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 fiancĂ©e 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"