finding a man who’s turning into the Thing from the Fantastic Four. The Doctor whispers his empathy for the man’s suffering before gently closing the pod back up. He tells Cassandra that the pod people have been infected with every disease in the galaxy, so try not to touch them. His anger quietly builds up as he reflects on the horror of creating people to serve as “plague carriers”, then vents it at Hame when she appears to defend the setup. She can’t see the pod people as actual beings, just as things created for a purpose.

As Hame recounts how the cats were driven to this scheme out of desperation, the Doctor freely shows his horror at what he’s hearing. Which is a good move to get the audience to like him, as the Ninth Doctor’s empathy was a bit lacking at times. Eccleston would tell Hame why she’s wrong with a few sharp appeals to principles. Tennant simply tells her she’s wrong with his face. (Meanwhile, Cassandra is reminding us that she’s not Rose with very un-Rose-like, detached, look-at-me body language.)

“But this is horrific.”

“Yes, yes. Hmm. Do you think I should luncheon at the country club, or skip it and fill up at the Marquis’s cocktail party tonight? I do have a figure to maintain for my adoring public, you know.”

The Doctor sweeps aside Hame’s argument that happy people justify these means and declares that he is the highest authority, and one more thing: put Rose’s compassion back in her head or I shall get angry.

Cassandra reveals herself to the Doctor, then knocks him out with her perfume, sends Hame away, and triggers an alarm. The Doctor wakes up in a pod, with Cassandra gloating over finding such a superb way of killing him. She promises to discard Rose’s body once she finds someone more worthy of herself. Three minutes to live and no friends nearby — how will he survive this time?

Well, Cassandra tries to blackmail the Matron and when Cusp reminds her that they can claw a mere human to pieces, Cassandra has Chip open all the nearby pods with a single lever. Not a very safe system. The Doctor and all the “lab rats” get out, and the lab rats all shamble around in zombie mode. One zombie tells the Matron very lucidly that they’re going to put a stop to things, and he shorts out a conduit that opens all the pods. One of the cats (I really don’t know how to tell them apart) can’t escape the fatal touch, and gets nastyfied in seconds. The other enacts a quarantine. Some zombies have already entered the public spaces and started desperately grabbing people.

The Doctor tries to herd a wailing Cassandra and Chip to safety, but Chip gets cut off. The Doctor apologizes to him before chasing after Cassandra. The Doctor tells her to get out of Rose, right now, and Cassandra obligingly breathes herself into his body. Tennant proceeds to do a very happy drunk impression, getting in Rose’s face about her attraction to Ten, but then the zombies figure out how to open the door and Doctor!Cassandra panics.

The two head up a ladder in an elevator shaft, joined soon by I guess the Matron, who rants at them for destroying everything. And then the Matron seems to grab Rose’s heel with a veiny hand, but apparently it was a zombie grabbing the Matron, and she screams and twirls and hurtles miles and miles to her death, terminal velocity all the way. Rose takes Cassandra back into herself so that the Doctor can sonic their way to safety. But the Doctor won’t do anything until Cassandra leaves Rose, so Cassandra bounces back into the Doctor and thence into a zombie. Don’t worry, she hops back into Rose as the door closes behind the Doctor and Rose. But she’s a little reflective now, saying that the zombies are desperate just to be touched so they can feel less alone. The Doctor reaches down and helps her to her feet in response.

They find themselves back in the room with Boe. The Duke’s assistant charges to attack them with a roar. She’s focused on escape without regard for the quarantine. The Doctor accepts this; what’s one more opponent at this point? He gets all the curative IV fluids roped to his body, then uses a pulley thing to lower himself down the elevator shaft . . . after Cassandra is persuaded to join him. At the bottom, he pours all the curatives into the disinfectant spray container, then coaxes all the zombies in the lobby to join him and get cured. Cassandra thinks he’s killing them, but instead it’s hands held and hugs all around as they apparently pass the cures to each other by touch. Which doesn’t make any biological sense to me, but at least it ties in with their loneliness.

The cats are arrested and taken away, including a sad Hame. I expected her to help the Doctor in the last pinch, but appreciate the plot twist that was a lack of that particular plot twist. Sometimes nice people just do not-nice things, and can’t be made to understand an outsider’s point of view that they should really stop doing those things. If you need her to “redeem” herself to justify her presentation as a nice person, maybe you don’t understand human history. Or cats.

Anyway, the Doctor remembers that the Face of Boe is probably on his way out, now that the miracle cures have been cured. So he goes to see him again, but the Face Boe-forms him that the Doctor’s influence has given him a fresh interest in life. FoB refuses to tell the Doctor anything more except that they will meet again, and teleports out, as the Doctor observes, enigmatically.

Cassandra is the last plot thread to be tucked back into place for the day. She’s driven to (crocodile?) tears at the idea of finally letting go of life, but Chip comes up, having survived in a pod, and volunteers himself as a host. Alas, his clone body has been through too much, and Cassandra finds herself in a dying body. But now, suddenly, she’s reconciled to her fate, despite the Doctor suddenly wanting to give her a new body. Her last request is to be taken back to the tuxedo party, where she tells her younger self that her younger self looks beautiful. Then Chip!Cassandra collapses, and the younger Cassandra — a made-up snob who had been prattling pretentiously about something only a minute before — is the only one who cares, clasping Chip’s body to her as others ignore her pleas for help. Cassandra does not die alone, finding final humanity in her younger self of all people . . . and one wonders how long it had been since her younger self had received any genuine warmth of feeling, and whether it would ever happen again, given the circles she moved in.

This is a good episode without being anything amazing. Cassandra isn’t the greatest villain, but her personality is taken full advantage of here to give some color to an episode that takes place in a sterile hospital. Everyone does a fine job of playing her. This is also the first “regular” Tennant episode, and as I said, it’s made clear that the Doctor has a new personality now, one less preoccupied with his superiority over others.

The loneliness motif feels . . . not fully executed. No problem there, but I do wonder if Boe was originally intended to give his Big Reveal in this episode, and that was only pushed back to a later story at the last minute.

Rating: 3 zombies and catgirls

Favorite dialogue: Hame: He’s thousands of years old, some people say millions, although that’s impossible.
The Doctor: Oh, I don’t know. I like impossible.

Pooky’s rating: purrrrrrr purrrr purrrrrrr purrrr purrrrrrr purrrr

Cutesy almost-cusses: 2

Form over function: Hospitals of the distant future use pointy glass ice cream cones as water cups. Just in case there’s any sensitive equipment that needs spilling on.

2017 reading list

More first-time reads than last year, not that that was hard to do. I followed up on my desire to read more “classics”, picked other titles up on whims, and got burned by a book or two.

  • Blue Highways: A Journey Into America – William Least Heat Moon

    The author lost his job and wife, so he drove the back highways of early 1980s America to see what he could see. A lot of scenery, a lot of people, a lot of reflections and stories told and lived. A very good read, one that I took my time savoring.

  • Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

    The first human expedition to Mars goes less than perfectly, leaving a single offspring of the crew alive to return to Earth years later, having grown up essentially a native Martian and having learned miraculous abilities from the locals. Thus the Earth (or rather, Heinlein’s vision of a near-future, radically different Earth) is the strange land. The offspring, Mike, quickly becomes wrapped up in money and politics beyond his knowledge or ken. This much is good stuff, tense and inventive. And then the middle of the book happens.

    Look, I’ve read The Past Through Tomorrow (and enjoyed it thoroughly), I had some idea what I was getting into with Heinlein and his tendency to have a character preach the premise of the story. But the middle of the book eventually just slogs and bogs along. I was afraid Mike was going to stay in that home clear through to the end of the book, with Heinlein’s authorial megaphone character holding the floor, nine paragraphs out of ten, to propound and argue and rehash his worldview the whole way. The constant casual chauvinism endemic to the book’s era gets annoying after a while, too.

    I actually started skipping through dozens of pages just to get to something readable. I never do that. Never. That’s how bad it got. Looking back, I realize what happened: Heinlein switched genres without telling anyone. The middle of the book is no longer sci-fi. It’s utopia literature, a mix of Type A and Type B (as I call them). Type A is when, as in Plato’s dialogues, people sit around and discuss how to run the ideal society. Not the most gripping of stuff, unless you’re really into the author telling you how the world should be. Type B is when a traveler comes upon a wondrous foreign land, and someone shows him around and then sits him down and tells him how their ideal society is run. This is typically not the most gripping of stuff either, which is why the whole genre fell out of favor over the centuries. (That and, with advances in living conditions, people found better things to do with their time than imagine a land filled with pancake trees.)

    Fortunately the plot moves on and the book comes back to life, with Mike trying to build his own utopia under the guise of a new religion that seems to be obsessed with how wonderful running around naked is.

    It’s one thing to come into a book expecting one thing about an idea, only to get a different approach to that idea. That happened here; I don’t know that I was expecting anything in particular, but a Martian coming to Earth was a surprise. My major problem is with that middle section, with Mike quietly doing nothing much while the book shifts the focus to Jubal’s political and religious commentaries, with Mike mostly only used as a whetstone for Heinlein’s ax-grinding. The Martian worldbuilding was good — I would have liked more, but it would have been outside the author’s intended scope, so I’ll let it pass — and Mike’s POV and development were good. If you know me and have read the book, I needn’t say that I disagree with a lot of the religious philosophy espoused, but I won’t hold that against the book when so much else is wrong with it. I’ve since been told that The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (which I’d been looking for when I picked this up instead) is a good read by someone who disagrees more than I do with Heinlein’s philosophies, so I’ll try Heinlein again someday . . . but after reading this, I was tempted to just stick to his short stories.

    But love him or hate him, the man wrote great titles.

  • The Tale of Ginger and Pickles – Beatrix Potter

    A harrowing, keenly incisive economic screed that would surely get the author branded as a wacko bent on brainwashing children if it were released in America today. Foolish animals run a shop charitably, only to run into the realities of an authoritarian government, with cynical results. I liked the pictures of bunnies.

  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

    Very entertaining, as one would expect. Adams’s usual snark, wild plotting, and sharp descriptions are fully on display here, and I always have a soft spot for the Gently type of character who insists on coming at the world from his own peculiar angle. If you haven’t read it, read it and its sequel. That’s all there is to say.

  • The Bridge Over The River Kwai – Pierre Boulle

    A quicker read than I expected. Captured British soldiers are set to building a critical bridge for the Japanese in mainland Asia during WWII, while some other Brits seek to blow it up. Several very strong personalities on either side shape the plot, and in fact are the main attractions. It’s good.

  • Never Call Retreat – Bruce Catton

    Another of his Civil War histories, this one covers from December 1862 up past Lincoln’s assassination. It’s the same trilogy as The Coming Fury and so has quite a bit of space devoted to the politics and politicians, in this case notably spending some time on just how ugly the racial politics could get. A blurb on another of his books mentions Catton’s “affection for style and color, his interest in details that reveal or imply the whole, his conception of history as the drama of personalities”, and that, combined with the fascination and wealth of the subject matter, sums up his continued appeal for me.

  • The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

    This is not just one long read about a boy putting together a windmill to provide power for his impoverished village in Malawi. This book can be divided into three rough sections. First is an account of the local culture (particularly the magic) and of Kamkwamba’s family background. That done, the middle tells of a harrowing famine year in Malawi, which probably takes up half the book on its own. It’s an unaffected but harrowing tale as things gradually get more and more desperate. Kamkwamba’s family runs out of money, forcing him to drop out of school, which leads into the last part. Kamkwamba uses the local library to learn enough engineering to build a ramshackle windmill to give his family a little electricity, which gets the world’s attention. The book is written in a frank, simple narrative voice that makes one feel that one is right there through it all. I suspect that Mealer did very little editorial work in translating Kamkwamba’s words into English.

    It’s all a fascinating read. It’s also the first time I’ve ever seen a list consisting of “witches, Satan worshippers, and business tycoons”, but maybe I’m just visiting the wrong blogs.

  • The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime – Miles Harvey

    The kernel of this book is a study of the life of James Bland, a nobody who systematically stole several hundred priceless maps from institutions across the United States (and a few in Canada) before being caught. Harvey surrounds it with the history of maps and map thievery, the current state of map collecting, the thrill of discovery and thievery and collecting in general, and other things that don’t come to mind immediately. Included are literary quotes; interviews with librarians, collectors and sellers, and an FBI agent; and speculatory ruminations about all the above. I always enjoy this kind of in-depth insight into a subculture that I maybe didn’t even know existed. This is one of the highlights of the year for me.

  • The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age – David Leopold (ed.)

    It’s basically a coffee table book. If you want Al Hirschfeld drawings, there are hundreds of ’em. If you want to read about the arc of his career and a few incidents shaping the same, there’s some of that. If you want to read lots of names and Broadway play titles, there’s a lot of that too. Anything else, and you’ll be disappointed. There are a few anecdotes and Hirschfeld opinions — he didn’t like Snow White and subsequent Disney animations, and the look of the genie in Aladdin was modeled after his work — but they mostly just fill in a few stray corners here and there.

    Hirschfeld was a much more pervasive, more varied artist than I had supposed, and I enjoyed looking at his art and being bad at finding the NINAs he put in most of his drawings. Truly one of a kind.

  • Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy – Tim Moore

    A cycling enthusiast, disgusted with the Lance Armstrong era of professional cycling, decides to retrace the route of the (convincingly) worst-ever race, the 1914 Giro de Italia, in which less than 10% of the starting field finished. And he’s going to do it in period-appropriate gear, on a period bike.

    It’s partly my fault that I went in expecting something akin to the lost maps book, with an expert blending of here-and-now with entertaining historical bits and anecdotes. The book starts out with a long period of hapless putting-together of an appropriate bicycle, while breezily violating one of my deepest dislikes, that of casual obscenities in the narration. That grimy part over with, it’s time for the actual riding in Italy, which is a much better read, largely because the anticipated anecdotes finally appear. Humor and tragedy, horror and pathos suffuse a tale of mountains, homicidal Italian drivers everywhere, the occasional angel of mercy, and bystanders who by turns jeer and applaud a lunatic on a bike with wine corks for brakes.

    The blurbs are also at fault (I know, crazy, right?), with several declaring this to be a very funny book. It’s funny in fits and starts but never really builds on itself in that regard. If you like cycling, I guess it’s a good book, and might be funnier if you know the scene more than I do. Otherwise, go read any of the other books I’ve read this year instead. Other than Stranger in a Strange Land. Or The Round House.

  • The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck

    A poor Chinese farmer sets off to meet his bride-to-be, a slave in the local rich family’s house. His life thereafter is filled with ups and downs, flood and famine, family and fortune, and the occasional empathic prickings of a conscience he doesn’t understand. It’s a very human saga, with events largely driven by external forces but their effects shaped by the personalities of those involved. Wang Lung, the main character, averages out to “sympathetic, tragic, likable at times, but still typically a jerk”. Buck apparently wrote this story partly to give Western readers insight into Chinese life, and I came away feeling that it was a success in that regard.

  • The Round House – Louise Erdrich

    The narrator, Joe, is at the time of the events narrated a teenager living on a Native American reservation in the ’80s. When his mother is savagely attacked, he finds himself distracted from his aunt’s boobs and Marina Sirtis’s hair long enough to try to help bring her attacker to justice. (Justice being one of the chapter titles, along with many other TNG episodes. I noticed each time, honest, but it took a while for me to catch on to the deliberateness of the pattern.)

    There’s a lot of anguish, a lot of familial interrelations, some Scooby-Dooing, some Indian law, some teenage shenanigans, a looming Marine-turned-priest, and increasing amounts of people living lives of quiet despair. It’s kind of an unpleasant book, is what I’m getting at, which is understandable given the premise . . . but it goes above and beyond the call of duty. I could have done without the pubescent boys ragging on each others’ naughty bits and the octagenarians spending most of their time talking about sexual adventures of the past. Also this book contains the worst use of the number twelve I have ever seen, tossed in so casually that it didn’t register until I reread the paragraph it contained. Sometimes realism is not a sufficient justification.

    Anyway, there’s a pretty good book in here underneath the sordidness. It’s well-written, well-plotted, well-realized, it’s just not my cup of tea. I can’t imagine it’s much of anyone’s cup of tea. Even hormonal teens are going to be put off by imagining wrinkly great-grandmas talking about how fat their sex partners were in the good ol’ days.

  • Past Time: Baseball As History – Jules Tygiel

    Something a little lighter. It’s been a while since I read a book about the history of baseball. This is a collection of nine short essays, objective without being dry, that traces the interplay between baseball and American society, and how each reflects the other. It starts with the unification of various stick-ball games into a single “national” game intended to promote manliness, science, and morality; continues through the advents of radio and TV and watches as white and black politicians alike show up at Negro Baseball games to court the black vote; and ends with rotisserie leagues and the Baby Boomer romanticization of baseball in the ’80s and ’90s. With so much ground to cover in so thin a spine (about 220 pages), the essays rarely delve deep and occasionally resort to lists without calling out the importance of individual items. However, I found it an enjoyable and educational, if not amazing, read.

  • The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw – Patrick McManus

    Something even lighter. A collection of humorous articles of mostly an outdoorsy nature, talking about the author’s exploits. Fishing, hunting, camping, getting lost while hunting for a friend you were supposed to go fishing with, that sort of thing. It’s written in a normal sort of voice, with the only “backwoods” inflections occurring when the author makes up a name (I hope) to protect the innocent, or trots out a euphemism for a less family-friendly exclamation that obviously was spoken. There’s also a lot of deadpan bald-faced lying to save one’s dignity, like when the author finds excuses for repeatedly missing the dumbest antelope in the world (“Oh, that was just a warning shot”). My favorites were the chapters about knot-tying and about Man’s relationship to Boat, where the author’s wife gets upset when she catches her husband and a newlywed making lewd remarks about a girl’s name, only to apologize when they claim they’re talking about a woman, not a boat . . . and then it turns out they were actually talking about a boat after all. The title chapter is ironically the only underwhelming essay in the lot (read Lear’s “The Night The Bed Fell” instead). It’s a fun, light read overall.

  • Nice Guys Finish Last – Leo Durocher

    This is my book of the year so far. It’s an autobiography, one yarn leading to another about Durocher’s experiences and run-ins with players, executives, league presidents, and sportswriters. I read much of it picturing an old, gruff man sitting across from me, just rattling off all the stories he’s practiced telling over the years, leaning forward and shaking a finger for emphasis. Babe Ruth, the Gashouse Gang, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Frank Sinatra, and many other big names make substantial appearances. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the book involves “The Lip” shooting off his mouth or getting taken out of context or clashing with authorities, and naturally the narrator usually sees more merit in Durocher’s side of things, being eager to set the record straight. But it’s a fascinating, enthralling look at personalities and culture during a rich part of baseball’s history, and through it all Durocher projects enough of a sense of sincerity that I feel content to largely take him at his word about his view of events.

  • Look at the Birdie – Kurt Vonnegut

    Fourteen short stories that Vonnegut never published, plus a letter and an editorial foreword, both of which are very welcome. A few of the stories, like “F U B A R”, are charming or heartwarming; some, like “Ed Luby’s Key Club”, get downright brutal; some have twist endings; and they’re all pretty good, to the point of reminding me just how much a good writer can pack into a short story. “Key Club” and “King and Queen of the Universe” might be the ones that stick with me the longest, as well as “Confido” just for its premise. A wide range of premises, although psychologists and a couple of other ideas pop up repeatedly, but I was surprised by the lack of science fiction. Nevertheless, Vonnegut is going on my list of authors to read again soon, with his imagination, writing style, and very agreeable viewpoint.

  • Beyond the Far Side – Gary Larson

    Contains a disproportionate amount of rhinoceros.

  • Watership Down – Richard Adams

    Given how much I read Brian Jacques growing up, it’s silly that I never got around to this book until now. But I am silly. This book is not silly, although it is less brutal than I expected it to be. Despite all the Bad Things happening in it, somehow the prose style . . . I’m not sure how to say it . . . there’s always a feeling that, even if it looks like someone is about to die, the main thread will just keep on going. Like, you’re going to be sad when it happens but not hit in the gut? It’s not a bad thing necessarily, just the style, but worth noting. The only other time I’ve encountered this is with Ender’s Game, which the feel of the flow of this book’s plot kinda resembles.

    Anyway. This is a story about several rabbits who, based on a Bad Feeling from the local seer, leave their home warren and strike out for new territory. They run into one difficulty and danger after another that force them to surpass their latent rabbitness and find new ways of living, which is all the more striking because the author makes a point of keeping their anthropomorphism at a bare minimum — in fact, he breaks into the narrative from time to time to tell us how what’s going on is perfectly standard lapine behavior, even if it isn’t what a sensible human would do in that situation. They also meet other rabbits who have anthropomorphized their way into dystopias.

    It’s a good story, well told, and would probably have been a favorite of my childhood. I enjoyed the legends about El-ahrairah, their trickster uber-rabbit legend, and I enjoyed the learned quotations for themselves even if they didn’t always contribute to my appreciation of the chapter that followed. My only complaint is that occasionally Adams tells when it would have been better to show.

  • A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey – Kevin Murphy

    I picked this up for a buck at a charity sale and I admit, it looks like fluff. A guy who got his fame by playing a robot who pokes fun at cheesy movies, and he parlays it into a book about watching at least one movie in a theater every day for a year. Yeah, sure, whatever.

    It’s really not fluff. Kevin Murphy is serious about movies, to the point of calling himself a snob, although he demonstrates that that means more “I have my own particular standards” and less “I’m not allowed to like anything the hoi palloi like.” The focus of the book is ultimately not about the individual movies, but more about seeking to recapture the magic of going to the movies, and about the state of the movie industry.

    The book is divided into fifty-two chapters. Each chapter starts off with a title and the list of movies Murphy watched that week. It’s not guaranteed that Murphy will actually critique any of those movies. Instead, he will talk about at least one of the moviegoing experiences he had that week, and often expand that into a general idea. Experiences range from multiplexes to a theater made entirely of snow, from Cannes to a Finnish film festival, from Hollywood’s grand cinemas to the last theater left on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands to the tiniest public theater Murphy could find (in the Australian outback). Along the way, Murphy encounters a number of people devoted to the cinema and to sharing it with others.

    The “take seven different women to Serendipity so I can understand date movies” experiment, in which everyone involved was already married, makes for the funniest chapter in the book. Along the way Murphy sees current releases, classics, and silents in a broad range of genre and quality. And he talks about why he likes or dislikes many of the movies and theaters, without coming off as any worse than a curmudgeon. A fun and educational read, and a good pick for a motion picture enthusiast.

  • Dune – Frank Herbert

    The story of how Paul Atreides overcomes the evil of the Harkonnens and the brutality of the planet Arrakis to fulfill his destiny as Guy With More Titles Than Aragorn. My first impression, which came very quickly, was that the prose was much less dense than I expected. But the world-building is there, and done well, and the journey feels epic, even if much of it was spoiled by what I knew about the story going in. I would have enjoyed it more without the spoilers, but still quite a good read.

  • The Man in the Iron Mask – Alexandre Dumas

    Turns out this is (part of) a direct sequel to The Three Musketeers, which I have not read. Whoops!

    Anyway, there’s a lot more politicking and less fighting than I expected. A lot of people trying to out-noble each other, which can be traced to the fact that most of the story involves Louis XIV and his court. Our four heroes are admirable and lofty in their speech and chivalrous enough, but not especially heroic, and the antagonists aren’t treated as villains either — also a thing it took me a while to get used to. Aramis’s motivations and actions in particular made much more sense when I stopped trying to read him as a Selfless Hero. The book uses a lot of Madame and Monsieur and the like as pronouns for unclear antecedents. I did enjoy it once I took it on its own terms, but — even given that this was only part of a larger work — the plot would take a much different shape if written nowadays.

nuWho: The Christmas Invasion

Not unlike “Rose”, we pan from the Moon down into Jackie Tyler decorating her Christmas Crimbo tree. It’s white and gold with pastel lightbulbs, the better to blend in with the room. Then she picks up her present for Rose and looks at it with concern. Some naughty prop artist has underlined her name on the tag with a Jesus fish. Religion in a Christmas episode? What do you think this is, EWTN?

Anyway, she and Mickey both hear the TARDIS materializing, impressive since Mickey’s immersed in Automotive Repair Foley and bad British Christmas covers. They reach the usual landing spot, and the TARDIS appears overhead and they scrunch waaay down a good few seconds before it actually heads at them. It bounces off a few buildings but manages a two-point landing, and a strange man pops his head out. He has loud body language and accosts Rose and Mickey physically as he tries to recall what he needs to tell them. He announces “Merry Christmas!” and falls over unconscious.

Rose pops out next, and announces that this isn’t a spacetime hobo, it’s the Doctor. “Doctor who?” a befuddled Jackie insists, and with that ding! we’re off to the intro. The green and red have been toned down, just in time for Christmas, to pink and lime. That reads sarcastic, but it’s much appreciated.

The Doctor is now in a comfy bed in the Tyler residence. Jackie has “borrowed” a stethoscope from another flat, but she thinks what the Doctor really needs is a hospital, with a proper doctor in attendance. Maybe next companion, Jackie, as Rose has visions of alien dissections dancing in her head. Upon hearing the Doctor has two hearts, Jackie immediately wants to know if he also has two . . . anything else. One imagines she wondered the same thing about Spock back in the day. The Doctor exhales a drop of golden regeneration energy, and we get to watch it whisper its way into space.

Rose is teary-eyed about having to get to know a new Doctor. But she quickly decides her mother’s sex life is more interesting. You’re all alone on that score, Rose.

Then Harriet Jones, now Prime Minister, talks to the press on the telly. Remember when the Doctor said Harriet Jones would preside over Britain’s Golden Age, which was at least a different flavor of dumb in a generally dumb episode? Well, for whatever reason, PM Harriet is getting written out this episode, and it’s not like last season repeatedly told us “history can change”, so we’ve got to prove the Doctor right. So Jackie declares that her wages have gone up and that everyone is already calling Jones’s reign Britain’s Golden Age. That’s asinine, even in this day when everything must be labeled right away. Generation Y, indeed.

Rose is also all alone in recalling the Slitheen episodes fondly, but she did good there so it’s understandable. Meanwhile Harriet Jones is defending her space program on grounds of national pride, but it’s a probe to Mars. I expected a cheap satellite broadcasting “HELLO WORLD” or aiming a Fisher-Price telescope at the stars, but no, this sucker’s preparing for descent, destination Mars as they speak. It’s Mars — don’t you wait until the probe disappears before you start bemoaning the cost? I sense subtext. I think the “waste of money” must refer to bloated budgets and maybe a no-bid contract or two, and Jones just avoided the issue with a “YAY BRITANNIA.” Will it actually do any science, Prime Minister? Whose palms are being greased here?

Anyway, Guinevere One promptly smacks facefirst into a moon, which turns out to be an artificial construct that sucks it in. Wow. Mars expeditions peaked under Queen Victoria and it’s been downhill ever since.

Rose is out with Mickey, who joshes at her for talking about nothing but her TARDIS adventures. Their romance is still on the rocks, but they can laugh and accept each other better now. Rose tries to just enjoy herself, but notices the street music is being played by people covered by identical Santa Claus masks and robes. This is creepy when you’re in Doctor Who. And then they all lower their instruments and stare at Rose. This is creepy wherever you are. And then one strokes his trombone and it blazes forth Yulefire at her, which is a universal red flag. The other Santa Clauses (Santa Clausi?) also open fire, and everyone screams and runs away.

Rose and Mickey flee using fruit stands for cover without knocking any over, which I needn’t tell you violates basic rules of storytelling. Then a Claus launches a TUBA missile at them, knocking a tree over onto himself. No witty one-liners, no tomatoes flying everywhere. This episode is sinking fast.

^
“Santa got SLEIGHN!”
“Jolly old Saint DEADolas!”
“Looks like he’s PINING for the fjords now!”
“O Christmas Tree, O NOT THE FACE!”
“Hey, Santa’s really SPRUCED himself up for the holidays!”
“O come, all ye FATALITIES!”
“Deck the Claus with boughs of FOLLY!”
“Are you sure it isn’t Halloween, cuz you just got TRICK-OR-TREE-TED!”
This isn’t hard. I
even made a tree.

Rose and Mickey race home to Jackie. Rose is practical, wanting to go to ground far away, but is distracted by a standard green Christmas tree in the corner of the room. The tree waits politely for them to figure out it shouldn’t be there, then lights up and whirls at dangerous speeds and advances upon them. If you know exactly where a Time Lord is, just send a spinning tree to kill his buddies, and then send some Santas to comb the city for them because apparently you don’t know exactly where they are.

I know, it’s a silly Christmas episode, doesn’t mean I can’t poke fun at it.

Anyway, Mickey (per usual) tries to fend the tree off to cover their escape, but Rose won’t leave the Doctor, so they wind up barricaded in with him. Desperate, Rose puts the sonic screwdriver in the Doctor’s hand (remember this is when you had to have some clue about how to operate it), then leans over and whispers that she needs help. The Doctor pops up as if he’d been faking all along and explodes the tree. He then leads them outside to find several Clausia holding the tree’s remote control. They back off and teleport away, because you don’t mess with a Time Lord before his new regeneration has woken up properly.

The Doctor says the Santae were attracted to the tremendous regeneration energy he’s radiating. The Doctor mentions a “neural implosion” resulting from being awakened early and says he needs something, at which Jackie rattles off painkillers and food until he tells her to shut up. The Doctor warns them that there will be something bigger coming, then collapses into a pained sleep.

The Doctor gets tucked back in, looking worse for wear, and the humans all shaky-cam watch a press conference about the Mars probe, starring a stammering nerd that someone cruelly promoted out of his natural habitat. This being a Christmas episode, Mickey spells out the “sharks following pilot fish” thing the Doctor mentioned again, then we get probe footage of a bony, red-eyed, wolfish, snarling visage.

I’m guessing this is our bad guy.

Anyway, the world is flipping out, and Over-Promoted Nerd confers with UNIT and Harriet Jones. Penelope Wilton puts a strong personality into Jones starting right now, forceful and practical without any coldness. You’d hate to let her down on a professional or personal level. They all watch a scary red blip leave Mars for Earth. Rose and Mickey watch along on a laptop, because I guess “buffalo” is still the password for everything everywhere. And then the aliens cut in and rhapsodize in Huttese.

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality?

Rose is upset that the TARDIS isn’t translating the Huttese for her, because the only explanation is that the Doctor is “broken”. Rose’s descent into despair never takes over the episode, but is a vital part of its emotional core, and she pulls the viewer down with her to be properly receptive when the Doctor makes his grand entrance at the end.

Meanwhile the U.S. President wants to take over from UNIT, and we all know the only thing Americans do with things that scare them is pew pew. So Harriet Jones tells the President off, then confers with a UNIT officer. No report of the Doctor. No thought of tracking down Rose. Torchwood comes up for the second time. Harriet allows nobody is supposed to know about Torchwood, but she does know, and she’s willing to activate them on her authority — clearly A Drastic Step.

The translation arrives: the Sycorax own Earth and its inhabitants, so surrender or watch ‘them’ die. Jones sends back a message of peace or begone.

The Sycorax response is to activate a blue light around the heads of billions of people around Earth. These people just blankly walk around, until they find a high spot where they’re one step away from plummeting to their death. It’s a frightening process, with people seeing their loved ones stripped of their selves and put into a clear hostage situation. Rose, who has moved on to the “frustrated inadequacy” phase of the grieving process, tells Mickey that “there’s no one to save us. Not anymore.”

But O.P. Nerd has figured something out: the K-Mart people must all have A+ blood. The Sycorax have done something with the blood sample from Guinevere One. Uh, I don’t see the point of having stuff meant for aliens onboard a Mars probe. Mars is dead as far as Nerd knows. Frankly, it’s an unacceptable contamination hazard.

So P.M. Jones goes on the telly and asks the world for calm, then begs the Doctor for help because she has no idea what to do next. Rose breaks down, taking the Doctor’s condition personally, telling Jackie that “he left me, Mum.”

But there’s no time for that, as the Sycorax (great alien race name, btw) enter the Earth’s atmosphere, producing a glass-shattering sonic wave that murders whatever that glass pineapple thing is. O.P. Nerd has a very GIFable take, rising into the shot, delivering his line with his eyes focused desperately at the cameraman’s thumb, then sliiiding his eyeballs to the side to look at . . . who knows?

Outside, the spaceship glides into view like an asteroidal leaf on the wind for all the extras to stare at, and stare at, and stare at some more. This episode certainly likes to set its own pace. It works, but one notices it. Rose looks long and hard at the ship, and comes to a decision. They’re going to take the Doctor into the TARDIS and just hide there.

Meanwhile the Sycorax beam Harriet & co. up. Remember the Santas beaming up? Feels like an entire episode ago. Anyway, the humans materialize in the Klingon court from ST: VI, which isn’t very reassuring. A Sycorax removes the wolfish helmet to reveal what looks like bone and muscle underneath. I’m with Nerd: put the helmet back on, please. Nerd tries to sort of inverse-Picard speech some mercy out of the Sycorax, but the alien flays the meat off him with an energy whip. The UNIT chief protests that that was a bad show, old fellow, and gets skellified in turn. Harriet Jones identifies herself, to which the Sycorax becomes the third person to tell her that, yes, he already knows who she is. He also tells her that she has a choice between letting half of Earth be enslaved or letting the third that has A+ blood die. Nasty choices indeed. Incidentally, what are the A+ infants doing?

In the TARDIS, Mickey and Rose fiddle with the central console’s screen dealy to see if they can pick up a broadcast. Somehow their fiddling is heard in the alien ship, and the Sycorax get paranoid and beam the TARDIS onboard to see what the Earthlings are hiding from them. Rose wanders out to see what Jackie is up to and gets nabbed immediately. Her scream brings Mickey out and he gets nabbed too. All that’s left safe in the TARDIS are the Doctor and Mickey’s Thermos, which drips tea onto a blue mushroomy bit of machinery.

Harriet recognizes Rose. Rose tells her that they’re on their own, then they all get lined up in front of the TARDIS for a photo I guess. The lead Sycorax decides that since Rose has the shiny box, she’s the one in charge. Despite having felt useless, Rose accepts the responsibility: “Someone’s got to be the Doctor.” Split between fear and bravery, she invokes Article 15 of the Shadow Proclamation blah blah blah, but the Sycorax just laugh it off. The lead Sycorax calls her a child, but his words turn to English as he nears the end of his monologue. Everyone turns dramatically as the camera zooms in on the TARDIS, and 41 minutes into the episode, the doors open and the Doctor appears at full tea-empowered strength. He smirks just a bit and asks, “Did you miss me?”

The Doctor yanks the energy whip from the lead Sycorax’s hand, breaks his other weapon over his knee, and immediately begins to assert his full personality in classic style, telling the lead Sycorax to just stay put for the moment. It may be significant that the first thing he does is give Mickey a delighted greeting. No residual disdain here, thank goodness.

Anyway, he intensely asks Rose how he looks, and after being disappointed at not being ginger he tells her off for giving up on him — but then acts a little surprised at how “rude” he’s being. Then he reassures Harriet that he is the one and only Doctor and begins to catch up with her. All of this, of course, without regard for their circumstances. The lead Sycorax demands to know who this person is, which is of course the very hook the Doctor needs to go off on a ramble about all the things he might be, but doesn’t know about yet . . . and then the Doctor catches sight of the pink jewely orb that the lead Sycorax has been standing by most of the time.

He investigates, tastes the blood in the dish underneath, identifies it as human A+. That’s one Time Lord ability I could have done without knowing about, but it puts him on the right trail. “I haven’t seen blood control in years!” he exclaims delightedly. Then, talking about how he just doesn’t know how he will react to a “great big threatening button that should never ever be pressed,” he grins maniacally and pushes down on it.

That frees the A+ people. With the lead Sycorax trying to save face, the Doctor explains that blood control can’t actually force anyone to kill themselves. It was all a bluff. The Doctor tries to persuade the Sycorax to leave humanity alone to realize its potential, and accidentally starts quoting “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. When that doesn’t seem to have any effect, he challenges the lead Sycorax to a duel. “You stand as this world’s champion?” the alien roars. “Thank you. I have no idea who I am, but you’ve just summed me up,” the Doctor replies.

They fight with longswords. Just basic longswords. Or broadswords maybe. Not an expert, but the Sycorax’s form doesn’t impress me. I know, Christmas episode. Anyway, the Doctor is getting the worse of it, so he heads outside for a change of venue. That doesn’t work so hot either, as the Sycorax quickly cuts the Doctor’s sword hand off, then turns away to roar his victory to the onlookers. But the Doctor grows a new hand into existence, then when Rose throws him another sword, declares it to be a “fightin’ hand” and goes on the attack.

The Doctor wins and the lead Sycorax swears to leave Earth alone forever. He hugs Rose and walks away chattering about the fruit he found in his borrowed houserobe. Upon hearing the Sycorax come up behind him to kill him, however, he throws the fruit at a button that causes the “ground” to retract from under the alien (why?), leaving the dirty cheater to plummet to his doom. “No second chances. I’m that sort of a man,” the Doctor grimly says.

He goes back inside to deliver a warning to the Sycorax assembly: stay away and warn others to stay away. They’re all teleported tellyported back down to Earth and get to watch the Sycorax ship fly away to the sound of triumphant music.

On being asked, the Doctor tells Harriet Jones that, sure, there are thousands of alien species out there, and they’re noticing Earth more and more! He clearly means it as a “chin up and have a blast” sort of message, but Harriet takes it the other way. On hearing that Torchwood is ready, she sadly, reluctantly gives an attack order. Death Star beams lance out from London and destroy the Sycorax ship.

The Doctor is of course angry, calling it murder. Dead UNIT Guy would agree. Harriet insists that it was necessary, to prevent word about Earth spreading to others who might plunder the planet while the Doctor was not around. He refers to the human race as monsters, and she wonders whether she will have to protect the Earth from him. He threatens to end her ministry with six words, and when she doubts him, whispers in the ear of her sidekick, “Don’t you think she looks tired?” . . . and simply walks away with his Tyler retinue, freaking Harriet out.

The rest of the episode is Christmas and wardrobe festivities, Harriet sliding down the slope of public opinion, and festive meteors and snow-ash falling from the sky.

The main takeaway about Tennant’s Doctor from this episode is his dominance. When awake, he dominates every frame he’s in. He dominates the screen when he’s loud or soft, when he claims to be at a loss or when he knows every letter of what he’s doing. He strides regally onto the balcony to confront the Santa Claus aliens. When he catches himself drifting into Disney song, he never loses any intensity. He dominates the lead Sycorax from beginning to end . . . well, we’ll call the swordfight a tie. Harriet is built up to be forceful and charismatic, but her PMship is sacrificed so that his personality can steamroll hers the moment she moves against his wishes. I think this was done so that “Is the show still worth watching?” was answered not by his looks or personality, but by his sheer force of presence. You may not actively like this Eccleston replacement, but he demands your attention . . . and meanwhile the other characters you love are still around. And that grants Tennant the time to grow into a Doctor you do like.

Rating: 3 Sycorax wolf masks

Favorite dialogue: Mickey: That’s fascinating, because I love hearing stories about the TARDIS. Ooh, go on Rose, tell us another one, ’cause I swear I could listen to it all day, TARDIS this, TARDIS that.
Rose: (grinning) Shut up.
Mickey: “Oh, and one time the TARDIS landed in a biiig yellow garden full of balloons!”

Me and my big mouth: thinking I’d never have to talk about the Slitheen mess again, back in the S1 summary

Featuring bits from: ST III, ST VI, SW V

Shoutout to: The late Adams Douglas Adams, when the Doctor mentions meeting Arthur Dent

Christmas rankings:
1. The Christmas Invasion