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"