Friday, 7 October 2011

"The Wedding of River Song"

For the first time since the programme’s return, there has been a change to the format of the season. Gone is the epic two-part finale but, it appears that the length of a story does not necessarily affect its epicosity (sic)- it is amazing just how much Moffat manages to include in a single episode that is not even an extended one, without making the story seemed rushed. The pre-title sequence is the utterly dazzling one that we have come to expect from Moffat- Earth where all of history happens at once, where pterodactyls swoop around Hyde Park, cars are hoisted aloft by Montgolfier balloons and Winston Churchill rules the Holy Roman Empire from Buckingham Palace. Like "The Big Bang", time has been damaged, but in a fascinatingly different way that shows the sheer imaginative sweep and power of Moffat’s writing. It doesn’t stop there, of course- The Silence are back with a vengeance and are as menacing as ever and we are treated to carnivorous skulls (which will linger in nightmares for years to come) a particularly deadly form of chess and the reason why they are all wearing eye-patches.

Despite all this, the characters still drive the plot. Amy and Rory search for a man they only know from memories that should not exist, because they resolutely remain the same people in this Tralfamadorian version of reality. There has always been something tragic about Rory, but when ‘the man who dies and dies again’ is about to do so again, he is saved by the woman who will always be his wife, saving him from his tragedy. River is the psychopath who has fallen in love with the Doctor- in true psychopath style, she is willing to let reality go hang if it means not completing her mission at Lake Silencio. Symbolically, the Doctor and River are the opposite poles of this meta-reality and, while some need the love of a good woman, the Doctor’s future and, indeed the very concept of a future, requires the love of a bad one. Darvill and Gillan are as utterly awesome as ever and Alex Kingston yet again proves that River Song is one of the most welcome additions to the Whoniverse ever. Ian McNeice makes the most of his role as Churchill and we have engaging supporting roles for Simon Fisher-Becker as Dorium Maldavar and even a fantastic cameo from Simon Callow returning as Dickens. I sincerely hope that Madame Kovarian is still alive in this reality, played with delicious menace by Frances Barber. Our hero is as awesome as ever, but the sense of the Doctor marching willingly into the arena is ever present- triggered by receiving the news that the Brigadier has passed away in a beautifully written and touchingly performed scene. Moffat manages to make a story based on incongruity, discontinuity and clash of styles work very well and director Jeremy Webb is equal to the task, helped, as he is, by a Herculaean effort from the production team.

Of course, the Doctor escapes his fate. Some might see this as a cop-out but, truth be told, the only way for it not to have been would have consisted of our hero actually biting the dust. It is great that the Teselecta was used rather than the Flesh (a clear red herring). "The Wedding of River Song" is a glorious end to another fine season. Questions have been answered, but questions remain- who hijacked the TARDIS and made it explode? Is the fall of the Eleventh what it sounds like? However, unlike other telefantasy series, the questions are only a small part of Doctor Who. At the end of the story, the Doctor is a mysterious wanderer in time and space, who has adventures, helps the people he meets and defeats the bad guys- which is what the show we know and love is really about. The oldest question will never be fully answered, I think- and it matters not one jot!
NEXT: "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe"

Friday, 30 September 2011

"Closing Time"

There has been a sense of impending doom throughout this run of Doctor Who and we know that the Impossible Astronaut will soon rise from Lake Silencio. However, as was the case the last time he knew the end was approaching, the Doctor won’t go without a farewell tour. Before he sees the Alignment of Exedor, he decides to catch up with an old friend...

Gareth Roberts always brings a real sense of joy to his Doctor Who scripts and, indeed, the first thing that must be said about "Closing Time" is just how much fun it is. The story is simple, yet satisfying, with the immediately appealing prospect of a Cyber-warship that crashed on Earth millennia ago being reawakened, and Roberts weaves elements from stories as far apart as Doctor Who and the Silurians and "Rose"- the disappearance of Shona is very similar to Rose’s discovery of the Autons. Even the denoument is satisfying, despite the ‘love conquers all’ solution being used again. However, the heart of the story is, again the Doctor’s relationship with Craig. Before, he helped Craig find the love of his life, now he teaches him that he has what it takes to be a father. The story is full of the great lines one expects from Roberts, but there is a real depth to the characters and the way that the Doctor can talk to Stormageddon/ Alfie about being old and showing him his first glimpse of the stars in the same story as the Doctor tasting a piece of chalk and comically frightening a woman in a changing room would be bathetic in the hands of a lesser writer, which Roberts is anything but.

James Corden again makes Craig a thoroughly likeable and real character- I’m sure his abject terror at the responsibilities of fatherhood have been felt by most young fathers. There is a wonderful supporting role for the inimitable Lynda Baron in her third appearance in the show and I must say that Holli Dempsey’s reaction to being shushed by the Doctor is hilarious. Matt Smith plays with helicopters, bonds with babies and makes kissy-face at Craig (I hope, for Daisy Lowe’s sake, that his real one is better) and is astonishing. But, of course, that is no surprise.

After the virtuoso shows in the directors’ chair in recent weeks, Steve Hughes opts for a more basic approach which works very well with the material. The scenes in the Cyber-lair are atmospherically shot and the only real flaw is that the attack on Craig in his house could have been mounted better. however, with great scenes such as the Doctor and the planetarium and the fantastic scene where Craig is almost converted more than make up for it.

On his own, after briefly seeing Amy and Rory and deciding to leave them be, The Doctor is soon off to keep his appointment in America and we find out (as if we needed to) who the Impossible Astronaut is, in a coda that rounds off a story that is, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, the best Doctor Who story to feature the Cybermats!

NEXT: "The Wedding of River Song"

Friday, 23 September 2011

"The God Complex"

Toby Whitehouse’s previous script for Doctor Who was "The Vampires of Venice", a very enjoyable, yet somewhat lightweight tale and it is not surprising that it was a last minute replacement. The story it was replacing was this one and, it has to be said at the start, that lightweight is the last word that can be used to describe "The God Complex". It works as a condemnation of religion- faith is what feeds the monster, moreover, that faith has to be ‘converted’ for it to be used: the deity devours its worshippers. It works as an affirmation of religion- faith is part of what is best in us. It also dispassionately looks at what a post-religious society might do with its gods when they are no longer needed. There are concepts that could form the basis of their own stories- the Tivoli, who are the most conquered race in the Galaxy and, consequently, one of the oldest, because their cowardice has become real strength. Even the title works on more than one level- the Doctor has his god complex but the hotel itself is a literal God complex. However, like the all of the best Doctor Who stories, it can be enjoyed on less cerebral levels, including the simplest and most important one- as a scary tale of a monster that stalks the corridors of what looks like a 1980s hotel.

Whitehouse's dialogue is beautiful, profound and funny. The characters are well written and excellently performed. Amara Khan is instantly memorable as one of the greatest companions the Doctor never had, Rita (incidentally, also the name of the character she played in The Darjeeling Limited). She is smart and funny, but her belief is that they are in Hell (incidentally, the word ‘Jahannam’ is also used by Arabic speaking Jews and Christians and derives from Gehinnom/Gehenna which... oh, look it up!) Dimitri Leonidas is given some of Whithouse’s most chilling monologues and performs them with aplomb. Gibbis, the Tivolian is performed with cringing perfection by David Walliams. These performances are expertly marshalled by Nick Hurram who pulls out all the stops, with split second shots, superimposition and great use of sound and imagery- the scrape of the flaking gypsum from the monster’s horns, the superimposition of 'praise him', the room full of laughing dummies. There must have been shot coverage of feature film proportions for the scenes to work and the cinematography again is sublime. The truly astonishing thing is that, despite the obvious influence of Kubrick’s The Shining, at no time does "The God Complex" seem like merely a homage/rip-off- it takes the imagery and puts its own spin on it.

The regulars continue to excel. Rory will probably be the last to go as his pragmatism seems to be his protection and Arthur Darvill continues to astound, as does Karen Gillan. Matt Smith effortlessly plays the Doctor’s conflict- things are clearly going out of his control and he must continue alone. It is easy to compare making Amy lose faith with the similar scene in The Curse of Fenric, and the more manipulative Doctor seen in "The Girl Who Waited" would seem to support this- however, this is, as we've come to realise, an older, kinder Time Lord.

This is a bona fide classic, a tale that will open itself to new interpretations with each viewing and, if it is a kind of sequel to The Horns of Nimon, it has to rank as the best sequel of all time!

NEXT: "Closing Time"

Friday, 16 September 2011

"The Girl Who Waited"

One of the themes that Steven Moffat loves to explore is the perception of time travel for the outsider, those who are left behind, a theme which is blatant in "The Girl in the Fireplace" and a clear subtext in "Blink". Time travel puts lives out of synch, which can be hard for both the time traveller and his wife. Since Moffat took the reins of Doctor Who, we have had Rory, waiting 2000 years for Amy and now it’s Amy’s turn. The story takes us to the planet Appleappacia, where a plague has meant that billions of lives have to be kept in quarantine in different time streams and pressing the wrong button in the lift can mean being separated from your loved one for decades. However, while this story and "The Big Bang" are about love, the aspects of love (damn that Lloyd-Webber!) explored are subtly different, resulting in a very different story. "The Big Bang" was about a love eternal, but "The Girl Who Waited" is about what makes that love eternal. Amy and Rory’s love is so simple, yet so profound, that it can survive a jump in the time tracks and means that the dilemma for Rory, when he has to choose between the fifty-something and twenty-something Amys seems real and the older Amy’s desire to cling onto that version of her life is also believable. This is Tom MacRae’s return to Doctor Who after 5 years and, to say that this story is more sophisticated than "Rise of the Cybermen"/"The Age of Steel" is something of an understatement. The ideas are strong enough to stand on their own, but it is the dialogue which truly sparkles. Amy’s description of loving Rory is utterly wonderful, one of the all-time great speeches in the history of the programme. It is another great example of a story with no real villain, but no less intriguing for that. The very power of the story means that we can forgive the few flaws- how can anyone not say 'press the green button'?!

Nick Hurran’s direction is utterly sublime, with slow cross-fades and seemingly random cutaways- he is known, mainly, for directing romantic comedies, funnily enough, but he is the absolute master of this story. The visuals are stunning, especially the Lewis Carroll-via-Tim Burtonesque Garden, and the inspired use of the magnifying glass screen. He manages to make the Handbots look both scary and funny, something which extends to his mastery of mood for the whole story. Great moments abound- Rory's vandalism of the galaxy's greatest treasures in order to save his wife, the older Amy's look at the Earth before she ceases to exist. This is a story where the regulars are the only real characters and all of them have great material to work with. Karen Gillen has great make-up for the older Amy, but it is the performance which absolutely sells it. Arthur Darvill is not to be overshadowed, however and, although our leading mad is placed more in the background, Matt’s stamp is very much felt, especially the expressiveness in his face, which speaks volumes.

"The Girl Who Waited" is another example of how Doctor Who can be bold, challenging, funny and touching- all in all, something of a triumph!

NEXT: "The God Complex"

Friday, 9 September 2011

"Night Terrors"

There are two words which immediately spring to mind upon watching "Night Terrors"- "Fear Her". Like that previous story, it attempts to convey the terrors that lurk in a child's bedroom once the lights go out. However, there are clear differences in execution. "Fear Her" was unable to use its intriguing ideas to create a successful story, whereas "Night Terrors" manages to integrate its concepts into a satisfying plot. The disadvantage is, of course, that it does feel like an attempt to do "Fear Her" properly- and, while “Night Terrors” is certainly the better story, its ideas aren't as ambitious as its predecessor- the Tenza isn't as original a concept as the Isolus. Mark Gatiss has never reached the same standard as he did with "The Unquiet Dead", but he is an excellent writer and there is always great dialogue and Gatiss’s real enjoyment of the story and, indeed, the programme, to goes a long way. In addition, although the concepts aren't as ambitious in “Night Terrors”, the ones they do have are used more effectively- repression, parental expectations versus the actual development of the child, a child's need for validation- are handled expertly.

"Night Terrors" has, to its advantage, the finest showing yet from Richard Clark in the director’s chair, helped by Owen McPolin’s stunning photography- the shadows dancing in torchlight, the sombre earthiness of the former council estate. The peg dolls are chilling creations and the scene where Purcell turns into one will live on in the nightmares of quite a lot of children, as the magical scene where the Doctor brings George’s toys to life will enchant them. Clark gets great performances out of everyone- I get the impression that Jamie Oram is not the greatest child actor in the world, but Clark brings out his best. The key guest star is Daniel Mays, an actor who has never failed to completely inhabit his character, and is awesome here as a father who is concerned and a bit terrified- as many young fathers are. We also have the inimitable glower of Andrew Tiernan as Purcell, the landlord, a small, yet effective role. This is, of course, great material for our leading man and Matt is reliably wonderful, as are his companions.

In the end, the factors that lessen the impact of "Night Terrors" are things that have nothing to do with the execution of the story- the fact that it was moved to later in the series means that Amy and Rory do not refer to Melody once, which is odd in a story dealing with a young family. And, as must be said again, the spectre of “Fear Her” haunts the story. Together, "Night Terrors" and "Fear Her" could form the ultimate reading of Doctor Who as a childhood experience- George and Chloe both reach out to an unknown power to help them, the parents have trouble understanding their children. Most importantly it is the examination of the Doctor as childhood hero. Both "Night Terrors" and "Fear Her" try to speak to the child behind the sofa- and it is that child who is the best judge of them.

NEXT: "The Girl Who Waited"

Friday, 2 September 2011

"Let's Kill Hitler"

...and as the nights lengthen, Doctor Who returns with the appealing prospect of a darkening sky outside when you watch it. "Let's Kill Hitler" certainly has an attention-grabbing title but, thankfully, Moffat gives Hitler little more than a walk-on part and concentrates on the meat of the story- because, despite the many hugely entertaining accoutrements that the story possesses, this is the story of how Melody Pond became River Song. One question raised in "A Good Man Goes to War" is very swiftly answered- Melody can indeed regenerate, and the question over whether one can regenerate into another ethnicity is answered, as if it needed to be (the fact that there are people who can accept that regeneration can change height, dentition, bone structure, ear-lobe pattern, eye colour etc, but make an issue of race is a bit odd, to say the least). In any case, before Alex Kingston returns, we are given the entertaining character of Mels, the childhood friend of Amy and Rory that we never saw before (did she insert herself into the time-line?) Nina Toussaint-White plays her as a wild child, with a seeming lack of responsibility that may be something more. With a winning smile and a semi-automatic, she hijacks the TARDIS, taking her to Berlin in 1938 where, in a tussle involving Hitler, she regenerates into the familiar form of Alex Kingston.

It is truly wondrous how Moffat’s arsenal of tricks are used to build real character. We have the wonderful montage where we see Mels growing up alongside Amy and Rory. It is a funny and charming sequence in its own right, but it shows us how Melody consciously sought out her parents so that she could be brought up by them- the parental roles that Amy and Rory take fulfill more than comedic purposes. It turns out that Melody was bred as the Doctor’s bespoke assassin but, as in "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead", it takes one whisper to change all that and Melody’s first act as River is to give her remaining regenerations to save the Doctor- just as her last act will be to give up life itself for him. Moffat conveys all of this in scenes that are exhilarating and fun, yet no less deep and affecting.

As for the other accoutrements, we have the wonderful idea of the Teselecta, a craft that can disguise itself as a person that is in the service of an agency that seeks to punish the evil by literally giving them Hell in the last moments of their lives. Richard Senior’s sterling work in the director’s chair brings many nuances into an already nuanced script. The scene where the Teselecta takes on the form of a Wehrmacht officer, there are shades of both Terminator 2 and The Numskulls- something which seems ridiculous and yet works beautifully. The antibodies in the Teselecta are wonderfully low-tech in their execution, yet no less effective- but they do not reflect a poor production by any means, with a great reconstruction of 1938 Berlin and very confident special effects.

Senior, of course has a wonderful cast to work with. Darvill and Gillan continue to astonish, but it is the two time travellers who romp home with the prize. Alex Kingston’s performance is outstanding, lighting up the screen with every scene. However, the star of the show is not to be outshone. He is as funny as he ever was, but the scenes where the dying Doctor is crawling towards the TARDIS in order to save his friends shows what an incredibly powerful actor Matt is.

There is a danger of "Let's Kill Hitler" losing its way amidst its byzantine intricacies. The point is, however, that it doesn’t, with Moffat proving that plot does not have to be at the expense of character and vice versa. We know the characters more and our appetite is whetted for revelations that are to come- and judging by the form so far, we are in no danger of disappointment.

NEXT: "Night Terrors"

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

"A Good Man Goes to War"

This series of Doctor Who has decided to do something different so, for the first time, we have a mid-series cliffhanger. As we have come to expect from Steven Moffat, the story starts with a dizzying sequence of scenes where the Doctor destroys a cyber-fleet just to make a point. We also have vignettes that range in location from Victorian London to the planet Zarathustra in what looks like a 41st century version of War and Peace. The Doctor is calling in some of his debts and all hell will break loose...

The quest of the Family Pond is a staggeringly exciting one, and contains the usual funny and moving dialogue we have come to expect. However, although heart of "A Good Man Goes to War" is the hunt for Amy and her daughter, the mind of the story is somewhat different. In all the far-flung and exotic locations that we see throughout the episode, we do not see the Doctor himself for the first twenty minutes of the episode. But we hear about him and we see what he leaves behind him so when he finally appears, nearly half-way through the episode, we know why an army has been raised against him, not to attack, but to defend. If "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang" was about the Doctor as story, then "A Good Man Goes to War" is about the Doctor as a legend and how legends change. Angels become demons and demons, angels and the word Doctor has come to mean 'great warrior' in some parts of the universe. Of course, the Doctor has been many things, from determined idealist to detached manipulator. He is the Lonely God and a madman with a box. However, Moffat has a very clear idea of what the Doctor should not be and the Doctor has been heading that way for some time. He has trailed devastation in his wake and it is not only the evil that see that as a threat. The entire realisation of the army is excellent- in their spare time, the clerics train themselves to recognise the psychic paper, a random sign at the start has a picture of the sonic screwdriver with the warning ‘1. It’s not sonic 2. It’s not a screwdriver’.

The fact that all of this is told in a hugely entertaining adventure proves how masterful Moffat is. Lest we forget, the story also contains contains two of the most endearingly bonkers, yet irresistibly ingenious characters the programme has ever had- a Sontaran nurse (gene spliced to cope nursing need) and a Victorian Sapphic Samurai Silurian swordswoman (played with smouldering saurian sexiness by Neve McIntosh) fighting crime with her trusty maidservant. We also have the Headless Monks, serving the Papal Mainframe herself, chanting attack prayers armed with lightsabres from Hell.

Matt Smith is astonishing yet again. The Doctor's rage almost seems to embarrass him, yet its effect is potent. Arthur Darvill is masterful as an ordinary man who has reluctantly become a legend himself and Karen Gillan's portrayal of a defiant mother is utterly convincing. Frances Barber relishes her role as the chief villain in the story and there is great support from the entire cast, including Danny Sapani as Colonel ‘Runaway’ Manton and Christina Chong as Lorna Bucket, who joined the Church/Army just to meet the Doctor again.

Peter Hoar has a hell of a lot to visualise and a large cast to manage, but he copes with the challenge magnificently constructing scene after memorable scene. The whole production is fantastic, from Demon's Run, with its Death Star like bays to Zarathustra’s utterly convincing battle field, realised for less than two minutes. Everyone behind the scenes deserves a big hand.

It ends with, seemingly, everything lost. But Melody has returned grown up- for that is who River Song is. I am slightly disappointed that I guessed this (although I did think that Jackson Lake and Adelaide Brooke were involved!) but not very much so. Questions remain, of course- is she part Time Lord, and was the little girl in "The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon" her? If so, did Madame Kovarian succeed in creating the ultimate weapon? It's going to be a long summer...

NEXT: "Let's Kill Hitler"

Friday, 3 June 2011

"The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People"

"Fear Her", Matthew Graham’s previous Doctor Who story is a story that is seen by a significant number of fans as the worst episode broadcast since the programme’s revival. While I do not rate that story quite so harshly, I must admit that I was a bit worried about what his next offering would be like. Thankfully, while there are some problems with the story, "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People" is far superior to its predecessor. The concept of The Flesh is a very strong one and it is used well to explore concepts of identity and, yes (spit) ‘what it means to be human’, without the boneheaded clichés that that sort of aim usually resorts to. At first the story seems to be a throwback to the base-under-siege stories that were so ubiquitous in the Troughton era, even down to the character types; in particular Miranda Cleaves, the authority figure who obstructs the Doctor. The motivations of the ‘gangers’ in particular, could also have been explored further. There are attempts to correct this, however, such as Cleaves’s ganger being used to comment on the motivations of the character, which is some compensation.

The cast, however, manage to make their characters seem far more lively than they are on paper. Marshall Lancaster is as endearing as he was in Life on Mars and Sarah Smart is both endearing and chilling as Jennifer. Jimmy is a character composed of pure cliché, but Mark Bonnar puts in a very soulful performance. Raquel Cassidy is a very subtle actress, but here she clearly has a ball, chewing the scenery without seeming ridiculous. Amy is very good in this, but she is overshadowed by her two leading men. Rory’s fight for human decency is valiantly portrayed by Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith astonishingly ascends to yet another new level- the scenes of the Doctor with his ganger are fun and give Matt plenty to work with, which he does with aplomb.

Overseeing all of this is Julian Simpson and, despite a few editing hiccups, he puts in great work. He is more than equal to conjuring the kind of imagery the story needs and he produces some of the most frightening images that the programme has had to date- the wall of eyes, the sudden cut to the half-formed gangers. There a strong influence from The Thing, with all of the shape-shifting doubles running around and the transformation of ganger-Jennifer into a terrifying monster succeeds in giving Thing-style shocks for a family audience- no small task, especially when one compares it to similar scenes in "The Lazarus Experiment", which are nothing like as scary.

"The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People" overcomes its problems to become a very enjoyable Doctor Who adventure. The Doctor saves the day, of course, but he had an ulterior motive all along. Amy, is not Amy and, as her ganger dissolves, she wakes up in a tiny white cubicle, with a very familiar eye-patched woman looking through a hatch at her. To her horror, she realises that she is about to give birth...

NEXT: "A Good Man Goes to War"

Friday, 20 May 2011

"The Doctor's Wife"

I must admit, I had some mixed feelings when I heard that Neil Gaiman was writing an episode of Doctor Who. I am not an aficionado of comic books, so my only exposure to Gaiman was the TV series Neverwhere and the film of his graphic novel, Stardust. What I found was that the worlds that Gaiman creates are absolutely intoxicating, but the stories that he tells in them are not. However, his inventiveness goes a long way- despite some narrative shortcomings, Stardust is one of my favourite films of the past few years- and the setting he creates for this story is idiosyncratic indeed- a living planet called ‘House’ that lures Time Lords to its surface to devour their TARDISes, making patchwork servants out of the bodies of the lost, all while existing outside the universe precisely not in the way that a small soap bubble clings to a large one. However, the weird setting is hjust the canvas for the story, which is based on a very strong idea- an idea that had been long overdue for airing- what if the TARDIS could talk to the Doctor?

What Gaiman and Moffat construct is a story that tells us more about what happened when the madman first found his box. It gives us the first other TARDIS we have seen this century and it finally answers a question about regeneration that has been whispered for decades. However, it is what is at the heart of the story which dominates it. It is a story about the longest relationship the Doctor has ever had, one that will only end with the death of one of the parties involved. The Doctor understands himself more clearly and, perhaps, his purpose is clearer as well. It is this which makes a story that contains numerous references to the series’s mythology and a barrage of technobabble so successful, working even with non-fans. The emotions in the story ring true, which makes all the difference and, after the technobabble is done, the solution is simple, yet brilliant.

The performances are perfect- the very talented Elizabeth Berrington plays Auntie and is ably supported by Adrian Schiller as Uncle. However, it is the wonderful Suranne Jones who captivates as Idris/the TARDIS from the moment she appears, effortlessly getting the most out of Gaiman’s time-bending dialogue and making her sexy, funny and impossible not to fall in love with. Matt Smith’s performance is very special indeed here- the Eleventh Doctor is not as traumatised by the Time War as his two predecessors, but the pain is still there. His controlled rage at losing his hope for the survival of other Time Lords is wonderfully played, as is his answer to Amy’s contention that he wants forgiveness. More crucially, we see this Doctor cry for the first time and the look on Matt Smith’s face makes him seem older than Hartnell. We must not forget the sterling contribution from the former Mr Kate Beckinsale as the voice of House (I wonder if they momentarily considered Hugh Laurie?). Amy and Rory continue to work well, their relationship strong enough to have tolerated bunk beds.

The production is practically flawless, directed with aplomb by Richard Clark. The visualisation of leaving the universe is done simply, yet so effectively and the scenes on House are very atmospheric. The sheer joy of the jerry-made TARDIS chasing its cousin is matched by the shocking scenes set in the TARDIS corridors- the scene where Amy finds Rory’s desiccated corpse amongst graffiti that says KILL-AMY-DIE-AMY- is very strong stuff, yet not inappropriate.

"The Doctor’s Wife" is one of the most satisfying stories the series has yet produced and one I heartily recommend!

NEXT: "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People"

Saturday, 14 May 2011

"The Curse of the Black Spot"

After the dramatic encounter with the Silence, we are due for a break and we see the TARDIS trio appear on a 17th Century pirate ship becalmed on the ocean. The Siren of legend marks the sick and wounded with a black spot before disintegrating them with a touch. It’s a recipe for adventure on the high seas with a yo-ho-ho... but, it seems, no-one actually says that.

"The Curse of the Black Spot" certainly has swashbuckling, treasure, storms and ghost ships, but the piratical stereotypes have been dialled down a notch- the Doctor has to ask for more raucous nautical laughter when he is made to walk the plan. The script has a scattershot quality that works both for and against it. The Doctor again (refreshingly, in my opinion) knows nothing in advance about the adversary- the Doctor’s catchphrase for the episode is, rather wonderfully, ‘Please ignore all my theories up to this point’. However, some aspects of the plot don’t quite work- smashing the mirrors will just mean lots more smaller reflective surfaces. Also, the volte-face in the Doctor’s thinking, when he realises that the ‘cursed’ have not been killed is incredibly random- all we needed was one scan with the sonic screwdriver and one extra line from the Doctor to make it work so much better. The CPR of a regular character is fast becoming a modern cliché and Rory’s knack for cheating death is beginning to rival the Doctor’s. The explanation of the Siren owes something to "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances", but is different enough to not make us feel ripped off.

As usual, thankfully, the production goes a long way to distract the viewer from the plot shortcomings- the period detail is as flawless as we have come to expect from the BBC and the shoot in Cornwall (not far from where The Smugglers was filmed) adds real atmosphere. Jeremy Webb directs with a barmy energy on the pirate scenes and with an icy clinicism elsewhere. The performances are excellent. Hugh Bonneville is brilliant as Avery and is ably supported by his crew (incidentally, none of the pirates have even a hint of a West-Country accent, let alone giving it the full Robert Newton). It is good to see Lee Ross working on a Steven Moffat project again. In the key role of the Siren, we have Lily Cole, Karen Gillan’s rival for the title of ginger über-babe. Her naturally otherworldly look is perfect for the role and she makes the Siren a striking addition to the Who bestiary. The regulars go from strength to strength, with Amy swashbuckling with the best of them and Rory having a bigger role this time. Matt Smith’s wild performance makes the shortcomings in the plotting seem deliberate, which is no mean feat.

Stephen Thompson’s script could have done with a couple more drafts, but the story remains enjoyable throughout, one factor being, as I said aeons ago, that pirates are great. Arrr. We are also left to ponder things which are certainly parts of the season arc- the forbidding form of the eye-patched Frances Barber and Amy’s seemingly quantum pregnancy...

NEXT: "The Doctor's Wife"

Saturday, 7 May 2011

"The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon"

The opening story of a new series of Doctor Who has certain expectations. A light-hearted adventure that gently eases us into an exciting new season of time-travelling fun. This is what we get to some extent- we have the Doctor being silly at various points in history before having a picnic with his friends before the credits roll. Then, an Apollo Astronaut appears in the lake and the Doctor is shot dead in a way that certainly answers the question about how to kill a being that can regenerate. The cosiness is gone and, as River promised in "The Big Bang" everything seems set to change…

It seems odd that the programme has not done an epic two-part season opener until now, considering how well "The Impossible Astronaut" and "Day of the Moon" work. The roots of the story are clear- Christopher Nolan’s Memento and The X-Files amongst others. Despite this and the first American location shoot, the story remains Doctor Who to its very core. Moffat also introduces us to a very scary new race of monsters- The Silence, whose existence has been intimated since "The Eleventh Hour"- indeed, I wouldn’t be too surprised if there was more to “Silence in the Library” than meets the eye (to coin a phrase). Like the Weeping Angels, the Silence challenge subjective idealism- the Weeping Angels can only move when they are not observed. The Silence can only be remembered when they are observed- in a way that would make Berkeley run screaming back to Kilkenny. As with "Forest of the Dead", Moffat uses the very structure of visual storytelling to emphasise this. The markings on Amy’s face increase in number with every progressive shot. Scenes progress to the punchline while missing the setup. More than any other story so far, there are gaps in the narrative- the brilliant cliffhanger to "The Impossible Astronaut" is only resolved well into "Day of the Moon" in a rather indirect fashion. We are never told on screen why the Doctor is imprisoned and his companions hunted. We don’t need to, however, because it should be obvious by the end. Moffat realises something that some less imaginative observers of the programme have either forgotten or never realised- that children like gaps that they can guess or fill in themselves. Indeed, as a youngster, I would create my own version of the next episode before I actually saw it- one should never underestimate the imagination of a child.

This is not to say that the story is inaccessible- it still engages, helped by many great lines ranging from the funny to the poignant- River realising that the most important man in her life is slipping away from her is very effectively brought out. The 1969 setting is used to great effect and Nixon gets a very fair hearing- it is becoming increasingly clear that it was not that he did what he did, but that he was caught doing it that damned him. This gives a clear framework to the unsettling mood and prevents the story becoming too inaccessible. The threat of the Silence is conveyed excellently and the Doctor’s solution is simple, yet ingenious, as his best plans usually are. There are a good many questions unanswered at the end, but I doubt if they will remain so.

As said before, the show shoots for the first time in yer-actual US of A, and the stunning locations available in the country are brilliantly utilised. Toby Haynes shoots with epic flair, but does equal justice to the creepy, funny and intimate scenes and, crucially, the discontinuities that Moffat’s script demands. He is backed by a stunning show from the entire production team. The filming in the awesome Valley of the Gods is breath-taking and the special effects are fantastic. The Silence are very effectively realised with a mix of prosthetics and CGI adding to their impact as one of the most effective of monster races.

The performances are first rate- Mark Sheppard is brilliant as Canton, and Stuart Milligan is a pleasant surprise as Nixon- thankfully he isn’t too overwhelmed by prosthetics. Matt Smith continues his masterful tenure in the title role and Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill continue to impress. Alex Kingston remains utterly electrifying as River Song and I can’t wait to see her return.

The story ends with the little girl on the streets of New York dying, and subsequently regenerating. Steven Moffat is definitely committed to taking his version of the programme into a totally different direction from RTD’s vision. We have, perhaps, been made too comfortable, and whatever happens, I’m sure it will be worth it.

NEXT: "The Curse of the Black Spot"


Perhaps the only good reason for watching Red Nose Day in 2011 was this pair of skits featuring the TARDIS crew. They do what precious little else did that night- made me laugh, without even resorting to spoofing itself, which is why I’m reviewing it here. Like "Time Crash", it’s a barrage of technobabble stitched together with fantastic lines, brilliantly shot and acted.

Comic Relief is a good cause and it was refreshing to see something that was worthy of it.

NEXT: "The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon"

Friday, 21 January 2011

"A Christmas Carol"

Our sixth Christmas with the Time Lord is the first to be helmed by Steven Moffat. In keeping with his view of the programme as a ‘dark fairytale’, we have him doing a version of the most famous Christmas story since the first one. As I said a year ago, Victorian Christmases seem to be the most Christmassy of all, and a lot of this is due to the fact that the festival (as the Anglophone world knows it) was a product of the Victorian era and Charles Dickens’s reading of it in particular. Of course, the use of Dickens’s novella has to be a conscious reference- the Doctor has met Dickens after all- but Moffat has to take this very familiar story and make it seem fresh. Does he succeed? Well...

A (typically) awesome pre-titles sequence brings up to speed. The ship that Amy and Rory are honeymooning on is diving into the deadly atmosphere of a human colonial planet. The ship will crash, killing all 4,003 people on board. The only person who can save them is Kazran Sardick, the man who can tame the sky with the machine that his father built and he, alone, can operate. However, this power has given Sardick complete control over the planet and it is clear from the start which part in the story Sardick plays, for he is, to coin a phrase, a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. The Doctor has to convince Sardick to turn the machine on. He could, of course, do that by defeating him as he has done with scores of enemies in the past, but a moment of restraint and mercy convinces the Doctor that there is something more to Sardick. Scrooge was not beyond redemption, after all and so the Doctor must save the day by making Sardick a better person. To do this, he changes Sardick’s past intertwining his life with the life of someone who was just a frozen face and a recorded message- Abigail Pettigrew.

The Christmassy vibe is stronger than it has ever been before, but, as with Dickens, it is the redemption of the character that is at the heart of the story. Like Scrooge, Kazran’s lack of empathy is rooted in the pain of the past. To start with, it is his wholly unloving relationship with his father, but the Doctor gives him someone else to love, in the shape of Abigail. There follow a wonderful sequence of Christmas Eves and it seems that Kazran’s heart warms- only for it to be broken and for bitterness to join coldness in the adult Sardick. Amy, as the ghost of Christmas Present, tries to appeal to his better nature by showing him the faces of those he will allow to die. Sardick is closed to all salvation and is resigned to dying afraid and alone- until Christmas Yet-to-Come shows him the ultimate vision. Such a clever reinterpretation of Dickens would not have worked had Moffat not understood the meaning of the original work so thoroughly. The dialogue practically sings ’In nine hundred years of time and space I've never met anybody who wasn't important.’ The world which he builds is intoxicating- a planet where fish swim in the air, ranging from minnows gently nibbling at your ear, to sharks who will have you arm off, and where face spiders hide in the bedrooms of children.

Moffat’s script is expertly realised by Toby Haynes, lending an awesome sweep to the cityscapes and cloudscapes, but making the scenes in the young Kazran’s bedroom the irresistible blend of danger and intrigue that children love. Haynes invokes the spirit of A Christmas Carol, but is not afraid to invoke other things, from the not-very-subtle, yet joyous Jaws references, to the wonderful shot of the Doctor standing outside the teenage Kazran’s window, waiting to be invited in, which screams Peter Pan. We are so buoyed up by the spirit of the thing that nothing seems ridiculous or out of place- when a sleigh is pulled across the night sky by a shark, we are lost in wonder, not incredulity. The performances are perfect and, as expected, the fantastic Sir Michael Gambon is fantastic as Sardick, showing the coldness, amorality and the warmth that leads to the redemption of the character perfectly. In many ways, Sardick is as much the lead as the Doctor and it is good that the actors playing his childhood and teenage self (Laurence Belcher and Danny Horn respectively) are so good. As Abigail, we have Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins. She is well up to portraying the role and when her beautiful voice soars, accompanied by Murray Gold’s wonderful score, the effect is magical. Amy and Rory are sidelined, somewhat, so it is up to Matt Smith to carry the show with Gambon and when the two of them are together, the effect is electrifying. It is testament to his success in the role that I cannot imagine David Tennant in this story. The Doctor is not just the Christmas Ghosts to Kazran, he is ‘the Raggedy Doctor’, ‘The Fireplace Man’, but in a way that does not seem like a repetition of Moffat's themes.

I am not sure, but this magical hour of television could be my favourite Christmas with Doctor Who yet, another piece of fantastic festive fare from Cardiff!

NEXT: "Space"/"Time"