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 clich├ęd 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"