Monday, 3 December 2018

"The Witchfinders"

The dour pre-Civil War Stuart period in English history, particularly the Jacobean era, is a ripe setting for drama. In hindsight, it seems that the threads that bound the opulent Elizabethan era were slowly starting to unravel. Whilst this was the age of Shakespeare and Bacon, there was a growing hysteria over the imagined rise of witchcraft and it is in this setting that the Doctor and her friends find themselves.

The setting is vividly brought to life and the viewer is very quickly brought up to speed concerning the facts about witchcraft; that it was often an excuse to settle scores, that unmarried women were often the target and that village healers, invaluable in rural communities of the area, were also suspect. If there is one thing that the story really does excellently, it is to expose the rampant misogyny that allowed this hysteria to proceed unchecked. Very cleverly, the trial-by-water is conducted by ducking stool, a device used to punish gossiping women. The Doctor's new gender means that her authority is not accepted anything like as quickly as it would have been before. It is a bit of a shame that the alien threat is not more closely tied with the gender themes of the episodes, but we have had 7 episodes without an alien race wanting to invade Earth, so perhaps this well-worn route is actually welcome. Joy Wilkinson produces a very good script, although it could have done with a couple more drafts, to iron out the plot.

Of course, key to the Jacobean era is old Jake himself, James I of England (and VI of Scotland). James was a complicated figure, but, in the context of witchcraft, he was obsessed to the point of paranoia. We are treated, here, to a wonderfully ripe performance by Alan Cumming that manages to make the man likeable, despite his beliefs and actions. His flirtation with Ryan is priceless. Equally good is Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage, the goodwife raised to the landed gentry who becomes a vessel for something alien. Tilly Steele's Willa Twiston is a wonderfully real figure, effectively played. One thing the script does well is make the Jacobean characters all sincere believers in witchcraft – whatever their other vices, hypocrisy is not among them. The Doctor has to fight for her authority even harder and Jodie Whittaker excels, nowhere better than her conversation with King James, whilst being tied up. Although the rough edges of the plot to take their toll on the role of the Doctor's 'fam', the 'very flat team structure' is as engaging as ever. Sallie Aprahamian helms a production that recreates early-Stuart England well and critically, she makes the manifestation of the aliens terrifying, especially the reanimated dead.

Although a few more drafts could have improved it critically, "The Witchfinders"is a very enjoyable adventure, dealing well with its various themes.

NEXT: "It Takes You Away"

Monday, 26 November 2018

"Kerblam!"

It's called "Kerblam!", which, depending on one's mood, is either delightfully chipper or just plain silly. The story is one of Doctor Who versus the evil corporation, something which has, of course been done several times before. It's a story that could fit in any era of modern Doctor Who, perhaps even (finer details aside) in an 80s episode. As, with many other writers this century, Pete McTighe is an avid Doctor Who fan, but seldom has a a writer’s joy in being given the chance to pen an episode of their favourite programme been more evident than in interviews with McTighe. This joy transfers to the story and it is this which elevates a run-of-the-mill Doctor Who plot into something more.

The obvious real-world equivalent of Kerblam! is Amazon and it would be all-too easy to attack a large corporation for being oppressive, but Pete McTighe does something more subtle. Kerblam! takes pains to ensure that it's employees are well looked after and their break area is a really nice park. The Kerblam! Management always have their underlings' best interests at heart. Even rebukes about employee productivity are delivered in a friendly manner. However, McTighe seems to make the observation that such environments are intrinsically oppressive, no matter the intentions of the higher echelons. The detrimental effects on employees and general employment are clearly evident, but the fact that the villain is a someone who is doing it for the benefit of those workers, is beautifully subversive. Added to this, the villain's plan being turning the power of the corporation against itself and the Doctor saves the day by turning that back against the villain is glorious. Even the blatant plot-delaying tactic (Twirly running out of power) is forgivable as the reason Twirly does that is that he wastes time and power up-selling.

The supporting cast is wonderful. Julie Hesmondhalgh is a phenomenal actress who puts her all into the role of Judy. Leo Flanagan makes Charlie a very sympathetic mass-murderer and Claudia Jessie makes Kira sweet, when she could have been cloying and her death is suitably heart-breaking. As the surprisingly short-lived Dan, Lee Mack is very likeable. The regulars all shine in the best ensemble work that they've been given and we have our leading lady. The Doctor is authoritative, inventive and sympathetic – yet her glee at receiving her Kerblam! Parcel is very infectious. The visualisation is very like a Sylvester McCoy story with a colossally higher budget – visual similarities with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy are obvious. Yet we have such stunning scenes like the conveyor-belt chase which show director Jennifer Perrott in complete command of the material.

With nearly every element being honed to perfection, "Kerblam!" is an unalloyed delight and I hope Mr McTighe returns to pen another adventure, soon.

NEXT: "The Witchfinders"

Monday, 19 November 2018

"Demons of the Punjab"

"Demons of the Punjab" takes us back in time to one of the critical periods of 20th Century history. The image that most people in the West have of Partition is the lines of Hindus and Muslims passing each other in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. What we are shown in Vinay Patel’s remarkable story is how this event affected the history of one family and one person in particular – Yas. The cast of characters is small, but the issues and emotions are certainly not. There is a memorable alien race in the shape of the Thijarians, but it turns out that they are mere observers and not the demons of the title. The demons are those of Dostoyevsky; thoughts native to the thinker that take on a malevolent life of their own and make the thinker do the unspeakable. The partition turned long time neighbours into enemies and turned families against each other and the story of Yas’s grandmother’s tragically short first marriage ads heart to this traumatic background.

Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh are as impressive as ever, but, finally, Mandip Gill is given the spotlight and she shines in a performance that is funny and heartwarming. This is a key period in history, but its tragedies are all-too universal, so, brilliantly, all the Indian characters are given Northern English accents by the TARDIS – the Yorkshire sadhu in particular is memorable. Shane Zaza and Amita Suman are fantastic as the doomed couple. Hamza Jeetooa is excellent at portraying the conflict between Manish’s love for his brother and his growing Hindu nationalism. It is always good to see Shaheen Khan and, in the present day, we have the invaluable Leena Dhingra as the older Umbreen. The Doctor is the Doctor throughout, being wholly authoritative in her face-off with the Thijarians but her joy at being able to experience female bonding is wonderful.

The direction by Jamie Childs is first rate, with the laid-back compositions for rural India contrasting well with the jarring stabs of the Thijarians manifesting themselves. The aliens are magnificently realised and the sheer beauty of the shot of Prem’s face joining the host that the Thijarians witnessed is wondrous. The moments of Punjabi and Yorkshire domesticity do not clash with this, and the final tragic outcome of Prem and Manish’s relationship is flawlessly executed. Perhaps it is significant that two otherworldly entities witness Prem’s death, as they echo Munkar and Nakir, the angels who judge the dead in Islamic eschatology, and who witness for a Hindu who gave his life for his Muslim love. I must also mention the evocative score by Segun Akinola, whose greatest triumph is the Indian-influenced arrangement of the theme tune, which never moves into parody.

The framing story in the present day, and Yas’s request from the Doctor recall "Father’s Day", but, in the most purely historical story since Black Orchid, we are effectively given the human consequences of historical upheaval, as with The Massacre. In the end, however, the success of this very powerful story, is purely due to its own merits.

NEXT: "Kerblam!"

Monday, 12 November 2018

"The Tsuranga Conundrum"

"The Tsuranga Conundrum" is an example of the mid-season Doctor Who story that won't top any polls or feature in many nostalgic memories. However, for the first time ever, Chris Chibnall has constructed a satisfying plot – the fact that the two crises cancel each other out is actually effective. There is some good world-building going on, with a good sense being had of the 67th century. We also have a pregnant man which starts off (as is usual) as a joke, but develops into something deeper. There is a refreshing lack of predictability about its progression, which, together with the frenetic pace make this a story that is leaves the viewer exhilarated by the ride, but not finding multiple flaws to pick at, later.

Of course, "The Tsuranga Conundrum" is a base-under-siege story, but the key factor that separates it from the herd are the characters. The leader is, at some points opposed to the Doctor, but for the best reasons. Brett Goldstein, primarily a comic actor, is very effective as Astos and Lois Chimimba puts in good work as Mabli. Suzanne Packer radiates authority as Eve Cicero and future national treasure Ben Bailey Smith is a natural as her brother – although Smith has ample experience of having an illustrious older sister! Jack Shalloo's Yoss, is surprisingly touching. Graham and Ryan's relationship is very well served by the script, with Yoss's pregnancy acting as a catalyst for their understanding of themselves. Sadly, Yas is underused, with the character mostly feeding questions to the Doctor and listing 21st century equivalents to the 67th Century gizmos she encounters. Jodie Whittaker is already making playing the Doctor as natural to her as breathing. There is a critical scene that shows what a difference the Doctor being female can be. Astos rebukes the Doctor for being selfish, for wanting to reroute the Tsuranga, and the Doctor agrees, which is a scene which works a lot better when the testosterone is removed.

Jennifer Perrott is a good match for the material, giving the story the sense of urgency it requires. There is only one major location, but the imaginative design makes the story always interesting to watch. The monster of the week is the adorable Pting and, if there's one shot which truly makes the story, it's the look of joy on its face when it is finally sated.

"The Tsuranga Conundrum" may not be the most memorable story, but it does show that, perhaps Chibnall does have it in him to run the programme we love so much.

NEXT: "Demons of the Punjab"

Sunday, 4 November 2018

"Arachnids in the UK"

Undoubtedly the most purely enjoyable story that Chris Chibnall wrote for previous Doctor Who administrations was "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship". Here, we are given a similarly pulpy title, the irresistibly named "Arachnids in the UK" which offers precisely what is indicated on the packaging. Again, there are strong influences from the past, but not the obvious one – rather than being invaders from Metebelis 3, the spiders have been mutated by toxic waste accumulated by an unscrupulous company, which obviously brings to mind The Green Death. The multi-legged menace leads to a simple, yet effective plot with Dr Jade McIntyre’s (played by the brilliantly named Tanya Fear) dialogue consisting almost entirely of exposition. It does looks like we are due for another Chibnall cheat ending, but the very obvious Chekhov’s gun is used well and the fact that, in real life, spiders would not be able to survive beyond a certain size is actually crucial to the plot. Again, there is some clunkiness in the nuts and bolts dialogue – there is no need for a character to say that a room looks like a bank vault when it is immediately obvious to the viewer, for example.

Chibnall’s characterisation is very important in making the story work. Although it pales in comparison to Russell T Davies’s depictions of family life, there is some good dialogue with Yas’s family who are nicely drawn and very well acted – in particular, it is always good to see Shobna Gulati. Again, Bradley Walsh’s depiction of loss is very touching and Tosin Cole makes Ryan hugely watchable – whomsoever had the idea for the shadow puppets deserves a drink! However, we have a boss of the company, rather than a BOSS and we have the surprising casting of Chris Noth, an American actor who is very much still bankable and reminding us how much of a big deal Doctor Who is. I am not a fan of Sex and the City, but I am of The Good Wife, in which he was excellent. Noth pitches the character perfectly, with corporate American bluster moving into gun-nut fury with exactly the right level of scenery chewing. There are parallels with the most vicious, idiotic and incompetent occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but, then again, Robertson is an intelligent and competent (if amoral and ruthless) businessman who can string a sentence together! In addition, he has genuine concern over his niece’s wife (played by the even more brilliantly named Jaleh Alp). Noth's performance actually works with the deficiencies in Chibnall's dialogue, so good an actor is he – although he is helped by the fact that he seems less cartoonish than the real life former host of the American Apprentice. The budget would probably preclude it, but I would very much welcome a return appearance. The Doctor is confused by basic domesticity, but effortlessly stamps her authority on even Robertson and Jodie Whittaker continues to be a delight.

Sallie Aprahamian makes this into a very exciting and scary romp and the spider effects are excellent, with the lighting perfect. Aprahamian realises that a giant spider the size of a cat is far scarier than one the size of a bath and I’m sure many people were scared to look under their beds. The scene where Team TARDIS decide to stay has some very dreary dialogue, but Aprahamian's direction and the great performances, more than compensate for this.

"Arachnids in the UK" is a very enjoyable romp that harks back to the light touch of earlier eras. Any non-arachnophobes should have a blast!

NEXT: "The Tsuranga Conundrum"

Sunday, 28 October 2018

"Rosa"

I must admit that part of me was dreading "Rosa". This century, Doctor Who has dealt with various historical figures, but they were all extraordinary figures. Rosa Parks, on the other hand was an ordinary person who did something extraordinary. Anyone else on that bus could have refused to give up that seat, but the fact that it was her made her a paradigm shifting heroine. This means that, whilst it is alright for Charles Dickens to encounter the Gelth and for William Shakespeare to battle the Carrionites, it would be inappropriate for Rosa Parks to join the Doctor in battling an alien menace. This means that the story is closer in spirit to the Hartnell era pure historicals than any other story made in colour. There is, however, a science fiction menace, in the shape of Krasko, but a major part of the story is keeping him out of Rosa’s way. This does give this story a similar feel to a Quantum Leap episode, which is no bad thing as few American programmes have aged as well as the exploits of TV’s second favourite time-travelling doctor.

The script could do with a couple more drafts, but, on its own, it is a step above the previous weeks’. I am too old to have been part of Malorie Blackman’s target audience, but it is clear that she is a very talented writer. The (in hindsight) horror of segregated America is excellently brought across and very few punches are pulled. A certain epithet which would have been spat out like machine gun rounds is not uttered (although a similarly derogatory one is used, in a wholly artistically justified way) and we are spared the truly revolting details of how Emmet Till was murdered – yet the violence and stupidity of the situation is vividly portrayed, from the moment Ryan is slapped in the face for talking to a white woman in an act of kindness. The struggle to put history back on course would be farcical, were it not for the very serious stakes. The moment when the regulars realise that they have become part of history is very moving. There is very strong material for the characters, such as Yas and Ryan talking about the realities of race in modern Britain and how much Rosa Parks’s story was instrumental in Graham’s relationship with Ryan’s gran. On a lighter note, Ryan meeting Martin Luther King is very well played and funny. Boldly, and yet bleakly, there is no arcane motive for Krasko to change history – he is just a racist from the future. There are some problems – the Doctor is a bit laissez-faire about Ryan going out on his own after dark in a state where a black man’s life would be in danger after dark.

The good material for the regulars is bolstered by the cast. Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh put in very impressive performances. The Doctor has to be a bit more low-key and Jodie Whittaker retains a sense of fun whilst realising the seriousness of the situation. As Mrs Parks herself, we have an astonishing performance by Vinette Robinson in a controlled portrayal that dominates the screen. Mark Tonderai is equally skilful directing a very different kind of story from last week. One thing he brings out very well from the script is the sheer convoluted idiocy in implementing segregation – paying at one door, leaving and entering by another, moving the signs designating where certain races should sit, the fact that laws governing black and white make no allowance for the fact that the majority of people on the planet are neither.

The name of the story may hark back to the very first 21st century Doctor Who story, but this is unlike any other story broadcast in the past 13 years. Despite its flaws "Rosa" is a very powerful piece of television that demands our attention.

NEXT:  "Arachnids in the UK"

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

"The Ghost Monument"

"The Ghost Monument" can be seen as fulfilling the same function for Chris Chibnall as "The End of the World" did for Russell T Davies – a simple plot set in an extraordinary location, to plunge the companions headlong into the alien. As with "The End of the World", the plot is secondary to this aim, but, again, the fact that Chibnall is not the writer that his predecessors are is evident. There are stretches of clunky dialogue that would never have passed muster in previous years and the story is haphazardly structured. The central plot of the race is not a very engaging storyline, and, indeed, is not really presented well as a race.

With this in mind, the script is reinforced to a colossal degree by the utterly stunning production. The South African locations are spectacular and Mark Tonderai, gives the episode a very realistic feel by using deliberately messy composiitions – the scene where the spaceship crashes is a fantastic use of this technique. Tonderai also helps bring the Revenants to life, a brilliantly simple monster, evocative of one of M R James’s most famous tales that, unlike the tooth collection last time, is terrifying without being inappropriate. We are finally reunited with the TARDIS and the new set is spectacular. We also finally see the new opening credits and they are a very nice change of pace from before, with a fine arrangement by Segun Akinola.

The half-baked writing for the supporting characters is compensated for by some very nice performances. Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch round out their characters very well and it is always good to see Art Malik. The best part of Chibnall’s writing is in fleshing out the regulars. We can see the relationships developing nicely and the performances are spot on. Indeed what Chibnall understands very well is the character of the Doctor. The Doctor sizes up each sticky situation and works out a brilliant solution and encourages her companions to use their skills and knowledge to help. Jodie Whittaker completely sells us on the Doctor and her joy at being reunited with the TARDIS is truly wonderful to behold.

Most importantly, despite its flaws, I had a blast watching the story – which is, of course the most important thing!

NEXT: "Rosa"

Monday, 15 October 2018

"The Woman Who Fell to Earth"

Make no mistake, "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" heralds the biggest reformatting of Doctor Who since The Power of the Daleks. Apart from the casting of the first woman Doctor, the production team has been completely overhauled but it is, of course, the casting of Jodie Whittaker that has dominated the interest in this new era.

Whilst I had no issue with a female Doctor and certainly none with Whittaker’s casting, I did have an issue with the head writer. Doctor Who has been very fortunate in being helmed by two of the best writers in the world, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. It would be a bit unfair and perhaps churlish to point out that Chris Chibnall is not in the same league, as few are, but Chibnall is hardly a standout writer, when it comes to Doctor Who alumni. Even in his great solo success of Broadchurch, his writing is easily the weakest aspect. A lot of his writing, even the borderline-great "The Power of Three", resolves the plot abruptly, be it god-from-the-machine or rabbit-out-of-a-hat style. "The Woman Who Fell to Earth", happily, does not do this, but it’s still clear that we are in the hands of a lesser writer. There are some nicely evocative speeches, but the nuts and bolts dialogue lacks polish and often resorts to cliché – Russell T Davies could make a conversation about takeaway pizza be funny and interesting. It was, perhaps, unfortunate that I had recently watched the first two Predator films, as that made the parallels with the Stenza 'Tim Shaw' even more obvious. This brings me to the most troubling aspect – the corpse-mutilation is, in my opinion, going a tiny bit too far for a family programme. I hope that the tone meetings are no longer a thing of the past.

Characterisation is not as rich as it was in previous eras, but we have some excellent performances Tosin Cole is, practically, the lead character in this episode and he is very charismatic. He is joined my Mandip Gill’s strong, yet adorable Yasmin Khan, Bradley Walsh, surprisingly understated and effective Graham, and it’s a pity that Sharon D. Clarke’s Grace dies, given her sensitive performance. I must also mention Karl, engagingly played by Johnny Dixon. Tim Shaw is, as said, hardly an original foe, but Samuel Oatley attacks the part with relish. However, it is clear who the star of the show is. Like Peter Capaldi and Christopher Eccleston, she is a recognisable ‘name’ actor, so I knew she had the ability. However, as with her predecessors, the unique spin she gives on the role is something truly wonderful. Jodie portrays the Doctor as an ancient soul who still finds delight in the challenges the world throws at her. Perhaps it's just me, but it helps, of course, that, with Capaldi’s costume on, she looks like what William Hartnell would look like, if Hartnell were a beautiful young woman!

Further helping the story is the excellent production. The pace is slower than in previous eras and Jamie Childs does a great job in the director’s chair – the initial manifestations seem genuinely alien and inexplicable. Sheffield comes alive on screen as Cardiff has done previously and the anamorphic lenses give the image more breadth. A major change behind the scenes is the first new composer since the programme’s revival. Segun Akinola’s incidental score is more ambient than Murray Gold’s and, although I am very fond of Gold’s music, Akinola’s arrangement of the theme tune is a vast improvement on the terrible Capaldi version.

I sincerely hope that Chibnall will be up to the formidable task, because the team he has assembled can clearly work wonders.

NEXT: "The Ghost Monument"

Monday, 20 August 2018

"Twice Upon a Time"

When other Doctors have reached the end of their lives, this century, they have been fighting one of their bitterest foes - The Daleks, the Master and now, the Cybermen. Here, the battle is over, and we are left with a Doctor who, unlike his Tenth incarnation, is all-too willing to go. But he will not be alone...

This is, of course, Moffat's swansong, as well as Capaldi's and there are some familiar concepts that are expanded on. After giving us a Hell (the Teselecta) we are give a Heaven, in the form of Testimony – the NetherSphere without the horror. As with his first ever story for the programme, there are no real villains, because, despite the action-packed set-pieces, this is, more than any other a story about facing death, something that both of the regular characters have actually gone through.

Of course, the other main attraction is the Twelfth Doctor interacting with the First Doctor. The differences in character between incarnations are, as always a source of comedy, especially the First Doctor's rather less enlightened views of the role of women. David Bradley, after playing William Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time, now plays Hartnell's role. As with Richard Hurndall before him, Bradley doesn't try to impersonate the great man, but uses his considerable skills to essay an interpretation of the First Doctor that is compatible with Hartnell's. It is a powerful performance that highlights how much the character of the Doctor has changed, and not just his views on women – the speech that Moffat gives the Doctor for his motivation for leaving Gallifrey both ties in with the more detached, reluctant character in "An Unearthly Child" and is completely compatible with the man he will become. Making a very welcome return is Pearl Mackie, effortlessly confirming my opinion that Bill is the best companion of the 21st Century. We also have a nice role for Mark Gatiss who faces death in an all-too human context as the Captain it's the earnest, likeable persona which he does so well, very different from his other appearances. Playing the closest thing to an antagonist in the story is Nikki Amuka Bird, whose calm voice is perfect for the Glass Woman and her very distinctive face is recognisable even when captured as a transparent CGI creation.

Rachel Talalay again helms the story with great skill, again, making slower introspective moments work well with the action, of which we have plenty – the capture of the TARDIS by the Testimony Ship, the Ypres Salient and the horrors lurking around Rusty's domain. The production team are totally committed to making this tapestry bind and shine and the result is a visual feast.

And we are left with our leading man. Peter Capaldi has taken the Doctor into new places and successfully redefined the role. I had high expectations, as soon as his name was announced as the new Doctor and he has never disappointed. Here, he is a resigned, battle-weary hero literally, at the gates of Heaven, but he elects not to go through. Capaldi is funny, fierce, commanding and silly in his final performance as a regular, and he is wonderful and genuinely heartbreaking to see the Doctor's ring fall off his finger.

But it is not heartbreaking to see the owner of the hand that it slips off from. Jodie Whittaker is a phenomenal actress and I very much look forward to the most radical reformatting yet of a character that has survived and thrived for 55 years, precisely because reformatting is vital to the programme’s survival. Long may it continue...

Sunday, 31 December 2017

"World Enough and Time"/"The Doctor Falls"

Time is coming to an end for our leading man and the person responsible for guiding him in the programme. The stickers on the banner are certainly impressive – The original Cybermen! Two Masters! It seems that this event finale will certainly not disappoint in terms of spectacle. To limit the appeal of the Series 10 finale to this, however, is doing it a serious disservice. Stephen Moffat has written better stories, but that does not, in any way, take away from the triumph that is "World Enough and Time"/"The Doctor Falls". The headline attractions are arresting enough, but we also have the setting of a 400 mile long colony ship slowly escaping from the gravitational pull of a black hole. The way in which these flavours complement, rather than clash with each other show Moffat as a master chef. It is striking how many long, quiet scenes there are and their punctuation with shocks and awe are expertly constructed. There is a fascinating sci-fi concept at the heart of the story, with the time dilation occurring along the vast length of the ship, but the way in which this is used in so many ways in the story is masterful – a moment at one end lasting a month at the other, the micro-communities at different levels, the Cybermen’s accelerated evolution.

Ah, yes, the Cybermen. Fond as I am of "Rise of the Cybermen"/"The Age of Steel", this story is in a different league from its predecessor. The stages in the creation of the Cybermen are alternately disquieting, disturbing and horrific in a way subtly different from any other mood in the programme’s past. The ‘scarecrows’ as the proto-Cybermen are sometimes called are both pathetic and horrifying and the dispassionate functionality of the medical staff creating the Cybermen is far more shocking than Lumic’s megalomania. I have said before that, in many ways, the original Cybermen have a quality that their successors didn’t manage to emulate and the design team do little more than tidy up the edges around Sandra Reid’s superlative original designs. The production throughout is hugely impressive and, again, Rachel Talalay shows that she is the person to handle the spectacle and the emotion. It is hard to dazzle purely with special effects any more, but the opening shot of the ship is the closest the programme has come to emulating the awe the average viewer would have had, when watching the opening of The Trial of a Time Lord. The quiet moments, the funny moments, the scary and disquieting ones – all guided with an expert hand.

The supporting cast is first rate. Paul Brightwell and Alison Lintott as the Surgeon and Nurse give unshowy performances, which makes the horror of what they are doing all the more acute. The incredibly versatile Samantha Spiro is a delight as Hazran who finds an unlikely friend, with hopes for more, in Nardole, played with effortless charm again, by Matt Lucas. Then, we come to the Masters. The interplay between the two incarnations is delightfully twisted in every way and Michelle Gomez and John Simm pull out all the stops. The final act of suicide is merely the culmination of their perverse relationship and would be a fitting end for the character – although I do not, for a moment, believe that this is the end for the Master.

Which brings us to the regulars. Pearl Mackie impressed me from the get-go and she only improved as the series went on, but the sheer passion of her performance in this story is breath-taking. I have loved each of the companions since the programme came back, so it is not lightly that I say that there has never been a better companion than Bill this century, and there has never been a better actor playing a companion than Pearl Mackie. It would be fantastic if she could carry on, but if not, the wonderful Ms Mackie has a very bright future ahead of her. However, this is still Peter Capaldi’s show and his portrayal of this cantankerous, yet kind warrior for right is as archetypal, yet unique, as all the best performances in the role have been. Fighting against what is inevitable, Capaldi wins the hearts that he will soon break.

It is hard to rein in the hyperbole when assessing this story, so I will only state what I am absolutely confident of. This is in the league of "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" and "Heaven Sent"/"Hell Bent" as far as season finales go and is, in my opinion, the finest Cyberman story of them all. Everyone involved with this story deserves a pat on the back.

NEXT: "Twice Upon a Time"

Sunday, 25 June 2017

"The Eaters of Light"

"The Eaters of Light" is, at its simplest, a story of a monster threatening a village with an inter-dimensional rift and Picts and Romans thrown in. The background is the famous disappearance of the Ninth legion – generations of children in Britain and elsewhere read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth, as Bill did and the mystery has intrigued many before then. The story of how the Doctor, Bill and Nardole help the Picts join forces with the Romans is not surprising in its broad strokes, but we are dealing with a writer of subtlety and intelligence and the devil is in the details. The ‘gift of the TARDIS’ is explored more fully than it has ever been before, where the Picts and Romans are suddenly able to understand each other, and see each other as people. The story explores concepts of folk memories and oral histories and turns a typical Doctor Who joke (crows being in a huff and not talking any more) to something genuinely moving. The Picts and Romans are given understandable motivations which make their actions seem natural. The guest cast form a very capable ensemble with Rebecca Benson standing out as Kar.

The team of writers that Andrew Cartmel discovered in the final era of the Doctor Who’s original incarnation were bursting with talent and the one who has gone on to the most acclaimed career is Rona Munro and so, after 12 years, a writer from 20th Century Doctor Who has returned to pen a new tale; perhaps fittingly it is the one who penned the swansong. Munro clearly has her own ideas on who the Doctor is – he is keen to help, to sacrifice himself, even, but he has no patience for blind hostility and self-pity. Peter Capaldi excels when portraying this interpretation and his backup is well up to the challenge. Charles Palmer comes back to helm a very assured production, dripping with atmosphere. In the very best way, the feel is like a first rate BBC children’s drama – only the scene about Roman sexual orientations would look out of place in one, and perhaps not even that. The monster attacks are genuinely disorienting and the Doctor’s trick with the popcorn utterly joyous. It goes without saying that the march of Kar and the remains of the Ninth into the portal is genuinely moving. The production is flawless, with Munro’s evocative use of Pictish monument carvings forming an integral visual aspect of the story. Note also, that the Roman costumes are not recycled from "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang".

"The Eaters of Light" just shows what a brilliant writer can do with a few bullet points for a brief and is a story that will surely reward repeat viewings. There is not one ounce of fat in the story, but that is because it takes up less than 40 minutes. We conclude with a remarkable coda with Missy and the Doctor perhaps realising that their relationship will change in the future. But, as we all know, the past will catch up before then…

NEXT: "World Enough and Time"/"The Doctor Falls"

Sunday, 18 June 2017

"Empress of Mars"

If there is one thing which can be said about Mark Gatiss's considerable output under the Doctor Who banner, it is that he loves a pastiche. From the Dickensian Yuletide Ghost story to the found footage horror story, Gatiss has a fascination with reworking the old – and on "Empress of Mars", we see a patchwork-pastiche of even greater complexity. We finally have an Ice Warrior story set on the Martians' home planet, but, in addition, the title recalls the tales of Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The conflicted colonialist attitudes of the humans recall Malacandra, the Mars of C.S. Lewis. The humans in question seem to have arrived on Mars just after the Battle of Rorke's Drift – as immortalised in Zulu. And, they bring an Ice Warrior back to his native land, ostensibly as a servant, but hiding his own agenda – which is, of course, a major part of the plot of King Solomon's Mines. And we have not even started on the references to Doctor Who itself. The set up again relies on the resurrection of an Ice Warrior and in other ways, the story brings to mind the first two episodes of Tomb of the Cybermen. References are made to the Tythonian Hive – either a (misspelled) reference to Pyramids of Mars or to the title character in a rather less well-loved story. And, of course, there is the cameo for another Brian Hayles creation...

The story, unoriginal though it is, works because it creates a constructive ending rather than a destructive one. Themes of redemption and honour drive the plot through the clichés. The examination of British Imperialist attitudes is not as detailed as in "Thin Ice", but there are some nice touches – the fact that the Ice Warriors are clearly more advanced than Victorian Britons does nothing to temper colonialist arrogance. However, the characterisation never rises beyond the basic – disgraced commander, ambitious junior officer, cheeky NCOs. Aiding this enormously is a very talented supporting cast. Anthony Calf makes Colonel Godacre very sympathetic, whilst Ferdinand Kingsley shows a lot of the charisma and raw talent that made his dad a star. Ian Beattie is great fun as Cockney chancer Jackdaw – a far cry from his most recognisable role, the loathsome Ser Meryn Trant in Game of Thrones. On the Martian side, Adele Lynch chews the scenery gloriously as Iraxxa, the titular empress. It is a bit of a shame that the Ice Warrior voices have moved even further from their original sibilant hiss, but, as they have a lot more dialogue, this is a necessary sacrifice for character over effect. The regulars are on reliably wonderful form. Nardole is removed for most of the episode, but we have, again, a great showing from Peter and Pearl – the Doctor has never seen The Thing, Terminator or The Vikings, but, like seemingly everyone on Earth, he is very familiar with Frozen. Of special note is the scene between the Doctor and Missy, which hints at so many hidden depths.

Wayne Yip holds it all together very well. It must be said that the fact that the fact that this is a very studio bound story is clear, more so than any other story this century. Increase the shot length and reduce the shot number, and you would have something very similar to a Doctor Who story from last century. It still looks fantastic, being painted in contrasting primary colours, the ochre of the Martian caves, the red of the army tunics, the green of the Ice Warriors. Yip also manages to make the effect of the Ice Warriors' sonic guns look shocking, when it could easily have come across as ridiculous.

"Empress of Mars" will never go down as a classic. It is, however, tremendous fun and well worth a rewatch.

NEXT: "The Eaters of Light"

Saturday, 10 June 2017

"Extremis"/"The Pyramid at the End of the World"/"The Lie of the Land"

The longest collective title since 1979 heralds the arrival of the longest story since 1979. Like "The Girl Who Died"/"The Woman Who Lived", this is the work of more than one director and more than one writer but it does tell a more linear story than the tale which introduced Me, in this tale of the sinister Monks. However, each episode has its own particular qualities which should be addressed separately.

The reality bending "Extremis" is an episode that must surely rank with the finest Moffat penned stories. It is scary, thought provoking, human and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. The concept of the Veritas and the Haereticum hints at what The Da Vinci Code would have been like, had it been written by someone who could write coherent sentences, and the way in which a covert collection of cardinals can crash Bill’s attempt to have a date is farce of the most exquisite variety.¤ A story that hinges on suicide moves the programme into potentially very dark areas, but Moffat is easily skilful enough to make it work, as the very notion of epistemological reality is brought into question. When we realise that none of what we have seen is true, we are not disappointed because we are given the irresistible notion that a computer simulation of Doctor Who has made an episode of Doctor Who for Doctor Who to watch!

"The Pyramid at the End of the World" takes us into the real(ish) world with the juggling of the accidental release of a potential genetically engineered pandemic with the modus operandi of the monks all wrapped up in the cosiness of a UNIT story without actually having UNIT there. Moffat’s collaboration with Peter Harness, whilst lacking the flagrant inventiveness of "Extremis" is an exciting and fresh way in harmonising two quintessential Doctor Who plotlines – the man-made threat to Earth and the alien invasion. The treatment of international politics is simple without seeming simplistic – a hard line to walk and we have an all-time classic scene to conclude the episode – where the battle is lost because our heroes succumb to both their best qualities and their worst judgement.

The dystopia of "The Lie of the Land" has hints of both "Last of the Time Lords" and "The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon" and, for the most part holds its own in its story of a renegade Time Lord holding sway over a world ruled by cadaverous creatures who can bend our perception of reality. However, we know this Time Lord all too well and it is clear the Doctor has a plan to defeat his enemies. The plan involves a key phrase that has formed a rather egregious nodule in the 2017 zeitgeist – 'fake news' and, it could be argued that the solution seems strangely lightweight (although perfectly sound) for such a long story and, skilful as its execution is, one is left feeling slightly unsatisfied - perhaps, inevitably, it is the only episode that would not work as a stand-alone story with a few tweaks.

The direction is excellent throughout, with Daniel Nettheim and Wayne Yip doing sterling work. "Extremis", in particular, is a wonder of dynamic pacing and variant tones like a visual Cardiacs song. In the whole story, sequence after sequence sticks in the mind - the pyramid neutralising the threats against it, the reality boosts that the Monks broadcast, and, of course, the nail-biting sequence that concludes "The Pyramid at the End of the World". Even when spectacular effects are commonplace, this story contains sequences that impress - the pyramid capturing the bomber, the montage of the Monks throughout history and prehistory and, of course, the horrifying appearance of the Monks themselves. There are real scares in the story - the disintegration of Douglas is genuinely shocking. The three regulars are spectacular, with Matt Lucas showing a range that few knew he had - his horror at discovering he is only a simulation is palpable. Pearl Mackie is fast heading towards making Bill my favourite companion with another arresting performance. And then, there's our leading man. Capaldi never lets us go and the sequence where he seems to confirm to Bill that he has joined the Monks is breath-taking. Michelle Gomez makes a very welcome return, solving the mystery of who is in the vault and her performance leaves us guessing as to what Missy is truly up to. We have a fine selection of guest actors. Tony Gardner is always a welcome addition and we have great turns by Ivanno Jeremiah, Corrado Invernizzi, Rachel Denning, Togo Igawa and many others.

This very ambitious story promises a lot, but, ultimately, is very slightly less than the sum of its parts, which is a real shame as it could have ended up as one of the crowning achievements of Moffat's Doctor Who. However, each episode is, at the very least good and, at best, brilliant. The Monks are defeated rather quickly but, I doubt we have heard the last of them...

NEXT: "The Empress Of Mars"