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"