Wednesday, 30 December 2009

"The Stolen Earth"/ "Journey's End"

Rose. Martha. Captain Jack and Torchwood. Sarah Jane and Luke. The Daleks. Harriet Jones. This was what we were promised in the teaser for "The Stolen Earth" and it was an increasingly poorly kept secret that Davros was returning. In addition to this, we have the return of Mickey and Jackie and not one, but two Doctors- the phrase ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ springs to mind, but this will be the last regular Doctor Who story until 2010 and so it must have that end-of term feeling of going out with a bang. The Daleks return in a truly spectacular manner- the Earth is moved across space to a location amongst 26 other planets. They do their usual thing of mercilessly subduing any opposition, but this merely incidental. Their ultimate plan is their most ambitious and masterful one since, erm, The Dalek Master Plan. These Daleks were born when Dalek Caan managed to do the impossible and travel back to the Time War. Despite the fact that his sanity was destroyed he managed to bring back Davros himself. Unwittingly taking a leaf from Sutekh’s papyrus, this new Dalek Empire intends to destroy all matter except themselves, leaving them the only life forms in every Universe and every dimension and reality, by using the gravitational fields on the 27 planets to amplify the effects of the ‘reality bomb’. This is a threat that dwarfs even the collapse of the Universe in Logopolis.

The return of practically every recurring character that appeared in the programme since its revival could have resulted in a self-indulgent mess, but Davies knows what he is doing and he understands the characters he has invented and the audience's reaction to them. The webcam session where they all meet is cannily constructed with Rose being an outsider, which probably gave the Martha worshippers a warm feeling inside. It is obvious from Rose's first materialisation that all these characters have changed. Rose spends a lot of time carrying a gun the size of a porpoise. Martha, clad in black, literally holds the key to the destruction of the Earth. As Davros says, the Doctor takes ordinary people and fashions them into weapons. Davies still manages to lighten scenes with some very funny lines- Wilfred's reason for not having a webcam had me in stitches and, of course, even the Daleks know who Harriet Jones is. I also love the fact that the mysterious Shadow Proclamation that has been hinted at since "Rose" is merely a police force, seemingly made up of Judoon and what look like space-age albino versions of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. The cliffhanger is the most thrilling yet and its resolution, although it seems cheap at first, makes sense in terms of the programme's continuity and results in serious plot developments.

Graeme Harper gives this story the epic treatment it deserves with scenes looking incredibly cinematic. He is helped by the most spectacular special effects the programme has had up to this point, from the Dalek attack on the Valiant, to the flotilla of Dalek saucers to the awesome Crucible. Harper makes sure that all the performers are up to scratch. Any quibbles about Piper's performance in "Turn Left" are instantly quashed- Rose Tyler is definitely back with a wonderful performance by Piper. We also see the welcome return of Jackie and Mickey and, I must again heap praise upon Noel Clarke for another moving, yet very dignified performance. However, the best performance is definitely Julian Bleach as Davros. Bleach is definitely Michael Wisher's equal in realising the role, being both cold and calculating and a shrieking madman. The make-up is a fitting update for the character and anyone who wished to know what Davros had under his tunic get the unpleasant shock that they deserve.

This is very much the end of an era, so we are fittingly, given a series of endings that bring to mind Return of the King. We are taken back to Bad Wolf bay again and Rose is left in the parallel universe with the other Doctor. This manages to work because of the deep understanding of the characters that Russell T Davies has. Rose has a selfish streak, but it is proved here that she is not, ultimately, a truly selfish person. However, any emotion that Rose's second departure might have had is eclipsed by the rueful fate of Donna Noble. Of the companions who have travelled with the Doctor, Donna started off with the least and developed the most- a thirtysomething temp from Chiswick becomes half- Time Lord and saves all of creation. However, her human body cannot cope with the intelligence of a Time Lord so, to save her life, the Doctor removes from her memory all of her experiences with him. Once again, she is the eternal temp, eagerly awaiting a new Pringle flavour. Catherine Tate was never less than spectacular as Donna in a performance that should have silenced all her critics, but didn’t, as her critics could not see past their own prejudices. In my opinion, she was the best companion since the return of the programme, a character that was always interesting to watch and I will miss her.

We end on the Doctor being alone (thankfully not jarred by a teaser for the Christmas Special) after a real thrill-fest that had me gripped throughout. And yes, that includes towing the Earth home!

NEXT: "The Next Doctor"

Monday, 28 December 2009

"Turn Left"

Ever since It’s a Wonderful Life, the ‘What if X was not there?’ storyline has been used many times in film and television and it was time for this question to be asked in a Doctor Who episode: What if the Doctor wasn’t there to save us? We are presented with a world where the Doctor died as a result of the encounter with the Empress of the Racnoss. As a consequence, Martha dies when the Judoon steal the Royal Hope Hospital (together with Sarah Jane, who was the only one who stepped up in the absence of the Doctor). The starship Titanic crashes into Buckingham Palace, causing a nuclear explosion that devastates the south of England, causing the breakdown of British society. The USA would help, but the Adipose have harvested their young from the fat of America (one wonders why they didn’t do that in the first place!) Torchwood (with the obvious exception of Captain Jack) also give their lives immolated with the burning of the poison sky. We are presented with a Britain that is truly broken, where martial law is in operation and, eventually, non-British people get shipped off to labour camps. Some may find this a bit too grim, too 'adult', but this is what life would be like without the Doctor- a bit too close to real life for comfort. And it is clear that it isn’t just Britain or even the Earth that is affected. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars are going out...

I have said that the question is what if the Doctor wasn’t there to save us. However, it is soon obvious that the real question is what if Donna wasn’t there to save the Doctor? For the whole thing is brought on by a mysterious fortune teller on the planet of Shan Shen. Somehow, she is persuaded not to take up the job that led to her meeting the Doctor. This is the story of Donna Noble, the temp from Chiswick, whose normal life was ruined, but not destroyed by the horrors that were unleashed upon Britain. This episode is very much Catherine Tate’s and any lingering complaints about her performance should have been thoroughly eradicated. Donna is recognisably the same gobby woman from "The Runaway Bride", but Tate gives her more depth, understanding that Donna is not the one-shot character she once was. She can be crass and rude (such as in her initial treatment of Rocco Colasanto) but she shows real determination and grit and we love her for it. Bernard Cribbins works his inestimable magic in another delightful performance as Wilfred, but Jacqueline King deserves special praise for her excellent performance as Sylvia, effortlessly showing the fight draining out of her. Rocco is played by Joseph Long in a performance that initially screams ‘comedy foreigner’, which makes his eventual fate even more shocking and tragic in a wonderfully judged performance. However, there is another significant character- a mysterious blonde woman who rushes into Donna’s life at key points. Rose is back, although it has to be said that Billie Piper seems to be a tiny bit uncomfortable in the role, like wearing an old pair of shoes. It is wonderful to see her again, however, and her performance is good, in spite of Piper’s uncertainty.

Davies wrote the great script, but it is the masterful direction of Graeme Harper which binds it all together. Scenes of office mundanity are punctuated with tragedy, a bucolic Christmas is shattered by nuclear holocaust. Then, of course there is the unforgettable scene where Donna travels back in time. The beetle on her back is a very basic animatronic creation, but Harper’s direction makes it genuinely creepy. Harper also makes sure that the effects are as blinding as they have always been and Murray Gold provides another outstanding score.

This is a triumphant and thrilling story anchored by a phenomenal performance by Tate. Donna not only saves the Doctor, but saves the world (This is most emphatically *not* a reference to the execrable Heroes). However, Rose whispers two words that, as before, appear everywhere. The cloister bell rings...

NEXT: "The Stolen Earth"/ "Journey's End"

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Wednesday, 23 December 2009


There are many Doctor Who stories that have the Doctor turning up to find a crisis, winning over the dissenters, quelling the enemy and saving the day. This is not what happens in "Midnight". The Doctor is on the eponymous planet and decides to take a trip to see its famous Sapphire Waterfall. He makes friends with his co-travellers and everything seems peachy. Then, a threat emerges and the Doctor, to use a bit of an understatement, loses the room. Russell T Davies weaves one of the most frightening tales the programme has told. The threat is inexplicable at the start and equally inexplicable at the end and the way it manifests itself is simple, yet extremely creepy. Banging and knocking is heard outside the bus and the lights go out. When they go back on, the front seats have been ripped up and Sky Silvestry, one of the passengers, is behaving rather oddly. First she repeats what everyone is saying, then speaks simultaneously, first with all of them, then with the Doctor alone. And it has only just begun.

In such a claustrophobic setting (influenced by Hitchcock's Lifeboat) characters are important. What we have here are various types, ranging from a professor and his assistant to an ordinary family. The Doctor, as said before, establishes a rapport with them. But as the entity asserts itself, the Doctor finds out his charm does not work. Instead of being reassured by him, they are annoyed and finally enraged. Instead of them finding the best in themselves, they give way to their worst. The Doctor’s usual tricks do not work; when they are discussing whether or not to throw the possessed Sky out of the airlock, the Doctor’s ‘Could you really do it?’ is answered immediately in the affirmative. In the end, the creature speaks the Doctor’s words before he does and the rest of the passengers are all too keen to believe that the creature has possessed the Doctor- it is easier to deal with a practically catatonic man. It is only the doubts of the Hostess that enable the day to be saved, as she sacrifices herself to launch Sky out of the airlock. The survivors make the return journey in silence. Throughout all of this, one thing is clear- no-one but Sky and (at the end) the Doctor were affected by the creature- all that foulness came from their own frightened souls. These characters are played to perfection by a very talented cast. David Troughton is, of course, one of the finest actors in the country and he makes Professor Hobbes seem at first to be a likeable old academic who then gives way to his jealousy as he finds he is not the smartest man in the room. Lindsey Coulson and Daniel Ryan effectively play a couple who suggest that The Daily Mail is still in circulation in the far-future. Everyone’s favourite jug-eared young warlock, Colin Morgan, plays their son. In the key role of Sky Silvestry, Lesley Sharp is astonishing, even on the merely technical level of her repetition and simultaneous talking. She effortlessly changes her bearing and gait throughout the episode to awesome and chilling effect, making the unnamed creature a truly memorable foe.

Alice Troughton directs with great confidence, squeezing every drop of tension from the scenes. There is a wonderful sequence where the Doctor, Driver Joe and Claude the mechanic look onto the Midnight landscape- and Claude swears he sees a shadow moving quickly towards them. We see nothing, but this simple scene is so well done that we half-remember seeing the shadow. The sound design is exemplary, adding to the sense of claustrophobic terror- and it goes without saying that the matte paintings for the Midnight planetscapes are spectacular.

Donna once said that the Doctor needs someone to stop him. "Midnight" shows that sometimes he just needs someone to help him connect, in a masterful 45 minutes of humour, tension and real scares.

NEXT: "Turn Left"

Monday, 21 December 2009

"Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead"

The Stephen Moffat story is always a highlight of the relaunched Doctor Who and here, he is given a two-parter for the first time since 2005. Moffat’s previous stories have had interesting ideas, explorations of primal fears, great characters and fantastic dialogue and "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" certainly has that. The setting is a planet called ‘The Library’, because that is what it is, a repository for every book ever published. But The Library is silent, its aisles and reading rooms empty. Into this, the Doctor and Donna land and are soon joined by a group of archaeologists in the pay of Strackman Lux (whose family own the library) trying to find out what happened- and find something horrible. The main monsters in the story are the Vashta Nerada, microscopic creatures that can strip a human body of its flesh in less than a second and hunt in swarms that look like shadows. Any shadow. Moffat has taken a very common childhood fear and relaunched it in our consciousness with instantly effective results. However, his inventiveness doesn’t stop there. The communications system that the archaeologists use is ‘wirelessly’ connected with the user’s nervous system, an arrangement that has a disturbing side-effect. When the user dies, their thoughts are stored for a while in their communicators- a ‘data ghost’. In a very memorable scene, the ditzy Miss Evangelista is killed by the Vashta Nerada, leaving only a skeleton. However, her voice remains, asking where it is, asking to speak to Donna (the last person who was kind to her) before her thoughts eventually break down and her voice loops on one phrase: ‘ice cream’.

All this occurs in "Silence in the Library", but there are greater terrors to follow. Donna is teleported back to the safety of the TARDIS, but her teleportation stream is intercepted. "Silence in the Library" ends with Donna’s face on an information node stating repeatedly: ‘Donna Noble has left The Library. Donna Noble has been saved. In "Forest of the Dead", we find that she is seemingly living a normal life, but she soon figures out something is wrong. Her life appears to be edited like a film, with boring bits like walking cut out. However, the mysterious figure of Doctor Moon is there to reassure her that everything is fine and she settles down. But a visit from Miss Evangelista (who has also been saved, but imperfectly) brings to light something terrible- her children are not real. Donna refuses to believe this and, when even they say ‘We’re not real, are we Mummy?’ she sobs, holding them tight in a vain effort to stop them blinking out of existence. This is something which must have stirred a feeling of solipsistic horror with anyone who was watching, particularly parents- what if our loved ones only existed in our minds? This is connected to the key to this whole mystery- the strange girl who dreams of the library in her sleep. We first see the Doctor and Donna as intruding characters in her dreams. Doctor Moon is there too and he chillingly states to her: ‘The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real’. For ‘Doctor Moon’ is really the virus-checking satellite of ‘The Library’ and the girl is the personality and mind of Strackman’s aunt, who suffered from a terminal illness as a child- Charlotte Abigail Lux: CAL. She stored the teleportation streams of all the survivors to her hard drive- they have, quite literally, been saved.

There are so many ideas in this story, it seems fit to burst- but it never does. One reason for this is that Moffat never forgets character. Each character is well written and played, with Steve Pemberton making Strackman Lux more than the usual ruthless magnate and Talulah Riley being delightful as the scatter-brained Miss Evangelista. We have the inimitable Colin Salmon as Doctor Moon. Moffat even comments on the fact that you seldom see two people with the same name in a story, so we have two Daves here. However, the key supporting character is River Song. This is a character who is engaging from the very start, but it is clear that she knows more about the Doctor than appearances would indicate. She is a companion from his future, one whom he has known as a fellow traveller and, perhaps, as something more. She can send messages to the Doctor’s psychic paper. She has a future version of the Sonic Screwdriver at her disposal. And, most critically, she whispers the Doctor’s greatest secret into his ear- his true name. This is great stuff on paper, but it would not work anything like it should were the performers not up to scratch. Alex Kingston is utterly electrifying from her entrance and her rapport with Tennant is fantastic. This is the reason why we believe it when the Doctor dives into the core of The Library to save a woman he has just met. The Doctor is more compromised than he has been for ages, yet he is as bold, brilliant and downright fantastic as he has ever been. Catherine Tate, however, is not to be overshadowed and her performance, especially in the scenes in the virtual reality of CAL.

Euros Lyn puts in his best work yet in this story. The ‘CAL world’ is like a 21st century version of the Matrix in The Deadly Assassin and Lyn’s work would do David Maloney proud. A huge array of moods and settings are thrown up by the story and Lyn is more than equal to the task of moulding them into a cohesive whole. He is helped by the usual sterling efforts of the production team, with great cinematography, sets, costumes and special effects.

"Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" broke Doctor Who’s winning streak at the prestigious Hugo awards, but this is still a fantastic piece of television that is full of emotion, terror and excitement. Most of all, it has hope for the future, that the Doctor’s best days are ahead of him- a man who can quell an army with a single glance, who can open the TARDIS with a click of his fingers. I can’t wait...

NEXT: "Midnight"

Saturday, 19 December 2009

"The Unicorn and the Wasp"

I have never been a fan of Agatha Christie- perhaps I was spoiled by the excellent TV adaptations with Joan Hickson and David Suchet, but I find her books rather lacking as literature and nothing like as good as the adaptations. I am obviously in the minority here, which is why it is the Dame of Detection who is chosen to be the next great historical figure for the Doctor to meet. Gareth Roberts creates a story that is as close to being an all-out comedy as the revived programme has been. The script is littered with allusions to Christie titles that get (intentionally) less subtle as the story goes on. The episode is full of pastiches of Christie, from the teaser (which also has a hint of Cluedo) to the whole set up. A diverse group of people at a country house, murder, red herrings galore and all the suspects brought together in a drawing room for the dénouement. Of course the villain isn’t a venal cad or a forgotten illegitimate scion, but a giant alien wasp- this is Doctor Who after all! However, despite the gags, this is not just a parody. The inspiration for the story is Christie’s real life disappearance in 1926, and Christie’s mental state is dealt with effectively and sympathetically. Roberts might be a Christie fan, but he is well aware of her critics- she says herself that she does not consider her work to be great literature. Roberts cannily addresses another criticism of Christie- that she does not give death itself the appropriate weight in her stories- by having her chide the Doctor about his flippancy. The characters might be stock Christie on the surface, but there is more under the surface- the juxtaposition between the characters’ alibis and what they were really doing does this comedically, but Donna’s realisation that Roger’s footman (and lover) cannot openly mourn his death is touching. Of course, the reason why the plot is like a Christie pastiche is because the villain is unconsciously making it so- a nice touch.

Graeme Harper is easily up to directing this script, showing a flair for comedy that is not surprising, if you remember his helming of the Rik Mayall sitcom The New Statesman. The juxtapositions in the depositions of the suspects are dealt with in style, as is the main comedy set-piece, the Doctor’s hilarious ‘detox session’. The period production is dealt with in the BBC’s usual degree of excellence. The titular wasp is a great creation, although its sound could have been more effective. The guest performances are perfect. Leena Dhingra is always good value and it is always wonderful to see Felicity Kendal. Christopher Benjamin returns to Doctor Who in another hugely entertaining performance and Tom Goodman-Hill is great as Reverend Golightly, spouting Anglican platitudes one minute and buzzing with alien fury the next. Fenella Woolgar is simply outstanding as Christie, giving her a sense of fun while still portraying her sadder side. Tennant and Tate have a whale of a time and their enthusiasm is obvious in every scene.

"The Unicorn and the Wasp" is the bees knees (sorry!) and comes highly recommended.

NEXT: "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead"

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

"The Doctor's Daughter"

...And so, the TARDIS whisks off Martha, together with the Doctor and Donna to Messaline, a planet that is the location of a war between humans and Hath, a race of fish-like humanoids. The war has a horrendously high body count, which is why cloning machines replenish the fighting force daily. Sure enough, when the TARDIS crew arrives, the Doctor accidentally sticks his hand into one of these machines to produce... well, you know! The world of Messaline is certainly an intriguing one and Stephen Greenhorn comes up with some intriguing ideas. The trouble is, there is simply too much plot for any of these ideas to be properly explored. A common criticism of the new series is that single 45-minute episodes mean that stories are rushed. I do not agree with this, but it is certainly a valid criticism of this story. A two-part version would have let the story breathe and improved it no end. In addition, there are some plot problems. For example, Donna discovers that the war has only been going on for seven days (yes, yes, Genesis chapter 1) but General Cobb is clearly not a fresh clone. Does he know the truth, or is it just an oversight by the writers? The quest for the Source is the driving force for the two armies, yet there is no time for this to be explored properly, making the closing act a bit half-baked.

Alice Troughton makes it all look fantastic, and she is helped by the usual sterling work of the production team- Messaline is excellently realised, with some fantastically stark CG landscapes. The script doesn’t exactly have the most original characters, so it is a relief that the cast is so good. Nigel Terry gives Cobb a real sense of authority and Joe Dempsie is good as Cline. However, it is the title character, played by Georgia Moffett, who is the most memorable. Jenny might not be the best written character, but Georgia is incredibly charismatic and likeable. It is great to see Martha travelling in the TARDIS again and her isolation from the others means that she really shines in her scenes with the Hath (can she understand them, or is she a good guesser?) although the scene where she is rescued from the quicksand could have used a different take, as it doesn't show Frema at her best as an actor. David Tennant is great as usual- the scene with the toy mouse is priceless and his changing attitude to Jenny is excellently portrayed, particularly Jenny's apparent death.

This is good fun as a story, but it really isn’t anything to get too excited about. With a two-parter, Greenhorn could have written a very arresting sci-fi tale. He is by no means a bad writer, however- there is some excellent dialogue and it is worth checking out- though probably not as your first episode!

NEXT: "The Unicorn and the Wasp"

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Sontaran Stratagem"/ "The Poison Sky"

Helen Raynor’s previous Doctor Who story was "Daleks in Manhattan" / "Evolution of the Daleks", which I consider to be the nadir of the relaunched programme by a considerable margin. So it was with great trepidation that I awaited the broadcast of this two-parter. Happily, Raynor provides a far better script this time. The Sontarans storm back and it is obvious that Raynor and Russell T Davies really understand these monsters. Unlike the Daleks and the Cybermen, these are not creatures who have been altered to remove or restrict emotions, but are merely conditioned to be bellicose from birth (or hatching). This obviously means that they are easier to characterise and Raynor does this excellently- the face-off between the Doctor and General Staal at the climax is brilliantly written. The plot is simple, but not predictable and shows inventiveness . The setting at the Rattigan Academy at first seems like something out of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but is incorporated well into the story. Most importantly the script has coherence and internal consistency, the lack of which damned Raynor’s previous Dalek two-parter. The pseudo science is no less fake than in "Daleks in Manhattan" / "Evolution of the Daleks", but it doesn’t contradict itself and such is the verve of the story that it can be forgiven, even the quite extraordinary method used to disseminate the Poison Sky- surely burning it would use up all the oxygen, asphyxiating the Earth even more quickly? The story is helmed by Douglas Mackinnon who directs with great verve, and energy, effectively dealing with spectacular scenes, such as the appearance of the Valiant, to more intimate ones such as Donna’s reunion with her family.

The characters are also well written. Child geniuses are seldom appealing characters, but Luke Rattigan is very memorable and is excellently played by Ryan Sampson. His arrogance is to the fore early on, but his betrayal by the Sontarans leaves him sobbing like an infant on the floor and his redemption is very moving. This story sees the return of UNIT, led by Rupert Holliday-Evans’s Colonel Mace, who plays the Brigadier role (the real one is mentioned for the first time this century and has received a knighthood- hurrah!) and it is good to see that the non-commissioned end of the ranks is not full of stereotypical army grunts. We have the wonderful character of Private Harris, played by Clive Standen, who discovers the clone in the basement. He acts like a typical squaddie, taunting General Staal about his height, yet displays intelligence and sympathy when examining the clone. Staal is played brilliantly by Christopher Ryan, who makes the character a very believable leader of an army of clone warriors, yet is not above humour. The look of the Sontarans takes the best from their previous appearances (i.e. the Kevin Lindsay versions) and updates them with 21st Century prosthetic techniques with very impressive results.

One thing I was very much looking forward to was the return of Martha. Miss Jones is now Dr Jones and Freema Agyeman effortlessly shows her as being more mature, with more responsibility, but still the Martha we know and love. Her performance as her evil clone is nicely underplayed and all the more sinister for that. Donna is great in this, displaying her ‘supertemp’ skills and it is always great to see her family. Anyone expecting a cat-fight between Martha and Donna were to be disappointed and their relationship is good- although I love their differing responses to the Doctor’s safe return. The Doctor is presented in a way closer to the Jon Pertwee era than ever before and David Tennant plays the part with his usual excellence. Raynor wrote very generic Doctor material in her previous story, but this time she goes for archetypal- the Doctor saves the day by inspiring someone to be better.

"The Sontaran Stratagem"/ "The Poison Sky" is wonderful fun and proves that Ms Raynor had it in her all along.

NEXT: "The Doctor's Daughter"

Saturday, 12 December 2009

"Planet of the Ood"

One minor niggle that I had with "The Impossible Planet"/ "The Satan Pit" was that the Doctor didn’t show more outrage at the fact that humanity was using another race as slaves. This is addressed in this story- as the Time Lord himself says, he feels he ‘owes the Ood one’. We are taken to the Ood sphere (‘Near the planet Sense Sphere’, forging a link in fiction to the Sensorites, the Ood’s conceptual forbears) where we see genteel corporate types being offered cut-price deals on the ‘product’ sold by Ood Operations, while Ood are shipped throughout the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire like battery hens in crates, after they have been ‘processed’. However, there is a problem- the Ood are developing ‘Red-eye’ a phenomenon familiar to those who recall "The Impossible Planet"/ "The Satan Pit" and it is clear that the 'relationship' between the two races is coming to a crossroads. It seems odd at first that the Doctor is barely involved in the outcome at all- yet this is not really in the spirit of the story. The Ood should not be saved by an outsider and, despite the horror that they go through, notably the removal of their hind-brain to ‘process’ them, it is a processed Ood, Ood Sigma, who becomes the Toussaint L'ouverture of his race. The idea of the hind-brain seems a bit unlikely- I find it hard to believe that they could have evolved this system naturally, selfish gene and all that, but it makes up part of some very interesting world building.

Graeme Harper does his usual excellent job in the director’s chair, crafting the episode with great skill. The teaser for the episode begins with an advertisement for Ood Operations which says a great deal about society in the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire with great economy. There are many memorable scenes, shot and cut with great energy, with a special mention for the horrific scene where Halpen meets his comeuppance. Harper is helped by the usual strong show from design and production. The Ood sphere is an excellently realised ice planet and the sets are simple, yet effective. Murray Gold provides a very spooky Ligeti-inspired score that is amongst his best work. The cast is superb, with Tim McInnerny brilliant as the amoral, yet believable Halpen and the lovely Ayesha Dharker playing Solana, a person who is not bad but, ultimately, is just not good enough.

As said, the Doctor plays only a minor role, yet he is present to observe all events and it is his relationship with Donna that compensates for his lack of active involvement. At first, Donna is shocked by the sight of a dying Ood, yet that quickly turns to sympathy. The scene where the Doctor enables her to hear the Song of the Ood is very moving and Catherine Tate puts her all into the role in a great performance. David Tennant plays the Doctor as wanting to solve the crisis, as usual, but he is perfectly happy to see it solved without him and graciously asks to play a small part. David Tennant is wonderful- yet again.

With a serious message about slavery (including digs at present day corporations) "Planet of the Ood" is a very entertaining story as well, and I eagerly await the Doctor’s involvement in the liberation of the Functionaries of Inter Minor.

NEXT: "The Sontaran Stratagem"/ "The Poison Sky"

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

"The Fires of Pompeii"

For Donna’s first trip in the TARDIS, we are taken to Roman times but the Doctor does not land in Rome as expected- there is only one hill on the horizon and the tremors indicate just which Roman city they are in. The destruction of Pompeii (and the nearby town of Herculaneum) forms a great backdrop to a hugely enjoyable story. The magma chamber of Vesuvius is host to a race of igneous invaders, the Pyrovilesm who have been awoken by the increasing volcanic activity. However, this is not the only odd thing. As with all Roman cities, there are augaries and soothsayers, but the prognosticators of Pompeii are not full of vague mumblings about the future- every soothsayer tells the truth, because the eruption was so violent that it briefly cracked the structure of space-time. Of course they don’t know this and insist that it is because they imbibe the vapours of Vesuvius. The trouble is, the Pyroviles are silicon based life forms and they are reconstructing themselves in the bodies of those who inhale the sands of their remains. This is a plot full of great ideas, yet there is much room for humour. The names of Caecilius, Metella and Quintus are pretty familiar to anyone who studied Latin in the Anglophone world. Other names have a touch of Asterix about them. There is a priceless homage to Mary Poppins and the gag about the TARDIS translation system- if you speak actual Latin, a Roman thinks you’re speaking ‘Celtic’ (which prompts Caecilius to respond with every stock Welsh phrase short of ‘boyo’). There are a very few clunky bits (notably Caecilius coining the word ‘volcano’) but they are very much in the minority.

The characterisation is not as good as it could be, but this is more than made up for by the strenth of the performances. Peter Capaldi’s impressive range as an actor can be seen in his two most famous roles- the sweet, gawky Danny in Local Hero and the human spitting-cobra that is Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of it and In the Loop. Capaldi is utterly charming as Caecilius and his family is also great fun (although it was odd seeing Francesca Fowler, as the only other thing I have seen her in is a very different sort of character in HBO’s Rome). We also have the brilliant Phil Davies as Lucius Petrus Dextrus and a nice little cameo for Phil Cornwell.

Colin Teague makes the whole thing look fantastic. There is a real energy to the scenes, of which many stand out- the ‘prophecy face-off’ between Evelina and Petrus, the brilliantly atmospheric scenes set in the chamber of the Sybilline Sisterhood. A mention must be made of the special effects, which are truly outstanding. The Pyroviles are excellently realised and there is the fantastic eruption- the scene where the Doctor and Donna are running from the escape pod has a complicated CG effect in a tracking movement, something that feels positively cinematic. The production design is flawless helped, no doubt, by the shooting at Cinecittà Studios in Rome.

Above all, this is a great story for the Doctor and his companion. Donna is, at first, thoroughly enthused by Pompeii, but she becomes angry at the Doctor for his refusal to prevent the deaths, and her anger becomes tearful pleading. The Doctor, as we are explicitly told for the first time, cannot change certain events and it is here we find out why- if Pompeii had not been destroyed, the Pyroviles would have enslaved the earth. Yet Donna manages to convince him to save Caecilius and his family in a scene of great power and wonder- I like to imagine that the Doctor was thinking of leaving Anne Chaplet to her fate in The Massacre. Tate and Tennant are both utterly stunning in this story, a good sign for the future.

This is a hugely enjoyable story that manages to overcome all the obstacles in its path. Even the ending, which should be cheesy, is touching. A real favourite.

NEXT: "Planet of the Ood"

Monday, 7 December 2009

"Partners in Crime"

The opener of the 2008 season is a jolly tale about a miracle slimming cure with some rather unusual side effects. Of course, the Doctor is interested, but we also see the return of the Runaway Bride herself, who has regretted her decision to not accompany the Doctor on her travels. The plot is quirky and easy enough to follow and, again, does not centre on an invasion of Earth, which is refreshing. The major niggle I have is that the Doctor and (especially) Donna’s involvement was the only thing that made the Adipose plan an actual threat- true, the Doctor does point this out, but a little guilt would have been nice. However, the writing is as good as ever, with the story being pitched as more of a light comedy- scenes of the Doctor and Donna missing each other are well staged and gags and great lines flow like wine. "Partners in Crime" doesn’t have to introduce a new character, but this does not mean that there is no character work- Donna is cannily written as being on the other side of a divide from Rose. Rose is young, but can see only a life of chips and TV in front of her, whereas Donna is in her mid-thirties and has the additional feeling that life has passed her by (Martha has purpose and a future even before she meets the Doctor). This means that her joy at being reunited with the Doctor is palpable and felt by all of us.

James Strong again helms the show with great skill in an episode with some stunning scenes. The Adipose babies are lovable, without being unbearably cute, and the CGI of them swarming (assisted by Weta Digital) is jaw-dropping. I love the Close Encounters inspired space-ship at the end and Stacey’s dissolution into Adipose. However, the best scene involves no special effects at all- the wordless conversation between the Doctor and Donna when they first meet. The performances are excellent, with Sarah Lancashire being great as villainess Miss Foster. The legendary Bernard Cribbins returns, with his character revealed as being Donna’s grandfather in a very likeable performance. However, it is the return of Catherine Tate that attracts the most attention. Here she is less brash, but still full of the same spirit she had in "The Runaway Bride". She is very likeable throughout, and I had no problem with spending the next 14 weeks with her. David Tennant clearly enjoys working with her and their on-screen chemistry is wonderful.

So it’s off into time and space again for new adventures- but hang on; who’s that girl?

NEXT: "The Fires of Pompeii"

Saturday, 5 December 2009

"Voyage of the Damned"

"Voyage of the Damned" is pure action escapism, providing a Doctor Who spin on the likes of The Poseidon Adventure- by this time, Doctor Who had become a Christmas tradition like a big movie and the OTT nature of the story fits well in the festive season, even with a replica of the Titanic swooping over Buckingham Palace! The characters are engaging and Davies supplies us with his usual fun dialogue- Mr Copper’s unique take on Earth culture is a highlight. The ‘monsters’ are the host, very reminiscent of the titular automatons in The Robots of Death, but whose angelic form recalls a more recent adversary. If there is a criticism, perhaps it lacks the heart of so many other Doctor Who episodes- even Astrid’s passing does not quite move us in the way it should, in a rare case of inadequate character writing by Davies. This is the first time that the credited guest has died and it should really have had more impact. This is purely a character problem- the dialogue is wonderful, when it could be cheesy: 'You're not falling, Astrid; you're flying'.

The story looks and sounds fantastic and we know we are in good directorial hands with James Strong. The episode is stuffed with fantastic set pieces that are thoroughly exciting with stunning special effects. The cast is hugely impressive- Geoffrey Palmer as the Captain exudes dignity and regret, and Russell Tovey is very charismatic as Midshipman Frame. George Costigan is imperiously sleazy as Max Capricorn. The band of survivors are all engagingly played from Jimmy Vee’s Bannakaffalatta to Clive Swift’s hilarious Mr Copper and Rickston Slade, played by the fascinatingly bug-eyed Gray O'Brien. The big guest star is, of course, Kylie Minogue as Astrid. It is easy to forget that Kylie started off as an actress and she exudes the same charisma as she did on Neighbours, making Astrid a very likeable character.

The Doctor is more of an action hero, as befits a disaster movie and David Tennant makes this work perfectly- the moment where he takes charge over the loathsome Rickston makes you want to punch the air. The Doctor even gains a new companion, only to lose her, watching her ghostly form dissolve before his eyes. It is not surprising that at the end, the Doctor is on his own again and wishes to stay that way.

"Voyage of the Damned" lacks some of the substance or soul of previous stories, but it is very well made and supremely entertaining- if you are in the right frame of mind, you will have a blast!

NEXT: "Partners in Crime"

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

"Time Crash"

2007’s Children in Need featured this fun mini episode which, for the first time in the 21st Century, had the Doctor meet one of his past selves. Like "Born Again" it is basically a scene with two actors and no elaborate special effects. The plot makes sense, but it is the opportunity to see Tennant and Davison together that really makes this work. Davison is instantly the Doctor again, although his age (simply, but very effectively accounted for in the plot) does make it feel different- Davison was younger at his departure than Tennant was at his debut, but Davison was older than Hartnell was in "An Unearthly Child" when "Time Crash" was shot. There are references to the past and a load of technobabble- yet such is Steven Moffat’s skill that it feels necessary and, of course, there is Moffat’s usual high-quality dialogue- the Tenth Doctor’s appraisal of the Fifth and the Fifth’s reaction to it is priceless.

Tenant works well with Davison and, unsurprisingly, both put in stellar performances, the characters establishing a rapport that grows with every second, only for it to collapse when Ten tries to high-five Five. It is an affectionate tribute to one of the best Doctors ever that never seems self-indulgent. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t familiar with the Davison era- this will leave you with a warm feeling inside and images of leopard-skin TARDIS interiors and Belgium sized holes in the space-time continuum.

NEXT: "Voyage of the Damned"

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

"The Sound of Drums"/ "Last of the Time Lords"

"He who would Valiant be
'Gainst all disaster.
Let him in constancy,
Follow the Master."

The name ‘Mr Saxon’ has been cropping up all over the shop in this season and here, we discover his identity. The Master has returned and is now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and it is here that the longest story the programme has had since its return, continues. "The Sound of Drums" has the TARDIS crew more helpless than they have ever been before- there are no old friends that they can rely on, no allies they can convert- they are on their own. The Doctor formulates a plan to stop the Master, but he is outguessed and the Master punishes the Doctor with a gleeful sadism, before opening the door to an invasion of Earth. There is no stopping this and the planet suffers under the Master’s rule for a year. In "Last of the Time Lords", the Doctor is humiliated on a daily basis and Jack is tortured and killed over and over again. The only hope is the legendary figure of Martha Jones, who wanders the planet armed with the knowledge that will finally defeat the Master. A very vocal minority of fans seem to regard this story as a travesty but in my opinion, they are so unbelievably wrong that I sometimes wonder whether they were watching the same thing as I was. This is a story that shows how effective an adversary the Master is- he seemingly has the Doctor outmanoeuvred at every turn. Russell T Davies makes him a match for the Doctor in every respect- he has the same wit and way with words, the same intelligence. This is clearly not your usual adversary, which is why Davies’s script doesn’t follow the typical finale pattern, but has surprises at every turn.

The effectiveness of this is due to Davies’s usual strong writing, most crucially in the characterisation. This is a story that paints images of humanity crushed, of floating killer spheres patrolling the skies, of entire countries being incinerated, of a fleet of spaceships stretching across continents, poised to hurl themselves into interstellar war. However, that is not what the story is about. The story is about the Doctor and the Master. From the start, it is clear that the Doctor’s attitude to his adversary is very different. The grim determination against an adversary is there, as usual, but there is something else- the Doctor actually needs the Master as a peer. The Master comes across as a truly awesome adversary here, a man who gasses the people who helped him into office, who obliterates Japan and piles humiliation on those he has defeated. Yet there is something else there. The Master is married, yet this is more than a sham and it is made obvious that Lucy has not been hypnotised or possessed. He calls the ‘Toclafane’ his ‘children’ and it is clear that they are not just a race he has allied himself with, or his pawns. The Master is a more rounded, yet more mysterious figure than ever before- even the ‘explanation’ for his motivation (with the beautiful flashback to Gallifrey) only adds to the character. The dynamic between the two characters is sublime, with their first phone call between them being a highlight. There is an undertone in the Doctor’s voice that the Master gleefully picks up on- ‘Are you asking me on a date?’, yet he freely tells the Doctor of his fears in the Time War. David Tennant and John Simm play the dynamic to perfection throughout and the final result is only evident in their last scene together. The Master has been shot and, while the Doctor cradles him in his arms, he refuses to regenerate, while the Doctor tearfully begs him (the first time the Doctor has actually cried). It is (to be pretentious) like David and Absalom and an immensely powerful scene. Throughout, Simm makes the Master gleeful sadistic and unpredictable, but he never seems one dimensional- this is someone who is capable of doing anything and probably would. Tennant’s performance is more restrained, as befits the writing for the character in the story and he is brilliant throughout.

Which brings us to the other ending. The use of the faith of humanity to restore the balance is tied in with the plot excellently and whether you see it as being a wonderful affirmation of humanity or a sci-fi version of Peter Pan is up to you. There are those who see the ‘reset button’ as a cop out, some even saying it is a ‘deus ex machina’, which is wrong, unless ‘deus ex machina’ is Latin for ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’. The cannibalising of the TARDIS to make the Paradox Machine made it obvious that this was something that was going to be reversed. Some have compared it unfavourably with Lay Down Your Burdens the season two finale of Battlestar Galactica (the excellent, if somewhat overrated remake). Here, there is a two-part finale with part two taking place a year later than part one but there is no reset. It seems that there are many people who still do not understand what type of programme Doctor Who is. It has to be grounded in a reality we can understand, meaning that the contemporary Earth that the Doctor visits has to be reasonably similar to the real one, which makes the strange worlds and periods the Doctor visits all the more effective. Lumbering Doctor Who with a permanently ravaged contemporary Earth is stupid. It is not as if there are no consequences- the Doctor is left alone once again and Martha has changed forever. Dramatically, it is no more of a cop-out than having the destruction of Earth occur in a fascist parallel universe in Inferno or the Doctor being brought back to life in "Father’s Day".

Colin Teague directs wonderfully with a plethora of great scenes- the sky cracking open to allow the Toclafane entry to the sound of the Rogue Traders, the aforementioned scenes between the Master and the Doctor, the wonderful Gallifrey flashback. There are moments of terror, of awe and of introspection, excellently handled by Teague. The best example is the death of Mrs Rook, a combination of terror, black humour and farce that works perfectly. The special effects are awesome throughout and help to give the story a truly epic feel. The performances are also excellent, with the Jones family being on fine form, particularly Adjoa Andoh as Francine. Alexandra Moen is very effective as Lucy- I love her Sloane-ey dance in "The Sound of Drums" and there are great turns by Tom Ellis as Dr Milligan and Ellie Haddington as Professor Docherty.

This is also Martha’s last story as a regular and Freema Agyeman is, again wonderful. In "The Sound of Drums" , Martha is wonderfully defiant of the Doctor when her family is threatened and her tearful departure is very well done. "Last of the Time Lords", however, has a Martha who is hardened but still compassionate- the moment where she laughs at the Master is truly brilliant. It also confirms one thing- Martha has responsibilities that Rose never did, which means her exit scene (again, beautifully written) gives her a great deal of dignity. At times, the shadow of Rose was cast a bit too strongly in the scripts for my liking, but Agyeman was so strong that this never really mattered.

Doctor Who again ends with a bold, yet ultimately very successful attempt to do something different for the finale. Ignore the naysayers and tuck in!

NEXT: "Time Crash"

Monday, 30 November 2009


NOTE: "Utopia" is, of course the first episode in a 3-parter, but as it has so much that is unique to it, I will be dealing with it separately.

"Utopia" is about the last humans, clinging onto existence on the planet Malcassairo, 100 trillion years in the future when the Universe is dying. They hold onto one hope Utopia, where it is hoped that they can survive the end of the Universe. Professor Yana, an itinerant scientist, has built a ship to take them there, but life on Malcassairo is hard- only one of the original inhabitants has survived, the Professor’s assistant Chantho, and marauding bands of devolved humans hunt for human flesh. This is the situation that the Doctor, Martha and Captain Jack Harkness have stumbled on. It is rather straightforward and not particularly original, but it works as a story about the last humans. Only it isn’t. This is the story of how the Doctor finds out that he is not the last Time Lord- and if there is one other Time Lord who could have survived the Time War, we know who it would be. For me, this was a truly thrilling about-turn in the story that led to the final third being the most exhilarating 15 minutes of the programme’s history. The Doctor and Jack have succeeded in helping Yana to send the humans to Utopia- but Yana is dead and the Master has returned…

Russell T Davies’s dialogue has its usual spark and there is great thought to the world- building- the ‘rocket’ is actually a ship totally unlike anything even the Doctor has encountered before. The character scenes are first rate helped by the cast. It is somewhat redundant of me to say that Sir Sir Derek Jacobi (count the knighthoods!) is utterly superb- he is, after all, one of the finest actors of all time. He makes Yana a thoroughly lovable old man without making him overly dotty- there is an unmistakable touch of William Hartnell about him. His rebirth as the Master is utterly chilling- when he turns to look at the camera, it is as if the soul has been sucked out of him. In less than ten-minutes, Jacobi makes his incarnation of the Master as distinctive as Ainley or Delgado- sadistic and psychopathic, radiating hatred to all. Chipo Chung is wonderful as Chantho, who is literally the cutest, sweetest five-foot tall insect ever! Then, of course there is John Simm as the regenerated Master, bursting with the joy of rebirth, but still consumed with hatred for the Doctor. The regulars are on fine form- the newly formed Doctor/Martha/Jack dynamic is instantly effective and all three actors have great scenes.

The key to the story’s success is Graeme Harper’s direction- the twist in the tale would make the first two thirds of the episode skippable in lesser hands- yet even on rewatching it, it is still compelling. There are memorable scenes aplenty- Jack clinging onto the TARDIS, the brilliantly written and directed scene where the Doctor’s hand is revealed. Then there is the revelation of Yana’s true nature, which is flawlessly brought to screen in a breathtaking ten minutes. The production design and music are flawless, resulting in a hugely enjoyable episode that tells a story that has only just begun…

NEXT: "The Sound of Drums"/ "Last of the Time Lords"

Saturday, 28 November 2009


It’s time for the Doctor-lite episode and we see the highly anticipated return of Steven Moffat to Doctor Who. At its heart, "Blink" has one of the most frightening race of monsters that Doctor Who has ever presented- the Weeping Angels, who can only move when you are not looking at them. The frightening concept at the heart of "Fear Her" that was carelessly unexplored is allowed to reach its full potential here- something that shouldn’t move that does. The idea is striking because it appeals as both a fear that children can relate to and a conceptually fascinating one for adults. The Doctor and Martha have been touched by the Angels and are stuck in 1969- but the Doctor leaves a message in the form of a film that is distributed as a DVD Easter egg- a brilliant idea. However, this is only a part of the story’s effect. The Weeping Angels do not actually cause their victims physical harm, but transport them to another time. Moffatt’s script has a lot to say about the way people observe time. Cathy lives a full life, yet she is dead to Sally the moment the letter arrives, for it is a letter from a dead woman. Billy’s death is slightly different, because he actually gets to see Sally again. ‘Look at my hands; they’re old man’s hands’. Billy too, has lived a long and productive life- yet I’m sure many old people look at themselves and think ‘I was young, yesterday’. The Angels drive home the fact that death will get us in the end, no matter what we do. Moffat’s dialogue is as witty as we have come to expect, yet the emotional moments ring true- such as Sally noting that the rain that is outside Billy’s death bed is the same rain as when they met, when he was young. It is here, of course that we have the Doctor utter the best bit of technobabble ever- time is ‘a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff’. This is strangely reminiscent of a bit of technobabble from The Time Monster- but infinitely more effective.

Moffat’s talent for characterisation is as pronounced as ever. Sally Sparrow is wonderfully written and wonderfully played by Carey Mulligan, a typical Moffat heroine- smart, sexy and witty, but easy to relate to. She is given great support from Finlay Robertson as Larry (Laurence Nightingale? Parents can be cruel) a geeky character who does not conform to usual geeky stereotypes. Moffat makes this central relationship funny and believable. There is not one weak link in the cast. A special mention must be given to the Billys- Michael Obiora makes young Billy a supremely confident, yet still likeable young man and Louis Mahoney (making his third and best appearance in Doctor Who) makes him believable as an older version of the character, more subdued, yet still with the same spark.

Hettie MacDonald’s direction is sublime, making every appearance of the Angels chilling, helped by Murray Gold’s screeching score- the movement of the Angels with the flickering light is a real heart-stopper. Crucially, MacDonald is just as skilful at directing the more subdued scenes and is masterful at creating mood. The production values are also superb- it is hard to believe that the Angels are actually people in costume and you genuinely think that they made different statues for each pose. As with "Love & Monsters", the Doctor-lite story has a director who only made one contribution and I hope she returns.

"Blink" had to follow the unqualified triumph of "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood". At the time, it felt that Paul Cornell’s story would be impossible to match- yet "Blink" certainly does that, equally effective in a totally different way. A triumph for all concerned.

NEXT: "Utopia"

Thursday, 26 November 2009

"Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood"

The scene is set with the Doctor and Martha running into the TARDIS, on the run from an unseen foe and it looks like it’s business as usual. Then, the Doctor’s eyes open- only it isn’t the Doctor, but a schoolmaster. Martha enters wearing a maid’s uniform and we find out that it is 1913 and the Doctor is apparently a dream of this man. Roll titles.

The ideas behind "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" are pretty sound- The Doctor hides from the Family by becoming human and burying his memories and intelligence behind the personality of John Smith, a history master at Farringham School for boys. However, this is merely a canvas, on which Paul Cornell (using his excellent novel as a basis) has painted an absolute masterpiece. With the Doctor absent, our attention is focussed on Smith and he comes across as a sympathetic and endearing character that is definitely not the Doctor. However, the Doctor finds a way of breaking through when Smith is asleep, making Smith dream of things that seem like sheer phantasy, which he records in his Journal of Impossible Things. The way that the story is structured cleverly mirrors this- after the pre-titles sequence, the story looks like a period drama, but slivers of Doctor Who start breaking through until we have a cliffhanger where a village dance has been invaded by a cross section of pre-war society, armed with disintegrator guns. World War One strongly affects the tone of the story- Cornell accurately depicts the worldview that the Great War destroyed forever- man was capable of anything, an Englishman doubly so. The boys, trained in use of weapons to fight the Enemy in a just and chivalric war will stand in filthy trenches, get mown down by machine guns and choke on from mustard gas. They fight men of straw, just as their fellows will train for combat the next year.

However, this is not just a story of alien invasion, but one driven, primarily by characters. At the centre is John Smith, a timid, yet kindly man who finds love with the school Matron, Joan Redfern. This romance is tenderly done and we come to appreciate both characters to such an extent that, while we want the Doctor back, we are truly sorry to see Smith go. Cornell does not make it entirely clear whether Smith is an invented persona or a kenotic reduction of the Doctor, but this works in the story’s behaviour- is Smith’s heroic act with the cricket ball a piece of the Doctor poking through or is it entirely Smith? Particularly well written is Joan’s dawning realisation of the fact that her love is for a man who doesn’t really exist- her asking Smith about his childhood and receiving encyclopaedia entries as an answer is heartbreaking and written with a Borges-like elegance. Joan comes off as a splendid character, a strong, intelligent and decent woman that one can easily understand Smith falling for, but with the strictness that a School Matron should show, that is a mask of propriety for her true kindness. The rest of the staff and the schoolboys are equally well drawn. One very refreshing aspect is the refusal to make the characters hold anachronistic values- Martha’s colour is an issue with even sympathetic characters such as Smith and Nurse Redfern and Martha’s dignity and resolve throughout is wonderful.

There is one character who permeates the story, yet hardly appears- the Doctor himself. We see people’s yearnings for him both selfish (the Family) and otherwise (Martha). Tangential, yet vital is the character of Tim Latimer, a boy with an unusual gift who understands the Doctor better than any other, giving the most wonderful description of the Doctor ever written:

'He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun... He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe.'

Critically, when the Doctor reappears, he is impersonating John Smith to lessen the blow before he utterly defeats the Family. The shift of narration to Baines/Son-of-Mine is inspired- we see the Doctor as his enemies see him, an implacable destroyer. In fact, until the time, the Doctor and Martha depart in the TARDIS, we are always seeing the Doctor from another character’s perception of him.

Charles Palmer directs a very impressive production with virtually no weak points. There is no time to list all the memorable scenes, so I’ll just pick a few- the flashback to the Doctor’s transformation, the boys machine-gunning the scarecrows, the heartbreaking ‘dream of a normal life’ and, of course, the wonderful coda, where the Doctor and Martha attend a Remembrance Day service where an aged Tim Latimer is guest of honour. The performances are splendid. Jessica Hynes is compelling as Joan and Thomas Sangster excellent as Tim. Harry Lloyd manages to convey the alien without going over the top, in a hugely skilful performance as Baines/Son-of-Mine. However, the best performances are by the regulars. Freema Agyeman gives one of the best ‘companion’ performances of all time in a thoroughly wonderful performance- her medical ‘talk to the hand’ scene is sublime. David Tennant’s performance is astonishing, possibly the best performance by any actor playing the lead role, although he mainly plays another role. Tennant makes Smith endearing, fearful, yet very brave and we truly mourn his passing.

"Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is not one of those tediously trite sci-fi stories that tell the reader ‘what it means to be human’- it points out why the Doctor can never truly be like us, while celebrating the best of humanity- Joan is awed by the Doctor, but not so much that she fails to reprimand him for the havoc he has caused, dismissing him from her presence- while she finally mourns for the man she loved. It seems weird that, a few weeks before, I was thinking that Doctor Who had lost it, for this is truly one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time.

NEXT: "Blink"

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


When I heard that Chris Chibnall would be writing for Doctor Who, I had mixed feelings. I am only really familiar with Chibnall’s writing from Torchwood and Life on Mars. On Life on Mars, he wrote some excellent and moving stories. However, his Torchwood efforts had a tendency to be derivative and uninvolving and it cannot be a coincidence that Torchwood skyrocketed in quality when he left as showrunner. Which leaves us with "42". The influences are easy to spot- the real time narrative is inspired by the wildly popular 24 (thankfully, "42" does not have a simplistically reactionary political agenda) and the final act reveal is very similar to Planet of Evil (sentient planet in one, sentient sun on another). The problem is, of course, that while 24 is a thrilling ride, I find that it has little rewatch value, at least after the first season. There is a clear similarity to Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine but this is probably an unfortunate coincidence, however. There are a few choice bits of dialogue (the best, by far, being ‘Here Comes the Sun’), but beyond that, it is a standard monster on the rampage story that contains some incredibly silly pseudo-science (magnetism is obviously stronger than the gravitational pull of a sun!) and some scattershot plotting- one of which was hilariously pointed out by comedian Toby Hadoke- the sun should have made its catchphrase ‘Can I have my bits back, please?’ rather that ‘Burn with me!’ Characterisation is thin, but this is remedied by some good performances from William Ash and Anthony Flanagan. However, in the key role of Captain McDonnell, Michelle Collins only just avoids being awful. She is woefully out of her depth, something which becomes very obvious when she shares scenes with any two other actors. The regulars are excellent as ever, with David Tennant effectively portraying the Doctor’s possession and fear and Freema Agyeman again injecting life and vigour into every scene.

However, there is one considerable asset that "42" possesses- the direction. Never before has a mundane script been elevated to something else entirely by its realisation. Every scene, indeed, every shot and editing choice looks sublime. The Doctor going outside the ship to save Martha is unbearably tense on screen, belying the fact that it is very lazy and contrived plotting on Chibnall’s behalf. There are scenes of sheer wonder- the awesome death scene of Korwin and McDonnell, the beautiful shot of the Doctor and Martha staring at each other as Martha and Riley’s pod floats towards the sun. Ernest Vincze’s cinematography is just as stunning- look at the lighting on Martha in the pod, where she is lit with red on one side and blue on another. The special effects and design work is up to the task, with some nice little touches, such as the name on the unlocking device.

Despite the lacklustre script, "42" is a triumph for Graeme Harper, a real visual feast. However, it seemed at the time that Doctor Who was losing its mojo somewhat- was it going to be stuck in a rut of mediocrity?

NEXT: "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood"

Sunday, 22 November 2009

"The Lazarus Experiment"

"The Lazarus Experiment" starts off looking like the origin story for a comic-book supervillain, with the unlikely performance of a pioneering scientific experiment in front of an audience in black tie and the less than subtle naming of the villain in question. There are subtler allusions to T S Eliot (as there were in Spider-Man II). However, the rest of the story is strongly reminiscent of The Quatermass Experiment- the man who becomes a monster that meets its end in a London cathedral. Stephen Greenhorn’s script tells its tale well and, unlike Helen Raynor’s Dalek story, the pseudo-science follows its own rules and the lashings of real science are well integrated. The story does seem to lack some depth, with characters being a bit more stereotypical than usual. The morality of what Lazarus has done is also insufficiently explored. However there are flashes of something deeper- Lazarus’s quest for immortality being rooted in his childhood experiences of the Blitz, Southwark Cathedral being an instinctive place of safety. The writing for the regulars also shines- it is clear that the Doctor has become genuinely fond of Martha, but Martha is mature enough to insist on a definition of their ‘relationship’ before they continue on their travels.

Richard Clark directs well enough, considering the straightforwardness of the story. The climax in the cathedral is very atmospheric, helped, of course, by the excellent cinematography. The Lazarus mutant is an impressive beast, but it doesn’t quite make the premier league of Doctor Who monsters. Clark manages to get some great performances from the cast. This is the second outing for Martha’s family and, although she not as well written for as Jackie, Adjoa Andoh is skilful enough to fill in the gaps. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is delightful as Tish and I’m sure that many were hoping for her to join the Doctor and Martha at the end. However, the key guest role is Mark Gatiss as Lazarus. It is due to his performance that Lazarus is as compelling as it is, with Gatiss giving an unsilly, yet entertaining performance that has no sign of seeming like a League of Gentlemen character. The regulars are awesome as usual. Scriptwise, David Tennant is not as well catered for as usual, but Tennant is not to be deterred by this. Freema effectively shows Martha’s maturity and sense of fun. Interestingly, one thing Greenhorn does effectively is make their interaction a tad more flirtatious- I love the bit where the Doctor picks up Martha’s knickers (and not for the reason you’re thinking!)

"The Lazarus Experiment" is a perfectly respectable story, if a bit unremarkable. However, there are definite consequences for the future- it seems the oft-mentioned ‘Mr Saxon’ knows of the Doctor and does not think too kindly of him…

NEXT: "42"

Friday, 20 November 2009

"Daleks in Manhattan" / "Evolution of the Daleks"

"Daleks in Manhattan" / "Evolution of the Daleks" brings the deranged dustbins into play rather earlier in the season than is expected. However, we get a sumptuous looking story set in 1930s New York; an odd idea on paper but a look at this story confirms that, stylistically, the Daleks actually fit in quite well, especially with that grandest example of Art Deco, the Empire State Building. The production is outstanding with excellent design work that makes the viewer feel the atmosphere of New York in the depression, despite the fact that only a few background plates were shot outside of Wales. The special effects are of an excellent standard and the cast is very impressive, ranging from experienced performers such as Hugh Quarshie to very talented newcomers such as Andrew Garfield. I say this at the start, because this story goes horrendously wrong in a way that the programme has not done since it returned and there is one reason- the script.

The set-up is sound enough, which is why "Daleks in Manhattan" is actually a very enjoyable episode. The juxtaposition between the brand-new splendour of the Empire State Building and the misery of Hooverville is used well and forms a strong basis for the initial mystery. However, characterisation is unusually basic- Solomon is the strong leader, Frank the smart youngster. Even the star-cross’d lovers Tallulah and Laszlo are not sufficiently well-written to form a ‘heart’ for the story. The dialogue is OK, but shows a degree of clunkiness that was not evident before. This is all forgiveable in "Daleks in Manhattan", but "Evolution of the Daleks" provides explanations and solutions; both of which are woefully inadequate. The Daleks are dying out, with only the Cult of Skaro remaining. Dalek Sec merges with Mr Diagoras to form a Dalek/human hybrid, but there are other humans kept in hibernation. The plan is to use a solar flare (or is it lightning?) to change their DNA to make them ‘human Daleks’. The DNA is transferred by use of a blue liquid (or is it the Dalekanium on the roof?) Never mind, the Doctor adds a big dose of free-will (that pesky free-will gene!) by getting in the way of the lightning and replacing one of the Dalekanium panels (Er…) which means that the human Daleks start to question and are destroyed.

This is all utter rubbish scientifically, but pseudo-science can be forgiven dramatically- if it is consistent. Helen Raynor’s own pseudo-definition of DNA changes from scene to scene, as does the application of the genetic engineering, which makes the plot hard to follow not because it is too clever, but because it is anything but. This leaves us with situations that are solved by barrages of technobabble, which hints at the atrocity that was the Arc of Infinity plot, and has a clumsiness of construction more reminiscent of the awful Pedler/Davis Cybermen stories than classic Dalek stories. However, plot isn’t everything is it? Unfortunately, as we have seen, the characterisation and dialogue is not at its best. This means that Solomon dies after giving a bizarre speech that is a) is in no way a realistic reaction that a character would make given the events and (b) full of clichés. Solomon conveniently ignores the Doctor’s warnings and the evidence of his own eyes to die in a totally unnecessary manner. The Dalek Sec hybrid is a thoroughly wasted character- any success that it has is due to the performer and special effects.

James Strong puts in a valiant show as director and makes it all look wonderful- the scene where Mr Diagoras is consumed by Dalek Sec is profoundly disturbing, looking both like a devourment and a mating. The revelation of the hybrid at the end of the episode is also masterful (despite being ruined by the Radio Times!) The stage-show scenes are also brilliantly shot and form a very welcome diversion in "Daleks in Manhattan". However, Strong is hamstrung by the limitations of the script- although the end, where the Doctor saves Laszlo’s life is wrecked due to silly decisions in realisation that may not be Raynor’s fault. As said before, the cast is very impressive and largely give good performances. Hugh Quarshie is fantastic as Solomon, in spite of the atrocious writing for the character. Miranda Raison is very memorable as Tallulah and Ryan Carnes effective as Laszlo. I cannot judge the effectiveness of the American accents, but they seem fine, if a little mannered to me. The regulars both emerge with their dignity intact- Martha is especially memorable in this. However, David Tennant has to work with some very generic writing for the Doctor- fortunately he is so good, he gets away with it.

"Daleks in Manhattan" / "Evolution of the Daleks" is a considerable disappointment- an entertaining first episode whose potential is squandered by "Evolution of the Daleks"- the worst episode Doctor Who has had since its revival and the only one I have no desire to revisit.

NEXT: "The Lazarus Experiment"

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


The city of New New York contains a subterranean 'undercity' that is dominated by a vast orbital motorway, where people seemingly spend their entire lives advancing a few miles in a colossal traffic jam and resort to all sorts of nefarious measures to join the carpool lane (which reminded me of a particularly fine episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm). One of these measures is kidnapping and Martha is abducted by a young couple who are desperate to start a new life in the city. The Doctor has to find her in the smog-choked traffic. It turns out that the undercity is actually the only part of New New York that was saved from an airborne virus by the action of the Face of Boe, who gave of his own inexplicable life force to enable the people to survive.

There are a fair few things that don't make much sense in this story- the functionality of the motorway's systems are not consistent, the Doctor's rewiring is a bit of a rushed fix for the problem etc- but they mainly concern the peripheral areas of the story. The plot is a very simple one, when you get down to it- the Doctor rescues Martha and frees the trapped commuters along the way and this is something that the story sticks to. The Doctor is resolute in his aims in the story, which wonderfully portrays him as a swashbuckler who leaps from car to car, a scientist and, critically, a man who positively affects everyone he meets. In short, the Doctor is everything the viewer expects him to be and we are cheering him every step of the way. The portrayal of the hapless commuters is another high point- they live in an ignorance about that is sometimes wilful, but they refuse to give up hope. In a very moving scene, every driver and passenger sing "The Old Rugged Cross" together, united in what could almost be a faith. Russell T Davies works his usual magic with consistently excellent dialogue and some great characters- the Cassini sisters are a wonderful creation; there should be more elderly lesbian carspotters in all types of fiction.

Richard Clark directs a very impressive looking production. The special effects are awesome, if not quite perfect, but it is Clark's eye for a good shot that saves the day. There are some stunningly beautiful scenes- the opening of the skylight, the cars flying in the New New York sky and the aforementioned swashbuckling from the Doctor, where we see the huge variety of people on the motorway, from albinos to nudists. There are allusions are made to Grant Wood's American Gothic and 2000AD. However, Clark makes the slower, more intimate scenes work equally well and he is helped by an awesome cast. Ardal O'Hanlon is brilliant as Brannigan, making him seem a fresh character- although the bit where he tells the tall tale of the woman who breathed in the fumes for too long had me expecting him to say that she had four arses instead of a mouth (apologies to those who are not familiar with Father Ted. But if you're not, you have my sympathy). However, this is a great story for the regulars. David Tennant is astounding throughout and Freema Agyeman is not far behind. Despite the fact that the Doctor and Martha are separated for most of the story, find out a great deal about their relationship. The last scene actually has Martha making the Doctor talk about his trauma in a wonderfully moving scene that is beautifully written and performed.

This is also the final appearance (so far) of the Face of Boe. The creature's self-sacrifice is incredibly moving is another absolute highlight and it is a testament to the skills of all involved that I was moved to tears by the passing of a five-foot animatronic head. Before he goes, he passes on his final secret that may have repercussions for the future.

"Gridlock" is a wonderful story that stands up to repeated viewings. It has a few problems, but none of them detract from the overall effect of the episode- you actually have to turn your brain on for the problems not to matter. Oh yes, I almost forgot- MACRA!!!

NEXT: "Daleks in Manhattan"/ "Evolution of the Daleks"

Monday, 16 November 2009

"The Shakespeare Code"

After dropping his name left, right and centre, the Doctor finally meets Shakespeare face to face. I must say that I was not enthused with the title, which alludes to Dan Brown's best-selling vowel movement, but I need not have worried. Gareth Roberts spins an exciting and very literate yarn. There are allusions aplenty to Shakespeare's works, Shakespearian academia, a quotation from Dylan Thomas and even an airing for that most groansome of Shakespeare jokes. It even starts with a balcony scene which, of course, turns into something else entirely. However, the plot itself is very easy to follow- the Carrionites, an ancient race whose science resembles arcane forms of magic, have been trying to escape their 'banishment'. Their power is based on the manipulation of words, so who better to release them than the Bard himself? Roberts's script is full of intriguing ideas and great dialogue. The grandfather paradoxes and butterfly stamping that litters time-travel fiction is deftly dealt with in the first five minutes. Impressively, Roberts makes the characters act in a manner appropriate to their time, such as the less than sensitive view of mental illness that the Elizabethans had. It is clear that Roberts has a real love and understanding of Shakespeare and his world that is evident in every word. If I have one criticism of Roberts (and it is barely a criticism at all) it is that he is the first writer who writes like a fanboy- the Back to the Future reference, especially ‘No, the novelisation of the film!’ is the most obvious example.

Shakespeare himself is wonderfully brought to life on the page, nicking quotations left-right and centre, trying to charm Martha at every turn and remaining, at all times, the master wordsmith. This interpretation is excellently realised by Dean Lennox Kelly in a hugely charismatic performance. Christina Cole is appropriately vixenish as Lillith and the rest of the cast are excellent in some very lively turns. I was surprised to see that Peter Streete was played by Matt King, despite my being a massive Peep Show fan, which shows how good his performance was. Freema Agyeman is utterly wonderful in her first trip in the TARDIS, with her infectious enthusiasm and her genuine annoyance at the Doctor's slight stand-offishness. David Tennant is wonderful as ever, but worthy of special praise is the difference in the playing of the relationship between him and his companion that the arrival of Martha brings.

The production is absolutely stunning, helped in no small way by the location filming at the restored Globe Theatre. Charles Palmer makes this a sumptuous and exciting ride deciding to make everything look bold- cinematographer Ernest Vincze makes this a very colourful looking story, working in tandem with excellent costuming and sets. There are memorable scenes aplenty- the drowning on dry land, the Carrionite spectre that appears in rehearsal and the full on swarm, Lillith’s flight on her broomstick etc. Murray Gold’s score is his best yet, a wonderfully lush and vibrant series of compositions.

William Shakespeare probably did more to make the English language respectable than any other- no other writer has contributed more words. It is fitting that the climax of this story should be the Bard closing a dimensional rift and banishing a swarm of witches using only words- as understanding a tribute as Doctor Who could have for the man and a great end to a great story.

NEXT: "Gridlock"

Saturday, 14 November 2009

"Smith and Jones"

We open on Martha Jones walking down the street towards the hospital where she is training to be a doctor. She is on the phone to every single member of her immediate family who seem to turn to her every time they have a problem. Then, a strange man comes up to her and does something random and inexplicable, and her day gets odder from that point onwards.

"Smith and Jones" doesn’t have as much riding on it as other previous season openers, but it has to introduce the new companion while telling an entertaining story. The story is certainly a blast- upward rain, a hospital being transported to the moon, a detachment of space rhinos looking for a criminal, a little old lady who sucks your blood out with a straw- God I love this programme! The plot is simple, yet thoroughly engaging and zips along, laced with the trademark Russell T Davies wit. Throughout all this, we never lose sight of Martha as a character and it is a truly joyous moment when the TARDIS zooms off into the vortex. If there’s one flaw, it’s that the idea of frying the earth with one MRI machine does strain my credulity somewhat. Production values are of the fantastic standard we have come to expect, with stunning scenes such as the rain, the hospital on the moon, the landing of the Judoon, the Doctor’s method of expelling X-radiation, the awesome use of time travel as a cheap trick etc. Charles Palmer makes this a very energetic ride without losing sight of the people in the story.

Billie Piper was a tough act to follow. It helps, of course, that Freema Agyeman is absolutely stunning, but she also makes Martha clever and likable, but without alienating the casual viewer. Martha is written as being older and wiser than Rose, with a career and responsibilities, but her flirtation with the Doctor is more overt. Agyeman is probably not quite as good an actress as Piper, but she is more than up to the job- just look at the expression on her face when her flirtation is brushed off. Martha’s family are brought to life by Trevor Laird as her father and the always excellent Adjoa Andoh as her mother. Playing a smaller role is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Martha’s sister- the Jones family are clearly unfairly advantaged in the gorgeous daughter stakes! There are further excellent performances from Roy Marsden as Mr Stoker and Anne Reid as the Plasmavore.

As said before, this story has less to establish than either "Rose" or "New Earth", which is probably why it is the most thoroughly enjoyable season opener yet.

NEXT: "The Shakespeare Code"

Thursday, 12 November 2009

"The Runaway Bride"

By the broadcast of this Christmas 2006 episode, Doctor Who had lost both of the leading actors that it had relaunched itself with. Yet, by this time, David Tennant had long since ceased to be the ‘new boy’ and was Doctor Who in the hearts and minds of millions, which meant that his first episode without Billie Piper had little to prove in terms of his ability to go it alone. The plot is frenetic and full of technobabble, but it works well enough dramatically. However, Russell T Davies is clearly aiming to have a bit more fun this time, presumably because of the presence of Catherine Tate in the ‘companion’ role. There are a lot of gags, most of which are very funny- the varying reactions to Donna in her wedding dress, Donna’s story of how she became engaged to Lance, her less than dashing escape from the web. However, this is not a simple ‘comedy’ episode, with Davies keenly observing the Doctor’s need for a companion- without them, his ruthlessness can be horrifying.

Euros Lyn is, as always, perfectly in tune with Davies’s writing, realising the story perfectly from the aforementioned comedy, to scenes of sheer wonder, such as the journey to the time of the Earth’s creation. Then there’s the show-stopping and utterly jaw-dropping chase sequence- makers of the 1996 TV Movie take note, this is how you do a car chase in Doctor Who! The production is excellent across the board, with a truly excellent monster in the shape of the Empress of the Racnoss and a wonderfully explosive finale.

The performances are all very strong, with Don Gilet making Lance believable as both concerned fiancé and scheming liar and Jacqueline King being very effective as Donna’s Mother. The lovely Sarah Parish is almost unrecognisable, but is great fun as the Empress- it is nice to see an adversary with a sense of humour (albeit a very poor one!) However, there is one performance which had everyone looking forward to with a mixture of apprehension and dread. I am sure I am not alone in failing to see what is funny about The Catherine Tate Show and her appearance at the end of "Doomsday" made me momentarily wonder if I was dreaming. Happily, Tate is very good here. Earlier in the story, she does make Donna a bit gobby, but Tate is excellent in making her seem real and sympathetic- Donna’s betrayal by Lance is effectively played as is her genuine wonder at what the Doctor shows her. However, if you watch the end where Donna refuses to accompany the Doctor and still think Tate does not have what it takes then… best to say no more. Then, of course, there is our leading man, who portrays the playfulness, ruthlessness and sadness of the Doctor as flawlessly as he has ever done.

Again, Cardiff give us a Christmas present to treasure in a very entertaining Christmas romp.

NEXT: "Smith and Jones"

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

"Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday"

"Army of Ghosts" immediately kicks off with a wonderful prologue, narrated by Rose that somehow manages to be both joyful and a lament- ‘the story of how I died’. Our interest has been piqued and is sustained by the intriguing scenario- ‘ghosts’ are appearing all over the world and they have thoroughly captured humanity’s attention. Of course, the Doctor realises that something more material and more sinister is behind the ‘ghosts’. The cause is, in fact, the covert organisation known as Torchwood, who have discovered a breach in space-time, through which has come a mysterious sphere which cannot touched, scanned or perceived in any way apart from sight. Torchwood have been waiting for the Doctor to come back for years but, as always, his arrival brings disaster. The ‘ghosts’ are the impressions of beings who have been trying to break through- the Cybermen from the parallel Earth. Millions of the creatures materialise worldwide- but worse is yet to come. The Sphere, which heralded their coming is not theirs. It cracks open- to reveal Daleks!

The ‘event finale’ is a very welcome development that the relaunched Doctor Who brought along with it. The previous series had the outstanding "Bad Wolf"/ "The Parting of the Ways" so expectations were high; to say they were met is something of an understatement. "Army of Ghosts"/ "Doomsday" is, first of all, tremendous, glorious fun from start to finish, so much so that it doesn’t strike one just how brilliantly written it is. The plot is full of intriguing concepts and ideas from the start, with the ‘ghosts’ and the idea of ‘The Void’ (which has a great deal in common with ‘brane theory’ in astro-physics). Torchwood is finally revealed in all its glory- a mysterious secret organisation that ruthlessly protects its airspace from the alien, yet maintain a ‘people-friendly’ working environment. However, there is one thing about this story that has occurred in the dreams of all Doctor Who fans for decades- Daleks v Cybermen. This is a basic ‘fan-fiction’ idea that has been elevated to something else entirely by a great writer. There is no fan-fulfilling contest to see which is best, as that is certain within a few minutes- the Daleks are a race with hugely advanced technology, capable of time travel, the destruction of entire planetary systems etc. The Cybermen are just bionic humans- they don’t stand a chance. The face-off between Dalek Sec and the Cyberleader shows that you can have memorable dialogue between ‘Stephen Hawking and the speaking clock’ in a scene that is funny, without belittling either of the two races. However, this is not merely an all-action shoot-out, but a story featuring real characters and a great understanding of human nature. The effect of the ‘ghosts’ on humanity is brilliantly observed- they have an instant effect on popular culture, but also appeal to a very basic yearning that all people have. Jackie imagines the shadowy figure that appears in her front room has the smell of her deceased father, but it is obvious that she is deluding herself. In the middle of a pitched battle, Jackie meets the alternative Pete in a scene that is funny, touching and, most importantly, does not make us want to fast-forward to the next bit of action. Davies plays with our preconceptions and confounds them with something simpler- and better. We see something called the ‘Genesis Ark’ which must, of course contain Davros. It is, instead, a dimensionally transcendental prison ship- with an army of Daleks inside.

Graeme Harper truly makes this an epic visual feast- the scene where a legion of Cybermen shoot up at a flotilla of dive-bombing Daleks is a sight which, were it to be taken back in time and shown to a 1980s Doctor Who fan, would probably kill them from pure ecstasy. The script has changes of mood and pace that require direction that is equally as sophisticated- and this is precisely what we get. From the nightmarish appearance of a Cyberman in a child’s bedroom to the beauty of the opening scene, Harper shows he is still, very much, at the top of his field. The cast is superb, with Tracy-Ann Oberman being phenomenal as Yvonne- ruthless and driven, but keen to know all of her underlings, and by no means evil. Raji James is also quietly effective as Dr Singh. One of the highlights is the reappearance of Mickey, brilliantly played, as always, by Noel Clarke.

It ends, of course, with the Doctor and Rose separated in different dimensions. These final scenes are beautiful and heartbreaking, a triumph for both Davies and Harper, but also a final showcase for the skills of Billie Piper. Rose was our identification figure for the relaunch of the most bonkers and brilliant idea in television history and Piper never put in a bad performance and this, her last one as a regular, is simply phenomenal. It is odd to remember how apprehensive some were about David Tennant- by the time this was broadcast, he was Doctor Who and he gives his best performance yet.

So it ends with a beautifully heartbreaking scene, very reminiscent of His Dark Materials (a comparison that Philip Pullman welcomes with his typical generosity) that caps a fantastic story and a great season.

NEXT: "The Runaway Bride"

Sunday, 8 November 2009

"Fear Her"

"Fear Her" boasts an original alien race in the Isolus and an intriguing premise- people can be turned into drawings- that recalls such things as Catherine Storr's book Marianne Dreams (filmed as Paperhouse and Escape Into Night) and M.R. James’s short story "The Mezzotint". Set in London at the start of the 2012 Olympics, the story involves the disappearance of children and a sinister child who may be responsible. The writer, Matthew Graham, was the co-creator of the beloved Life on Mars. It has all the ingredients for a great story, yet it doesn’t quite come off- in fact it is probably the most hated Doctor Who story to have been broadcast since 2005. While I do not believe that it deserves the bile directed at it, there are some large-ish problems with the story. Graham’s script, as said, plays with some interesting ideas, but doesn’t spin them into a wholly cohesive story. The two key issues- Chloe Webber’s possession by the Isolus child and Chloe creating a nightmare vision of her dead father are not fully integrated with each other, meaning that what could have been a deft exploration of the loneliness of children and the breakdown of the nuclear family seems to be rushed. This is a pity, as the concepts show a degree of depth. Graham realises something about children that can be terrifying- they exhibit less empathy than adults and behaviour considered normal for a child would be seen as psychopathic in an adult. This is brought into light in the characterisation of the Isolus, but Graham fails to make Chloe/Isolus truly frightening, which is unfortunate, considering the name of the story. a child with great power is something to be feared. There is also the much maligned climax, where the Doctor lights the Olympic Torch. It is important to remember that this does make sense within the context of the story, but it does have to work very hard to not be cheesy- whether it fails is up to the viewer.

Euros Lyn makes this a very polished production, as we have come to expect, with all the scenes shot in a very competent manner. However, there is the problem that this should be a very scary story and it fails. The teaser is perfect, with the boy disappearing and becoming a drawing- which then runs screaming towards us. However, this sense of horror never returns after that, which is a mistake- even the monstrous drawing of her father does not come off well. This is not to say that there are no memorable scenes- Rose being attacked by a scribble, ‘fingers on lips!’ and the hilarious materialisation of the TARDIS, but Lyn is certainly capable of better. There are some nice performances from Abdul Salis, Edna Dore and the lovely Nina Sosanya. Abisola Agbaje is sound enough as Chloe, but she isn’t as scary as she could be although, as said earlier, the script doesn’t help. Tennant and Piper have a last chance to play Rose and the Doctor as happy-go-lucky and succeed admirably.

Despite what many others have said, this is not a bad story, but it could have been so much better. Things that shouldn’t move, but do, are terrifying. It’s a good thing that someone else would realise that a year later…

NEXT: "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday"

Friday, 6 November 2009

"Love & Monsters"

The frenetic nature of the production process for Doctor Who meant a very interesting creative decision for the production team- mounting a story that would be shot at the same time as another episode with minimal appearances for the Doctor- the so-called ‘Doctor-lite’ episode. "Love & Monsters" tells the story of one Elton Pope, an ordinary Londoner who is obsessed with finding the Doctor and what happened when he found like-minded individuals along the way. By telling the tale of people who have noticed the Doctor, it becomes a love-letter to fandom. There are those who have followed the Doctor all their lives, those who have turned to the Doctor to mask other tragedies and Elton, who remembers the Doctor from his childhood and wants to know more. The members of LI’n’DA (as they eventually dub themselves) are not the usual ‘anoraks’ that are used to denote fans- they are a diverse group of people who have other interests and find something more in LI’n’DA - shared interests lead to genuine friendships developing, and perhaps something more. Of course, there are some who take it a bit too seriously and the character of Victor Kennedy takes control of LI’n’DA , whose ’ec-zee-ma’ is more than it appears to be. RTD calls this story "Love & Monsters" and there is certainly both- Elton’s shadowing/ stalking of Jackie turning into feelings of friendship that awake what he has been feeling for Ursula all along. And there’s the Absorbaloff, a fun monster created by a young fan, that is used in an inspired fashion. Davies makes this a story of real human beings confronted with the unearthly, yet still wanting to live their lives.

Elton is not only the central character, he is the narrator for this story, which means that director Dan Zeff had an interesting set of options for visualising the story. The use of Elton’s video camera must have tempted Zeff to tell the story as a faux-video diary, à la The Blair Witch Project or Diary of the Dead. However, Zeff realised that this would not suit the mood of the story- this is not just about experiences of the Doctor, but about fantasy and memory, as, indeed, is our perception of the show itself. In addition, the comedy would be far less nuanced if the entire story was shot in that way. It is clear that a fair few of the scenes merely represent Elton’s internal perception- the comedic chase of the Hoix in the opening sequence, the literal internet meltdown. The mood changes subtly as the story progresses and Zeff is up to the challenge.

The cast is great. Marc Warren makes Elton very likeable and the adorable Shirley Henderson is wonderful as Ursula. All the members of LI’n’DA come across as likeable people thanks to the wonderful performances. Camille Coduri is given her meatiest role yet and her lovably slatternly pursuit of Elton is both funny and touching. Then there is Peter Kay as Victor/ The Absorbaloff. The idea of a posh-sounding gentleman with a cane being unmasked as an absorbing green blob with a Lancashire accent makes me giggle and Kay, though funny, never overplays the role. It goes without saying that David Tennant and Billie Piper are as excellent as ever in their limited roles,.

"Love & Monsters" is a wonderful and wholly successful experiment- don’t miss it!

NEXT: "Fear Her"