Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 4

The adventures of Victorian Toronto’s most scientifically-minded detective continue in Murdoch Mysteries season 4, and we’re here to rate them.

  1. “Tattered and Torn” – 4
  2. “Kommando” – 5
  3. “Buffalo Shuffle” – 5.5
  4. “Downstairs, Upstairs” – 6.5
  5. “Monsieur Murdoch” – 4
  6. “Dead End Street” – 10
  7. “Confederate Treasure” – 7.5
  8. “Dial M for Murdoch” – 5
  9. “The Black Hand” – 5.5
  10. “Voices” – 6
  11. “Bloodlust” – 7
  12. “The Kissing Bandit” – 6
  13. “Murdoch in Wonderland” – 5.5

The average rating for this season is 6, down a little bit from last season’s 6.6, but still perfectly respectable. This season represents a good mix of the usual Murdoch fare: there’s a Victorian-flavored version of a contemporary-feeling story (“Kommando,” about soldiers experiencing frightening side effects of experimental drugs), Murdoch-ized takes on popular modern shows and movies (“Downstairs, Upstairs,” about a murder in a house full of servants, and “Dial M for Murdoch” about a telephone operator who thinks she overhears a murder), nineteenth-century international intrigue (“Confederate Treasure,” about the hunt for a missing fortune in gold from the time of the American Civil War), and Murdoch inventing modern technologies (sonar in “Confederate Treasure,” image scanning in “Monsieur Murdoch”). This season also brings us a tedious new turn in the will-they-or-won’t-they tease of Murdoch and Dr. Julia Ogden, as Dr. Ogden moves away from Toronto, moves back, and marries her new beau Dr. Darcy Garland, while Detective Murdoch wallows in uninteresting tongue-tied despair. Still, all in all, a solid season of Murdoch.

The lowest-rating episodes this season are a couple of 4s: “Tattered and Torn,” in which the discovery of multiple mutilated bodies encased in concrete leads Detective Murdoch to revisit an old rape and murder case, and “Monsieur Murdoch,” in which Murdoch investigates the disappearance of a young French woman who may not be who claimed to be at all. There is nothing particularly wrong with either of these episodes. Both are perfectly competent, but they are also both a little lacking. The pacing sags a bit, the casting is a little off, and the conclusions don’t entirely live up to the promise of the opening mysteries. Still, even these lesser efforts of Murdoch are fun to watch and worth coming back to now and then.

On the other hand, this season has one outstanding episode that gets a full 10 from us: “Dead End Street,” in which Murdoch discovers the clues to a murder in an intricate model of a neighborhood made by a woman who does not communicate in any other way. This case unfolds quietly but intricately as Murdoch faces the challenge of learning about the crime from a witness with an extraordinarily detailed recall of events, but whom he cannot question. Liisa Repo-Martell delivers a powerful guest performance as the model-building woman, conveying the deep intelligence and sensitivity of a person who relates to the world around her in a way very unlike her neighbors.

All in all, an excellent season of Murdcoh, with a lot worth coming back to.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

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Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 3

Onward to season 3 of Murdoch Mysteries we go, rewatching and rating each episode. Here’s our take:

  1. “The Murdoch Identity” – 8
  2. “The Great Wall” – 6
  3. “Victor, Victorian” – 6.5
  4. “Rich Boy, Poor Boy” – 6
  5. “Me, Myself & Murdoch” – 8.5
  6. “This One Goes to Eleven” – 7.5
  7. “Blood and Circuses” – 5
  8. “Future Imperfect” – 4
  9. “Love and Human Remains” – 9
  10. “The Curse of Beaton Manor” – 7
  11. “Hangman” – 6
  12. “In the Altogether” – 4
  13. “ The Tesla Effect” – 8

The average rating for this season is a strong 6.6, a bit up even from last season’s quite good 6.2. Season 3 continues to build on the series’ strengths—complex mysteries, whimsical humor, and an eye for finding Victorian equivalents to modern issues—while also striking out in some new ways. One innovation this season is the introduction of an ongoing plot surrounding the newly-introduced character of James Pendrick, a visionary inventor who keeps getting tangled up in Detective Murdoch’s investigations. Starting halfway through the season, Mr. Pendrick’s misadventures lead up to a surprise finale that changes our perception of him and the preceding episodes in clever ways.

Unfortunately, the Pendrick storyline also gives us the two lowest-rated episodes of this season, both rating 4: “Future Imperfect,” in which Murdoch and company intersect with H. G. Wells and the eugenics movement, and “In the Altogether,” in which prostitutes and pornographers are caught up in a blackmailing scandal. Each episode has its merits and good moments, but they are dragged down by the need to serve the unfolding Pendrick drama, which leaves too little room for their own individual stories to develop.

By contrast, the best episode of the season, “Love and Human Remains,” at 9, tells a story that, for all its small and self-contained scope, offers a bounty of human drama and investigative intrigue. When the bodies of a murdered couple turn up at a building site, Murdoch goes digging through the past, peeling back layers of time to uncover a story of cruelty, desperation, and, ultimately, the triumph of love over adversity. It is one of the rare mysteries where you want the crime to be solved, but you end up glad that it goes unpunished.

Honorable mention goes to “Me, Myself & Murdoch,” the second best episode of the season at 8.5, which offers a similarly tangled tale of murder, abuse, mental illness, and the unbreakable bonds of love. In this episode, which nods to the historical Lizzie Borden case, a young woman is suspected of having murdered her father with an axe, only to turn out to have multiple personalities whose different perspectives allow Murdoch to piece together an older, even more grisly crime. Guest star Anastasia Phillips gives a virtuoso performance as the young woman under suspicion, whose shifts in personality from terrified to terrifying are amazing to watch.

Murdoch Mysteries remains a pleasure to watch and rewatch.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

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Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 2

Here we go, rewatching and rating season 2 of Murdoch Mysteries, the Canadian show about a scientifically-minded detective in Victorian Toronto.

  1. “Mild, Mild West” – 7.5
  2. “Snakes and Ladders” – 4
  3. “Dinosaur Fever” – 5.5
  4. “Houdini Whodunnit” – 4
  5. “The Green Muse” – 5
  6. “Shades of Grey” – 5
  7. “Big Murder on Campus” – 7.5
  8. “I, Murdoch” – 8
  9. “Convalescence” – 8
  10. “Murdoch.com” – 7
  11. “Let Us Ask the Maiden” – 6
  12. “Werewolves” – 6
  13. “Anything You Can Do…” – 7

Season 2 makes a strong showing with an average rating of 6.2, improving on season 1’s 5.3. While there are no truly outstanding episodes this season, there are none that really falter, either. Everything works pretty well. The characters continue to develop, building on the strengths of the first season, and this season offers further opportunities for Murdoch to tinker with technology that’s ahead of its time, for Dr. Ogden to assert herself in a man’s world, and for Constable Crabtree to pursue outlandish theories.

The lowest-rated episodes this season are a pair of 4s, “Snakes and Ladders,” about a serial killer who may be Jack the Ripper in Toronto, and “Houdini Whodunnit,” in which the titular magician is suspected of plotting a bank robbery. Neither of these episodes is really bad, but both suffer from some weaknesses. “Snakes and Ladders” turns us off because we’ve really lost interest in serial killer narratives, but it still works as an episode. “Houdini Whodunnit” has a clever heist for Murdoch to unravel, but is hampered by some uninspired guest performances, especially in the role of the great magician himself. Still, even these episodes have their moments.

The best of the season is a pair of 8s, “I, Murdoch,” in which a daring assassination in the streets of Toronto leads to an international conspiracy and an early attempt at robotics, and “Convalescence,” in which Detective Murdoch uncovers a daring plot while laid up in bed after a fall off a rooftop. Each of these episodes offers a great example of something Murdoch Mysteries does well: “I, Murdoch” gives us a steampunk-ish Victorian story of intrigue with a twist (and a clever nod to Marvel’s Iron Man franchise), while “Convalescence” lets us watch Murdoch think and tinker in a tale that is no less thrilling for being slow-paced.

This season throws a wrench into the budding romance between William Murdoch and Julia Ogden, as the devout Murdoch, who hopes to some day be a father, discovers that Dr. Ogden had an abortion when she was younger and now cannot have children. Unlike most such will-they-or-won’t-they narrative ploys, this one taps into real emotional issues and treats both characters with dignity and respect.

This season also adds some side characters to the series, some of whom we’ll see again and some we won’t. Dr. Ogden’s sister Ruby will pop up again now and then, though Detective Murdoch’s half brother Jasper Linney won’t. Physics student James Gillies makes his first appearance here, only to reappear a few times in later seasons.

Season 2 is a worthy continuation of season 1, and it prepares the way for more great adventures yet to come.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

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Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 1

Our next series up for rewatching and rating is Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show about a scientifically-minded detective at the turn of the twentieth century. This show combines the spirit of Sherlock Holmes with a touch of steampunk as Detective Murdoch loves to tinker and invents everything from the lie detector to internet catfishing in the service of Victorian crimefighting. Here’s our take on the first season:

  1. “Power” – 6
  2. “The Glass Ceiling” – 4
  3. “The Knockdown” – 6
  4. “Elementary, My Dear Murdoch” – 4
  5. “Till Death Do Us Part” – 5.5
  6. “Let Loose the Dogs” – 4.5
  7. “Body Double” – 5.5
  8. “Still Waters” – 6
  9. “Belly Speaker” – 2
  10. “Child’s Play” – 5.5
  11. “Bad Medicine” – 5.5
  12. “The Rebel and the Prince” – 4.5
  13. “The Annoying Red Planet” – 10

Murdoch Mysteries gets off to a good start with an average rating of 5.3, modest but respectable. It takes the series a while to warm up as the actors find their roles, but by the end of the season our favorites are all on the screen: the thoughtful, soft-spoken Detective Murdoch; the erudite, self-assured medical examiner Dr. Ogden; the pugnacious Inspector Brackenreid; and the whimsical but good-hearted Constable Crabtree. This season mostly plays as a fairly standard police show, just set a century ago, but by the end of the season you can see the team starting to have fun with the series’ trademark of transposing modern ideas into a Victorian setting, suitably adapted to the society and technology of the time.

Most of this season’s episodes are solidly in the middle range from 4 to 6, competent but not always inspired, but there are two outliers, one in each direction. The lowest-rated episode is “Belly Speaker,” a 2, about a mentally disturbed ventriloquist who seems to be confessing to murder through his dummy. This episode was probably meant to be a tense psychological thriller that keeps the audience guessing, but it’s just a one-trick pony. One-trick ponies can be entertaining if the trick is good enough, but this one’s trick is a puppet with a bad attitude and a super annoying voice. It’s not enough.

On the other hand, the season goes out with a bang in “The Annoying Red Planet,” at a full 10, in which a dead body mysteriously lodged in a tree leads to fears of alien visitation and an international conspiracy. This episode deftly weaves together contemporary speculations about life on Mars and phantom airships with the tropes of modern political thrillers and UFO narratives. It also introduces one the series’ most delightful recurring characters in the mysterious man in (a) black (top hat), Terrence Myers.

It’s a good start to Murdoch Mysteries, showing the series’ potential while also leaving room to grow.

Are you a Murdoch fan? Got a take of your own on season 1? Let us know!

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

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Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We’ve taken a bit of a swerve in our rewatching and rating project. In between tv series, we’ve decided to take a run at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on Phase 1:

  1. Iron Man – 7
  2. The Incredible Hulk – 2
  3. Iron Man 2 – 6
  4. Thor – 4
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger – 8
  6. The Avengers – 10

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The overall average is 6.2, which is perfectly respectable, but the range is all over the place, from pretty bad to meh to awesome.

You can tell that Marvel was still figuring out how to make not only a new kind of superhero movie but a new kind of movie franchise. The early installations are stand-alone, fairly slow-paced, and self-contained. We can still remember how exciting it felt to have a minor character like Agent Coulson pop up in multiple movies that weren’t sequels. Nowadays we don’t even get out of bed for a Marvel movie that doesn’t have at least three tie-in characters and a place in the ongoing arc of the Phase.

The Incredible Hulk, the largely forgotten Marvel movie, is on the bottom of the heap at 2. Formulaic and uninspired, the story drags itself from one obligatory action scene to another. Having seen Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner, Edward Norton feels flat and unsympathetic. So much backstory is assumed that this movie feels like a sequel to something we’ve never seen (it takes care not to step on Ang Lee’s previous Hulk movie without actually picking up on its story in any meaningful way). Although there are some bright spots in this movie, like the visually thrilling foot chase through a Brazilian favela, you can see why we haven’t gotten another stand-alone Hulk movie.

We’re lucky that Marvel hedged its bets on launching the MCU with two movies instead of just one. Iron Man delivers much of what The Incredible Hulk lacks. While the story is still relatively straightforward and follows a predictable Hollywood three-act structure, it is more competently handled and more subtly embellished than Hulk. We get to see Tony Stark tinker and iterate not only on his suit designs but on his ethics and sense of self, which is makes his character much more interesting to watch than Banner, who has no real character development in his own movie. Robert Downey Jr. sells the character of Tony Stark as a flawed genius grappling with the consequences of his own choices.

Iron Man 2 carries on the good work of the original without adding much to it and begins the unfortunate trend of Marvel movies whose plot is driven by Tony Stark’s emotional issues. Thor has some beautiful art design and fun character moments, but mostly ends up feeling like the product of too many compromises.

Captain America: The First Avenger delivers a solid origin story not only for its eponymous hero but for the whole Marvel universe as well. With an alternate-version World War II dominated by Hydra’s experiments with cosmic technology and an American super soldier, the ground is prepared for a modern world of superpeople. Chris Evans’s performance takes a character who could be flat and sanctimonious and makes him charming.

But it is The Avengers, at a full 10, that crowns Phase 1. Joss Whedon’s last great work before his descent into self-satisfied mediocrity, The Avengers is a superhero movie that takes not only the idea of superheroes but the idea of a superhero movie seriously. The characters have both emotional depth and clear motivations. Their conflicts arise not from plot contrivance but from conflicting world-views and emotional needs. And they smash alien monsters together real good.

Got a different take on Marvel’s first hexalogy? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Still from The Avengers via IMDb

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Rating: Doctor Who, Season 9

We’re back at it again, rewatching and rating another season of new series Doctor Who. Here’s our take on season 9.

  1. “The Magician’s Apprentice” – 4
  2. “The Witch’s Familiar” – 3
  3. “Under the Lake” – 6.5
  4. “Before the Flood” – 6.5
  5. “The Girl Who Died” – 4
  6. “The Woman Who Lived” – 4.5
  7. “The Zygon Invasion” – 2
  8. “The Zygon Inversion” – 2
  9. “Sleep No More” – 1
  10. “Face the Raven” – 1.5
  11. “Heaven Sent” – 5
  12. “ Hell Bent” – 2

This season is a real come down, with an average rating of just 3.5, the lowest yet. There are some reasons why many of this season’s episodes don’t rate very well. The showrunners made the interesting choice of making almost every episode in the season a two-parter. (Only “Sleep No More” stands alone.) This has the potential of allowing for more expansive and complex storytelling, which pays off in “Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood,” but in other cases, like “The Magician’s Apprentice” / “The Witch’s Familiar” and “The Zygon Invasion” / “The Zygon Inversion,” what we get is an episode-and-a-half worth of story with the Doctor filibustering to fill out the time.

The lowest-rated episode of the season is “Sleep No More,” which is trying to be a claustrophobic monsters-in-space horror story with a twist, but which can’t escape the absurdity of its premise. Doctor Who has managed to make a lot of mundane things scary, from children in gas masks to angel statues to repeated words, but this was a stretch too far. It doesn’t matter how much first-person shaky-cam footage you use or how much running through darkened hallways your characters do, there is just no way to make the crud that builds up at the corner of your eye when you sleep scary.

Special mention goes to the “Zygon Invasion / Inversion” two-parter, for being not only badly written and poorly paced but also having some troubling undertones. This pair of episodes picks up on the 50th anniversary special which ended with a colony of Zygons—shape-changing aliens that can mimic other life forms—settled on Earth in human form. Here, a splinter group of Zygons refuses to maintain the charade and begins waging a violent campaign against humans and conforming Zygons. The episode ends with the rebel Zygons agreeing to remain in human form. On one hand, the reversion to the status quo is necessary if the series is not prepared to deal with the ongoing consequences of a world full of humans finding themselves living next to starfish-like aliens. On the other hand, the implications of telling a group of immigrants that they can’t live openly and must hide their identity by conforming entirely to the culture of their new home is unsettling in these days of rising nativism and anti-immigrant hate. This is not the open-hearted, compassionate Doctor Who that we are used to.

The best episodes of the season are the two-parter “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” both at 6.5. In this episode, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in an underwater station where a crashed alien ship is killing the crew and turning their ghosts into transmitters. It’s an intriguing mystery that develops slowly as the Doctor pieces together the clues. This episode is reminiscent of the season 2 two-parter “The Impossible Planet” / “The Satan Pit,” with the Doctor facing off against an ancient evil that uses written language to infect the crew of the station.

This is as far as we’ve gotten in our Doctor Who rewatching project. We’ll update with season 10 when we get around to it, and we’re looking forward to the upcoming season 11 and checking out Jodie Whittaker’s take on the wandering Gallifreyan.

This just wasn’t the season for us. How did it work for you? Feel differently about the season as a whole or an episode in particular? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who season 9 cover via IMDb

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Rating: Doctor Who, Season 8

We have carried on our rewatching and rating to season 8 of the modern Doctor Who. Here’s our take:

  1. “Deep Breath” – 5.5
  2. “Into the Dalek” – 5
  3. “Robot of Sherwood” – 2
  4. “Listen” – 1.5
  5. “Time Heist” – 5
  6. “The Caretaker” – 3
  7. “Kill the Moon” – 6
  8. “Mummy on the Orient Express” – 6.5
  9. “Flatline” – 5.5
  10. “In the Forest of the Night” – 5
  11. “Dark Water” – 1.5
  12. “Death in Heaven” – 1.5

The average rating this season comes out to exactly 4, which is weak but not terrible. This comes in as the second-lowest-rated season after season 5, at 3.7. This season’s episodes are all over the place, which for Doctor Who is not a bad thing. Not all of the episodes work, but we appreciate the willingness to try out strange ideas, unexpected settings, and dramatically different moods.

This season also introduces Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, and it’s a bit of a shaky start. Capaldi’s intensity is a nice change from Matt Smith’s quirky detachment, but too often it manifests as anger. As that anger often gets focused on Clara, we have the uncomfortable dynamic of a young woman saddled with the emotional labor of managing a cranky older man’s moods, and one begins to wonder if someone in the production team is having a bit of a temper tantrum about changing gender dynamics in the workplace. Still, straight out of the gate, Capaldi is more convincing as the Doctor than Smith ever was.

Three episodes are tied for our lowest rating of the season, at 1.5. The first is “Listen,” an ambitiously strange episode that tries to recapture the atmospheric spookiness of the classic “Blink,” but falls flat. The Doctor is looking for a creature so good at hiding that no one has ever seen it. This intriguing setup leads to a disjointed series of maybe / maybe-not monster hunts that for some reason revolve around Clara’s fellow teacher and potential boyfriend Danny Pink. Despite some well-written and tensely-directed individual scenes, the episode remains too unfocused and too committed to the is-it-or-isn’t-it schtick to develop any meaningful narrative drive or reach any satisfying conclusion. The pieces of the puzzle lie scattered on the floor, refusing to come together and make a picture.

The other two 1.5s are the obligatory concluding two-parter “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven,” in which the latest regeneration of the Doctor’s old nemesis, the Master—now female and going by Missy—reveals that she has been hijacking dead people to make liquid cybermen out of their bodies so that she can make the Doctor uncomfortable by… you know, nothing about the plot of these episodes makes any sense, or, really, matters. Michelle Gomez has a blast chewing the scenery as Missy (and provides a valuable canonical precedent for Time Folks gender-flipping during regeneration), but as usual in this series, the Master’s overly contrived plans just come off as a juvenile play for attention. As tends to happen on Doctor Who, putting the whole world in peril actually serves to lower the stakes, rather than raise them, and this season’s ender comes off as more petty than anything else.

At the other end of the scale, “Mummy on the Orient Express” is the best episode of the season, at 6.5. In this episode, a version of the Orient Express train flying through space is plagued by the appearance of a legendary monster only visible to its victims. On one hand, this episode would have benefited from some more development. Unlike on the replica Titanic of “The Voyage of the Damned,” we never get any kind of explanation as to why a space train in the future is a replica of the Orient Express with all the guests wearing period clothing. The guest cast, though excellent, is underused, and the ending leaves a huge plot thread conspicuously dangling. On the other hand, there are a lot of strong elements. The mystery is intriguing and its resolution neatly ties up the clues. The pacing runs along smoothly, and the device of an on-screen timer counting down the mummy’s attack is cleverly used to build tension. For mystery fans, there is also a subtle nod to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, as what seems like a train full of strangers turns out to have been assembled for a very particular purpose.

What’s your take on this season? Does Capaldi do it for you? Is “Listen” just your cup of tea? Not enthused by the mummy on the space train? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who season 8 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 7

We’re back at it, rewatching and rating season 7 of new-series Doctor Who. Here’s our take on this season’s episodes:

  1. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” – 1.5
  2. “Asylum of the Daleks” – 6
  3. “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” – 5
  4. “A Town Called Mercy” – 5
  5. “The Power of Three” – 2
  6. “The Angels Take Manhattan” – 3
  7. “The Snowmen” – 6.5
  8. “The Bells of Saint John” – 6.5
  9. “The Rings of Akhaten” – 3
  10. “Cold War” – 5
  11. “Hide” – 6.5
  12. “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” – 2
  13. “The Crimson Horror” – 4
  14. “Nightmare in Silver” – 4
  15. “The Name of the Doctor” – 3

The average rating for this season is an unimpressive 4.2, a slight comedown from season 6’s 4.4, though better than season 5’s 3.7. On the whole, this season just feels half-baked. There are some great ideas here that are just wasted on meandering, unfocused, episodes. An evil living sun! A Martian warrior on a Soviet submarine at the height of the cold war! Dinosaurs on a freakin’ spaceship! All of these ideas must have sounded great when first pitched, but the episodes developed from them just feel like underdeveloped first drafts. There are also some episodes that start out with great potential and then just flop. Mysterious black cubes appear all over the world and no one knows what they do! A pulp crime novel predicts the future! Despite their promising starts, these episodes just fizzle out in the end. Many of these episodes feel like they could have been standouts if more attention had been paid to developing the script.

At the bottom of the heap this time around is the Christmas episode “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” at 1.5, about the Doctor trying to inject some delight into the lives of a grieving family by giving the children a magical trip to a winter wonderplanet. This episode’s problems are many, including misplaced comedy, uninteresting characters, and mediocre child acting. The biggest problems, though, run deeper. The whimsy is forced, and the story never quite decides how close it wants to hew to the C. S. Lewis original. Unlike some of this season’s other disappointing episodes, it’s hard to see this one’s problems being solved with another draft or two.

For best episodes of the season, it’s a three-way tie among “The Snowmen,” “The Bells of Saint John,” and “Hide,” all at a decent-if-not-outstanding 6.5. “The Snowmen” finds the Doctor grieving the loss of his companions Amy and Rory by hiding out in Victorian London, while sentient snow threatens a family whose governess is one version of Clara Oswald. “The Bells of Saint John” brings the Doctor and Clara together properly with a story of a nefarious company stealing people’s minds through wi-fi. “Hide” is a ghost-hunting story with a time-travel twist.

All of these episodes have their strengths. “The Snowmen” does a better job playing with it’s Mary Poppins inspiration than “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” does with Narnia. It also allows Clara’s character plenty of room to breathe and brings back the ever-delightful Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. “The Bells of Saint John” is a tightly-paced paranoia thriller with lots of good action (even though the wi-fi mind-stealing plot never makes the least bit of sense). “Hide” begins as an atmospheric haunted house story that slowly unfolds to reveal surprising layers of complexity. While they all could have done with a bit more development, there are satisfying moments in each.

There are also some good long-term developments this season. Curious, resourceful Clara is a much more enjoyable companion to watch than Amy the bully. There is also much less hero-worshiping of the Doctor than in previous seasons.

That’s our take on Doctor Who‘s seventh season. What’s yours? Do you have favorites (or unfavorites) this season? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who Season 7 cover via IMDb

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Rating: Doctor Who, Season 6

Our rewatching and rating project carries on with season 6 of new-series Doctor Who. Here’s our ratings for this season’s episodes:

  1. “A Christmas Carol” – 7
  2. “The Impossible Astronaut” – 6
  3. “The Day of the Moon” – 7
  4. “The Curse of the Black Spot” – 4
  5. “The Doctor’s Wife” – 4.5
  6. “The Rebel Flesh” – 4
  7. “The Almost People” – 1.5
  8. “A Good Man Goes to War” – 6.5
  9. “Let’s Kill Hitler” – 6
  10. “Night Terrors” – 2
  11. “The Girl Who Waited” – 2
  12. “The God Complex” – 3.5
  13. “Closing Time” – 4
  14. “The Wedding of River Song” – 3.5

The average episode rating for this season is 4.4, which is a rebound from last season’s 3.7, but still well below the first four seasons.

This season has its good moments. The production team seems to have gotten a better handle on things and most of the episodes feel polished. The actors seem more comfortable in their roles and more willing to stretch their interpretations of the characters. A few episodes deliver new and creative stories. At the same time, a lot of this season feels underwhelming or poorly thought-out.

Our lowest-rated episode for the season, at 1.5, is “The Almost People,” the second part of a grimy industrial-punk story about goop-doppelgangers (goopelgangers?) gone rogue in a future acid-mining operation that for some reason happens in the remains of a medieval monastery. (Someone on the Who team clearly has a thing for goopelgangers: see season 4’s “The Sontaran Strategem” and “The Posion Sky.”) The first part was a bit nonsensical and left a lot of unanswered questions hanging (Why is acid-mining such a big deal in the future? Why use goopelgangers for it? Why are they in a medieval monastery? How did any of this get past health and safety, let alone the heritage council?), but at least it promised the possibility of a good old classic sci-fi “Who’s real?” and “What is the measure of a human?” story. The second part, though, just kind of falls apart and doesn’t pay off. Like last season’s “Flesh and Stone,” and “Cold Blood,” the second half of the story gets sidetracked into serving the season-long arc.

There are brights spots this season, though. Things start off at a strong 7 with an ingenious Christmas episode in which the Doctor finds himself traveling back in time to play Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future and save the soul of a heartless old plutocrat just in time to save a crashing spaceship with his friends Amy and Rory on board. A two-parter follows, “The Impossible Astronaut,” rated 6, and “The Day of the Moon,” another 7, about the Doctor’s friends trying to save the Doctor from being killed by a mysterious figure in a spacesuit and in the process discovering the sinister Silence, who erase themselves from the memory of anyone who sees them. These episodes are a good mix of horror, action, and comedy, and the Silence make interesting counterparts to the Weeping Angels: while the Angels disappear when you look at them, the Silence disappear when you look away.

Although this season has its ups and downs, it also has some larger problems. One is the ongoing obsession with an arc story, which gets significantly more convoluted in this season, sometimes to the detriment of what could have been decent stand-alone stories. New-series Doctor Who has a pretty bad track record when it comes to season-long arcs. Most of them feel obligatory and ratings-driven rather than organic and meaningful. Arc-dependent episodes have consistently been some of the worst, while the best episodes have been those that have nothing to do with the arc. I’d be happy to see Doctor Who stop trying to be Lost and focus on being Doctor Who.

Another problem, which appeared in earlier seasons but gets significantly worse over seasons 5 and 6, is the amount of time and narrative attention given to other characters talking about how great the Doctor is. It was used as a cheap get-out-of-plot-free card at the end of season 3’s “The Last of the Time Lords,” in which a world full of people thinking good thoughts about the Doctor powers the deus ex machina ending, but in season 6 it becomes a recurring theme as ubiquitous as the whooshing of the Tardis. Even River Song, who started off as a fascinating character in her own right, gets reduced to a chorus girl singing the “Oh, Doctor, you’re so amazing” refrain this season. This character shilling goes along with the continuing attitude that special people get a pass on basic human decency to make some scenes really uncomfortable to watch.

How do the rest of you feel about this season? Got any favorites (or anti-favorites) you want to share? We know that not everyone shares our tastes or out perspective on Doctor Who, so let us know in the comments what you loved or didn’t about this season.

Image: Doctor Who season 6 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 5

In between seasons 4 and 5 of new-series Doctor Who there is a series of specials starring David Tennant, but our copy of the discs turned out to be defective, so while we wait for a good opportunity to replace them, our rewatching and rating project carries on to season 5.

  1. “The Eleventh Hour” – 3
  2. “The Beast Below” – 3
  3. “Victory of the Daleks” – 4
  4. “The Time of the Angels” – 6
  5. “Flesh and Stone” – 1.5
  6. “The Vampires of Venice” – 2
  7. “Amy’s Choice” – 2
  8. “The Hungry Earth” – 5
  9. “Cold Blood” – 2
  10. “Vincent and the Doctor” – 5
  11. “The Lodger” – 4
  12. “The Pandorica Opens” – 5
  13. “The Big Bang” – 6

The average rating for this season is a rather dismal 3.7, a big come-down from season 4’s 6.9. Nothing rises above a ho-hum 6, and almost half the episodes this season rate less than a 4, which is pretty much our minimal cut-off for ever wanting to see an episode again.

This season of Doctor Who poses one big question, and that question is: what on Earth happened to Stephen Moffat?? Many of our favorite episodes of previous season were written by Moffat: “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” in season 1, “The Girl in the Fireplace” in season 2, “Blink” in season 3, “Silence in the Library” / “The Forest of the Dead” in season 4. All these episodes were intricately-constructed masterpieces in which every piece fit, every tantalizing question had a satisfying answer, and the gee-whizery of the sci-fi was balanced with sensitive emotional stories. We had great expectations for Moffat’s first season a showrunner, and instead we got… this? The writing is clunky, the plots are full of janky bits that don’t fit, the characters are unpleasant, and the whimsy feels forced. We wonder whether the demands of production didn’t leave him time to develop his scripts more fully, or if perhaps the quality of his earlier scripts depended in part on good editing by the previous production team.

The new cast doesn’t improve matters. We don’t care for Matt Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor, which relies too much on surface wackiness and feels emotionally hollow. But even worse is the new companion, Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan. All credit to Ms. Gillan for her acting, but the character is written as a whiny, self-centered bully. Both of these characters reflect an unappealing turn in Moffat’s writing, also visible in his series Sherlock: the belief that if a person is very clever or otherwise special, they get a pass on basic human decency. That’s a position we can’t get behind.

The lowest-rated episode of this season is “Flesh and Stone,” at 1.5. It’s the second part after the rather decent “The Time of the Angels,” following the Doctor’s adventures with a band of futuristic warrior priests in an underground labyrinth filled with Weeping Angels. The first episode give us a reasonably good set-up which the second just fails to pay off. The momentum built up in the first part sputters out as the second part pays its dues to the season-long “crack in the universe” arc. The Weeping Angels were one of Moffat’s most interesting creations in “Blink,” but they would have been better left alone than recycled for this episode.

The best episodes, both at 6, are “The Time of the Angels” and “The Big Bang.” “The Big Bang” does a better job of delivering the old Moffat magic with a complicated time-woven story about the Doctor and his friends racing to stop the end of the universe that was set off in the previous episode. It has some good moments and finally gives Amy’s Stockholm Syndrome victim boyfriend Rory something to do, but it never quite rises to its potential.

All in all, a real let-down of a season for us, but we know there are other folks out there who feel differently, including fans of Amy Pond and Matt Smith’s Doctor. What episodes this season did you love (or not)? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Doctor Who season 5 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.