SciFi Weekend: Prospects For Doctor Who Looking Better, A Look At The Last Three Episodes; Star Trek Calypso; Stan Lee Dies

We now have three more episodes of Doctor Who since my last full review, and I am now feeling more optimistic about the series under Chris Chibnall. The first of these three however, The Tsuranga Conundrum, had me still wondering about story plots. If Steven Moffat tended to try to throw out too many big ideas in his stories, I felt like The Tsuranga Conundrum just had too many small stories thrown together.

The episode followed a common formula of getting the Doctor and companions into an alien base or spaceship, and then fight a menace. This was done in a unique manner as they were wounded in a sonic minefield, and then picked up by a hospital ship. This is the second time this season that they faced a near death situation, but were picked up by others.

The Doctor was asked what she is a Doctor of:  “Medicine, science, engineering, candyfloss, lego, philosophy, people, hope. Mostly hope.” We were also treated to a lesson on antimatter, in which the ship’s engine was described as  “the iPhone of CERN reactors.”

The alien menace, Pting, gave the feeling that they were battling Stitch. Pting isn’t directly menacing, but does eat everything, and is invulnerable to any form of weapons. Therefore the danger was that the ship would be eaten away while they were in space. The other danger turned out to be the ship’s own self-destruct system, leading to the obvious solution of feeding the bomb to Pting, and punting him out into space.

The heart of the episode was meeting the other patients, such as a male in labor. On his planet males gave birth to males, and females gave birth to females. As I said, it was an episode of lots of small ideas.

The meeting with another patient demonstrated that another Moffat-era idea is totally gone. At the conclusion of The Wedding of River Song, Matt Smith’s Doctor felt he had become too big: “I got too big. Too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.” He started to write himself out of history in a big Moffat idea which never really went anywhere, and seemed to be forgotten in the Capaldi era. We saw that this idea is totally dead when the Doctor met General Cicero, who spoke about how the Doctor had a chapter in The Book of Celebrants, which appears to be a record of major heros in the galaxy. The Doctor responded, “I’d say it was more a volume than a chapter.” So much for writing himself/herself out of history.

My hopes for the series increased tremendously with Demons of the Punjab. The episode is the second historical drama of the season. It has similarities to Rosa, except is about a topic which Americans such as myself are likely to know far less about. The story begins when Yaz requests to see her grandmother Umbreen when younger, and the Doctor agrees to go back for one hour, with no interfering. That was an early clue that they would be there for far more than an hour, and would wind up getting involved in the events. This includes officiating the wedding (which she has also done for Albert Einstein).

The title of the episode, and much of the early action, was total misdirection. Initially it seemed that the aliens were the menace, and the goal would be, like in Rosa, to prevent an outsider from altering what should occur. Instead it turned out that the Vajarians, while initially assassins, had changed their goal to become witnesses for the unseen dead in response to the destruction of their own planet. (I wonder if they ever bump into the beings seen in Twice Upon A Time who harvested the memories of the dead.)

While Krasko might have been a villain in Rosa, the true villain of the episode was racism, and Krasko was removed from the story before the end. The Vajarians remained, but were shown not to be a threat well before the end of this episode. The demons were actually the humans, and the religious division and hatred, turning brother against brother. I wonder if the story might have been even stronger if left as a pure historical drama, but apparently it was felt that some sort of alien threat was needed for an episode of Doctor Who.

The author was certainly interested in the history and appears capable of writing an episode based on this. Vinay Patel tweeted, “There are so many stories to be told about Partition – this is only one, and whilst it was an honour to tell it, I’d urge you to seek out more. Hopefully the previous tweets will help with that. Thanks for having me in the Whoniverse.” This included a tweet with a few of the many books he read to research this episode.

This might not be the only episode in which the title was a red herring. Just as the demons were not the monsters in the title of this episode, was The Woman Who Fell To Earth the Doctor, as we first thought, or was it Grace, who fell to her death?

The episode was also like Rosa in that the characters had to allow history play out. It was hard for Graham to be a part of the events of Rosa, sitting in the front of the bus, and now hard to watch Brem get shot. Failing to allow events to play out would not have hindered the civil rights movement like in Rosa, but could have prevented Yaz from ever being born.

Besides showing more about Yaz’s family history, there was more fun interplay between the Doctor and companions. Last week the Doctor awarded points. This week Ryan earned a gold star. Will this drive sticklers for continuity crazy?

We have already seen that the Doctor is more kind and nurturing than Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. In this episode she claimed that she is too kind because her predecessor told her to be kind, referring to the speech in Twice Upon A Time just before the regeneration.

The Vajarians also turned out to be much like the Doctor, who was initially shown in the revival of the series to be the last of his kind after the destruction of his planet. Of course we now know that the story is more complex. This sense of loss fits in well with the works of Chris Chibnall, with Broadchurch being largely about the effects of the loss suffered by Jodie Whittaker’s character after the murder of her son.

My optimism for the future of the series increased further in seeing today’s episode, which I will not say much about to avoid spoilers as it has not yet aired in the United States. Kerblam! is in many ways the best episode of Doctor Who this season. Rosa and Demons of the Punjab might have been better in terms of dealing with serious historical issues, but Kerblam! felt the most like a good old fashioned fun Doctor Who science fiction story. More on this episode next week.

The second Short Trek is written by Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Chabon along with Discovery staff writer Sean Cochran. Charbron wrote this story based upon the story of Odysseus landing on the Isle of Calypso from The Odyssey. The protagonist, Craft, is in an escape pod picked up by the Discovery one-thousand years in the future. The crew is gone, but there is an AI named Zora who is delighted to have the company after having been alone. We never learned why the Discovery is abandoned. Most likely we will never know this, but it is possible that there are plans to tie this into the events of a future episode. We also do not know how or when ship computers become as advanced as Zora, the AI in this episode.

Syfy Wire discussed the episode with Michael Chabron who suggested that “all of the computers in Trek lore have the ability to do what Zora does in this episode, but maybe they’ve just been suppressed.”

“In my mind, in the 1,000 years she’s been alone, she may have been all kinds of people, a whole library of personas. But Zora is the one she chooses to present to Craft,” Chabon told SYFY WIRE. “She had a lot of time on her hands and went through many incarnations. She may have had a male persona and a female persona and all kinds of persona. She also consumes massive amounts of media. Every film ever made. I mean, a starship like that could have a media library representing the cultural output of hundreds of civilizations over tens of thousands of years.

“So she’s kind of become an expert on how human emotion works, how moral quandaries work and how that kind of thing manifests itself. She’s made a study of it, and so she’s able to produce this magnificent persona. That’s what she’s been doing with herself.”

He discussed artificial intelligence further in the interview:

“At what point does a synthetic intelligence become so indistinguishable from a human consciousness that we have no choice but to acknowledge this as human?” Chabon says. “I wanted this guy to be confronted with a kind of indisputable reality. And he brings it on himself when he invites her to represent herself. Up until that point… He’s safe. But at that point, he can’t deny that she is a person in some way and that he is attracted to her.”

The ending of the episode finds Zora releasing Craft from exile aboard the empty USS Discovery. We have no idea why the ship is empty or whether this even is the version of the Discovery we know so well. The episode isn’t interested in answering any of those questions, just telling a story. Having said that, Chabon does seem to casually suggest a huge change to Star Trek canon. Are the computers aboard all these starships capable of becoming this self-aware?

“We don’t have any kind of indication from Discovery that the ship’s computer is that much more nuanced than ships’ computers have tended to be on Star Trek for a while,” he says. “I don’t think we ever see characters interacting with the ship like it was a person. Maybe that’s done by design? So maybe that’s how ship’s computers are intended to be. And maybe there’s some kind of discouragement in place to keep them from becoming too human in some way.”

Chabron is also a writer for the upcoming series based on Jean-Luc Picard. Seeing his work in this brief episode makes me optimistic about the upcoming series.

There is also talk that Michelle Yeoh might also star in a future Star Trek series on CBS All Access. Most likely it will continue stories of the Mirror universe Captain Philippa Georgiou in Section 31.

The biggest genre story of the week was the recent death of Stan Lee. It should not be necessary to say anything regarding the importance of his work. I09 has accumulated some of the many tributes to Stan Lee.

Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL in 2001, A Space Odyssey, also died recently.

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