Friday, 30 October 2009

"The Girl in the Fireplace"

After "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances", fans eagerly looked forward to what Steven Moffat would come up with next and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Moffat tells the tale of a spacecraft in the 51st Century that contains ‘time windows’ that lead to various stages in the life of one woman- Jeanne-Antoinette ‘Reinette’ Poisson, better known as ‘Madame de Pompadour’. For some reason, the maintenance robots on the ship need her head- but only when she is ‘complete’. This is a story where the Doctor fights the monsters and wins, but it is also the story of a woman who has loved the Doctor her entire life and the Doctor’s deepening feelings for her, despite the fact that, from his perspective, he has known her for only a few hours. This can be seen as an illustration of the Doctor’s view of his human companions in "School Reunion"- Reinette grows from childhood to youth to middle age in front of our eyes, as well as the Doctor’s. Moffatt’s writing of the relationship between Reinette and the Doctor is as excellent as you would expect from the writer of Press Gang and Joking Apart. For her, the Doctor is prepared to do something he has never done before- being stranded for the rest of his life on one time and place and, crucially, we are prepared to believe he will do so. Reinette comes to life magnificently via Moffat’s pen, highlighting her intelligence, wit and irresistible je ne sais quoi with some choice lines- her description of her trans-temporal relationship with the Doctor is sublime writing. There is also the wonderful scene where she uses the Doctor’s telepathic technique to look inside his head. Moffat, being Moffat, also includes some brilliantly funny lines that somehow work hand-in-hand with the horror aspects. Moffat also makes the sci-fi aspects work magnificently, with intriguing concepts like the clockwork robots and their gristly repair plan. Like "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances", there is no villain, just an automated system that has followed its program a bit too literally.

Euros Lyn commands a sumptuously triumphant production. The period detail for 17th century France is phenomenal and the grimy spacecraft is equally successful and Lyn manages to make them both work together magnificently- sometimes within the same shot (the linked sets are a very bold and eminently successful move) with beauty and futuristic squalor being juxtaposed perfectly. There are a multitude of memorable scenes- showpieces like the monster under the bed, the attack on Versailles and the wondrous scene where the Doctor bursts through the mirror on horseback work wonderfully, but there are also quieter scenes such as Rose and Mickey waiting on the other side of the broken mirror, which work just as well.

The performances are sublime, but the key guest role is Madame de Pompadour herself, played to perfection by the very talented and very beautiful Sophia Myles. David Tennant is outstanding as the Doctor, combining the humorous heroics that we associate with the character with something more tender. Piper and Clarke are in more in the background, but they do not slacken, by any means. A special mention must be given to Arthur the horse- the bit where the Doctor tells him to stop is one of the best pieces of animal acting I’ve seen!

I have said before that, although plot is important, it is not the only important part of the story and, in certain cases, other factors should take precedence. "The Girl in the Fireplace" contains an intriguing plot that would work well on its own, but, more importantly, it deals with the question of what an immortal loving a mortal must feel like. This is why, when we find out the reason for the robots’ interest in Madame de Pompadour, it does not feel like a massive twist ending, but an ironic coda in an ultimately tragic story, as the episode ends on a note of subdued and beautiful melancholy that hasn’t been seen since The Green Death. This is one of the most moving, intriguing and beautiful stories ever to be broadcast under the Doctor Who banner.

NEXT: "Rise of the Cybermen"/"The Age of Steel"

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

"School Reunion"

"School Reunion" has a perfectly respectable plot. A school in London has been infiltrated by the Krillitanes, a race who take physical characteristics of the races they conquer and add them to their own. They are using the children of the school as an organic computer to crack the ‘Skasis Paradigm’, apparently a formula that is the key to everything in creation. Mickey has noted something odd going on and has summoned the Doctor and Rose back to Earth. However, Mickey is not the only one who has noticed something odd, because there is also a freelance journalist who may look familiar to some of those viewing, together with something in her car boot…

Toby Whithouse creates a very entertaining story that seems, at first glance, to be aimed squarely at kids. The school setting and the use of the children in the adversaries’ dastardly plan is reminiscent of the Demon Headmaster books and TV series. However, the presence of Sarah Jane adds a different dimension altogether. Sarah Jane does not live in the past, but it is clear that her time with the Doctor will be with her forever. This also has an effect on Rose as she says, ‘I’ve been to the year 5,000,000, but this is really looking at the future’. The initial tension between Rose and Sarah Jane is written with wit and real understanding of the characters and their eventual reconciliation is joyful to behold. Just as interesting, if not more so, is the Doctor’s reaction to this, giving us insights into how he views the all-too mortal humans he travels with and his reluctance to ever say goodbye. The farewell scene between the Doctor and Sarah Jane is utterly beautiful- the line ‘I think it will be someone else’s grandchildren’ is heartbreaking and the Doctor finally saying goodbye shouldn’t leave a dry eye in the house. James Hawes makes another impressive show in the director’s chair, mounting scenes with expert shooting (although some of the editing is a bit off) but paying attention to the little things- I love the scene where Rose reaches out, expecting to get the Sonic Screwdriver, only for the Doctor to hand it to Sarah Jane. In Hawes’s hands, K9 is not just the lovable tin mutt of the past- the scene where he shoots down the Krillitane is completely awesome and K9’s apparent death genuinely left me shocked. The special effects are great, with the Krillitanes being very memorable.

The Doctor is written with more depth than in David Tennant’s previous stories and Tennant proves that Russell T Davies was fully justified in the risk he took in employing him. From his physics lesson at the start to his joyful reunion with K9, to his grim face-off with Mr Finch, Tennant is brilliant. Billie Piper is great in a performance that sometimes highlights one of Rose’s less laudable characteristics- her occasional selfishness. Noel Clarke is again utterly wonderful, with his realisation that he is the ‘tin dog’ leading him to join the TARDIS crew. The tin dog himself is obviously ace, with John Leeson returning. Then there is Elisabeth Sladen, who effortlessly gives a more mature, yet still recognisable Sarah Jane. Despite all these headlining performances, Anthony Head still manages to be fantastic as Mr Finch/ Brother Lassar, which would have satisfied Buffy fans as much as Sladen and Leeson satisfied Doctor Who fans. In smaller roles, Joe Pickley is great as Kenny and the Krillitane staff are also memorable but still very much ‘teacherly’.

"School Reunion" could have been fan-pleasing rubbish, but we are in skilled hands. It can be watched by those who don’t know who Sarah Jane is, without them losing anything, for it is a great paean to living one’s life with the belief that the best is yet to come.

NEXT: "The Girl in the Fireplace"

Monday, 26 October 2009

"Tooth and Claw"

"Tooth and Claw" has a fair bit in common with The Horror of Fang Rock. Both were rush-written to replace another story. Both have a climax where the Doctor uses a diamond to focus light to destroy the enemy. However, here we have actual lycanthropy, in another take on the legend of the werewolf. Davies’s script is highly inventive and, like the best of the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes stories, gives its own spin on an old legend, with folklore being deconstructed and applied scientifically, weaponising mistletoe and moonlight ("Mistletoe and Moonlight" would have been a great alternative title, by the way). The pace is relentless, but it is quite easy to figure out what is going on and Davies makes sure that character is not sacrificed- we get a real sense of who Sir Robert is and are even given little glimpses into Captain Reynolds and Flora, the maid. Of course, for the first time, we have a Victorian story that actually features the Crowned Saxe-Coburg herself. Victoria is presented as coping well with the death of Albert, eighteen years earlier (incidentally, it is odd, though quite understandable plotwise, that John Brown is not with her in a story set in Scotland!). She is depicted as still very much possessing the formidable personality that made her such an iconic figure. As said, the dénouement is similar to The Horror of Fang Rock, but Davies creates a wonderful steampunk contraption to house the diamond- the Koh-i Noor, no less. At the time, the ending looked rushed, but it is actually paced very well.

Euros Lyn makes a very welcome return to the programme and is perfectly in tune with the script when it comes to visualising it. There is rapid cutting, kinetic camera work and a mastery of combining different moods- somehow the wire-fu works in this context and is very skilfully realised. The effects are stunning, especially the utterly astonishing werewolf. In my opinion, it was better than similar creatures in the likes of Van Helsing and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Lyn commands a fine cast of both seasoned and new actors. Pauline Collins returns to the programme after an absence of 39 years as Victoria and is very good, if a trifle mannered. Derek Riddell is very sympathetic as Sir Robert and Ian Hanmore very menacing as Father Angelo. The regulars are clearly having a whale of a time and put in great performances with David Tennant giving us a chance to hear his natural accent.

"Tooth and Claw" is tremendous fun and impossible to dislike- and, of course, the seeds of something important are sown…

NEXT: "School Reunion"

Saturday, 24 October 2009

"New Earth"

The new Doctor Who finally takes us to an alien planet even though (as the title of the episode says) it’s not radically different from Earth. The episode is built on an intriguing premise- using genetically engineered humans as lab-rats to cure diseases. It has to be said, however, that the plot is half-baked in places and a doughy mess at the end. Although it is great to see Cassandra again, her motivation isn’t as convincing as it could be. And the dénouement, where the Doctor makes the diseased humans pass to each other the cure he has concocted doesn’t quite justify its symbolic resonance as it is obvious that too many plot short-cuts have been taken- how can an intravenous cure suddenly be an external one? The body-swapping, though amusing, is also a bit arbitrary. However, the dialogue is still great, as is Russell T Davies’s talent for world-building- ‘apple grass’, feline nuns, the nostalgia that created the need for a New Earth. The parts with the Face of Boe are excellent, giving the new series a mythos of its own, to add to that of the past.

It looks fantastic, as usual. The location filming at the Wales Millennium Centre gives a real sense of scale and the shots of the myriad pods containing the ‘lab rats’ are breath taking. The make-up for the cats is also first rate as is the work on minor characters, such as the Duke of Manhattan. James Hawes creates some very memorable scenes such as the break-out of the infected (basically a zombie attack) and is helped by some exquisite cinematography. The guest cast is excellent, with Zoe Wanamaker again being memorable as Cassandra. Doña Croll and Adjoa Andoh exude a disquieting sense of menace with their performances as the Matron and Sister Jatt and Anna Hope is rather sweet as Novice Hame.

The best performances, however, are from the regulars. The body-swapping might be a bit excessive, plotwise, but this is more than compensated for by the performances. Billie Piper is priceless as Cassandra, giving a wonderfully catty (sorry) performance. David Tennant is in full force as the Doctor here and is instantly appealing with a mix of blokiness and real steel. Tennant also gives his take on Cassandra which has to be seen to be believed!

"New Earth" is probably the least successful script that Davies has written so far. However, it contains much else that is commendable and is certainly worth watching.

NEXT: "Tooth and Claw"

Thursday, 22 October 2009

"The Christmas Invasion"

"The Christmas Invasion" was the first episode produced by a production team that knew that the relaunch of Doctor Who had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. However, they also had to contend with the fact that the lead role had just been vacated by one of the foremost British actors of our generation. For a whole generation of viewers, this was the equivalent of William Hartnell being replaced by Patrick Troughton. As I said, many moons ago, this required a special sort of story- and again, this is precisely what we got. Russell T Davies takes the bold step of taking the Doctor out of the action for a good portion of the episode. This may, at first glance, seem like madness, but as one watches the episode, the soundness of this thinking is all too evident. At the start, the characters and the viewers want the new Doctor. By the time of the final act, they need him. We are given an invasion crisis that seems hopelessly insoluble without the Doctor. We are even told that the Doctor is ‘broken’- the alien Sycorax cannot be understood, because the Doctor is an integral part of the translation circuits of the TARDIS. The Sycorax invasion itself is shown with a refreshing degree of ‘realism’- without the Doctor holding their hands, the programme shows the government reacting in a plausible way. There are some intriguing concepts, such as ‘blood control’ and the robot ‘pilot fish’ who travel in the wake of another alien force. The Sycorax are a well thought-out alien race, with them treating their science as a form of magic. Davies manages to mix in his trademark witty dialogue with the plot and his skewering of Christmas iconography is funny without seeming ridiculous. In 2009, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this is an antecedent of the outstanding Torchwood: Children of Earth, especially the scene where the A-positives are controlled into standing on the edge of tall buildings and, of course, the sting the story has in its tail- again courtesy of Torchwood. It is testament to the formidable writing on both this and Children of Earth that neither is diminished by the other.

The production is epic, with a giant ship made out of an asteroid floating above London and is expertly helmed by James Hawes. Scenes such as the hypnosis of the A positives are realised excellently, symptomatic of a show that knew that it was a success and resolutely refused to rest on its laurels. Even when it refers to other things (Harriet Jones's television plea to the Doctor recalls Superman II, Torchwood's weapon is like the Death Star) the story manages to make these things its own. Hawes brings a more cinematic feel that is excellently done, making this truly a 'special'. The cast is also superlative. Penelope Wilton effortlessly makes Harriet Jones a credible leader of a major power as well as the slightly batty figure we all know and love and she is ably supported by Daniel Evans and Chu Omambala. Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri again play their parts to perfection- we care about these characters deeply, now, and their inclusion is always welcome.

Now, we come to the Doctor. It is hard to believe nowadays how much trepidation there was over the comparatively unknown David Tennant. However, it was soon clear that we were in good hands. Even in his incapacitated state, Tennant shines and in the utterly glorious revelation of the Doctor in full working order, Tennant grabs our affections and never lets go, from quoting The Lion King to sword-fighting for the planet, Tennant astonishes in every frame he is on screen. However, we must not forget Billie Piper's contribution- it is Rose who must accept this stranger as the Doctor and Piper brilliantly portrays the faith amid confusion that the character must have.

This is a wondrous story that proved that, not only was Doctor Who back, it was here to stay.

NEXT: "New Earth"

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

"Born Again"- Children In Need

Or "Pudsey Cutaway". But I don’t really care about the name. Doctor Who makes a return to Children in Need for the first time in 12 years in a mini-episode that can actually be deemed (deep breath) ‘canonical’. "Born Again" addressed the fact that Doctor Who in the 21st century can’t spend 15 minutes having the Doctor examine his new body in detail and gets it out if the way in this fun little skit, written with Russell T Davies usual zest. Piper is good, as always, but it was very brave to have David Tennant make his first performance as the Doctor in an eight-minute episode. Tennant is buzzing, but sensitive, and always makes damn sure we know who the leading man is. It is an excellent taster, which whets the appetite for what is to come- although it’s odd that they seem to change the lighting scheme completely, midway through the episode!

NEXT: "The Christmas Invasion"

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

"Bad Wolf"/"The Parting of the Ways"

When Doctor Who was relaunched, I was, make no mistake, very happy it was back- but I didn’t expect that it would grow on me to such an extent that the week between "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting of the Ways" would be one of the longest weeks of my life. This story confounds expectations at every turn, pulling you in all the way. It starts off in, what is recognisably the UK version with Big Brother- ironically, I write this in the year that Big Brother UK was cancelled. The bloodthirsty futuristic versions of programmes such as Big Brother, What Not to Wear and The Weakest Link are funny without losing the sense of unease and disorientation. Davies starts with the Doctor, Rose and Jack already in the games, which adds to this sense. It is revealed that this is Satellite 5 from "The Long Game" a century on. The Doctor’s actions in "The Long Game" have not solved the wrongness of that future. Indeed, the head-chip technology seem to have evolved into the disturbing figure of the Controller- a woman who has lived her entire life plugged into what is now called the GameStation. There is a reason for this- this world has been twisted by the last surviving Daleks and they’re ready to invade…

The ways in which these pieces are slotted into place are expertly managed by Russell T Davies but this is just the plot and, to be honest, plot is only the most important thing in a story if you are a child. This is also the story how, by making Rose a better person, she redeems him. It is about how Jack is improved as a person and how he craves the Doctor’s love without being jealous of Rose. And, of course, it is the Doctor coming to terms with committing genocide and paying the ultimate price. One thing has been made abundantly clear in this season- with the Daleks, it is not a game for the Doctor. He is uninterested in their demands, has no room for negotiation- he just tells them what he will do, in a scene that, even on the nth viewing, still sends shivers down my spine. The story also shows a new type of Dalek, twisted by the fact of their hybrid nature into religious mania. The characters Davies creates are all very real, from the programmers to Rodrick, a character who acts like a bastard, but is clearly human, evidenced in his helping of Rose to acclimatise. We have the lovely Linda (sorry, Lynda), whom we all want to become a companion. Yet, in the middle of this, we have the very ordinary conversations that Rose has with Mickey and Jackie in the chippy, which only add to the drama. I also love the implication that watching mindless TV junk can save us- the Daleks have no time for reality TV! Through all of this, Davies writes dialogue that is evocative, funny, heartbreaking- all that we have come to expect from one of the greatest television writers in the world.

Sadly, this would be Joe Ahearne’s final stint in the director’s chair for the programme and he certainly goes out on a high, with an embarrassment of beautifully shot, memorable scenes that span multiple moods and textures- the revelation of the Dalek fleet, the disorientating opening scenes in the TV shows, the wonderful rescue of Rose from the Dalek mothership, the subtle revelation of the Dalek in reflection, the scenes with the Controller and whole armies of Daleks. Then there is the astonishing sequence when the Doctor believes Rose has been exterminated, the heartbreaking hologram scene and the death of Lynda. Ahearne juggles varying moods, settings and characters with expert skill. He also makes sure that the performances are superlative. We have the fantastic Paterson Joseph as Rodrick (thankfully made before "Numberwang!") and Jo Joyner being eminently lovable as Lynda. Nisha K Nayar and Jo Stone-Fewings give real depth to the programmers. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Noel Clarke continues his excellent, heartfelt portrayal as Mickey and is ably supported by Camille Coduri. John Barrowman plays Jack’s relationship with the Doctor as being half devotion to a superior officer and half unrequited love- there is genuine hurt on his face at times. Billie Piper continues to amaze- Rose is everything from determined everywoman to godly being, which she carries off with aplomb.

The production is of a consistently superb standard, with a brilliantly rendered (and refreshingly retro!) Dalek fleet and the jaw-dropping scenes that feature the Dalek Emperor. Nick Briggs manages to make him sound exactly like he did in The Evil of the Daleks and there is the pleasant surprise of hearing the ‘Dalek Computer’ sound effect. This is also a good time to praise two regular contributors. Murray Gold’s music was superlative, albeit sometimes a bit high in the mix, which is not his fault. Then there is the cinematography by Ernest Vincze, who managed to make every shot look fantastic.

And now we come to the end. The quandary faced by the Doctor- destroy the Daleks and the human race or let the Daleks spread their tyranny across the universe- is solved by Rose’s return, rippling with the power from the TARDIS, to destroy the Daleks. People cry ‘deus ex machina’ as if the writer has never heard of the term. Rose is turned into a super being by the TARDIS- she literally is a god from the machine! Whatever the plot niggles of this (and, as I think I explained earlier, plot is not the most important thing) the writing is beautifully epic, the direction superb. However, Rose is being destroyed by the energy, so the Doctor kisses her, to remove it and heal her. However, the damage is permanent and his body explodes with energy- to reveal a different face.

Christopher Eccleston was never less than brilliant in the role and he rounds off the season and the era with, perhaps his best ever performance. From his defiance of the Daleks, to his speechless anguish at seeing Rose apparently die, to his moment of turmoil after closing the TARDIS doors on the Daleks, he constantly arrests our attention. Doctor Who’s return was an utter triumph, with, perhaps, the most consistently great season since season 18 and the only Doctor for whom I would wholeheartedly recommend every story of his entire era.

NEXT: "Born Again"- Children In Need

Sunday, 18 October 2009

"Boom Town"

One of the great things about Russell T Davies is how deftly he plays with the perceived structure of the average Doctor Who storyline. Here, the villain’s plan is discovered and the villain captured within the first third of the episode which means that the characters, as well as the audience, have to pass the time until the final act. This is filled by the Doctor having a meal with his enemy and Rose and Mickey examining their relationship. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would invariably mean skipping from chapter 6 to chapter 10 on the DVD. However, we have the expected ‘humanisation’ of Blon Fel-Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen who insists that she was brought up to be a murderer and her sojourn in Cardiff has made her more empathetic, which is followed by the unexpected dismissal of it by the Doctor- these are just mechanisms so that a killer can live with themselves, begging the question that Blon then asks… These scenes are almost Tarantinoesque in their combination of humour (such as Blon’s repeated attempts to kill the Doctor) and mundanity of setting which belies the fact that the participants are chipping away at each others defences. The interaction between Rose and Mickey is also beautifully written. Rose talks about the wonderful places that the Doctor has taken her (very well written- sometimes telling is better than showing) while Mickey tries in vain to re-establish the connection he once had with her. Mickey’s attempts to make her jealous fall apart very quickly and he admits that he is prepared to wait for her forever. Rose is a great character and we are with her all the way, but Davies realises that there a streak of selfishness in her- as she says at the end Mickey ‘deserves better’. When the climax comes, it is spectacular, but is resolved in that most maligned of plot devices, the deus ex machina. There is some justification given- she genuinely wants to start again, but I’m still not sure whether it works.

Joe Ahearne’s skill in this more low-key story is still very much evident. The conversation between Blon and the Doctor progresses with tighter and tighter shots, fuelling the drama all the way. He also makes the funny bits work excellently- Blon teleporting, her aforementioned murder attempts and Mickey’s plonker-thon when attempting to capture Blon. The climactic quake in Cardiff is astonishingly shot, with some of the most impressive effects work of the season. Most critically, Ahearne makes the Slitheen work in a way that Keith Boak never could. This is not just because of his shooting style, but in his mastery of directing actors. Annette Badland is superb as Margaret/ Blon, far more memorable than she was in "Aliens of London"/ "World War Three". Jack is a very welcome addition to the crew and Billie Piper puts in a very sensitive performance. The best performances come from Eccleston, and, especially, Noel Clarke, who is nearly heart breaking as Mickey. Of note is the joyous scene where the Doctor, Rose, Jack and Mickey are having lunch and they are all having a laugh as friends, but with Mickey looking like someone who has just penetrated a very exclusive clique.

"Boom Town" is excellent drama with great performances, fantastic dialogue, a monster and an explosive climax. What more do you want?

NEXT: "Bad Wolf"/"The Parting of the Ways"

Friday, 16 October 2009

"The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances"

It seems weird now that a few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Steven Moffat would be one of the writers for the revived series. He had, of course, written the excellent Curse of Fatal Death, but he was most famous for his then most recent work, the sitcom Coupling. Many people of a certain age, however, remembered that he was the writer of Press Gang, one of the best series of all time, so they weren't surprised when they were left utterly stunned by the quality of "The Empty Child" and were utterly thrilled by "The Doctor Dances". The characterisation is superb, from the plucky Nancy, who feeds starving kids during the Blitz ('I'm not sure if it's Marxism in action or a West End musical!') to Jack- a wonderful creation which shows how far attitudes have come without rubbing our noses in it. The Blitz is brought to life excellently- it is easy to forget that Londoners really feared that the Luftwaffe were going to pulverise England and then descend to rule the smoking remains. Moffat creates a very intriguing plot, but bolsters it with pitch-perfect dialogue that ranges from the funny to the poignant- compare the 'length comparison' between the Sonic Screwdriver and Jack's sonic blaster with the poignancy of the conversation between the Doctor and Dr Constantine: 'Before this war began, I was a father and a grandfather. Now I'm neither; but I'm still a doctor'. The skill with which he balances comedy and drama is equal to what he displayed in Press Gang- in the middle of a terrifying attack by the gas-mask creatures is thrown in a wonderful there is some farcical prestidigitation with a banana. Most wonderfully, in a story that is more terrifying and more adult than any in the series so far, this is a story where there is no actual villain, the Doctor saves everyone and nobody dies. The way in which this is done is perfect and we never feel that we have been cheated.

There have been some outstanding directorial contributions in the series so far, and James Hawes is no exception. The strengths of Moffat's writing are reinforced throughout, with Hawes taking full advantage of a story set entirely at night and creates many scenes that will be remembered for decades to come- the central image of a sinister child in a gas mask saying 'Are you my mummy?', the utterly terrifying transformation of Dr Constantine, Rose's flight through an air raid. Hawes gets great performances from everyone, even the child actors. Florence Hoath is wonderful as Nancy and Richard Wilson effortlessly effective as Dr Constantine. John Barrowman makes Jack instantly memorable in a very likeable turn and his joining of the TARDIS crew is very welcome. Billie Piper is wonderfully sparky and flirty as Rose, but Christopher Eccleston manages to improve, yet again, on his previous performance- the moment where he triumphantly shouts 'Everybody lives!' sends a shiver down my spine, even on the nth viewing. It goes without saying that the production is brilliantly, effortlessly giving us wartime London and stunning us with some of the best special effects the programme has yet seen, from the impressive bombing sequence to the truly horrific transformation of Dr Constantine.

Make no mistake, "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" is fantastic television, easily up there with the best Doctor Who stories of all time.

NEXT: "Boomtown"

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

"Father’s Day"

"Father’s Day" is a tender story of the relationship between two people who have a deep love for each other, but have never met. It is also the story of a chaotic universe where the removal of an intelligent guiding force results in the resurgence of a primal, bestial, regulating one. It is also a story where flying monsters attack people in a church. Paul Cornell’s script manages to incorporate all this, and more, into one of the most powerful Doctor Who stories of all time. The plot covers what happens if something from the past is knowingly changed and the answer is that there is a ‘wound’ in time, which attracts its own type of parasite, the Reapers, who will sterilise the wound, while the original timeline tries to manifest itself, almost like arterial spray. The sci-fi aspect of the script is well thought out and makes it clear that the laws of the Doctor Who universe are very different, now that the Time Lords have been destroyed.

However, the plot is only one of the great things about this episode. After Adam was expelled from the TARDIS team for using time-travel for his own ends, Rose almost suffers the same fate, although her motives are more laudable- to have her dad back. Rose’s image of her dad is the hagiographic impression that Jackie gave her. Pete only knows Rose as a baby, loving her unconditionally but having few experiences to tie to that love. Moreover, Pete, with all his flaws, becomes the figure children see their dads as- a hero who can save the world. Both characters come to know each other as people, something which is deftly and beautifully written by Cornell. The story is full of great little character moments, such as the Doctor celebrating the joys of ordinary life, the lovely wedding of Pete and Jackie etc.

The script is given an extra boost by the excellent direction by Joe Ahearne. There are so many striking scenes- the TARDIS turning into an ordinary police box, its shimmering re-materialisation, the wonderful desaturated shot of Rose staring into space and, most shockingly, a Reaper devouring the Doctor, the first time the Doctor actually dies. The Reapers are a very memorable monster race and are excellently realised. Every single shot looks like it is there for a reason and there is not one performance that is less than excellent. Shaun Dingwall makes Pete very likeable and Camille Coduri is her usual striking self. However, it is Billie Piper who romps home with the prize in a stunningly moving performance that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. Christopher Eccleston, however, is not to be overshadowed and he puts in another very strong showing.

This is one time Doctor Who has nearly made me cry, but with a story that has a real understanding of human emotion, rather than relying on cheap sentiment- truly one of the best stories the programme has ever produced.

NEXT: "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances"

Monday, 12 October 2009

"The Long Game"

"The Long Game" is a great little tale, effectively told. It has the Doctor finding something wrong, getting to the bottom of it and effecting a solution. The storyline is well executed and contains the great dialogue and characters that we have come to expect from RTD. In a tale where the monster is a fanged gelatinous blob hanging from the ceiling, news broadcasts that use human brains as processors and have people having ‘kronkburgers’ and beef milk shakes, there is still room for competition between co-workers and an exploration of what it takes to become the Doctor’s travelling companion. There is also a continuation of an important theme in Doctor Who that has really been brought to the fore in this season- the Doctor doesn’t just save the day, he makes people better. Cathica is one of the myriad unquestioning drones that the 2001st Century seems to have developed- yet the influence of the Doctor enables her to break out of the box she has been trapped in and it is through her that the day is saved.

The guest cast is superb. Anna Maxwell-Martin gives a wonderful performance on the cusp of her recent, highly deserved, success and Christine Adams puts in a great performance as Cathica. There is a wonderful little role for Tamsin Greig as the nurse, though it is a pity her formidable gifts as a comic actress weren’t better utilised. However, the most memorable guest role has to be Simon Pegg. Pegg is one of those who dreamed of being a Doctor Who baddie since childhood and it is clear he is having a blast. This doesn’t mean he goes over the top- it is a quietly menacing performance, gilded with Pegg’s comic charm. The regulars are excellent and, as the dynamic for the TARDIS crew has changed, so have their interpretations of their characters. Bruno Langley is very skilful in making Adam a man who gave into a very understandable temptation and refused to take responsibility for it- however, I was as glad as anyone when the Doctor chucked him out.

The production values are excellent with good design work and some excellent effects- especially the opening foreheads. The Jagrafess is a fun addition to the Doctor Who bestiary. Brian Grant’s direction is good, although he doesn’t have the instinctive feel that Euros Lyn or Joe Ahearne posses.

"The Long Game" is an entertaining story that seems like an enjoyable one-off. But, of course, we now know better…

NEXT: "Father’s Day"

Saturday, 10 October 2009


As I pointed out before, if there is any doubt that the programme you are watching is indeed Doctor Who, there is one guaranteed solution, as the production team first decided with the arrival of Patrick Troughton. This episode was (next to "Rose") the one we were all waiting for. Rob Shearman's script is based on a base-under siege type plotline which has, in the past, led to some of the least interesting stories in Doctor Who's history. However, Shearman is out to do much more than tell a tale that adheres to tried and tested formulae. Doctor Who's most iconic monster is back and it has to be as frightening for the children of 2005 as the 1964 version was, so there are many scenes of the Dalek being awesome, using the very things that it has been mocked for- the plunger, apparent stair impairment- and turning them on their head. The Dalek is a nightmare in chrome, able to kill hundreds of people with little effort. There is a great piece of dialogue where Van Statten asks what the Dalek wants and the Doctor replies that it wants to kill any human that it sees:

- 'But why would it do that?'
- 'Because it honestly believes that they should die.'

"Dalek" also explores the character of the Doctor. It is revealed that the Time War which destroyed the Time Lords was fought against the Daleks. The Doctor acts in a way that we have never seen him act before, gleefully taunting the Dalek and even torturing it. In the end, he is actually pointing a gun at it. For the first time ever, we see the Doctor actually hate his enemy, the first time ever that the Doctor's motivation is primarily his own self-interest and desire and the skill of the writing is such that it doesn't seem like a betrayal of the character. As a contrast, Rose has no preconceptions of the Dalek, which contrasts well with the Doctor's hatred and, perhaps, helps in the healing of the Doctor. The story takes the contentious step of humanising the Dalek, which is done very well and the added twist that it is this humanisation which makes the Dalek want to commit suicide is excellent. There are a few clunky bits ('Thank you, Doctor, but I think I know how to handle one single tin robot') but they are very few and far between.

The writing of the other characters is not as complex, but this is compensated for by some witty dialogue and some excellent performances. Corey Johnson, a very talented American stage actor, plays Van Statten to perfection and is ably supported by Anna-Louise Plowman. Bruno Langley is quite effective as Adam and Nicholas Briggs is flawless as the Dalek voice- we finally hear what a Dalek sounds like when it isn't shouting. However, the regulars are absolutely phenomenal, especially Christopher Eccleston who fully conveys degrees of pain and rage that the Doctor has never shown before.

The episode also benefits from the fantastic direction of Joe Ahearne. Not only does he command a great cast, but he knows exactly what angles to choose, how the camera should move etc which, when one compares it with "Aliens of London"/ "World War Three" doesn't leave one with the best impression of Keith Boak. The production is flawless, with a special mention for the Dalek- instantly recognisable, but spruced up with subtle touches to make it more visually interesting. The scenes of the Dalek mutant opening its casing and reaching for the Sun are sublime, a triumph of effects and direction.

I watched this story three times in a row when it was broadcast and, watching it again, I realised that it is still a very strong story and well worth the time.

NEXT: "The Long Game"

Thursday, 8 October 2009

"Aliens of London"/"World War Three"

The first two parter of the 21st century is a significant story for long-standing fans of the programme. It is similar in length to the 4-parters that the programme used to have and, perhaps even more critically, this means that "Aliens of London" ends with the first proper cliffhanger the programme has had in 16 years. But, what of the story itself? Russell T Davies's script definitely proves one thing- he can make ordinary human drama funny, intelligent and touching. This is immediately apparent from the very beginning of "Aliens of London". The Doctor has brought Rose back home, but has accidentally arrived a year after they left. Rose returns to find that her mother believes she is dead and Mickey is rumoured to have done the deed. These scenes are excellently done and drive home a fact that we never consider about the Doctor- his companions are, effectively, alien abductees and, for the first time, we see the trauma for those who have been left behind. This is as good time as any to address a fandom criticism of 'New Who' that has always infuriated me- the accusation of 'soapiness'. For a certain minority of fans (not just of Doctor Who, but all sf/fantasy) anything that does not involve aliens, monsters, spaceships etc is 'soap opera'- an attitude that says more about the lack of sophistication of such fans than the quality of the programme/ film/ book. Davies creates interesting characters who behave in ways appropriate to their personality and situation and this aspect of his writing is phenomenally strong.

This helps to make "Aliens of London" a very strong episode indeed. The alien threat is very intriguing- a crashed spaceship contains a surgically augmented pig, but the Doctor suspects that there may be more to this than meets the eye. Politicians and key people in other areas are disappearing, and the (rather corpulent) people who remain appear to have certain flatulence problems. It turns out that they are aliens from the planet Raxacoricofallapatorius, all members of the Slitheen family, who are keen to remove any threat to their eventual plan. This gradual revelation of the alien plan is very well written and work very well with the more domestic scenes- the Doctor trying to watch the news while a toddler steals the remote control. "World War Three" reveals the plan, but the perfunctory way in which the threat is overcome is rather disappointing- a missile strike is used to dispose of the aliens- but Davies's character writing remains excellent.

The main problem with the story as a whole is the direction. Keith Boak deals well with the more domestic parts of the story, but his direction of the sci-fi aspect is all over the place. Although he comes up with some memorable shots and scenes, there are a few which are carelessly sloppy, especially in his supervising of editing. Most serious of all is the tone of some of the Slitheen scenes, which seem to come from the bad end of the 'kids TV' spectrum. Some of the performances by the Slitheen actors are painfully unsubtle, but in a way that makes it clear that the fault is with the director- Annette Badland's talent manages to overcome Boak's limitations, notably in the scene where she is threatened by the Doctor. This is a pity, as the production is of a very high standard- the crash-landing of the spaceship is phenomenal, one of the best special effects seen on the small screen. The Slitheen are realised with some effective CGI and some good costumes- which lose something when Boak directs.

Slitheen aside, the cast is excellent from Navin Chowdhry's Indra Ganesh (odd name, by the way- it's like calling a Greek man 'Uranus Apollo'!) to a pitch-perfect cameo by Andrew Marr. However, Penelope Wilton's brilliant Harriet Jones is instantly memorable and a special mention must be given to Noel Clarke, whose performance as Mickey is phenomenal. Christopher Eccleston is brilliant in every scene, from his reactions to life on a council estate to his memorable face-off with Margaret the Slitheen. Rose has to cope with a veritable emotional barrage and Billie Piper conveys this with aplomb.

"Aliens of London" / "World War Three" has its faults, but it is entertaining and by no means a bad story.

NEXT: "Dalek"

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

"The Unquiet Dead"

A trip to the future was followed by this jolly trip into the past. Mark Gatiss weaves a very enjoyable tale of ghostly gaseous aliens, a rift in time and space, zombies and Charles Dickens. It is, perhaps, this story that really highlights the differences in pacing between the old programme and the new. The period setting already makes it reminiscent of the likes of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but the 45-minute length means that the story has to be told in a very different way. The Gelth are a very simple idea, but are brought across well and the ‘zombies’ that they create are frightening without being too much for the kids. There are brief, but effective, musings on the difference between morality and propriety and- as will become more evident over the seasons- hints of a greater tragedy beyond. Such is the skill of Gatiss that we get an alien invasion story that feels like a Victorian ghost story that manages to weave its spell and have some excellent characterisation and dialogue. The ending also works well, although it seemed rushed at the time.

As said before, the characterisation is great and the excellent cast do the script justice. Alan David is wonderful as Mr Sneed (a wonderfully Dickensian name) and Eve Myles brings real humanity to Gwyneth- Gatiss wonderfully paints her as being naïve, but not unintelligent and Myles makes her very appealing. However, the most wonderful thing about this story is Simon Callow’s Charles Dickens. Callow is an authority on Dickens and has played the part many times- it is wonderful that he had enough faith in the programme to allow what is, for him, something that is more than simply another part, to be included. Gatiss paints Dickens as a man who, despite the great things he has done, is questioning the worth of his life. This portrayal is so convincing that we never, for one moment, see Dickens’s joy at the end as being anything other than wonderful. The regulars are wonderful as ever and we see them truly confirming their friendship- ‘I’m so glad I met you!’

Euros Lyn again directs with great energy. The séance scene is perfect, as are the zombie scenes. It is wonderful how he can have sedate scenes (such as the very start) and frantic ones and not have them ruin the flow of the story. He is helped, of course by fantastic production values- the excellence that the BBC has always shown with period dramas is combined with some wonderful special effects.

"The Unquiet Dead" is a wonderful story and comes highly recommended.

NEXT: "Aliens of London"/" World War Three"

Sunday, 4 October 2009

"The End of the World"

If "Rose" was a low-key story that gently introduced the viewer back into Doctor Who, "The End of the World" pitches them headlong into the crazy worlds that Doctor Who can take us to. Following on directly from the end of "Rose", it can be seen as 100,000 BC to "Rose"s "An Unearthly Child", taking us from the familiar to the incomprehensible. The plot is a whodunit in space, but this merely the skeleton for the story. We are taken to the year 5.5/apple/26, when the Earth finally meets its end, with an audience of the far-future’s rich and famous come to pay their respects. This includes an alarming array of aliens, creatures that evolved from the trees of the Brazilian rain forest and Lady Cassandra, the last human- a piece of skin stretched over a frame with eyes and a mouth. This evocative mix of Olaf Stapledon and Douglas Adams is a wonderful setting which Russell T Davies populates with some memorable characters. Jabe, one of the trees, actually plays the role of companion for most of the story and works very well with the Doctor. This is helped by a wonderful performance by the very talented and very sexy Yasmin Bannerman- her fate shouldn’t leave a dry eye in the house. Cassandra is a CGI creation, deliciously voiced by Zoë Wanamaker. Davies also makes minor characters such as the Steward and Raffalo come alive.

However, while this is going on, there is a deeper purpose. This is about Rose starting her journey with the Doctor- we sense the shock that Rose feels when confronted with. At the same time, we start to get to know the Doctor a bit more. The manic bonhomie is mixed with tragedy, for it is here that we find that the Doctor is alone and Gallifrey has been destroyed. The sequences where the enormity of the Doctor’s loss are revealed are beautifully written and performed. The story also deals with the emotional consequences of time travel- when Rose speaks to her mother thanks to the Doctor’s jiggery pokery with her phone, she realises that she is talking to someone whose fossilised remains will shortly be vapourised. The destruction of the Earth is followed by a scene showing a very ordinary London street that is full of life. Everything has its time and everything dies- but not yet. Together with Rose, we want to continue this journey, after we’ve had some chips! The regulars are wonderful in this, with Billie Piper effectively conveying Rose’s confusion at being thrust in this alien environment. Eccleston shows the pain the Doctor is hiding (we see a single tear on his face) and his compassion (comforting Jabe’s companions) but we see a ruthless side in his allowing Cassandra to rip apart.

"Rose" was as kinetic as 21st Century television usually is, but it is clear that Euros Lyn is in a different league to Keith Boak. "The End of the World" is flawlessly directed with Lyn conveying scenes of jollity, such as the Doctor dancing to "Tainted Love" and scenes of great tension and managing to make them work together. Lyn is helped by a very impressive production, with the various aliens being excellently realised- The Moxx of Balhoon is a very minor character, yet the effort put into his realisation is phenomenal. The CG spacecraft and robot spiders are things that 20th century fans could only dream of, yet Lyn does not allow them to overwhelm us.

"The End of the World" proves that Doctor Who is funny, scary and completely bonkers- which is why we love it!

NEXT: "The Unquiet Dead"

Saturday, 3 October 2009


We open in space and bear down upon Earth at frightening speed- to end up looking at the face of an alarm clock. This leads to a high-octane montage of a day in the life of Rose Tyler, a normal every-day girl who has something very unusual happen to her that changes her life forever. Ladies and gentlemen, Doctor Who is back!

The story is very easy to follow, which makes it difficult to appreciate how incredibly skilful the writing is. The ‘threat’ in the story is the Nestene Intelligence and the Autons, who are again brought back to usher in a new era. However, we never see how they invaded and we never get scenes of them plotting. They appear as an inexplicable menace, as they should to the average person. For this story is called Rose for a reason- she is the average person who has to be introduced to a legend that has lasted for 40 years. The characters that populate this story are real, from Rose's mother Jackie, who is obsessed with getting compensation for Rose to Clive, a very sympathetic portrayal of a conspiracy freak. This is due, in a large way, to Russell T Davies. What is rarely appreciated is his deep understanding of the programme, which led him to start the relaunch of the series with such a low-key tale- yet "An Unearthly Child" was similarly low-key, which made it all the more effective. The council-estate setting is also redolent of Survival. Davies not only understands what made the original series work, but knows how to reinterpret that for the 21st century. The story is helped, of course, by Davies’s phenomenal skills as a writer, writing dialogue that is realistic, funny and evocative. We can also see how acceptable subjects for family television have changed- ‘he’s gay and she’s an alien’, ‘kit-off!’ and references to breast implants would have been unthinkable in the original programme!

The look of the series is, of course completely different to anything that has gone before- the programme is now in widescreen and has a filmic look. The editing is frenetic as is the pace. Keith Boak directs with aplomb, although he would be quickly outclassed by other directors. The production values are all phenomenal from the headless Auton Mickey to the wonderful new TARDIS set.

Russell T Davies is a very highly respected name in television, which is why he was able to get one of the finest British actors to play the Doctor. Christopher Eccleston is unlike any Doctor previously seen, but we are seeing the character in a way we haven’t really seen him since Spearhead from Space- a force of nature that occasionally stops to chat. The Doctor is manic, sometimes absent minded, funny, but possessing deep wisdom and intelligence and Eccleston is instantly effective in the role. However, this story is called "Rose" and it is Billie Piper who is the real lead player. It seems hard to believe the incredulity her casting caused, but it is easy to believe the complete evaporation of that bad feeling that occurred after the episode aired. Piper exudes star quality and talent from the start and it is clear that a great Doctor/Companion dynamic has started. The supporting cast are great, with Camille Coduri being great fun as Jackie and Noel Clarke making Mickey very real, and a complete plonker!

Doctor Who
is unique and some would say an acquired taste. It is an easy taste to acquire, however, provided the right starter is presented- and this hugely entertaining 45 minutes truly whets the appetite.

NEXT: "The End of the World"