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"