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 with...er...every 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"