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Image courtesy the BBC

Two weeks after I watched Doctor Who’s The Caretaker, leading me to write about my love for how the eighth season of the Doctor Who revival is going, I’ve watched the next two episodes, and have encountered what I’d call the season’s first serious flaw.

That’s okay: nobody’s perfect. But it’s interesting how the flaw manifested itself: as a digression in the Doctor-companion relationship that made me applaud a story that I otherwise disliked, and frown at a story that I otherwise loved. More seriously, while I continue to appreciate the work that actors Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have put in their roles, this flaw makes me like Clara less, and it makes me feel that an opportunity to make Peter Capaldi’s Doctor grow has been squandered.

Note that spoilers will follow. The review continues after this break.

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If you're still reading this blog, you may have noticed that I haven't reviewed any of Peter Capaldi's Doctor Who episodes since Into the Dalek. This is not a protest or anything, it's just been crazy busy here.

That's good news for me. It means that I continue to make a living doing what I love. These past four weeks, I've written and submitted two non-fiction kids book manuscripts and outlines for two more which are due at the end of this month. I've continued my weekly column at the Kitchener Post, and I've somehow managed to do this while chauffeuring Erin around southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, picking the kids up after school, keeping them fed and keeping the house reasonably clean.

Well... reasonably. And I must also thank my parents for stepping in to take care of the kids while Erin and I were in southern Alberta for the week. A lot of work goes into being a writer, and a lot of it can't be done without the support of friends and family. I should also point out that, as hectic as my schedule has been, Erin's twice that. Still, we wouldn't have things any other way. Maybe just a little less of it. But with the same amount of money.

The downshot of all this, of course, is that I haven't had much time to spend on this blog, particularly not to review Doctor Who. Which is a shame, because interesting things are going on in Doctor Who at the moment. Yes, we have a new Doctor, and an accompanying realignment of the Doctor-companion relationship, but there's more to it than that. The connections this season has to the previous -- Clara Oswald and the Paternoster gang -- not only give us some comforting links to the past, but they also serve to highlight how the Doctor has changed under Peter Capaldi. Steven Moffat and company promised us that they'd take the show on a darker turn, and I think most of fandom only half believed them. But Capaldi's Doctor is acting in ways that Smith's Doctor wouldn't. Jenna Coleman's Clara shares our bewilderment over the sudden change. And the first six episodes of the season so far appear to have split fandom down the middle, with many on my Facebook feed calling these episodes the best season the show has had in years, and many others proclaiming the Moffpocalypse.

As you may have guessed, I'm more on the side of the former, though the upcoming episode, entitled Kill the Moon, appears to have split fandom down the middle again, and in a different way than, say, Listen or Time Heist split fandom down the middle. But regardless of whether or not I'll like or hate Kill the Moon, I think I am a fan of how the series has changed. I believe that Moffat has shaken things up, and I have confidence that he knows where he's going and how to get there. And I'm impressed because I haven't seen this series make so substantial a change within the tenure of a showrunner.

The last time Doctor Who changed so substantially was when showrunner Russell T. Davies handed the reins to Moffat himself, and that cleaved fandom something fierce. It was also to be expected. Davies had his own way of running things. He had his own dramatic touchstones that he harkened back to again and again. He loved the flash, the sense of adventure, the derring do. In his final story, The End of Time, he had his Doctor jump out of a speeding spaceship, fall hundreds of feet through a skylight, and miraculously stand up and confront the Master and the High Council of Time Lords with a pistol he wasn't sure what to do with.

With Moffat, the defining arc of his first three seasons has been a temporal twist on the relationship comedy, how the Doctor's human companions somehow ended up as the Doctor's in-laws. Moffat loves the puzzle boxes and, in The Day of the Doctor, managed to rewrite Davies' Time War as the paradox to end all paradoxes. Say what you will about Moffat, he's possibly the first showrunner the series has had that actually cares about the personal impact of time travel, which is remarkable considering the show is supposedly about time travel.

But the change we've seen since Deep Breath is even more remarkable because Moffat seems to be turning the steering wheel rather than leaving the racecar. It's more than just about the changeover from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi. Davies switched Doctors too, from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant, but the style of the show remained roughly the same. Indeed, in some ways this was to the show's detriment. The relationship between the ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler carried on to the tenth. And whereas the ninth Doctor's relationship was a story about how a passionate young woman coming into her own helps a man broken by war to commit to living his life, the tenth Doctor's relationship with Rose comes across as two teenagers in love (or, more accurately, "wuv"). There's none of the sense of Eccleston's pain - that was resolved nicely in The Parting of the Ways - instead, we were tempted to ask the Doctor and Rose to go find a room. It's really only when Rose Tyler leaves and then Martha and (better yet) Donna come on board the TARDIS that we see a change in the relationship, and an evolution in the style of the show.

Now compare how things have changed since Capaldi's taken over the role. The twelfth Doctor is not a cuddly Doctor. Clara, who once fancied the Doctor something fierce when he had Matt Smith's face, has backed the hell off and now approaches the Doctor as something more of a gruff father figure. Indeed, their relationship, and the fact that Clara is now a teacher at Cole Hill school, has made a number of people realize that Clara is effectively a stand-in for Barbara Wright. In The Caretaker, Danny could have stood in for Ian Chesterton, and the young "disruptive influence" the Doctor takes under his wing could have been likened to Susan, without the overt familial links.

In Deep Breath, the Doctor appears to abandon Clara to be killed by the clockwork robots, and Clara (and the audience) almost believes it. In Into the Dalek, the Doctor is shown that his own hatred of the Daleks is a mirror of the Dalek's hatred of the universe. He can't stand soldiers, now, and Danny Pink plants his finger on why when he calls the Doctor "an officer". In Listen, we see why the Doctor should not be left to his own devices for extended periods of time, as he ends up going on a wild goose chase and spooking himself (and us). In Time Heist, he successfully convinces Clara and two other partners to wipe their own memory in order to rob a bank. In The Caretaker, he rather prickly pushes everyone aside as he tries to take down a futuristic military robot that was minutes away from blowing up a school full of kids.

Capaldi's Doctor is ruthless and I wonder if that ruthlessness comes from impatience. After all, he spent hundreds of years stuck on a single planet (Trenzalore) while presumably the universe unfolded around him, with all of its wars and atrocities. He's over two-thousand years now and has spent a substantial portion of his life in one place. I wonder if he's thinking that he has to make up for lost time, and thus feels he has less time to deal with making nice with his human fellow travellers. And I wonder if the eleventh Doctor sensed this, and that's why he made a phone call to Clara to tell her not to give up on the man.

All the while, there's Missy and her version of Heaven (recently called "the Nethersphere" at the end of The Caretaker), who has been quietly following the Doctor and picking up the people he fails to save -- largely as he proceeds headlong towards his ultimate goal of saving those he can. Perhaps while the Doctor is saying to himself "save as many people as you can; don't stop to think about those you can't save", Missy is preparing to ask him "well, what do you say to the people you couldn't save?" Steven Moffat has written the final two parter of this season, and he has authored or co-authored the first six episodes of this season. That tells me that he is carefully setting things up for a reveal that will come this November, and it promises to be big.

There have been a number of comparisons between these episodes of Capaldi's Doctor and the first episodes of Colin Baker's Doctor (#6). After regenerating from Peter Davison, Colin Baker's Doctor was initially manic, sometimes deranged. In his haze of regeneration, he tries to throttle Peri. Even after he recovers, he remains prickly and argumentative, to the point that many fans wondered just why Peri would stick with him.

The ultimate plan that Colin Baker never got to fully implement was to soften the Doctor gradually, and show why he was the prickly way he was. To the show's credit, they did show a softening of the relationship between himself and Peri by the beginning of season 23, but the total implementation left a lot to be desired.

Moffat has gone down some of this road, but appears to have learned from the mistakes of the earlier series (it also helps that these recent episodes have been flawlessly directed and feature sparkling dialogue. Listen is a joy to -ahem- listen to). Make no mistake, when the Doctor told Clara in serious tones that she had to explain the reasons behind her relationship with soldier Danny Pink (especially after his outright refusal to believe Danny was anything other than a gym teacher), I was ready to cheer if Clara showed the Doctor her middle finger. However, Capaldi shows his sensitivity early; look at the way he stands at the end of Deep Breath as Clara thinks very seriously about leaving him forever. At that moment, we see the core of the man. We see the prickly and gruff exterior stripped away. We see how terrified he is of being alone.

That allows me to give Capaldi's Doctor a lot of credit in his own right. I know he's going to make some terrible mistakes and push people away from him, but I also know that there's something inside him that's going to be hurt by that. That's the seed of the character drama that I find compelling, and which will help me keep on watching.

The reason why Doctor Who has lasted fifty years as a coherent narrative is because it's got the most flexible format in fiction, but the key to making that work is the series has to evolve. Davies' model of Doctor derring-do worked well while it lasted, and Moffat arrived at the right time to take the show in a new direction. I personally liked the story arc with the Doctor and River Song, even if some people have called it Coupling With a TARDIS, but Moffat seems to have understood that the show needed to move on from that. We haven't seen Captain Jack on the program in years, even though Moffat created that character, and it's quite possible (though I'd be disappointed if so) that we may never see River Song again. But for the show to stay fresh and attract a new generation of fans, it has to evolve, and introduce new elements and new storylines that capture new viewers and draw them into the program.

Everybody is different, and everybody has different reasons for being a fan of Doctor Who, and when a show changes like Doctor Who has, some people lose those elements that made them fans in the first place. It's natural and reasonable for these people to object. But as I've said before, the show was never about pleasing just you, and you will always have those episodes which made you a fan of the series in the first place. And, if you don't like where things are now? I would suggest waiting a little while. Like the weather in Calgary, it won't be long before things change again.

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I have decided to upgrade my old iPhone to the new iPhone 6 (once I’ve saved up a little money) and, yes, being the tech geek that I am, I have paid a visit to the local Apple Store to look at the merchandise and salivate at the prospect. I’ve visited twice, in fact.

This time around, Apple has produced two models of iPhone. There’s the regular iPhone 6, with a larger-than-an-iPhone-5 4.7 inch screen, and then there is the iPhone 6 Plus, with a 5.5 inch screen. I’ve tried out the iPhone 6 and am in love. I’ve also decided that the iPhone 6 Plus is not for me.

It could be that another investment I have to make is in a pair of bifocals. I’ve suddenly discovered that I have difficulty reading small text at arms length in front of me, especially in low light conditions, but with my old iPhone, I am increasingly taking my glasses off and putting the screen about two inches from my face, in order to read the text, or play Angry Birds. This cannot be a good thing.

The iPhone 6 has a larger screen size, and a higher resolution screen, so it was significantly easier to read at arms length than my old iPhone. Apple has taken a lot of guff from competing products, especially Samsung, who have made significantly larger devices (with the obnoxious name of “Phablet”) fashionable. Theoretically, the iPhone 6 Plus follows this trend. It should be even better for my eyesight as well, but then I tried to use it.

Man, that thing is big. I have big hands, but when I hold the 6 Plus in my palm, my thumb cannot reach the opposite top corner to click on the app icon there. It feels heavy in my hands, and I stumble over the virtual keyboard with my two thumbs.

I have to admit that one of the features I liked about the old iPhones is the ability to hold it in the palm of one hand, and be able to use it in that hand, leaving the other hand free to stick itself in the other pocket, or possibly ward off incoming telephone poles as I walk. The larger screen of the regular iPhone 6 pushes the limits of this, but the ability to use the device with one hand remains.

My eyes are increasingly demanding larger screens and larger type but, for now, my hands are strong enough to demand a compromise. I wonder how this compromise will fare in my future.

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We finished our trip at PIO Peruvian Rotisserie Restaurant, capping off a wonderful week. This restaurant is in a small store in a suburban power centre. It was busy even late in the evening, and seemed to be serving Calgary’s Peruvian community, which is always a good sign. I had a roast chicken with beef sausage and “sunshine rice”. It wasn’t too expensive, either.

So, we may have somewhat underestimated the amount of driving we’d have to do to get from Calgary to Saskatoon. It was worth going, as now Erin has reference material for her story featuring somebody trying to cross a depopulated Saskatchewan on horseback. Indeed, she has a lot of reference material. Strangely enough, though, the trip back from Saskatoon to Calgary didn’t feel quite so arduous, because we knew where Calgary was, rather than wondering where Saskatoon was. It’s interesting to think that just a little bit of familiarity of the route was enough to make the trip easier.

In Saskatoon, we toured the dump. Yes, we came to Saskatoon to visit its dump (it’s part of Erin’s writing research), but we also walked the riverfront, took pictures of the bridges, and then met author Arthur Slade and his daughter for supper at the famous McNally Robinson Booksellers. So, all in all, well worth the seven hour drive each way.

Our drive also included brief stops in Drumheller, Alberta, which really deserves its own day trip. We weren’t able to visit the Badlands, the Hoodoos, or the dinosaur museum, but the entrance and the exit to the city is a highlight of the drive. I was driving along the highway, wondering where Drumheller was, surrounded by fields and pasture and then — BOOM — the road dips into a gully and descends into a hidden world. I complained about the number of billboards on the eastbound trip, but intriguingly, the road leading out of Drumheller to the north was billboard free. Clearly, the advertisers know where most of Drumheller’s traffic is coming from.

As much fun as we’ve had and as much as we’ve seen, we’re still looking forward to coming home, hugging our kids, and sleeping in our own bed tomorrow night. That’s another good thing that trips do: make you appreciate coming home.

Click here for more photos of our drive through Drumheller and Saskatoon.

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Tue, Sep
23
2014

Whoop Up

Rail Wheel Sculpture

Monday was a travel day, as we left Lethbridge and headed back to Calgary, but we didn’t hit the road right away. Instead, we checked out the coulee behind the Lethbridge Lodge, and found ourselves on a trail to Fort Whoop-Up.

The current Fort Whoop-Up is an “authentic recreation” of the original “whiskey fort” that was set up on or near the site in the mid 1870s by Montana traders. The fort traded with the local Blackfoot nation, exchanging guns, gear, blankets and whiskey for the furs the Blackfoot brought in. The Northwest Mounted Police intervened in the early 1880s to bring the fort under Canadian control, but it doesn’t specify if they ended the practise of trading whiskey for furs.

The fort itself is a remarkable recreation, with a lot of time, effort and thought put into the whole place. There is a firearms museum and a Blackfoot gallery, both with fascinating artifacts on display. The “period rooms” surrounding the fort looked like authentic recreations of the period activities of the trading post, made appropriately creepy through the use of mannequins, and audio providing sounds of people walking and muttering among themselves. It was a fascinating experience and a highlight of our day.

Today was a day of school visits for Erin, so I took the time to do some work, meet a friend for lunch (at the Holy Grill restaurant, which got some attention from the Food Network series, Hey, You’ve Gotta Eat Here), and tour Calgary’s LRT. Given the debate that has taken place in Toronto these past few years over the merits of the LRT, Torontonians of all political stripes should head over to Calgary to see what a true LRT has to offer. Because Calgary’s LRT system is, to all intents and purposes, a subway. Outside of the downtown, the LRT cars speed along grade-separated right-of-way, crossing streets with the help of railway crossing gates, clearly given priority over the surrounding automobile traffic. There are elevated sections, there are sections within the median of highways, and there are underground sections.

And yet the Calgary LRT has the flexibility to operate through downtown streets in relatively mixed traffic. They’ve taken over 7th Street as a dedicated transit mall, and the trains have clear priority over the traffic signals, and yet cross street traffic doesn’t appear to be significantly inconvenienced. The downtown section is frequent and free, and works very well as a people-mover, connecting workers with lunchtime appointments. The stations are a lot flashier than streetcar stops, but most aren’t nearly as intensive as a subway stop, and yet the system gets the job done.

Torontonians could certainly benefit from some proper LRTs in operation. Indeed, when the Eglinton Crosstown line opens, they’ll likely improve on what Calgary has to offer, as Toronto’s LRTs will be low-floor. To operate through the downtown on Seventh Street, Calgary’s high-floor LRTs have to line up with sidewalks that have been raised to at least three feet above the roadbed, a potential fall hazard, I’d wager (and one which Calgarians seem to have blithely learned to cope with). The transit mall in Calgary seems to work well, handling many pedestrians, without any detriment to the surrounding businesses (a different experience than what I remember from Ottawa’s Rideau transit mall). It strikes me that this would have been a good example to show for Toronto’s King Street, back when it was proposed to turn that street into a transit mall to free up space for the King Streetcar.

Tomorrow is another travel day, to Saskatoon via Drumheller. Looking forward to what these places have to offer.

Click here for further photos of our trek down into the Lethbridge coulee.

Click here for further photos of my Calgary LRT tour.

(Updated to correct embarrassing typo)

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