Friday, 2 July 2010

"The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang"

Ever since Steven Moffat was announced as showrunner, speculation was rife as to how he would continue to tell this story of a madman with a box. One subject that would crop up in discussion, is what a Moffat finale would be like- a trip into disquieting horror, a fiendishly clever puzzle-box of a plot, a spectacular showdown. What we got was better, even than this- a story that emphasises why the new teams in front of and behind the cameras are well up to the task, proving that they can forge their own style whilst still making the same programme that we know and love.

Moffat immediately grabs our attention with a dazzling opening that brings back many of the guest stars of the season making it probably the most star-studded eight minutes in British television history. From throughout human history the warning comes: the Pandorica is opening, the TARDIS will explode. The Pandorica is located underneath Stonehenge, which is being guarded by a Roman legion, with one very familiar centurion. When we find out that the Pandorica holds the most feared being in all the cosmos, it was obvious who the only candidate would be, even before the Doctor describes it, ‘soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies... One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.’ The Pandorica is a prison, but it hasn’t taken delivery of the prisoner yet- the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Nestene, the Sontarans and all the others have come to the same conclusion- the Doctor will destroy the Universe and the only way to stop him is to imprison him for all eternity. the Roman soldiers, including Rory, are Nestene duplicates and as Rory and Amy tearfully reunite, his Auton body kills her. The Pandorica opens, the Pandorica closes. However, the TARDIS has already gone critical and as Rory cradles the body of his beloved, the stars explode as the Earth swims alone in emptiness. The plot for "The Big Bang" seems obvious- resurrect Amy and rescue the Doctor, which is indeed what we get- in the first ten minutes for, as we have come to expect, Moffat makes the second part start slightly askew. We are presented with a reality where the universe consists of the Earth and little else, where penguins lived on the Nile and the orb in the sky is the TARDIS exploding. The Doctor breaks all the rules in this diminished reality to save his friends and take the Pandorica into the TARDIS so that he can restart the Universe.

These are some of the things that happen in the story. It is not, however, what it is about. It is a story about the memories that form our personal pasts. It is about how events do not make history on their own, but rely on how those events are recorded and told. It is about an imaginary friend being as important as a real person. It is a story about stories. The stories that the episodes tell are what bind the narrative together- the Myth of the Pandorica, the Legend of the Centurion, the Rageddy Doctor. Moffat’s writing is sublime with wonderful dialogue- ‘We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?’ and even a cheeky steal from Robin of Sherwood. There are still good jokes, such as the Doctor’s brief fez-wearing phase, but the drama is there in a tale of friendship, love and self-sacrifice. The plot is complex, but fortified with emotion. Many people criticised RTD’s ways of ending his stories (wrongly, in my opinion) and I would like to think that this is the reason why the resolution of the story is via the biggest reset button the programme has ever done. However, as anyone who really understands fiction knows, there are no inherently bad plot devices, just bad uses of them, and Moffat shows that the reset button can make for great drama, if the story is good enough. The stories are all channelled by Amelia Pond to save reality as we know it, and it is a simple cliché which saves the universe- ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.’ In a joyous moment, Amy’s imaginary friend arrives at her wedding. It was probably inevitable- a cosmos without The Doctor scarcely bears thinking about- but the sheer wonder of the moment is overpowering. Moffat wanted to make Doctor Who as a dark fairy tale- he succeeds admirably.

Calling the shots immaculately is Toby Haynes who gives the story a suitably epic feel. There are almost too many memorable scenes to list, but special mention must be given to possibly the greatest scene involving a Cyberman, that channels Indiana Jones, The Thing and Evil Dead 2 to great effect. There are also the spectacular scenes of the spaceships over Stonehenge, the Dalek begging River for mercy, the beautiful unlocking of the Pandorica. The quieter moments are also expertly handled with the help of a fantastic cast. We have startling performances from Arthur Darvill (who makes a triumphant and very welcome return) and (as expected) Alex Kingston, as well as the return of the adorable Caitlin Blackwood, but it is the regulars who stand out most. Karen Gillan is front and centre for many scenes and she attacks them with relish. As for our leading man- wow. Whether running around with a fez and a mop or bellowing at several fleets of spacecraft, Matt commands our attention throughout. The quiet scenes show him at his best, investing them with great power- when he says to Amy that she will not need her imaginary friend when she had her family, I very nearly cried (but obviously, I didn’t. I am a man, after all). This is one of the greatest performances in the role to date and I hope that all the naysayers are silenced.

The Moffat era has started in fine form with an excellent season. Unexpectedly, although the cracks have closed, the mystery of the Silence- and who is responsible for taking over the TARDIS- are questions still unanswered, not to mention the truth about River. The next series can’t come fast enough.

NEXT: "A Christmas Carol"

Friday, 18 June 2010

"The Lodger"

With a production block of only 13 episodes, there was no need for a ‘Doctor-lite’ episode this year, but it is clear that the notion of doing an episode that looks at the Whoniverse from a slightly askew angle is something that has become an integral part of the programme. It is interesting that the premise of this story- the Doctor must pass himself off as human- is very similar to the premise for "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood"- with radically different results. "The Lodger" presents us with Craig Owens, an ordinary Essex lad who is so madly in love with his friend Sophie, that he cannot see the obvious signals that scream the fact that she is also in love with him. He only barely notices the mysterious and very fast-growing piece of dry-rot on his ceiling and the odd noises from the man upstairs. Not to worry- he has a new flatmate in the shape of a slightly weird man in a bow tie...

Gareth Roberts tells a wonderfully sweet story about two people in love, while the Doctor tries (and mostly succeeds) in passing himself off as a normal bloke- playing football, watching telly etc, but trying not to attract the attention of the thing upstairs. It is a paean for following your dreams at the expense of the apparent comfort that can stifle the soul. Roberts’s script has a real understanding of what makes people settle for second best. ‘I don’t see the point of (insert place here)’ says Craig a couple of times, but we don’t condemn Craig for it. The story is chock full of great lines and hilarious situations, as we have come to expect from Roberts, but this is also his warmest script for the programme- in fact the weakest element is the science-fiction aspect, with the threat raised by the machine upstairs being rather too rushed in its unfolding to have much effect, and I think that the perception filter is becoming something of a catch-all explanation.

James Corden is excellent as Craig, making him eminently likeable and very, very normal. Corden is a fine actor who has a lot of detractors due to two bad projects he did (his admittedly appalling sketch-show and Lesbian Vampire Killers, which I have not seen) but put in a great performance in The History Boys on both stage and screen. Here, he displays the qualities that made him a star. Daisy Haggard is sweet as Sophie and the two of them have a great chemistry. Dancing around them like a mad goblin is Matt Smith, in his best performance yet as the Doctor. Whether collecting junk at midnight or telepathically bonding with cats, he is mesmerising. Matt’s performance is both instantly recognisable as the Doctor and credible as a stranger who could merely be a slightly oddball human. This is, helped by Catherine Morshead’s inspired direction, making it seem slightly reminiscent of an episode of Spaced where Tim's fantasies are real. The comic and dramatic beats are expertly handled and there is, of course, the football match which, like the cricket match in Black Orchid is a sublime sequence- ‘Football’s the one with the sticks, is it?’

So the Doctor defeats the enemy and brings two lovers together. It seems everything is fine- until we see a crack behing Craig’s fridge and Amy finds a velvet box that is uncannily familiar...

NEXT: "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang"

Friday, 11 June 2010

"Vincent and the Doctor"

It seems the done thing to knock Richard Curtis nowadays. This is the man who has pretty much defined the British romantic comedy, a genre that critics are notoriously unforgiving with, plus he is, of course, very successful at what he does, which is offensively un-British. Speaking for myself, I have not been that enamoured of his more recent work, but it must be remembered that this man wrote for Not the Nine O'Clock News, co-created The Black Adder and wrote The Tall Guy. To this list must now be added "Vincent and the Doctor", a story that, I am sure, will rank as one of the best Doctor Who adventures of all time.

The story is simple- the Doctor notices a monster peeking out of the window in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers, so he travels back with Amy to help Vincent defeat it, even though only Vincent can see it. However, the story is only secondarily an adventure- it is, first and foremost, about Van Gogh. Vincent is not a madman by our standards- what he had would be manageable nowadays- and Curtis does not make him a figure of fun- there is not even the hint of an ear joke. The reason Vincent can see the monster is because he sees things like no other person has seen them before- colours swirl and coalesce into vibrant noumenal patterns in his mind to such a point that subjectivity and objectivity have no meaning. He sees the monster, because he sees what is there, not just what his eyes tell him. However, in a world before antidepressants, Van Gogh is tormented by despair that saps at his very being. Curtis’s depiction of Van Gogh’s depression is very moving, making it accessible to children as well- the Doctor’s summing up of what makes up a life is easy to follow, yet beautifully written. This is helped in no small way by Tony Curran’s performance. Despite, seemingly, never being out of work, Curran has never really been given the chance to shine, something which has been rectified here- possibly the finest performance of his film and television career and one of the best ever guest performances in Doctor Who. Curran vibrantly brings to life the unpredictability and passion of the artist in a performance that is worthy of a straight biopic of Van Gogh.

The production is a of the fantastic standard we have come to expect. Obviously, the cinematography owes something to Van Gogh’s style and Director of Photography Tony Slater-Ling makes this one of the most beautiful pieces of television I have ever seen. My misgivings over Jonny Campbell’s directorial ability have totally evaporated, with him constructing scene after memorable scene that makes the story more magical as it goes along and I must be predictable in drawing attention to the magnificent scene where Amy, Vincent and the Doctor are staring up at the sky, which slowly turns into The Starry Night.

The regulars continue to excel. Matt Smith shows the Doctor at his most barmy and his most compassionate with practically everything in between and the tender bond between Amy and Vincent is beautifully realised by Karen Gillan. The other major supporting role is Bill Nighy’s Dr Black. Nighy (who has been a favourite candidate for the role of the Doctor since the late nineties) brings an irresistible blend of authority and lovability to the role that works brilliantly with the regulars and Curran.

The end shows the Doctor proving to Vincent that his name will last forever, that his life will have been one that made an indelible mark. This scene should have been cheesy and manipulative; instead, it is utterly gorgeous and Curtis rounds the story off in the best way it could have- depression is not logical and Vincent Van Gogh, in the knowledge that he would be acclaimed as one of the greatest artists who ever lived, took his own life. His genius will last forever, but so will the sadness.

This is a glorious story, one which reminds me of the great historical of the Hartnell era. It is as gorgeous, evocative and moving to viewers now as Marco Polo must have been in 1964- and I can think of no higher praise than that.

NEXT: "The Lodger"

Friday, 4 June 2010

"The Hungry Earth"/ "Cold Blood"

As you can imagine, I was not looking forward to a Chris Chibnall two-parter. His previous effort, "42", was a thoroughly lazy script, rescued only by Graeme Harper’s phenomenal direction. However, Chibnall is physically capable of writing good scripts- his Life on Mars episodes are very good and, although his showrunning and episodes for Torchwood were terrible in series 1, he improved in series 2. In any case, "The Hungry Earth"/ "Cold Blood" had the added attraction of featuring the return of the Silurians, one of my favourite ‘monsters’ on the programme.

Reading the basic storyline did not fill me with hope. Just as "42" was a basic rewrite of Planet of Evil, "The Hungry Earth"/ "Cold Blood" takes most of its plot elements from previous stories- it’s Doctor Who and the Silurians meets Inferno, meets The Green Death, meets Frontios! On watching it, the way the plot unfolds would be entirely predictable, even if it wasn’t following the story progression of Doctor Who and the Silurians almost to the letter and ending not so much with a deus ex machina, but with a literal pneuma ex machina! It must be said, however, that Chibnall writes with more sincerity than he did last time, which means that we buy into the plotting a bit more, even though the only parts that aren’t hackneyed are by Malcolm Hulke. This is helped by a very strong cast- Eliot, the dyslexic boy who won’t let his disability get in his way, so clumsily worthy on paper, is made into a real person through the endearing performance of Lady Sovereign lookalike Samuel Davies. Robert Pugh is an awesome actor, who puts meat on the very bare bones of his underwritten character and Meera Syal is an absolute delight as Nasreen, a very poorly written character- I am sure I was not alone in secretly hoping for her to join the TARDIS crew.

The Silurians are suitably revamped for the 21st century with a fantastic make-up and prosthetic applications. Although very different from their forebears, I instantly recognised them- although making the eyes and teeth more saurian would not have been unwelcome. However, the revamps work, because the designers remembered something they should have remembered when doing "Victory of the Daleks"- if you’re going to redesign a popular monster, make it look cool. The Silurians are all excellently performed, with all the actors remaining very recognisable, despite the excellent make-up, from Neve McIntosh’s impassioned dual performance as Alaya/ Restac to Stephen Moore’s dignified Eldane. These performances compensate for the fact that the character types are very similar to the original Silurians- we even have the bellicose Silurian killing the peacemaker The only disappointment is that Chibnall seems to be just as clueless about palaeontology as Malcolm Hulke- but Hulke did not have the Internet as a research tool, so Chibnall has no excuse. Chibnall has the Doctor state that they are ‘300 million years out of their comfort zone’, which would make them Carboniferous, on the cusp of Permian- not as unlikely as the Silurian, but still pretty far-fetched and only adding to the confusion. As I said many moons ago, if there is one area of science that the average child will know a lot about, it’s prehistoric life.

Ashley Way gives the story the epic feel it needs and the action scenes are shot with the necessary energy to make them effective and he marshals the great cast with aplomb. The special effects are flawless, with the jaw-dropping shots of the vistas of the Silurian city and the hibernating army, with the entire production team giving their all. Matt Smith is astonishing, yet again, with his kindly, yet somewhat threatening warning to Ambrose about weapons to his grief over Amy’s apparent death. Karen Gillan has to react to the death of her fiancée again and it is to her considerable credit that she makes it look just as convincing as in "Amy’s Choice" yet very different, something which can also be said for Arthur Darvill. I really hope this is not the final end for Rory.

This is a very well made, very enjoyable Doctor Who story. However, again we have a Homo reptilia story (technically it should be something like Anthroposaurus sapiens, but I digress) that covers pretty much the same ground as the original story. Chibnall’s script, although not in the same league as others this year, is far better than his previous one. It is odd to think that the only Silurian story to build on the original is Warriors of the Deep!

NEXT: "Vincent and the Doctor"

Friday, 21 May 2010

"Amy’s Choice"

Simon Nye’s debut for Doctor Who is based, as many great Doctor Who stories are, on a simple premise- what if we couldn’t tell what was dream and what was real? There is one reality where the Doctor visits Amy and Rory 5 years after their parting, with Amy heavily pregnant and Upper Leadworth about to face an attack by possessed pensioners. In another, the incapacitated TARDIS is drifting inexorably towards a ‘cold star’. Seemingly in control of both realms is a seemingly unassuming, yet ultimately frightening figure of the Dream Lord. Nye presents us with exciting threats in both scenarios, but he uses the story to delve into the structure of the human unconscious- how do our dreams reflect our desires and our personalities? The quiet domesticity of Upper Leadworth is clearly something Rory wants, yet even that is invaded by the type of menace that the Doctor is usually involved with- perhaps the kind of menace that the Doctor needs to operate. The fact that all this is wrapped up in a very entertaining and funny story is fantastic. As befits Simon Nye, there are some fantastic comic touches- Rory’s (truly awful) pony-tail, Amy’s pregnant running and her false alarms, facing death ‘looking like a Peruvian folk band’, the Doctor as Mr Cool, with some excellent one-liners. The shift towards the sinister is very skilfully done, helped, in no small respect, by Catherine Morshead’s direction. Although the camera is rather static, the scenes in Leadworth and the Drift towards the cold star are both impressively handled, with great special effects and cinematography. Crucially, the attack of the Eknodine in the bodies of the old people comes off as both sinister and ridiculous, with shades of Shaun of the Dead and the Father Ted episode "Night of the Nearly Dead". This sets us up for the very emotional scenes at the climax- Rory’s apparent death and Amy’s willingness to risk her death (without a thought for her unborn child’s) to be with Rory again.

The Dream Lord is brought to life by the wonderful Toby Jones, who, wisely, never overplays, making the character funny, yet menacing. His true nature is simple, but, fanboy that I am, I was too busy thinking of the Celestial Toymaker or the Trickster to notice. The Dream Lord is a manifestation of the Doctor’s own darkness, his guilt and self-loathing (how is unimportant- the criticisms levelled at The Space Museum and The Edge of Destruction do not apply here, as the situation is not the most important aspect of the drama). However, the story is called "Amy’s Choice" for a reason- while the desires of the menfolk are obvious, what is it that Amy dreams of, or desires? It is Amy’s choice which, indeed, is the decisive step in solving the crisis. The Dream Lord has many choice words for the Doctor, but in the end it is Amy’s simple ‘Then what is the point of you?’ which is the most devastating criticism of the Time Lord. Matt Smith improves with every episode and Arthur Darvill is hugely likeable. However, it is Karen Gillan who is the biggest standout- her playing of Amy’s grief over Rory’s death is subtle, never going into histrionics- and all the more heartbreaking for that.

Simon Nye is most famous for writing Men Behaving Badly, a sitcom that was far cleverer than it appeared to be, so there were a few raised eyebrows when he was announced as a writer for Doctor Who, just as there were when another comedy writer was announced as a writer. This is a story of real subtlety and sophistication, an absolute joy from beginning to end.

NEXT: "The Hungry Earth"/ "Cold Blood"

Friday, 14 May 2010

"The Vampires of Venice"

With Amy's hormones seemingly in overdrive, the Doctor has no alternative but to arrange a date for her and Rory, and where better than Venice? However, as the title of the story makes obvious, all is not what it seems. "The Vampires of Venice" sees the return of Toby Whithouse to the Doctor Who fold. Since "School Reunion", Whithouse has created the excellent supernatural drama Being Human, so vampires should be familiar territory for him. Only there are no vampires in the story. There is a mysterious aristocrat who fears the sunlight. There are buxom maidens with severe orthodontic problems. But all is not what it seems with what it seems not to be, for the creatures are not vampires- "The Vampires of Venice", in classic Doctor Who style, takes a horror trope (two actually- the true nature of the ‘vampires’ is very Lovecraftian) and reinterprets it in a science fiction context- this is pretty much a Hinchcliffe/Holmes story for the 21st Century- I love, for example, the reason why the ‘vampires’ cast no reflection. Whithouse tells us the classic Doctor Who tale of the aliens who arrive in a notable time and place in Earth’s history to wreak havoc and have to be stopped by the Doctor. However, there is more to it than this- the alien Saturnynians, though callous in their disregard for the ‘savages’ do not actually want to conquer the Earth- just Venice- Whithouse fills the story with majestic dialogue: ‘Can your conscience carry the weight of another dead race. Remember us. Dream of us.’

However, the story has a problem, in that it has some of the flaws of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. There are some glaring inconsistencies in the plot- the sensitivity of the Saturnynians to sunlight varies from slight discomfort to grievous harm, which comes to a head when Amy destroys Francesco using the light reflected from a cloudy sky using a make-up mirror! Like many Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories, there is a somewhat pat solution to the crisis- the Doctor simply turns the evil alien device off! This was a funny solution in "School Reunion", but it just seems unimaginative here. Also, I’m no expert, but I wonder how Venice could have any tunnels? The character writing is effective enough, but the final effect is mainly thanks to a superb cast. Guido’s plight is not that effectively written, but Lucian Msamati puts in a very effective performance. As Rosanna, the queen of the Saturnynians, we have the wonderful Helen McCrory who gives a charismatic, yet very subtle performance.

The production is a triumph, with every scene having fantastic design, great costuming and cinematography, making the episode hugely evocative of the most vibrant city of the Early Modern period. Jonny Campbell’s direction, however, is problematic. Sometimes he assembles scenes with aplomb, but at other times (thankfully only a few) the editing or pacing is sloppy. The pre-titles sequence works, but I’m not sure if it is due to skilful editing to emphasise the awkwardness, or just plain awkward editing.

The regulars are on fantastic form. The interplay between the Doctor, Amy and Rory is well written and very funny, with Arthur Darvill being very likeable as Rory. We see the Doctor confronting an adversary and making ultimatums- just as his previous self does. It is obvious that the Eleventh Doctor does not wear his heart on his sleeve as much as his predecessor, delivering the line 'I'll tear down the House of Calvierri, stone by stone.' with a sinister smile on his face. Whether popping out of a cake or deactivating weapons of mass destruction, Matt Smith remains utterly captivating.

Despite some large-ish problems, the energy and great production values make "The Vampires of Venice" a hugely enjoyable story. Plus, when are a bevy of buxom vampire girls ever a bad thing?

NEXT: "Amy’s Choice"

Friday, 7 May 2010

"The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone"

The Doctor has had a host of recurring foes in his television adventures, but most of the time he only has to defeat an enemy once. Sutekh, the Drashigs, Magnus Greel, the Malus, Scaroth and the Beast are just a few of the memorable one-night stands the Doctor has had. Until now, the Weeping Angels would have been near the top of the list- "Blink" remains one of the greatest stories the programme has produced in any era and the Angels one of the most chilling race of monsters ever seen on the small screen. It could be argued that a return appearance would ruin the impact of the Angels- but it took very little time for me to conclude that the return of the Angels was nothing short of a resounding success.

The basic plotline of "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" is simple- the Doctor helps to locate the Angels in a crashed spaceship and get his friends out safely. This is a canvas for Moffat to paint his exquisitely shaded opus. As with his stories in the Russell T Davies era, this adventure is brimming with fantastic ideas and concepts. The squad of soldiers featured in the story are not Army, but the Church which has, as the Doctor says ‘moved on’; trees are cybernetically augmented to form oxygen factories in starliners; Moffat’s ability to build worlds is phenomenal. However, this would be for naught if the monsters did not work- the reason the Angels worked the first time was that they were based on a very strong, but idea. Betray that idea or employ excessive casuistry to circumvent its limits and the impact of the Angels is disastrously dampened. However, Moffat only builds on the ideas- that which holds the image of an angel becomes itself an angel, resulting in a very tense scene with Amy. Building on this, we find that looking into the eyes of an Angel for too long results in an image of the Angel forming in the mind, which leads to the horrifying idea of Amy having to walk through a group of Angels with her eyes shut. The Angels are given a personality for the first time, gleefully sadistic and chillingly psychopathic. As with his previous two-parters, Moffat does not merely rely on the ideas brought up in part one, he brings in more to complement them. A very familiar crack has opened, a crack which destroys time. People approaching too closely are erased from existence as if they have never existed- and even the Angels are terrified. This leads to the dénouement, where seemingly minor things raised in the story come together perfectly- the ship’s failing power, the quirks of artificial gravity- to solve the crisis in a simple way that works without insulting the viewers’ intelligence.

Moffat’s mastery is not just about plot and concepts, obviously. The dialogue is wonderful, ranging from the funny that we expect, to moments of beauty (‘What if our dreams no longer needed us?’) and real poignancy (‘I wish I had known you better’/ ‘I think, sir, that you knew me at my best’). In such a packed story there would appear to be no room for character- yet Moffat, for the first time, has succeeded doing what RTD did deceptively easily- making every character seem real, no matter how minor. This is helped by a very strong cast, including Mark Monero and Darren Morfitt (who was so memorable in Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers). Even Mike Skinner’s cameo works well. We also have a reliably solid performance from Iain Glen as Octavian.

Directing the story is Adam Smith, who does stunning work throughout. I must draw special attention to the first 5 minutes which is one of the most awesome sequences I have ever seen on the small screen. Smith constructs each scene perfectly. Amy’s encounter with the image of the Angel on the screen is a well-realised homage to Ringu, well worth the eight minutes it takes up on screen. Amy’s walk through the forest of Angels wrings every bit of tension out of the script. The script asks for something that has the potential to be disastrous- we see the Angels move for the first time and it is testament to Smith’s skills that these scenes work magnificently- the first one in particular is a real jump moment.

The story, of course, also has the return of another memorable Moffat creation- River Song. Alex Kingston effortlessly makes her the irresistible character she was in "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" and it is clear that there is more to her than we thought. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan continue to build their fantastic rapport with their best performances yet. The rapport builds to such an extent that we get something that we have never seen before- the Doctor fighting off the ravishes of his companion. The scene is funny and believable in terms of what we know about the character and her situation- Amy is clearly bit more forthright than Martha!

"The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" is an astounding adventure, destined to become one of the true classics of the programme.

NEXT: "The Vampires of Venice"

Friday, 23 April 2010

"Victory of the Daleks"

Of all the stories broadcast under the Doctor Who banner this century, none have provoked such contradictory feelings within me as "Victory of the Daleks"- two feelings in particular. The first and most important one is that, more than any other, this is a story that should really have been a two parter. Mark Gatiss is too good a writer to produce a truly bad script and the story is brimming with great ideas and some great lines. The basic plot is very similar to The Power of the Daleks, but Gatiss manages to make this story work on its own terms. However, there is just so much crammed into 40 minutes that there is a danger of some of the plot not sticking. The most obvious example is the ‘Space Spitfire’- we are asked to believe that Professor Bracewell’s ‘musings’ could be turned into workable hardware in less than an hour. If you can keep up, this is an exciting ride, but it would have been more satisfying if the story had more time to breathe.

Another casualty of the pace is characterisation, but there are really only two characters, apart from the regulars. Despite the rush, Bracewell succeeds admirably as a character. This is due, in no small part, to the performance of Bill Paterson, an actor I’ve always admired. However, Gatiss manages to take a clichéd sci-fi situation- a man discovering he’s a robot- and manages to make it work- the simplicity of the scene where the Daleks simply state ‘No, we created you’ is very effective. We are given a situation that could be blandly generic- the Doctor and Amy talking to Bracewell to deactivate the Oblivion Continuum within him- but the fact that they use embarrassment as one of the human feelings that needs to be provoked is very refreshing. Then, we have the historical figure du jour- Winston Churchill. In truth, Ian McNeice doesn’t look that much like Churchill, but his studied performance is hugely effective, easily compensating for the fact that the pace of the script has to make him do a U-turn in his attitude to the ‘Ironsides’ without comment. The regulars are awesome- we Doctor’s attempts to goad the Daleks into revealing themselves by battering one with a giant spanner. We also see him hold them off with a Jammie Dodger- Matt Smith has total mastery of the role. Amy continues to be inventive, intuitive and just plain fantastic.

Andrew Gunn keeps up with the pace of the script with a very polished production. The ‘Space Spitfires’ might have been brought into being a bit too soon, but the sight of the most iconic aeroplane in British aviation history, dogfighting with a Dalek saucer is breathtakingly wonderful. The period detail is as wonderful as it was in Moffat’s own trip into the Blitz five years ago and the design is excellent- with one exception. I am afraid that I must join with the vocal minority who do not approve of the new Daleks. I am not against a revamp for the Daleks in principle- the original revamp for "Dalek" was absolutely perfect- keeping very close to the Raymond Cusick originals, yet adding little touches here and there. The Dalek Supreme in "The Stolen Earth"/ "Journey's End" was also a great piece of design. These new Daleks seem a bit too plastic, a bit too vacuum formed and the multi-coloured ‘paradigms’ do not help the look. The worst thing, however, is their backs- they look like Daleks who have gone to seed on port, cigars and Stilton. This is a great pity as the ‘Ironside’ Daleks look great. The scene where the Ironsides bring a new generation into being and willingly accept their own destruction by their offspring would have been a very powerful scene, were it not for the fact that what we see are some very cool Daleks being exterminated by a bunch of bootylicious wannabes. Some fans have been scathing about the design, calling it as bad as Colin Baker’s costume. This is clearly an overreaction, but the effect it has on the story and, indeed, on the Daleks as a whole, is great. Indeed, this is the only time this century that a piece of design work has ever been unsuccessful and I sincerely hope that Steven Moffat reconsiders.

There is much to enjoy in "Victory of the Daleks", but it has problems it cannot solve, despite the considerable talents of all involved. Spread out over two episodes, it could have been genuinely great good enough to counter the negative impact of a failed attempt to revamp one of the most iconic pieces of design of the modern era.

NEXT: "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone"

Friday, 16 April 2010

"The Beast Below"

The Earth has been ravaged by solar flares (presumably the same as those in The Ark in Space) and mankind has fled the planet in ships, such as the Starship UK. When the Doctor and Amy land there, it is a seemingly happy, somewhat nostalgic ship but there is a dark side. The plotline of the Doctor finding the dark truth behind society is not new, yet it offers so much scope for variation that its return is welcome in the shape of this very enjoyable story. Steven Moffat again takes a simple, creepy idea and makes it a threatening presence throughout the story. The Smilers are reminiscent of fortune telling machines in fairgrounds, their painted expressions stirring disquieting feelings in many. They sit as judges (in both the legalistic and Simon Cowell sense) and their Janus-like heads have two faces, but three expressions. These are the figures that terrify children- as the Doctor says, it is a police state, where the menace is everywhere, known to all, but discussed by none- everyone knows about the This is what the Doctor and Amy set themselves up against, but it is not the enemy. The Beast is, in fact a Star Whale that has been enslaved to propel the Starship UK. However, police state or not, the population is entitled to know about the enslavement of the Star Whale and the opportunity to protest; but they are also given the opportunity to forget they ever learnt the truth, for if just 1% of the electorate protest, the Whale will be freed, dooming all- so, of course, everyone chooses to forget. This is a simple, but very effective observation on politics- as the Doctor says, after 5 years, the electorate forget what they’ve learnt. It is also an astute observation on human nature- all healthy adults must have empathy, but if there is too much, the soul is mired in guilt. Moffat’s script is full of the expected humour and conceptual ingenuity, but this is a story driven by empathy, by subtle understanding of behaviour. This is how the Doctor discovers there is a problem and how Amy solves it. More on that later.

Andrew Gunn marshals a very confident production, with Starship UK being brought to life very impressively. Scenes are shot and edited with great care- a nice touch is the effective way that we discover Amy’s decision in the voting booth. Visual and verbal influences from Star Wars and Discworld work very well in the story and the effects, although not perfect, instil the correct feelings of wonder. The guest performances are first rate, from experienced performers such as Terence Hardiman (forever the Demon Headmaster for a generation of children) to excellent child actors, especially Hannah Sharp as Mandy. The main guest star is Sophie Okonedo who makes Liz 10 a blast to watch. I love the way that Liz 10’s accent has become more cockney-fied over the years- had the Doctor come a century later, she would probably have a Jafaican accent (or ‘Multicultural London English’ as phoneticists boringly call it). Okonedo is, obviously, an awesome actress and she clearly enjoys the part.

However, it is the regulars who come off best, both in the way the parts are written and played. The Doctor clearly likes Amy, but he is more guarded with his companion than his previous incarnation. Even when Amy broaches the subject of other Time Lords, his manner does not reveal any emotion. One personality trait that was obvious in "The Eleventh Hour" was his impatience and this ties in with another- he doesn’t like information being hidden from him, which results in him threatening to send Amy home. However, when the Doctor is faced with an impossible dilemma, it is Amy who solves it by thinking of something the Doctor didn’t even consider, saving him from commiting an act of murder. Evidently, the Doctor needs someone to stop him more than ever.

Matt Smith continues to impress. There were shades of Colin Baker in "The Eleventh Hour" and there is some Troughtonesque hand-rubbing here, but Matt is clearly taking the Time Lord into new territory- his rage at the dilemma, at the horrors that his favourite species sometimes commits is both archetypaly Doctorish and unique to Matt. Karen Gillan is just as fantastic- Amy clearly has a very subtle and sensitive mind and I love the way that her first scene with Mandy is played like a Doctor/companion scene.

There are some rough edges- the nature of the Smilers and the Winders are not explored as fully as I would have liked, for example. However, this is a story with much to offer both adults and children and is great fun- what more could you want?

NEXT: "Victory of the Daleks"

Friday, 9 April 2010

"The Eleventh Hour"

There is a threat against the Earth and only one man can save the planet. This is a sentence that can describe many Doctor Who stories, but in this one, the familiar plot helps anchor the viewer, for the rest of the story is suffused with the unfamiliar- a brand new Doctor, brand new companion, brand new everything. There is a new hand at the tiller in the shape of Steven Moffat, who wrote some of the best stories of the Russell T Davies era. It is immediately obvious that Moff-Who has a slightly different feel from RTD-Who, without jarring the viewer. As with Moffat’s previous scripts, something mundane becomes something to fear- in this case, the crack in the wall in the bedroom of a child- a crack that opens to reveal a vast Cyclopean eye. The basic plot is simple- a prisoner has escaped through the crack and the captors, the Atraxi, want him recaptured at any cost- but the Devil, as always, is in the details. Steven Moffat gleefully plunders his own previous Doctor Who work, from "The Girl in the Fireplace" to his excellent short story "Corner of the Eye", but it is to serve a greater purpose. With a new broom sweeping clean, the audience needs a new identification figure and we are given that in Amelia ‘Amy’ Pond. Like Reinette in "The Girl in the Fireplace", the Doctor is a figure from her youth. However, Amelia belongs to a more rational, touchy-feely world, so her night of wonder results in years of therapy. So when she suddenly finds her imaginary childhood friend stalking around her house, her feeling is not one of wonder, but of disappointment and mistrust- the Doctor has to convince her, and, indeed, us, that he is the man we hope he is.

And, he suceeds. Matt Smith had the daunting task of following the most popular Doctor since Tom Baker (and, in my opinion, the best one since Hartnell). As far as I was concerned he had me from the second he clambers out of the toppled TARDIS, with a look on his face that could illustrate every non-scientific definition of the word ‘mercurial’. This is followed by a brilliant sequence where the Doctor (like Tigger) discovers what foods he likes. This immediately tests Smith as an actor, having to give the same reaction in different ways. By the time he is eating fish-fingers dipped in custard, we know this Doctor well enough- far less patient than his predecessor, but with the same sense of fun. People always try and see the actor’s predecessors in a Doctor’s first story and, for the first time, there is a hint of Colin Baker, only with an infinitely superior writer and director at the controls. Like Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison before him, Matt Smith drags us out of our mourning for his beloved predecessor- Matt is Doctor Who!

Amy is given the most detailed back-story of any companion to date, but the vitalising spark is the wonderful performance by Karen Gillan, being very sassy and clever, but struggling with her impractical clothing throughout. Gillan can work wonders with the smallest change of expression in her beautiful face and it looks like we are in for another great companion. I must also mention the wonderful performance by Gillan’s cousin Caitlin Blackwood as the young Amelia. There are a plethora of great guest performances, although it’s odd that performers of the stature of Nina Wadia and Olivia Colman have such minor roles. Colman, in particular, is one of the most physically versatile actresses in the world (she can play anything from an irresistible sexpot to a sour hag, with only minimal make-up) and I would love to have seen her in a larger role- but it was good to see her nevertheless. Patrick Moore makes a well-judged cameo (something he’s invariably good at) and the rich, distinctive voice of David de Keyser is heard as the voice of the Atraxi. The always delightful Annette Crosbie will hopefully return alongside Arthur Darvill’s Rory.

Steven Moffat has assembled a new stable of directors and Adam Smith helms shooting and actors with aplomb. Although the pacing as frenetic as it was in the RTD era, there seem to be fewer shots, as befitting the setting in a small village, rather than London. Andrew Smith creates scenes of tension and beauty, from Amy’s encounter with Prisoner Zero to the adorable scene where Amelia waits for the Doctor to come back. There is also the best use of a lens flare that I have seen for years. The production values are excellent, although the CG creatures seem a tiny bit unfinished, the imagination shown in the design of the Atraxi ships is laudable and there is, of course, the wonderfully lavish, yet retro, new TARDIS interior.

This is an excellent debut story for Matt Smith. If there is any criticism, it is that Moffat doesn’t quite have RTD’s knack for creating ordinary characters- compare with "Smith and Jones" (still the best series opener, in my opinion). The story is 20 minutes longer than "Smith and Jones", yet we know more about Martha’s family than we do Amy’s friends, by the end. However, the characterisation is more than adequate, and Moffat’s conceptual ingenuity counts for a lot. Matt stamps his authority on the programme with ease, so that we unreservedly accept the moment when he walks through a hologram of Tennant’s face. Doctor Who is back with an era that promises to be fantastic. However, there are questions raised, and as we notice, the cracks in the universe have not been ignored by the TARDIS...

NEXT: "The Beast Below"

Thursday, 21 January 2010

'DOCTOR WHO will return in...'

Well, that's it- every single episode of Doctor Who seen and reviewed! I've written over 125,000 words, enough to qualify as a good-sized novel. I would like to thank my little sister and tiny brother for allowing me to raid their VHS and DVD collections as well as Jim, who lent me two (or was it three?) DVDs. I would thank Swiss Cottage Library in London, but I did have to pay £1 each to rent Revenge of the Cybermen and Terror of the Zygons- for three days. But I digress. I would also like to thank the ladies and gentlemen at a project with a name not unlike Unsecured Arquebus for their sterling work.

A lot of people (well, some people anyway) have asked if I will continue. All I will say is this: writing one review a week is far less hassle than writing three or four. So it is with pleasure that I say:

NEXT: "The Eleventh Hour"

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

PPS- Spin-offs

After this reasonably detailed examination of the programme we all know and love, it would be remiss of me not to mention the tele-sprogs that Doctor Who has spawned along the way. However, this is not going to be anything like as detailed- I was very close to reviewing the TARDISodes- mini episodes designed for mobile use- but I thought that way madness lies. Suffice to say, these little snippets, written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Ashley Way, were fun little Who-nuggets.

The main Doctor Who spin-off is Torchwood- the further adventures of Captain Jack in Cardiff. Despite having some excellent writers such as J C Wilsher, P H Hammond, Catherine Tregenna and Mickey Smith himself, Noel Clarke (whose excursions into film are highly recommended, damn the critics!) the programme suffered from some very poor show-running from Chris Chibnall. Character development was very shoddy, with characters changing personality according to the dictates of the plot and, for the first series, Chibnall failed to find an original voice for the programme, or even decide what sort of programme it was- the story arc in particular was rushed and poorly thought-out. At times, the notion that this was Angel to Doctor Who’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was taken too literally- like Angel, Torchwood’s second episode involves a being that uses sex to drive itself. There were excellent episodes ("Everything Changes", "Out of Time", "Adam" and "Captain Jack Harkness" amongst others) there were some truly dreadful ones as well ("Random Shoes", an attempt to ‘do’ "Love & Monsters" written by someone who didn’t actually understand it, springs to mind) There was sex and swearing which, I suppose, is considered to be ‘adult’ by Chibnall. I use Chibnall as my punching bag for one reason- when he left Torchwood, Russell T Davies returned to the controls and the result was the utterly astonishing Children of Earth, a story up there with the very best Doctor Who episodes. Written with real intelligence and wit, the quality of the story is obvious leaps out in every scene. It is so compelling that, despite Peter Capaldi playing a high-ranking, non-elected official, you have forgotten about Malcolm Tucker by the end of the first episode. It was fun and genuinely ‘adult’ and I eagerly look forward to Torchwood’s return.

On the other end of the age-demographic is The Sarah Jane Adventures. In looking at this, we must really start with 1981’s K9 and Company, a jolly bit of rural intrigue with Sarah Jane and K9 foiling a local coven. It was similar in tone to contemporaneous Doctor Who, but with a slightly lighter touch. With its 21st century descendent, the relationship with the parent programme is similar- for example, it is immediately obvious that the body count is considerably lower. However, it is only very rarely that The Sarah Jane Adventures actually talks down to children- the same care in production is lavished on it as with the parent programme and there are, again, good writers writers- but, unlike Torchwood, it is a team of writers who know exactly what kind of programme they are writing for. Elisabeth Sladen is supported by an appealing young cast, making The Sarah Jane Adventures very enjoyable for all ages.

Speaking of everyone's favourite motorised mutt, there is also K-9 which has aired only one episode at the time of writing. It's OK, I suppose, but I'm witholding my opinion until I see more.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

PS- David Tennant: the Animated Years

As you all know, no doubt, David Tennant also starred in two animated stories, so here, for the sake of completeness is my take on them...

The Infinite Quest

Of all the 20th Century Doctor Who stories to take inspiration from, I would have thought that The Keys of Marinus would be rather low on the list. Yet here we are, with the Doctor journeying to various locations in the search for a cluster of McGuffins. The plot is somewhat shallow, but the locations, at least show a bit more imagination than those in Terry Nation’s scattershot story. Characters change motivation with alarming speed and the dialogue, although it aspires to the wittiness of the best Doctor Who scripts, seems forced. The fact that this was broadcast as a part of the Totally Doctor Who childrens programme shows in such things as the literal space-pirates, which somewhat annoy me.

The Infinite Quest was originally broadcast as 13 parts, each part lasting about 3½ minutes. This gives the omnibus edition a rather choppy feel, which doesn’t help the flow of the narrative. This isn’t helped by the direction- Gary Russell seems to devote all his attention to the big set pieces, but has little idea of how to construct a story visually. There are some awesome visuals on display- the insect like drilling robots, the Mantasphid hive. Unfortunately, the character animation is very static, with the characters having only two or three expressions each. This is a pity, as David Tennant and Freema Agyeman put their all into their roles. Despite the presence of actors such as Anthony Head, Stephen Grief and Liza Tarbuck, the supporting characters are too thinly written and indifferently directed to make much of an impact. This is especially true of the main villain, Balthazar, who, in the hands of Anthony Head, should have been far more memorable.

The Infinite Quest is passable, undemanding entertainment, but contains little of real substance.


The obvious thing to be said about Dreamland is that the animation is- basic. There are myriads of amateurs who could make an animated film of greater quality on their computer with a bit of freeware, so it is disappointing that this is what a monolithic corporation like the BBC is happy with in 2009. Happily, the other aspects of the story are much better. Phil Ford provides a very entertaining script with an engaging plot and some nice dialogue. I am surprised that Roswell has never been dealt with by Doctor Who and Ford manages to mix the atmosphere of The X-Files and 50s B-movies, together with UFO conspiracies (there is a nice new take on the Men in Black) to make a uniquely Doctor Who mixture.

Although the animation is basic, the backgrounds are very well rendered and Gary Russell does a far better job as director than he did with The Infinite Quest. The episodes are 6 minutes in length, with a 12 minute opener, which gives it a more natural flow than its predecessor. Again, there is a starry cast. David Warner is, naturally, fantastic as Lord Azlok and we have good turns from Stuart Milligan, Nicholas Rowe and Lisa Bowerman. In the minor but important role of Night Eagle, we have Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon on The Wire) which was the most exciting bit of casting for me since Derek Jacobi. If there is one flaw in the script, it is that the companion roles- Cassie and Jimmy- are less well defined than usual. However, with only 45 minutes to play with, there probably wasn’t time and the engaging performances by Tim Howar and Georgia Moffett help in rectifying this. David Tennant is great, as he invariably is.

is tremendous fun- so much so that you forget the dated character animation and just sit back and enjoy the story.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The End of Time

The final adventure of the Tenth Doctor would always have been a significant story in of itself- David Tennant is the only actor to have successfully challenged Tom Baker for the title of most popular Doctor. And what a story it is- two and a quarter hours in length (a six-parter in old money) with cameos from every actor to have played a regular role and the return of the Time Lords. The plot is simple and just about works, albeit with an odd structure. There are a few problems with the script. The resurrection of the Master is presented as a necromantic ritual, a move which could work had the emphasis been different. However, mentions of ‘potions of life’ and ‘the secret books of Saxon’ are a bit too Harry Potter. The plot means that the critical characters of Naismiths are given short shrift in the second episode- a pity, considering David Harewood’s fine performance. The means by which the Time Lords escape, although comprehensible, is in danger of being misread. Donna’s ‘defence mechanism’ seems to have been constructed purely to season the cliffhanger.These are all valid criticisms all raised by perceptive critics of the programme (together with others raised by those who cannot tell the difference between a plot hole and something that they have failed to spot). However, like The Evil of the Daleks, like Logopolis, The End of Time manages to overcome these shortcomings to produce a story of real wonder and excitement.

However, once the Master is properly back after his Voldemortesqe resurrection, we are again blessed with John Simm’s electrifying take on the character. The Master started off being simply an evil opposite to the Doctor, but since The Keeper of Traken, he has become a Time Lord who is physically, as well as mentally 'wrong'. His return in "Utopia" was as a fully fledged Time Lord, but his botched rebirth here leaves him a nightmarish horror- his flesh repeatedly vanishing to reveal the skeleton beneath, able to fire lightning from his fingers; and all the time, he is ravenously hungry, as shown in scenes that must have caused Yuletide gastric discomfort in a few viewers. The relationship between him and the Doctor is as deftly written as ever. Both need each other on a visceral level- the Master instinctively holds the Doctor as he falls from his own assault. However, once he finds out what is returning, he is perfectly willing to let the Doctor die- his visceral feelings were grounded in his own selfishness.

The story starts off by an imposing voice narrating events in a rather florid manner (but who are the ones who have an infinite capacity for pretension?) which reaches a crescendo in the middle of the first episode- to reveal the face of the Narrator. The Master Plan with his Master Race is only a small part of the grand scheme- for the Time Lords have returned. We are treated to Gallifrey on the last day of the Time War- the dome of the Capitol shattered, the wrecks of Dalek saucers strewn around. The High Council are in session and it is clear that these are a grimmer, more ruthless race than we have ever seen before. The Lord President (as the Narrator turns out to be) deals out disintegration for dissent and, as they descend on Earth, bringing the raging inferno that is the dying Gallifrey with them, it is clear that the destruction of the Time Lords was no accidental side effect. Twisted by the Hell that the war had become, they chose to ascend to godhood- ripping space-time apart in the process, as the final act of the war. Davies’ depiction of the final days of the Time War prove that it is an event that should never be explored on screen- how can anything compare to the images in our minds of The Nightmare Child, the Horde of Travesties and, most wonderful of all, the Could-have-been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-weres? It should remain a series of images in our head that point to something we can never fully understand. The Lord President is played with relish by Timothy Dalton, arguably the best actor to play James Bond. He is actually named as Rassilon himself by the Doctor, which makes sense- if the Master was brought back as the ultimate warrior, it makes sense that the founder of Time Lord society be resurrected to lead his people- a people who become just as much the Doctor’s enemy as the Daleks. The Time Lords are truly awesome in their power, Rassilon overcoming the Master’s schemes with a flick of his gauntlet (The Great Glove of Rassilon?) but it is clear that they know that the Doctor is not someone to be underestimated, even with something as primitive as a service revolver in his hand.

Euros Lyn is often overlooked as a director, despite his amazing track record. As the revived programme’s longest serving director, it is fitting that he helms Tennant’s finale. The spectacle demanded by the script is easily realized by Lyn, from the stunning scenes set on Gallifrey to the wonderful Star Wars inspired sequence where the Vinvocci ship has to evade and shoot down seemingly every missile on planet Earth. The appearance of Gallifrey is as awesome as it should be (it seems to be as large compared to the Earth as we are to the Moon). Lyn makes sure every performance counts (even in minor roles such as the Visionary and Shaun, we have Brid Brennan and Karl Collins). I must also mention the incredibly likeable Sinéad Keenan as Addams and a cheeky role for the legendary June Whitfield, in the wonderful sub-plot of the ‘Silver Cloak’- Wilf’s network of OAPs who know everything there is to know in London. Then there is the appearance of the legendary Claire Bloom as a woman who guides events to try and help the Doctor. We never find out who she is (or indeed, her fellow partisan, whose face is never revealed) which is for the best- until we do find out, let us revel in our theories.

There is spectacle to be had, for sure, but there is a heart to the story- the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. Here, that role is taken by Donna’s granddad, Wilf. It is great to see his joy in seeing the Earth from space and to feel the thrill he has in finally sharing in the adventures his granddaughter had. It is in the quieter moments between the Doctor and Wilf that the characters really shine. Both are old men, reaching the end of their lives, which means the Doctor is more open, more emotional with Wilf than he has been with anyone else. Wilf’s decency comes through in every scene, from his refusing to be shamed by the fact that he never took a life as a soldier, to the scene where he immediately rescues a man he has never met from being sealed in the Nuclear Bolt chamber, even though it means he gets sealed himself. Bernard Cribbins is wonderful in the role, mixing his natural lovability with a really strong performance.

But he does get stuck, which leaves us with the Doctor. He has prevailed against the Master, against Rassilon and his Glove (and, no doubt, his Key, Rod and Sash). However, the four knocks come- Wilf in the chamber. The Doctor knows that this is why Wilf has figured so often recently- he is the bringer of his Doom. He will not give his life to save the Universe or even Earth- but to save one man. On Mars he was at his most arrogant, speaking in condescension of ‘the little people’. It is for such a little person that he will make the ultimate sacrifice. He rages like an alcoholic Welsh poet, but in the end, in a scene of genuine heart-wrenching emotion, he saves Wilf, while the old man begs him not to. The scene of the Doctor’s irradiation itself is shot simply- it would scarcely have looked different twenty years ago. Although he gets up, it is clear that the regeneration has started. In the short time given to him, he visits his friends- Martha, Mickey, Sarah Jane, even the descendant of Joan Redfern in a series of scenes that have been earned and therefore avoid being self-indulgent. Although he cannot speak to Donna, he does make sure that she is secure for the future, before taking a trip to the Powell Estate in 2005. But his time has run out.

David Tennant has made the Doctor his own in the hearts and minds of millions in a way no-one has done since Tom Baker. He never failed to put in a great performance and, in some stories, he put in the best performance yet in the role. In watching the entire programme from the beginning one thing is clear- William Hartnell finally has his match in this fantastic actor. It is fitting that the Tenth Doctor’s passing nearly rips the TARDIS apart, in a scene that is shot and scored immaculately. ‘I don’t want to go!’ are his last words- and I’m sure that no-one sane wanted him to go either. Matt Smith seems good enough in his short appearance as the end- but he has a hell of an act to follow.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

"The Waters of Mars"

"The Waters of Mars" sees a return to the ‘base-under-siege’ formula for Doctor Who which, as I said many moons ago, is a very constricting type of story that led to Patrick Troughton’s first full season being rather samey. However, it is soon abundantly clear that Russell T Davies and Phil Ford are intent on doing something interesting with this type of story. We are told that the events that occur on the Martian Bowie Base on 21 November 2059 are as iconic and vital to human history as, say, the destruction of Pompeii. The Doctor knows the names, ages and occupations of everyone on the base, just as well as we know Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin- and he also knows what will happen to them at the end of that day- which is why his catchphrase for this episode is ‘I should really go!’ However, as he said when he was close to the end of another incarnation, ‘Curiosity has always been my downfall’.

The Flood (which seems to be the accepted term for the foe in the story) is, in the style of many memorable Doctor Who adversaries, simply conceived, yet instantly effective and the script uses its threat with an impeccable sense of dynamics, but there is more to the story than a memorable monster. The combination of Phil Ford and Russell T Davies has resulted in a script rich in detail. Even though only Adelaide is given any depth in the script, the characters all seem real people- even Andy, who has all of one scene before he gets Flooded. Conversations between characters give us an impression about what the Earth on 2059- references to a Branson inheritance brings up images of everything from Virgin Inteplanetary to a futuristic Jarndyce v Jarndyce! We also have the first explicit mention of the Ice Warriors, which is welcome and not just gratuitously pleasing the fanboys. Adelaide herself is a compelling figure. Although she is a typically dour base commander, from the start, she is humanised- the message from her daughter instantly shows the warmth in the character. We find out the motivation for her pioneer spirit in a beautiful flashback to her childhood encounter with a Dalek in 2008. The dialogue is suitable evocative- when asked by the Doctor if it was worth it she replies ‘…to stand on a world with no smoke, where the only straight line is the sunlight…Yes. It's worth it.’ Lindsay Duncan is phenomenal in the role (as she has been in practically everything else I have seen her in) giving Adelaide real grit and intelligence, but with a palpable sense of selflessness. All of the Bowie Base members are brilliantly performed- Alan Ruscoe and Chook Sibtain are excellent as the Flood infected crewmen, but I’m sure it is Sharon Duncan Brewster's Maggie who will figure in the nightmares of children, with her horrific ghoulish stare. Graeme Harper continues to prove that a story cannot be bad with him at the controls, making the story seem like the offspring of Silent Running and John Carpenter’s The Thing (together with a nice homage to 28 Days Later). The scenes of the Flood attack are brilliantly shot and choreographed. Scenes which are clichéd become immensely powerful when written by Davies and Ford and directed by Harper. For example, when Steffi faces death, she turns on a message from her children. The message is low in the sound mix and in German (with a Welsh accent, unfortunately!) so the effectiveness of the scene is down to Harper and actress Cosima Shaw, both of whom are fantastic. The special effects are awesome and look fantastic on HD. The realisation of the Flood is phenomenal- leaking water is bloodless, yet gives the faintest impression of haemorrhaging, which is exactly the right way to present a terrifying monster for a family audience. There are a few minor scientific errors, but so what? Who cares that Mars is actually more orange than red? Fires may be impossible in the Martian atmosphere, but burning debris looks great!

However, a very major factor in the story is the Doctor himself. Despite his proclamations, he never goes and it is that which damns him. At the start he is the fun figure we last saw in "Planet of the Dead" and, indeed, declares his intention as ‘fun!’ when asked. However, he is faced with a situation which he cannot alter, as he did in The Aztecs, The Massacre and "The Fires of Pompeii". He once said that the reason he travels is to see history happening in front of him. Here, the grimness of that hits him like a furnace blast. He hears the Bowie crew on his spacesuit radio come up with strategies to survive, only for them all to be dashed. He hears them go down, one by one, hears history being made. And something snaps. In a very short space of time, Adelaide, Yuri and Mia step out of the TARDIS on 21 November 2059- on Earth. The Time Lords are dead- the Doctor is the Lord of Time. Some have wondered why he brought Adelaide, Yuri and Mia to their own time, rather than hiding them in the past or future, but it is impossible that this did not occur to Davies and Ford. The obvious answer is that the Doctor did it because he could- the Time Lord victorious. For the first time we are genuinely scared of the Doctor himself. His justification is frighteningly reminiscent of the Master’s in "Last of the Time Lords"- but only a bit. The Master builds the Paradox Machine to conquer. The Doctor declares himself the Time Lord victorious to save people. However, his chilling talk of ‘little people’ horrifies Adelaide and us and it is Adelaide who saves the future- by her suicide. Horrified, the Doctor turns round- to see Ood Sigma. He has gone too far and knows that the Cloister Bell tolls for him. He is going to die.

I have mentioned several influences for this story, but there is one important one I will now mention: Fury From the Deep. There are many who remember this story as being genuinely terrifying. Listening to it objectively, the terror is there, but buried amongst some interminable longueurs. "The Waters of Mars" is Fury From the Deep as it exists in our imaginations, combined with some incredibly powerful writing, a truly wondrous hour of television.

NEXT: The End of Time

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

"Planet of the Dead"

The first Doctor Who story of 2009 is a simple tale of the Doctor trying to rescue some people on a bus that has travelled through a wormhole. The planet that the passengers arrive on is a barren desert, but he commuters are not alone. A Tritovore ship has crashed, with two of the fly-like beings surviving. But they are not the danger. The planet was once teeming with life and one of the Doctor’s travelling companions can hear the screaming of the planets inhabitants as they died - the danger is a swarm of flying creatures like metallic stingrays who strip planets of anything organic and open wormholes to their next feeding ground- the Earth.

Fortunately, his fellow passengers are more willing to trust him than the last time he was stuck on a bus. The story has a nice, straightforward plot- perhaps a bit too straightforward and not without problems- first on the ‘Why didn’t they just...’ list is why UNIT didn’t just chuck the TARDIS through the wormhole! The commuters are not exactly three-dimensional characters- they are characterised purely by their intended destination rather than anything more detailed. However, the performances manage to compensate for this somewhat. The role of companion is filled by Lady Christina de Souza, an adrenaline junkie with a taste for grand larceny. She is nicely played by Michele Ryan, and she is a resourceful and sparky foil for the Doctor- however it is hard not to see her as being mildly sociopathic. By far the most interesting characters are the UNIT characters. In the Doctor’s absence, they have a new scientific adviser, Dr Malcolm Taylor. Malcolm is a wonderful character, naming units of measurement after himself and making references to Quatermass. This may be another instance of Gareth Roberts letting his inner geek run wild (most kids nowadays would have to ask their grandparents who Quatermass was) but I love him as a character, especially with Lee Evans’s wonderful performance. Although I’m not exactly a fan of Evans as a comedian, when his considerable comic talents are correctly channelled, he is unstoppable. Noma Dumezweni also returns as Captain Erisa Magambo in a performance that refuses to be overshadowed by Evans. Magambo is clearly on the right side, but she is not above pulling a gun on her subordinates for the greater good. She has a hint of the Brigadier in Season 7 about her and, if the Doctor is stranded on Earth again, she would make a good Lethbridge-Stewart for the 21st Century. David Tennant has a last chance to play the Doctor as a fun-loving wanderer and- surprise, surprise- he is excellent.

James Strong makes it all look wonderful and makes sure the actors give it their best. Of course the main production talking point is the move to high definition. The cinematography by Rory Taylor is sublime (for how hi-def Who could have gone wrong, look at the picture on Torchwood Series 1). The special effects are good (although the stingrays look a bit ‘unfinished’) with some great animatronics for the Tritovores and the location filming is great- although I fail to see why they couldn’t have shot it at Camber Sands (or the Welsh equivalent) and used CG matte paintings.

"Planet of the Dead" is good fun, well made with some witty dialogue. It is a bit inconsequential, but there are hints of something dark coming for, as we all know, the Doctor’s song is drawing to an end.

NEXT: "The Waters of Mars"

Monday, 4 January 2010

"The Next Doctor"

There is something about the Victorian Christmas that makes it seem more Christmassy than any other type of Christmas. Maybe it's because of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Maybe it's because such British Christmas symbols as the German Christmas Tree have their roots in the era. This is why it is a genuine thrill to see the Doctor emerge from the TARDIS to be greeted by the sight of carollers, men in stovepipe hats and boys in Norfolk jackets. He is stunned to hear his name being called and rushes to the source- a young woman who, strangely, continues calling for the Doctor, upon which a handsome man, seemingly in his early forties appears. Dressed to the nines in the height of Victorian fashion, he takes control of the situation, brandishing his sonic screwdriver, shouting 'Allons-y!', only then realising that the skinny stranger beside him has done exactly the same thing.

Of course, it soon becomes obvious that this man is not, nor ever will be the Doctor, but a man named Jackson Lake who, in the process of suffering the worst event of his life, suffered dissociative amnesia, a 'fugue'. However, in this case, there was something to replace the memories and personality that had fled- a burst of compressed information about the Doctor. Lake, believing himself to be the Doctor, attempts to live up to 'his' past, with his assistant Rosita, his sonic screwdriver (which is a normal screwdriver) and his TARDIS- 'Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style'- a balloon! Despite the spectacle of this story, at the heart is the tale of a man in turmoil who has turned to the Doctor for salvation in a way that no-one else ever has. In subconsciously trying to save himself, he has become a genuine hero, not because of the information about the Doctor, but his own innate courage. This is very canny writing by Russell T Davies and is remarkably touching without one being cloying. The story also sees the return of the Cybermen who are up to their old tricks, but with a new, deadlier conclusion. To do this, they need child labour from the workhouses, which leads to the evocative plot of children toiling in the shadow of a vast steampunk machine. We also have the character of Miss Hartigan, a woman clearly born out of her time, whose ambition is enslaved to the Cyber King- a vast Cyberman with the capability of destroying cities and converting multitudes in its belly. Although the Cyber-plan takes second place to the journey of Jackson Lake, it is certainly a diverting plot thread.

The characters are well written and are brought to life by some stellar performances. David Morrisey is outstanding as Jackson Lake in a performance that is both very Victorian and easy for anyone to relate to. The gorgeous Dervla Kirwan is brilliant as Miss Hartigan, whose driving ambition makes her overcome even Cyber-conditioning.

The realisation of the story is sound enough with the scenes of the Cyber-king rising and wreaking havoc being truly awesome. However, director Andy Goddard sometimes takes his eye off the ball- Dutch angles are used so arbitrarily it sometimes appears that the camera was tilted by accident and there are some framing problems. The editing, too is a bit off. However, the cinematographic skills of Ernest Vincze do a great deal towards correcting this, as do the fantastic production values.

Although not 100% successful, "The Next Doctor" is tremendous fun and still way ahead of most 20th Century Cyberman stories.

NEXT: "Planet of the Dead"