The Cosmic Hobo

Thoughts & reviews about the science fiction series Doctor Who.

Remembering Maggie Stables

Colin Baker & Maggie Stables

Colin Baker & Maggie Stables

I just read of the passing of Maggie Stables, and had to write something about such a wonderful member of the Doctor Who family. Those among you who have never had the pleasure of listening to a Big Finish audio play may not know who she was, but those who did will know how great a voice actress she was. She was absolutely among the best actors in Big Finish’s stable, and her primary role as Evelyn Smythe is easily among the most memorable of any characters in Doctor Who.

When I first saw the Sixth Doctor, I thought he was kind of funny. He was such a jerk to Peri that I couldn’t help but laugh, though I found him to be a bit one-note. The writing during his time on the show didn’t do him justice, and I read after the fact that he and the writers had a big plan in mind for his character, that he would soften and become warmer over time. This kind of ambition was really interesting, and Colin Baker finally had the opportunity to try that in his audio plays. Maggie Stables was a huge part of why Colin Baker is now one of the more memorable Doctors in the show’s history.

Evelyn Smythe was an older companion, which is something we hadn’t seen before, and she was the perfect counterbalance to Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. In the same way Sarah Jane forced the Fourth Doctor to be more human, Evelyn Smythe was able to bring out all the goodness in the Sixth Doctor. She wouldn’t take a single bit of his bullshit, and it made the Doctor a better person because of it. Maggie Stables completely killed it every time she was in a story. In the same way that Jenna Coleman now is able to carry entire episodes on the strength of her performance, Maggie Stables could do the exact same thing with her voice alone.

I’ve only actually heard about half of the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn audio plays, but I would already put her in my top ten favorite companions in the history of the franchise. Even in episodes that didn’t have a lot going for them, Stables was perfect. There were a few classics in the bunch, too, including “The Spectre of Lanyon Moor” (where the Sixth Doctor meets the Brig for the first time) and “Jubilee,” which would later be changed and adapted to become “Dalek,” a TV story that a lot of people seem to think is great. Having heard the original, I can’t help but see “Dalek” as a hollow imitation.

It seems that we’re saying goodbye to great people from Doctor Who far too often nowadays, and I’m afraid that there are a lot of Whovians out there who just aren’t aware of how great Maggie Stables was. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting her, I’ve heard nothing but good things about her as a person, and can vouch for the quality of her work myself. I’m so glad that I have so many hours left of Evelyn Smythe to hear for the very first time, and very sad that there will never be anymore. When I think “Sixth Doctor,” I think “Evelyn Smythe,” and I don’t see that ever changing. Thanks for all of your wonderful work, Ms. Stables.

Episode Review: Time Heist

DW Time Heist

I get that it’s hard to follow an amazing episode like “Listen,” but “Time Heist” ultimately felt hollow and uninteresting. In opposition to other episodes of Doctor Who which seem to get better on subsequent viewings, I actually enjoyed “Time Heist” less the second time around. It’s the sort of writing that doesn’t look good under any actual scrutiny, as the plot holes are vast and the supporting character archetypes are so generic that there’s essentially zero emotional investment.

The story revolves around the Doctor and Clara being forced to rob a bank, in a sort of crappy Whovian Oceans 11. There is an interesting alien, pictured above, which has the ability to feed on thoughts and help law enforcement figure out who is planning to commit crimes. It never feels particularly scary, though, as you never for a second think anyone important is in any kind of danger. This is where the crappy supporting characterization hurts the episode in a big way, as people who aren’t particularly well written getting picked off is never going to matter to me as a viewer.

Peter Capaldi is strong in this episode, and finally seems to be settling into the role. I wasn’t sold on him for the first three episodes, but he has at least climbed his way up to being a middle-of-the-pack Doctor for me. By this time in Matt Smith’s run, I was convinced that he was one of the greats, while Capaldi is actually occupying territory along the lines of David Tennant. Some good points, yes, but not particularly inspiring. He has moments of greatness but others where he could be more dynamic.

“Time Heist” basically fails in the same way that “Robot of Sherwood” did, but not nearly as spectacularly. It’s nice that the writers are trying to do something new to Doctor Who here, but “Time Heist” is pretty much forgettable and bland. The plot is uninteresting, the characters are crap, and the visual style is really the only area of the story where it stands out in any way. Unfortunately, this is probably the least important Clara has been in any of the episodes of the series so far, so she doesn’t even get a chance to save things as usual. A bit of a letdown.

Final Grade: C-

Episode Review: Listen

DW Listen

I hadn’t enjoyed Series 8 of Doctor Who up until this point. I thought “Deep Breath” was a bloated mess of pacing, “Into the Dalek” was too derivative to be compelling, and “Robot of Sherwood” was barely watchable garbage. “Listen” is so much better than those three preceding episodes that even comparing it to the previous parts of Series 8 is insulting to its pure awesomeness. What “The Girl Who Waited” was for the Eleventh Doctor, I feel that “Listen” is capable of being for the Twelfth, when all is said and done.

Spooky has been something that Doctor Who has done well since returning for the new series. Steven Moffat’s Weeping Angels are easily the greatest villains of the new show, and in general, Moffat has done creepy super well. “Listen” is arguably the scariest episode so far, and yet has so much more to it than most of the episodes that are just scary for the sake of creeping you out. “Listen” is about fear as a thing, and specifically the fear of nothingness. In some cases, this is the fear of what could be out there in the dark, and in others, it’s illogical anxiety and fear of simple social situations for no reason whatsoever. It has real backbone and substance to go with the thrills.

This episode wasn’t enough to singularly convince me that Peter Capaldi is awesome as the Doctor, but this is definitely the best he has been. He seems to flourish when things get scary and serious, whereas he comes across as clumsy when the humor is the focus; this is essentially the complete opposite to my opinion of the Fourth Doctor, who I like for comedy but groan about when gravitas is necessary. This episode doesn’t use much humor at all, and instead relies on good ol’ drama and horror elements to be compelling. More of these kind of stories is definitely something that Capaldi can knock out of the park. This episode is the first of his run that I felt had genuine wonderful and memorable Doctor Who moments, which is nice. Finally, something for his highlight reel.

Jenna Coleman is once again completely amazing and perfect. Although I adored the TARDIS team of the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory, I would say that I think Jenna as her own character may be my favorite Doctor Who companion ever. She has such versatility and the ability to carry entire episodes on her shoulders, something I don’t think we’ve ever really seen from a companion on the show. As much as I love past companions like Zoe Heriot, Sarah Jane Smith, and Ace, I think that Jenna Coleman as Clara is genuinely even better and more capable. She may not have the benefit of the chemistry of a combination like the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, or the Seventh Doctor and Ace, but as an actress she has just completely nailed it every single time. If there was a spinoff of “The Clara Oswald Adventures” I would not hesitate for a second to watch.

It seems ridiculous to recap the story of “Listen,” because the chances are you have already seen it or plan to soon. I thought it was wonderful, compelling, creepy, and just plain pure awesomeness from start to finish. I was starting to get bummed out about this year of Doctor Who, but I am pleased to report that Doctor Who is still completely capable of being amazing when everything works. This time, everything worked.

Final Grade: A

Episode Review: Robot of Sherwood

DW Robot of Sherwood

All of the early information about “Robot of Sherwood” left me hoping for some relief after the try-hard seriousness of “Into the Dalek.” It had the look of a good ol’ Doctor Who romp, with hopefully lots of fun to be had. Unfortunately, where there could have been amusement there is instead of a constant stream of banality, with humor that is more idiotic than amusing. It occasionally veers towards dramatic, but comes across as half-baked when it does. It’s really unfortunate, because I think “Robot of Sherwood” is a clear step back for a new Doctor who frankly REALLY didn’t need one.

Once again, there are a small handful of moments where Capaldi is an entertaining Doctor, but he mostly comes across as clumsy and awkward. He is still completely devoid of that signature whimsy that makes the Doctor such an interesting character. He comes across as more of a socially inept hermit rather than the alien he is, which may be the writing but also might just be that Capaldi isn’t good at being the Doctor. There’s still time to get better, but we’re already a quarter of the way through the series, so it’s not exactly boding well.

Jenna Coleman once again gets to be the focus, which is nice, but even she can’t save this episode. The plot is mostly boring and the guest stars are all in a perpetual state of chewing all of the scenery. It was foolish of me to expect better from Mark Gatiss, frankly, as he usually writes pretty weak episodes, with a few minor exceptions. This isn’t even as good as the middling “Night Terrors.” Hell, it’s not even as good as “Victory of the Daleks,” which would be the worst Dalek story of New Who if it wasn’t for “Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks”.

If I hadn’t already been a Doctor Who fan before this year, it’s pretty likely that this is the episode that would have had me saying “This show just isn’t for me. Sorry, I tried.” I’ve loved it so much in the past that I will stick with it, but “Robot of Sherwood” is among the worst episodes of new Who. Definitely deserving of consideration alongside “Fear Her” and “The Curse of the Black Spot” as the absolute nadir of the new series. Here’s to hoping things get better REALLY quickly.

Final Grade: D-

Episode Review: Into the Dalek

DW Into the Dalek

Daleks in general, appear to have run their course. I get why they were an appealing villain early on in the series, but the new series of Doctor Who has essentially done nothing interesting or new with these baddies. The closest they came was “Dalek,” but even that was just a retread of a superior audio story from Big Finish. “Into the Dalek” tries hard to do something new, and occasionally succeeds. It is strong not because of the Daleks themselves, however, but because of the way the Dalek is used to examine the Doctor’s own morality.

Peter Capaldi finally gets to be “his” Doctor for an entire episode in “Into the Dalek,” but Jenna Coleman once again steals the show as she continues to kill it as Clara. Capaldi has flashes of the unfeeling alien-ness of Tom Baker and the pretension of Pertwee, but still feels a bit clumsy and like he is missing the pivotal whimsy that makes the Doctor such an interesting character. Even Colin Baker, who was often criticized because his Doctor was such an asshole, at least had that flair and oddness that made the Doctor who he is. Capaldi, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have grabbed a hold of that yet, and the end result feels a bit flat.

The episode on the whole, however, is pretty good. There are a few great moments, including some funnier bits with the introduction of future companion Danny Pink. The whole idea of the episode, a “good” Dalek, has been done before in “Dalek,” but it takes a different route here. The Doctor, Clara, and a few redshirts have to be shrunk down with a special machine so they can actually enter the Dalek and see where the malfunction is that is making him appear to have all of that pesky morality. Whereas “Dalek” was a moral quandry brought on by Rose accidentally rebooting its system, Rusty (the name given to the Dalek by the Doctor) is not altered in any way other than a serious malfunction, which makes the conflict feel more like a logic puzzle.

The episode is fun and full of action, with the interesting revelation being that the Doctor’s singular hatred of the Daleks ultimately leads to part of his problem. Without actually spoiling it, I appreciated the ending and thought that it was good enough to justify the rest of the episode, which ultimately feels a little too much like a retread in parts to be really special. Once again, Jenna Coleman is holding things together while Capaldi is finding his feet as the Doctor, but in a series that is only 12 episodes long, he’s going to have to find ’em soon.

Final Grade: B-

Episode Review: Deep Breath

 

DW Deep Breath

Every time a new Doctor is introduced, there is naturally a lot of hullabaloo. The vast majority of fans, being who they are, are extraordinarily excited and act like the new guy is destined to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. This time around, I was part of the minority that was a little less excited, mostly because I think Matt Smith was the finest Doctor since at least Patrick Troughton, if not ever. He is a nearly impossible act to follow. Still, I forced myself to go into the new series with an open mind, convincing myself that it would be just as great because I trust Steven Moffat’s judgment when it comes to the direction of the series.

Not unlike “The Christmas Invasion,” the special that introduced us to David Tennant as the Doctor, “Deep Breath” relies a lot on supporting characters to keep things interesting while the Doctor is out of his mind or sleeping. It was a great idea to include Vastra, Jenny, and Strax in the festivities, as with the big change of a “new” Doctor coming along, it eases the transition for those of us with some concerns. Jenna Coleman was given a lot of room to flex and be awesome, and she pulls it off wonderfully. We were supposed to watch “Deep Breath” for Peter Capaldi’s debut but I ended up appreciating it more for Coleman’s excellence.

Despite the relatively long run time, we don’t get a lot of Peter Capaldi being his Doctor yet in “Deep Breath.” He is really disjointed for more than half of the episode, as he goes through the typical period where the Doctor is indisposed and still figuring out his own personality. He does have a couple of memorable scenes though, one where he harasses a homeless person and another towards the end when he faces off with the clockwork robot folks after Clara is temporarily captured. These villainous cyborgs make their second appearance, after also being the featured baddies in “The Girl in the Fireplace,” way back in Series 2 of New Who. They are okay, but hardly awe-inspiring, which is pretty much how I felt about “Deep Breath” as a whole.

There are a LOT of fans who were already singing Capaldi’s praises after “Deep Breath,” and I frankly don’t get it. The episode on the whole is decent, with some good comedy and a few other decent bits, but the pacing was pretty awful and Capaldi doesn’t really do much worth writing home about. I was glad to hear him using his Scottish accent (unlike David Tennant, who for some reason uses an English one despite actually being Scottish), but aside from a couple of chuckles there wasn’t much about it that I could get enthusiastic about. I’m thrilled that other fans are getting tons of enjoyment out of it, but it’s not there for me yet.

As everyone who cares knows by now, there’s a pretty wonderful cameo of Matt Smith right at the end. It’s handled perfectly, and is exactly what I as a viewer who loved Smith needed. Coleman once again shines, and there is definitely a moment where you’re forced to acknowledge that yes, Peter Capaldi is the Doctor. Between the appearances of Vastra, Strax, and Jenny, as well as the Smith cameo and Coleman’s performance, it felt like comfortable and familiar territory. Unfortunately, the episode is badly paced and ultimately not particularly exciting otherwise. Hoping things get better from here on out.

Final Grade: C-

Book Review: Ten Little Aliens by Stephen Cole

Doctor Who Ten Little AliensMilitary science fiction is not a sub-genre generally associated with Doctor Who, so Ten Little Aliens was a surprising choice to represent the First Doctor in the 50th Anniversary line of novel reprints. Stephen Cole is a well-established writer of tie-ins, though, and was once in charge of the entire line. Naturally, all of the writers represented by the reprints have written more than a few novels for Doctor Who.

In the new introduction in the reprinted edition, Cole describes his initial pitch for Ten Littlie Aliens as “Starship Troopers meets Agatha Christie.” It is important not to let the fact that Starship Troopers is one of the most overrated novels in the sci-fi canon make you think Ten Little Aliens isn’t worth reading. It has some early struggles, as the pacing is a bit slow and the huge supporting cast makes it difficult to keep track of everyone, but it hits its stride around a third of the way in.

The novel features the First Doctor traveling with Ben and Polly, a pair of companions that is unfortunately the victim of so many episodes being missing. In the fact, “The War Machines” is the only serial they appear in that is still in existence, and it isn’t a particularly good one. This makes tie-ins like Ten Little Aliens all the more important in getting more out of these characters. Ben is as annoying here as he is on the show, and Polly is likable and spunky as always, so the characterization is spot on.

Ten Little Aliens is more appealing for the action and intensity, rather than any sense of mystery. The TARDIS team are on a strange rock and run into a platoon of ten space marines, as they are at war with aliens called the Schirr. Things get interesting when soldiers start getting picked off one by one, and naturally this is something they want to prevent. The supporting characters that make it through the bulk of the text actually turn out to be really well-developed and interesting characters. They are much better than the typical cookie-cutter supporting cast.

This novel may end up being too intense for a lot of readers. It is definitely not a children’s Doctor Who story, and the violence and gore is worse than has ever been shown on screen in the franchise. Those who aren’t bothered by a bit of blood and guts will probably enjoy the intensity, but fans who like their Doctor Who a bit more innocent will probably find it off-putting. Being that this particular reviewer likes Doctor Who novels that have a bit of edge and try something different, Ten Little Aliens is definitely a memorable and worthwhile read.

Rating: B

This review was cross-posted to Hardcover Wonderland, a website about literature of all kinds.

Book Review: The Monsters Inside by Stephen Cole

Doctor Who The Monsters InsideThe Monsters Inside is very notable for being the first tie-in novel in the new series to be referenced directly in an episode. That basically makes it indisputably canon, and it’s a shame that a rather “meh” novel like this would get that honor. Stephen Cole is a very good writer, who has contributed great things to the Doctor Who mythos, but this isn’t one of them.

As if the “Aliens of London/World War Three” two-parter in the series itself wasn’t enough to establish that the Raxacoricofallapatorians are a terrible alien species, The Monsters Inside brings them back pretty quickly and drives the point home. They’re awful. Whether it’s the Slitheen or the “Blathereen,” as the primary problem family is called here, they are just useless and not interesting at all.

Luckily, Cole at the very least gets the characterization right. Unfortunately, this is not used to its full potential because Rose and the Doctor spend the majority of the storyline apart. This wouldn’t be so bad if the storyline were better, but it’s really not particularly interesting here. The Doctor and Rose accidentally land on a planet that is being used as an experimental prison colony, so they are forcibly imprisoned and spend the entirety of the novel trying to find their way out.

I love a good dystopian story, but The Monsters Inside never quite achieves the mood it should. The Doctor and Rose being forced into a space prison should feel a lot heavier than this story does, and that stops it from being as compelling as it could have been. There’s nothing wrong with the prose, supporting cast, and the rest of it, but the mood is all wrong and the Blathereen are just another family in a species of terrible aliens.

Rating: D+

Audio Review: Scherzo

Doctor Who Big Finish Scherzo“Scherzo” (Big Finish #52)
Written by Robert Shearman
Directed by Gary Russell
Featuring the Doctor and Charley

Although a bit of a disappointment coming from the writer of The Chimes of Midnight, Scherzo at the very least continues to show Paul McGann’s and India Fisher’s excellence in the Big Finish productions. Robert Shearman has obviously written better audios, but Scherzo isn’t completely without merit.

Scherzo is definitely firmly in the “Doctor Who dabbles in horror” section of the mythos, and recalls The Edge of Destruction in that the only cast members are the the Doctor and his companion. It’s not TARDIS centric the way that television story was, but it is a creepy horror story with an unseen enemy. There are some genuinely unsettling moments, but most of the scares come from sudden waves of noise that make you jump. Essentially, cheap thrills.

Luckily, this audio play doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Adding up to a tidy 90 minutes, it might have been pretty bad if it were stretched out any more. It manages to be enjoyable on the strength of the performances, as the team of the Eighth Doctor and Charley is quickly rocketing up my list of favorite TARDIS teams. Being that they only have each other to act against, this would be one of the bigger challenges they have had so far. In the end, Scherzo is not one of the best audio plays Big Finish has produced, but it is solid and worthwhile for McGann and Fisher.

Rating: C

Book Review: 50th Anniversary Stories – The Nameless City by Michael Scott

DW Michael Scott The Nameless CityIn celebration of the 50th anniversary, Puffin Books are releasing eBook exclusive novelettes on a monthly basis. The series, which started in January, is representing every individual incarnation of the Doctor with their own story. The Nameless City, written by Michael Scott, is the second entry.

The story follows the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon, probably setting the story in Season 6B, as they are thrust into intense danger upon being gifted a strange book that predates known time. The plot has a sort of “Doctor Who meets Lovecraft” feel, and it really works. Scott, who is probably best known as the writer of the Nicholas Flamel series of novels, clearly has a strong understanding of his main characters and does a wonderful job of establishing mood.

Because of the inherent brevity of the books in the series, it is difficult to have too much in terms of background or character. Still, The Nameless City makes the best of its low word count, showing Jamie and the Doctor at their best while still being surprisingly thrilling for a book aimed at younger readers. Naturally, it is fast paced, but doesn’t feel rushed at all. Although it doesn’t have the excellence of longer Second Doctor novels like The Murder Game or Dreams of Empire, there is a lot to enjoy in the story.

Because of the word limit, the ending feels like it comes on very suddenly. Still, there is adequate foreshadowing of the solution. If this story had about double the room to work with, it could have been a much higher echelon Doctor Who story. Still, it has a lot more good about it than bad. The entirety of the series of stories will be collected at the end of the year, but this particular novelette is worth discovering beforehand. Second Doctor fans specifically will be pleased with the characterization.

Rating: B-

P.S.: This review has been cross-posted, in a slightly altered form, to Hardcover Wonderland, my new website that covers books of all kinds. Book reviews I write regarding Who will find their way to this blog in modified form. I’m hoping to getting back to reviewing other stuff soon, too.

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