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"