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"