Friday, 28 September 2012

"The Power of Three"

Chris Chibnall has written some of the least impressive stories produced for Doctor Who this century, but I, like many others, was very pleasantly surprised by "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship". However, it could be argued that such a premise would be hard for anyone to dislike, so the question was, could he pull it off again? "The Power of Three" contains some of the faults of Chibnall's previous stories- ill thought out plot points and pulling a rabbit out of the hat to compensate for the fact that he has written himself into a corner- the one here is particularly egregious, which I shall talk about later. Having said that, this is, nevertheless, a story with moments of true greatness and contains some wonderful writing.

The 'slow invasion' of the cubes is an intriguing idea from the start and instantly iconic. The premise recalls Nicholas Fisk's children’s sci-fi novel Trillions and the look of the cubes are like nano-monoliths à la 2001: A Space Odyssey. The changing perception of the cubes from headline news, to novelty, to half-forgotten bric-a-brac is a well thought out part of the plot, as is the fact that every cube reacts differently.

However, it is the people in this story that makes it so compelling. Chibnall has never been subtle in his characterisation, but here, where he has to juxtapose the 'Doctor-life' with 'Pond-life' and he manages to create a believable domestic setting, as well as whisking the Ponds off to spend their anniversary at the Savoy, being waited on by a Zygon Escoffier. Again, we see the Doctor coping in an ordinary domestic setting, but in a completely different way to "The Lodger" and "Closing Time", as he has to live through the boring bits as well. In fact, if you look at it, the Doctor is in a kind of self-imposed exile for a year, shooting off in the TARDIS when the boredom gets too much. In what could be effectively read as a hyper-compressed Third Doctor season, it is fitting that this is the first proper UNIT story of the Eleventh Doctor era. UNIT has changed, led by a woman who has known of the Doctor all her life. The revelation of Kate as being the Brigadier's daughter is perfectly handled, helped in no small way, by an outstanding performance by Jemma Redgrave. The nature of the threat is not, as was thought, an invasion, but of sterilisation of 'the human contagion' by the Shakri, the 'pest-controllers of the universe'. The Shakri is played by none other than Steven Berkoff, who knows how to be menacing in fifty different ways. There is beautiful dialogue between the Doctor and the Ponds- the Doctor explaining to Brian what happens to his companions, the Doctor explaining to Amy why his bond with her is so strong, all of which is brilliantly conveyed by the regulars. Douglas Mackinnon returns to helm a very confident production that seems like a Hollywood blockbuster and a classic afternoon BBC children's drama at the same time- the Shakri porters will feature in a fair few nightmares from now on. In years to come, 'the one with the cubes' will be as much part of childhood memory as 'the one with the maggots'.

The ideas are intoxicating and the concepts are explored well. There is, however, some woolly plotting- why are people being abducted from the hospital and why does the Doctor leave most of them to die on the Shakri ship? Which brings us to the resolution. Restarting the stopped hearts is scientifically stupid on a Gerry Davis/Kit Pedler scale and cannot be ignored- I assume Chibnall is lucky enough not to have known anyone who has had a heart attack. The real tragedy is that it is in no way intrinsic to the plot. If the cubes had released a disease, or evil nanogenes or, indeed, anything plausibly reversible it would have elevated the story to fresh heights.

It is a real pity about the denouement, as it stops the story from being one of the best of the Eleventh Doctor era and a true classic. However, it doesn't spoil a story that has a great deal to offer in so many other areas and actually makes me not dread the next Chibnall script- so long as it goes through a few more drafts this time!

NEXT: "The Angels Take Manhattan"

Friday, 21 September 2012

"A Town Called Mercy"

After 46 years, Doctor Who finally returns to the Western genre in another fine offering from the pen of Toby Whithouse. This is a tricky genre to pull off and the temptation is to resort to pastiche, but although it initially seems to be heading that way (The Doctor's order at the bar, the undertaker measuring the Doctor) it soon becomes evident that much more is going on here. The finest Westerns use the setting to explore themes of morality where law and order is fragile, of the extreme personalities drawn to frontier outposts, of people running from their past, running to their future and, frequently, both. Notably, westerns usually feature a mysterious stranger, of whom there is more than one...

One thing that the story gets right very early is making sense of the Western in a historical context. This is the Old West in the years following the American Civil War, where America is 'a land of second chances' and strangers with murky pasts can make a new start. Into the frontier town of Mercy comes Kahler Jex who is, by all appearances, a kindly doctor with a weird tattoo. However, he is actually an alien, coping with the after-effects of a war of his own, for he brings in his wake a cyborg gunslinger who is keen to pass judgement. It is made obvious from the start that the Gunslinger's motives are not dishonourable and Jex's crimes might be too horrible to forgive- hints of a more recent war with even fewer shades of grey. Into this is brought a more familiar alien Doctor, who, more than ever, has to figure out exactly what is the right thing to do.

The characterisation is intriguingly shaded and the performances have to be first rate. Adrian Scarborough is fully up to making Jex work- we can fully believe in him as the man who saved Mercy from a cholera outbreak and as a man who conducted horrific experiments is a war. Ben Browder, a sci-fi icon in his own right, brings a sense of decency and authority to the role of Marshal Isaac. As the Gunslinger, Andrew Brooke is imposing, but keeps a sense of pathos. The Doctor's role is more complex than usual- there is danger and, perhaps, real evil, but no one enemy for the Doctor to defeat. The Doctor is motivated to do some pretty extreme acts himself- in a town called Mercy, it seems he is running low of that particular commodity and it is his companions who must remind him of who he is. Matt Smith is electrifying and Gillan and Darvill manage to work brilliantly with him. As has been made clear before, the Doctor needs his companions to help him see the details of the Big Picture. Despite a bit of narrative wobbliness (repetitive scenes of people running around pretending to be Jex) Whithouse manages all this, whilst still maintaining his wit, with some sparkling bits of dialogue and some very funny lines- it takes a special sort of writer to include a horse that has finally come to terms with its confused gender issues!

Saul Metzstein helms a very assured production, helped by the use of iconic locations in the Almerian deserts, so beloved of the likes of Sergio Leone, meaning that the viewer is never less than convinced of the setting. The costumes and special effects are first rate, managing to integrate seamlessly with the setting. Metzstein gets the best out of the supporting cast and masters the tracking shots, low angles and canny editing that are typical of Westerns.

There was a film called Cowboys & Aliens recently that threw a colossal budget at attempting a western/sci-fi hybrid. On a fraction of the budget and in a fraction of the time, "A Town Called Mercy" manages to accomplish this fusion with far greater effect and remaining true to the tenets of Doctor Who. The Doctor saves the day by helping someone be a better person, and the monster, revealed to be a victim, becomes the champion of Mercy. Again, Doctor Who manages to make an outstanding Western episode that is completely different from the previous one. This is a real keeper, which will reward many repeat viewings and here's hoping we don't have to wait another 46 years for the Doctor's next trip to the Wild West!

NEXT: "The Power of Three"

Friday, 14 September 2012

"Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"

If I had been given the opportunity to write for Doctor Who between 1980 and 1989, the story I would have written would have also been called "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", combining two things which I was (and, lets be honest, still am) obsessed with. Which is why I felt a tang of rage when I found out who the writer would be. The only time Chris Chibnall has not provided the absolute worst script of the seasons that he contributed to, was when he was beaten to it by Helen Raynor writing the worst story of the revived programme by a clear margin- and she, at least, redeemed herself with her next offering. However, whilst "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" contains some of the ill-thought-out woolliness and cuniculae ex cappelum that his other scripts have displayed, I must say that it is, nevertheless, a joy to watch and tremendous fun, from beginning to end.

The story itself in simple but this is a relief, as Chibnall's other efforts have been blatant rewrites of older Doctor Who stories. I was afraid that this would be a rewrite of Snakes on a Plane, or an attempt to do a Doctor Who version of the enjoyable, but thoroughly second-rate, ITV/Watch drama Primeval, but, thankfully, neither is the case. The dinosaurs do not take up as much of the plot as in the average Primeval episode, which is initially a slight disappointment- we see only a sleeping juvenile T.rex, which is barely more mobile than the one in The Mark of the Rani (although far more realistic!) when what we want, of course, is a rampaging adult. In the long term, this is to the episode's advantage, as more time is spent on the actual human drama than creature peril- one of the reasons why Doctor Who is a far better programme than Primeval. The jokes are great- "Only my balls!" is very nearly inappropriate- but not quite, and therefore hilarious! Chibnall's plotting is a bit sloppy, but some of it actually works in the story's favour- he doesn't bother to explain how the hydro-powered engine room works, but this adds to the bold sense of the unknown: "It's a big universe; stars can burn cold, sofas can read." Some of the sloppiness isn't pulled off- if the Silurian ship has already entered the atmosphere, destroying it would be very little better than just letting it crash. I am always happy when we see that the future isn't full of just British, Americans and Russians, but I have to point out that India actually already has a space agency called the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) not the ISA. Still, the name could have changed...

However, the real reason for this success is the appealing array of supporting characters that populate the story- the big-game hunter Riddell is played by the always watchable Rupert Graves, who gives him a perfect balance of Allan Quatermain and Lord John Roxton to make him a thoroughly dashing rogue. Riann Steele is well up to portraying one of the most iconic figures in history and Nefertiti's disappearance from the historical record means that the programme can play fast and loose with the fate of the Lady of The Two Lands. Mark Williams is absolutely perfect as Rory's dad Brian, with his natural likeability being a great asset. Physically, he doesn't look much like Arthur Darvill, but the look of befuddlement on both their faces is uncannily similar, as is the shared body language. Solomon is a thoroughly odious villain, played by the brilliant David Bradley. Dispassionately killing all the Silurians on the spaceship, calmly ordering his robots to injure Brian and his horrible threats to 'break' Nefertiti, mean that his eventual fate is well deserved (and certainly not unprecedented or out-of-character for the Doctor). Speaking of those robots, the voices of Mitchell and Webb are perfect and they are a great comic creation by Chibnall, although the 'Daisy...Daisy' bit is, perhaps, a bit too arch. Rory is the heroic super-nurse and Amy finds her inner huntress in a set of performances by Darvill and Gillan that shows they were clearly having a plesiosaur of a time (sorry!) Whether calmly leaving Solomon to his fate or planting one on Rory's lips, the Doctor is as mercurial as he has ever been and Matt continues to impress.

Saul Metzstein makes an impressive début in the directors chair, making the excellent cast work wonders and creating some wonderful scenes- riding Tricey, the Pteranodons on the beach and, most wonderful of all Brian looking down at the Earth in space, whilst having a cup of tea. The production is excellent (apart from some dodgy CGI when the missiles finally hit their target) and, of course, finally, finally, the programme finally has some dinosaurs it can be proud of- angry ankylosaurs, demonic dromeosaurs and, of course, the doomed, but lovely Tricey the Triceratops. The young-to-teenage me would have been in heaven.

It may not be deep, nor particularly clever, but "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" is wonderful entertainment and Chris Chibnall finally has a story he can be proud of!

NEXT: "A Town Called Mercy"

Friday, 7 September 2012

"Asylum of the Daleks"

...and we’re back, with the return of the Doctor’s arch enemies for their first starring role in over two years. Since the return of the show, the Daleks have featured in some of the best stories (“Dalek”, "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday") and the absolute worst ("Daleks in Manhattan"/ "Evolution of the Daleks"). This is, however, the first time that Moffat has written a Dalek story and, it must be said at the start, his run of excellent series openers remains unbroken.

The plot is simple- The titular Asylum is a planet, containing the insane survivors of the most brutal Dalek conflicts and has been absolutely secure- but a breach has occurred and these horrors could escape. Only the Doctor has what it takes to enter the Asylum and deactivate the force field, so that the Asylum may be destroyed. So far, so generic. However, other threads have been weaved in. The source of the breach is heralded by a voice of an incredibly bright young woman who can marshal Dalek technology like no-one has ever done before, but has a problem mastering the art of soufflé making. Also, as hinted at in the Pond Life shorts, the marriage of Rory and Amy has fallen apart, but it seems that the nightmare of the Asylum, with Amy in danger of succumbing to the Dalek nanogenes in the atmosphere, might be what will bring them together again. It is wonderful how Moffat can show how a relationship where two people are so completely in love can fall apart, but there is, of course, hope, as humanity is a hard thing to lose. Moffat's trademark sparkling dialogue never loses its soul. 'What can you do?' states Amy, regarding her split from Rory. 'What can I do?' says the Doctor. Oswin Oswald is fantastically appealing and ideal companion material, but it, emerges, she really is too good to be true and it emerges that eggs/exterminate joke is darker than initially thought. There is also the brilliant concept of the Dalek zombies which, I hope, will be brought back at some point. The script is so full of ideas and feelings and so tightly constructed that explanations are not needed, even when significant changes in the Whoniverse are intimated- the Daleks are back as a major force in the cosmos, but the Asylum is an artefact of the old, pre Time War, Dalek Empire that is regarded with a mixture of horror and admiration.

Nick Hurran returns to the director’s chair and his eye for a great shot is very welcome. It must be said that "Asylum of the Daleks" is a faster paced, more action packed episode that either of his other episodes, and Hurran seems to be a bit outside his comfort zone- he doesn’t quite pull off the Zombie Dalek attack for example. However, in slower, subtler moments, Hurran is masterful. The selling point for the episode was the fact that it had Daleks from every point in the programme’s history. This is true, but it would have been great to have had the Special Weapons Dalek fire at least one shot! Happily, the RDT era Daleks are the focus, with the bulky new Paradigm Daleks pushed to the background- hopefully it will stay that way and is a sign that Moffat has realised his mistake. As usual, Hurran manages to get the best from a very talented cast. Anamaria Marinca, a wonderfully soulful actress whom I have long been a fan of, is excellent as Darla, the lead Dalek ‘puppet’. The regulars are on fine form, especially one who is not a regular yet. Jenna-Louise Colman is utterly charming as Oswin and I look forward to seeing her join the Doctor on his travels- whatever character she plays. The regulars have to play their parts very carefully, as Amy and Rory's personal crises have to balance perfectly with the perils of the Asylum and Arthur and Karen are totally convincing in this regard. The Doctor has to take a more reactive role that he has ever had to this century, but Moffat knows who the star of the show is and just how good his leading man is. What we get is a very delicate, yet seemingly effortless synergy between the regulars and the writer that is pulled off perfectly.

There have been some comments about Moffat reusing themes. This is nothing new, to be honest- from The Arabian Nights to Dickens, themes have recurred, but to tell different stories. Yes, Oswin is a bit like CAL, the nanogenes cause humans to sprout horrendous alien appendages,¤ etc. The story is different and the effect is different and Moffat is in no way on auto-pilot, but is keen to make things uncertain, to pull us out of our comfort zone- most notably in the fact that the Daleks forget the Doctor, removing one of the oldest relationships in the programme. If the Doctor is the Daleks’ Devil, he has pulled his greatest trick...and I for one am delighted!

NEXT: "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"