Thursday, 5 December 2013

"The Day of the Doctor"

The anniversary specials of the programme have always generated interest, but Doctor Who in 2013 is a mainstream success in a way it hasn't been since Dalekmania in the 1960s. It is probably no exaggeration to say, therefore, that "The Day of the Doctor" is probably the most eagerly awaited episode of Doctor Who since "Rose". It has to satisfy the wide mainstream audience that will tune in, whilst keeping an eye on the fans, some of whom remember William Hartnell, some of whom were not even born when Christopher Eccleston was the Doctor. It has to pay tribute to the 50 years of television history that preceded it, whilst trying to tell an engaging story. It is a pleasure to state that the episode manages to succeed in all of these aims on a level that genuinely surprised even me.

More so than any of the other anniversary specials, "The Day of the Doctor" works as a regular Doctor Who adventure, this one being a fiendish plan by the Zygons to take over the Earth. The use of the pictures as suspended animation makes that part of the plot seem like a bright and breezy season opener, with the added bonus of featuring a well-loved adversary from yester-year. However, although the Zygon plot is easily enough to sustain a story in itself, taking place in two time zones and featuring a Zygon Good Queen Bess, this is only the gateway into a deeper story. For the pictures are relics of Gallifrey and of the darkest day of the Doctor's life...

The key thing the audience remembers from Anniversary specials is the current Doctor meeting with past incarnations and here, we have the very welcome return of David Tennant, playing the Doctor like he'd never been away. Joining him is the incarnation we must now call the 'War Doctor' played by the legendary John Hurt. I stated at the end of his era that I thought Tennant was the best leading man the show had had since Hartnell and Hurt is an acting legend, one of the finest in the world, who has always been thoroughly mesmerising in every role he has played. I can think of no better praise for Matt Smith than stating that he completely holds his own in the presence of Hurt and Tennant. Moffat uses the three Doctors more intelligently than his predecessors did – we really get a sense of the centuries dividing them. The War Doctor is definitely the warrior that his predecessor chose to be, but he has not made the key decision that has haunted his successors. It is also a good choice to have a previously unknown incarnation be brought to the fore – the War Doctor has no nostalgic connotations, so he can stand in for all the previous incarnations more effectively, which makes his criticisms of his successors' characteristics all the more potent. Some portions of fandom criticise the perceived modern overuse of the sonic screwdriver, which is alluded to by the War Doctor and then it is shown why the sonic is used so often, as, for the first time this century, the Doctor is locked up! The War Doctor initially has little respect for the flippancy of his successors, but it becomes clear that it is a coping mechanism for something he has not yet done. Little kisses to the past abound, from the title sequence to the fulfilled promise of all the Doctors making an appearance.

Nick Hurran manages to make the episode both completely epic, with the stunning fall of Arcadia and also very low key in the quieter moments. The 3D photography really serves the epic space battles well, but the episode never devolves into a mere 3D showcase. The design is opulent and contains great little touches – apparently the original version of Le Radeau de la Méduse contained no humans! Hurran assembles a great cast, with the very welcome return of Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, a fun turn from Joanna Page as Elizabeth and her Zygon double. There is also the wonderful Ingrid Oliver as Osgood (related to a certain UNIT technician who assisted at Devil's End?) Jenna Coleman continues to sparkle as Clara, whether impersonating witches or out-thinking three incarcerated incarnations of the Doctor. However, there are two minor parts that made my jaw drop – a brief flash of Peter Capaldi's eyes and (possibly) the first uttered words of the Twelfth Doctor; and the return of the most iconic actor to play the Doctor in the 20th Century. Whoever the Curator actually is, it is a true joy to see Tom Baker again!

The decision to rescue Gallifrey may not be acceptable to some, but the way in which it is brought about is excellently constructed. Moffat wants to rescue the Doctor from the burden of committing the genocide of the Daleks and the near omnicide of his home planet. We found out the importance of the name of the Doctor and now we find out what must be done in that name. The emotional consequences are still there, as the Ninth and Tenth Doctors forget what the War Doctor did in his final days. The Doctor has had many titles given to him, but where once he was Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, he is now the more famous aspect of Vishnu, that of Preserver < / pretentiousness >. Moffat's script is superlative, writing and rewriting myth with aplomb, without losing the little touches of humour.

I remember "The Five Doctors" when the programme was in the autumn of its success and I also remember Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis when the winds of winter were blowing. The story looks back at the programme's history, but makes sure that it does not rest on its laurels and makes a decisive step forwards into the future. In this November, 50 years after it started, "The Day of the Doctor" is another highlight of a glorious second summer that shows no sign of coming to an end. Long live Doctor Who!

NEXT: "The Time of the Doctor"

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

"The Night of the Doctor"

Of all the things I was expecting for the 50th Anniversary, a mini-episode featuring the regeneration of the Eighth Doctor was definitely not one of them. The very tight script by Steven Moffatt manages to connect the 21st century programme with its past, pay homage to a well-known story, and play with the examination of the Doctor’s character that Moffat has been preoccupied with of late. This is all accomplished whilst being as witty and moving as the programme has ever been. In a few lines, we are brought into the summer, or early autumn of the Time War and we find just how devastating it was, and how a good man finally went to war.

Paul McGann agrees to do something that Colin Baker refused to do – return to be killed off – and he immediately makes a stamp on the role, something he (through no fault of his own) failed to do in his debut. It is a very different performance from the wistful weirdo from 1996 and all the better for it – far steelier, but also with a lightness that is slowly being chipped away by the knowledge of what he will inevitably have to do. More importantly, we finally see the Eighth Doctor as a hero for the first time, a man who will not abandon someone for just hating him. Cass, the companion who never was, is strikingly portrayed by Emma Campbell-Jones and the Sisterhood of Karn memorably return, led by the brilliant Clare Higgins as Ohila. John Hayes helms a flawless production - so much is packed into "The Night of the Doctor" and so epic does it feel, it is easy to forget that it is based around two sets and three speaking parts.

I would rather watch any Doctor Who story than the TVM, the only Doctor Who story lacking in anything that be called a soul. So, to call this wonderful seven minute 'minisode' easily the best televised appearance of the Eighth Doctor rings rather hollow. McGann has put in some excellent performances and been given some great stories on audio and, sad though it is that the Eighth Doctor dies in only his second on-screen appearance, he finally has a television appearance as the Doctor he can be proud of.

NEXT: "The Day of the Doctor"

Friday, 24 May 2013

"The Name of the Doctor"

There is sometimes a great danger in teasing the audience too much. The revelations promised usually turn out to be disappointing. However, as this episode shows early on, the words in a question can have more than one meaning, which means that the actual answer could be something completely unexpected. No episode of Doctor Who has left me slack-jawed more often than "The Name of the Doctor", an episode that arguably does more to intelligently redefine our view of the Doctor than any other story produced in colour.

In a very bold move for the 50th anniversary year, the main action takes place on Trenzalore, a world revealed to be the last resting place of the Doctor. Death is a major theme in this episode - of the regulars and semi-regulars, it is only Madam Vastra who has not died and been resurrected. Indeed, the River Song we see is the Data Ghost from the library. Moffat is confident enough to allude to the Doctor’s travels finally coming to an end and, as usual, his inventiveness suffuses the entire script, from the conference call on the astral plane, to the true nature of what is within a Time Lord’s grave. Instead of the body, we have a swirling vortex of light that is a gateway to every moment of the Doctor's life. There have been intimations of the Doctor erasing himself from history and, it turns out, this is for a good reason – if one has the information, one can find the path the Doctor takes from birth to death and, as we find out, the Great Intelligence is information. Richard E Grant is back in fine fettle as an enemy thwarted, but determined to utterly destroy his enemy in death, for the Doctor will now die at every point in his existence – unless someone can save him. The true nature of the Impossible Girl has finally been unveiled and, as many suspected, Clara has been Scarothed throughout the Doctor’s existence. Although I still believe that the season could have been improved considerably by fleshing out Clara’s character a bit more, Jenna-Louise Coleman has been a delight throughout and it is testament to her skill that her sacrifice is as poignant as it is – however it would have worked far better had the audience been as emotionally invested in her as they had with Rose or Amy.

Saul Metzstein again puts in great work behind the camera and there is inspired work from the production team, from the Great Intelligence tearing off Dr Simeon's face to the sepulchral vistas of Trenzalore. Perhaps the Whisper Men could have been a bit more different to the Trickster from The Sarah Jane Adventures, but this is a small nitpick. Metzstein makes sure that the story is full of scenes and images that will stick in our minds and this is key to the success of the story.

The title of the story suggests that we are going to get to know something huge about the Doctor's past and, indeed, the story begins with the first ever scene in Doctor Who set before "An Unearthly Child", followed by re-jigged footage of the first seven Doctors interacting with Clara. As for the current incarnation, our leading man has never been better – in tears as he girds his loins to go to Trenzalore, being hoodwinked into playing blind-man's buff by Angie and Artie whilst they sneak off to the cinema and showing the deep love he has for River, a love which is perhaps not best expressed when the other party is a mental projection that only he can see. The title of the story is one that makes the audience think they want a sound or a collection of letters or symbols. However, this would ultimately be as inconsequential as the words Giovanni Battista Fidanza or Phillip Pirrip – we would still call them Nostromo and Pip and that is what they would always be. The Doctor may not be the name he was born with, but it is who he is and it is what he does – except once. There have been eleven Doctors, but the body which the Eleventh Doctor inhabits is his twelfth. Once, the Doctor did something so horrific that his subsequent avatars denied that incarnation the right to call himself 'Doctor' - and this is what the Doctor and Clara find at the centre of the path of the Doctor's life. Even before he turns around, one of the most recognisable voices in the world indicates that one of the finest actors in the world will play a character that redefines what we know about our hero. We will find out more in November, but what we are left with is an almost unbearably heady, yet utterly intoxicating brew that will be talked about for years.

Friday, 17 May 2013

"Nightmare in Silver"

If "The Crimson Horror" was an attempt to do The Talons of Weng-Chiang for a 21st century audience, it is not exactly difficult to guess which 20th century Doctor Who story "Nightmare in Silver" is trying to evoke. Like The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Tomb of the Cybermen is an iconic story that will never be forgotten by those who watched it when it was broadcast. One of those kids who were thus enthralled was obviously Neil Gaiman, who returns to the programme after the unqualified triumph that was his first story and, thankfully, whilst the influence of Tomb of the Cybermen is obvious, Gaiman immediately puts his own stamp on the programme’s second most famous monster. Gaiman takes us to the far future, where a Human Empire (a Great and Bountiful one?) rules hundreds of galaxies. The Cybermen have been the Great Enemy of this period and are considered ancient history by the time of the story. However, when they do return, Gaiman gives them their most radical revamp since their return in 2006, if not ever. The Cybermats, who were, frankly, an embarrassment in all of their appearances in the 20th century, have become the considerably more effective and infinitely more scary Cybermites. They now ‘upgrade’ once they have experienced a threat (stealing a trick from the Borg, which is only fair!) One potential danger of following in the footsteps of The Tomb of the Cybermen is that there are many (including me) who feel that it is a mediocre story with a few very effective moments that has been elevated to a classic purely because it was unavailable for so long and was hugely overhyped by those who were terrified by it as children. Happily, this is not the case with "Nightmare in Silver". The setting of the story, a planet that hosts the largest amusement park in history, certainly gives the story a fresh edge – a base under siege becomes less formulaic if it is a comical castle under siege. It seems for a while that, like The Tomb of the Cybermen, it will fall apart, yet the strands are deliciously brought together for the Doctor to defeat the foe in a truly stunning move.

The characters in the story are all well drawn and performed. It seems that the Doctor has no problem with bringing Clara’s young charges along and, whilst Kassius Carey Johnson doesn’t have so much to do as Artie, Eve de Leon Allen is wonderfully bratty as Angie, without being annoying. Having kids as companions is a tricky gamble that, thankfully, pays off. We also have Tamzin Outhwaite giving a nicely restrained performance as the Captain and the brilliant Jason Watkins is highly entertaining as Webley. In a truly fair world, Warwick Davis would be a leading man and his charisma shines forth in a wonderful performance as Porridge. Clara is nicely sparky and self-assured, but, despite the strength of his support, it is our leading man who dominates every scene in one of Matt Smith’s finest outings. His depiction of the Doctor versus the Cyber-Planner Doctor (or ‘Mr Clever’, as he calls himself) is utterly electrifying and Matt ensures that these very talky scenes never get dull.

Stephen Woolfenden has a long history with Gaiman and he really brings out the fun and zaniness of the script. If there is one criticism I could make, it is that he could have made certain scenes scarier. The new Cybermen look brilliant (with a hint of Iron Man about the chest) although the choreography is a bit overdone. Again, I have to say just how brilliant the Cybermites are – why they were never thought of before baffles me. The production is stunning throughout, from the comical castle to the planet that not only implodes, but explodes (hopefully a reference to a sadly non-canonical story) and, of course, Cyber-tombs way beyond anything that the designers for The Tomb of the Cybermen could have ever have dreamed of.

The Cybermen continue to flourish in the 21st century, with "Nightmare in Silver" being great fun from beginning to end.

NEXT: "The Name of the Doctor"

Friday, 10 May 2013

"The Crimson Horror"

Many of the recent writers on Doctor Who grew up as fans of the programme and this is reflected in the work they do, paying tribute to the show that they loved as a child and, if there has ever been an attempt to do a 21st century version of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, "The Crimson Horror" is it. The story sets out almost immediately to be a grotesque Victorian pastiche, an ideal which is fully realised by the time we reach Sweetville, a vision of what Bournville would have been like had the Cadburys been evil. The plot is a simple one of cleansing the world’s population using a Mesozoic plague, so that the privileged few can inherit the Earth, but it is the details that give the story its shine – the vivid period dialogue, the tent-show evangelism of Mrs Gillyflower’s recruitment drive, the almost relentless Yorkshire-ness, the optograms, the intimations of the rotten extremities of late-Victorian society. However, this is no mere rehashing of past glories. The structure is unusual, with the Doctor only appearing a third of the way through, seemingly already defeated, with his initial involvement told in flashback. As one might expect from the pen of Mark Gatiss, there are jokes aplenty, although whether the fainting man and the name of the helpful urchin are a bit too over the top is a matter of opinion.

However, beneath the shine, there has to be substance and this is certainly provided by the wonderful characters in the story. There is the always welcome return of the Paternoster Gang, although Madame Vastra surrenders her spotlight somewhat to her assistants, with Strax providing some excellent comic relief and Jenny kicking ass in leather (a bit like another TV heroine I could mention). Gatiss enjoys his ripe supporting characters – the coroner could have come straight out of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. However, it is the key characters of Mrs Gillyflower and her daughter Ada that are the true gems and the casting of the legendary Diana Rigg and her talented daughter Rachael Stirling is a true gift. Mrs Gillyflower is a gleefully sadistic super-villain and bluff Yorkshire matriarch in one and Ada, despite being a victim all her life, is allowed real reserves of strength – refusing to forgive her mother and summarily dealing with Mr Sweet. Despite his apparent defeat, the Doctor is soon up and running with Matt in fine fettle – his Yorkshire accent is hilarious. Clara (at least until the final scene) is somewhat in the background, however.

Saul Metzstein concocts an intoxicating brew from Gatiss’s recipe with increasing confidence in getting memorable shots, from little things like the scrape of Ada’s stick on the ground to the presentation of the flashback, where you can almost hear the projector whirring. As expected, the production is top notch, with the period detail impeccable. A special mention must be made of Mr Sweet, without doubt the vilest monster to appear in the series this century – in fact his demise is very nasty, and the closest a family show can get to an early Sam Raimi/Peter Jackson splatter scene.

Gatiss has really returned to form this year and this hugely enjoyable story is a welcome addition to the Who canon.

NEXT: "Nightmare in Silver"

Friday, 3 May 2013

"Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"

Like the Master, I can't resist a ticking clock and relentless 'race against time' narratives are easy to make compelling. However, they can have minimal rewatch value, as I commented on when I rewatched "42". I was not particularly impressed with Stephen Thompson’s script for his previous story, "The Curse of the Black Spot" but I was extremely impressed by "The Reichenbach Fall", his script for Sherlock, so I was intrigued as to what he would cook up for his second effort. Thankfully, Thompson has remembered something very important – if your story is going to be a runaround, make sure that the things being run to, with and away from are interesting. The mythos of the TARDIS is intriguingly explored – the oft-mentioned TARDIS swimming pool (which appears to be the size of the Sea of Galilee) the intriguing library with liquid books in bottles, the tree-like architectural reconfiguration system and we finally get to look into the Eye of Harmony. There are monsters lurking in the TARDIS and their true nature makes them all the more chilling. After the running around and the ensuing catastrophe, there is a big friendly reset button to be pressed, of course and, I must again state that there are no inherently bad plot devices, just bad uses of them and if you can't play with the structure of time inside the TARDIS, then where can you play with it?

Matt Smith continues to be as mercurially electrifying as usual and Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to delight as Clara and the story has us finally trusting Clara, if still not understanding who or what she is. The supporting characters, the VanBaalen brothers are simply drawn, yet very effective – of course Gregor would attempt to steal a circuit, putting the whole enterprise in danger, of course he would exploit his younger brother's accident to take control of the company. It is things like this which make the apparently contrived plot points work, and a far cry from Guy Crayford's eye. Since Grange Hill and his days as 'Asher D', Ashley Walters has progressed in leaps and bounds as an actor to match his natural charisma and he makes Gregor thoroughly believable. Jahvel Hall also does fine work as Tricky although I’m not so convinced by Mark Oliver as Bram. Oliver's uneven performance apart, Mat King makes a fine début behind the camera making the story tense and scary. The production values are astonishing, with the set design being fully up to realising Thompson's concepts, the awe inspiring Eye of Harmony being only one highlight. The monsters are a very simple piece of design that, presumably, didn’t eat up too much of the budget – yet they do exactly what they are supposed to do with great effect.

A wise man once said, "The kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe". However, the TARDIS is one hell of a wardrobe and, whilst it isn’t as brilliant as the previous ‘wardrobe story’, "The Doctor’s Wife", "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" is boldly imaginative and exciting and certainly merits a rewatch or two.

NEXT "The Crimson Horror"

Friday, 26 April 2013


Despite the extremely negative reaction to "The Rings of Akhaten" in fandom (which is as hilariously exaggerated as these things tend to be) Neil Cross is clearly a writer to watch and we are given a chance to see what else he could conjure with "Hide". The story is obviously influenced by the work of Nigel Kneale, especially The Stone Tape (a comparison made more obvious by the early 70s setting). Cross immaculately gives his own Doctor Who spin on pseudo-scientific haunting – the journey to ‘always’ is a three minute sequence that could only work on this programme. The way the basic plot unfolds is believable (more on some of the details later) and meshes in beautifully with the concepts. The cast of characters is tiny and, although they are hardly complex, Cross manages to make them archetypal without making them clichéd and they are given a bit of originality – Emma is the sort of character that becomes the Doctor's ally, yet she never fully trusts the Doctor, even at the end. There are a few nitpicks I have concerning the finer details of plotting, however. I presume that the reason the TARDIS is able to survive in the pocket universe is Emma’s intervention, as that is when the TARDIS grants Clara access. However, this type of construction is in the fuzzy grey area between not spelling everything out and relying on fan theory. Also, I feel that the Crooked Man/Woman should have been just a threat in the pocket universe and the fact that there was another Crooked Woman/Man in Caliburn was not fully explored. Had it recently appeared? (which would make the most sense, otherwise it would have been just as much a part of Caliburn’s legend as the Ghast). The ending does work, but I can see how others might be disappointed.

Jamie Payne helms a flawless production. He has a real sense of getting scares for a teatime audience, which is good as, if any story this series cried out for dark skies outside, it is this one. His handling of the journey to ‘always’ is very low key, which is a brave, but hugely effective choice. The production team evokes the seventies very well, without making it look as garish as the real decade was. The realisation of the Crooked Man/Woman and the Ghast will cause nightmares even after the true nature of the Ghast is revealed. The supporting cast, as said, is tiny, but what it lacks in quantity is more than made up for in quality. Dougray Scott is a hugely talented actor and Jessica Raine has it in her to become a true superstar and they make the clumsy, but heartfelt budding romance between Alec and Emma truly convincing. Kemi-Bo Jacobs doesn’t have much to do as Hila Tukurian, but she is effective enough. Matt Smith is as wonderful as ever and Jenna continues to work wonders, what with her failed efforts to make friends with the other woman in the Doctor’s life.

A few nitpicks aside, "Hide" is totally effective in what it sets out to do, a wonderful evocation of BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas of the 1970s, with a dash of Sapphire and Steel. And, as far as I am concerned, so long as he does the job, Matt Smith can pronounce Metebelis however the hell he likes!

NEXT: "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"

Saturday, 20 April 2013

"Cold War"

Unlike "The Rings of Akhaten", "Cold War" doesn’t have an original bone in its body. The basic premise is exactly the same as that of The Ice Warriors 45 years ago and other parts of the plot bear similarities with Alien, Das Boot and The Abyss and less well known fare such as David Twohy’s underrated Below. As well as its obvious forbear, it is a throwback to the base-under-siege formula that formed the vast majority of Troughton’s second season – a well loved era, but one which has also been called one of the most creatively bankrupt in the programme’s history. However, despite all this, "Cold War" is a joy from beginning to end and shows just how something fresh can be made from an old recipe.

"Cold War" has the advantage over its 60s inspirations, in that it is not surrounded by stories with exactly the same plot. Mark Gatiss trims the plot of every ounce of fat, meaning that the interminable (and sometimes idiotic) longueurs that plagued similar stories forty years ago are not evident.¤ Instead, this is a story with not one second wasted. The slightly different attitude of the revived programme has never been more evident than here - in 21st Century Who, only the Daleks and Cybermen are monolithic adversaries. The fact that Skaldak is a character, rather than just a monster makes the conflict with the crew far more interesting. Gatiss is a fine writer who has never¤ matched the success of his first Doctor Who story, "The Unquiet Dead" – until now. This deceptively simple story shows a great deal of skill in its construction, with Gatiss’s trademark textual depth – Skaldak is the greatest hero of Mars and the submarine commander is named¤ Zhukov, an obvious nod to the most renowned Soviet general of the Second World War. There is a level of cheekiness in the story showing its roots, particularly Alien!

Douglas Mackinnon makes a triumphant return to the programme taking Gatiss’s script and giving it pace and subdued scares when required. There is a level of implied violence that hasn't really been seen since the programme returned, notably the discovery of the dismembered bodies, which Mackinnon handles with just the right amount of shock for a family audience. The look of the episode is phenomenal with great, atmospheric use of lighting. Gatiss takes the stock characters of the base-under-siege story and somehow makes them real, helped by the great cast that Mackinnon has at his disposal. Liam Cunningham has always brought his gruff charisma to every role he plays and Zhukov is no exception. Then, there is the inimitable David Warner who finally makes an appearance on Doctor Who and makes the unlikely character of a septuagenarian Soviet New Romantic geologist seem not only plausible, but lovable. Matt Smith relishes the opportunity to pay tribute to his own favourite Doctor, but it is here that Clara really comes into her own as a character. The scene of her talking to Skaldak is brilliantly played by Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara's understated trauma after seeing what Skaldak did to the sailors.

However, the big draw of the story was the long-overdue return of one of the programmes most iconic monsters. The redesign is faithful to the original, yet does not seem dated. Gatiss makes the risky decision of taking the Martian out of his armour – indeed this is the first time it has been positively established that it is armour and not just part of the Ice Warrior’s body. The creature is a lot skinnier than expected (although still very strong) but moves like lightning. Wisely, we never see the whole body and the first views of the head are shrouded in steam and the final unmasking is memorable, with a fantastic design.

I have no nostalgic memories of the Ice Warriors, having not even been born when The Monster of Peladon was broadcast, let alone their first story. However, like many others, I have had a fantastic ride and am glad to welcome the Ice Warriors back into the fold.

NEXT: "Hide"

Friday, 12 April 2013

"The Rings of Akhaten"

"The Rings of Akhaten" is one of those stories that justify my decision not to have a ratings system. It is disorganised and scrappy and is one of the very few stories made this century that cries out for a few more drafts. However what it certainly is not, is boring or clichéd. Whatever else one may say about the story, Neil Cross is clearly a writer of great ability and possesses a great imagination. How he channels that ability into producing a workable script for a 45-minute episode of Doctor Who is a more complex issue.

The story contains a number of intriguing concepts – the god that must be propitiated by song and the religious rite that has become a tourist attraction. Living stars. The nature of memory and story. Cross is attempting to reach the imaginative heights of Olaf Stapledon or David Lindsay for a Saturday teatime audience and has more success than most. The skeleton of the plot is sound, as are the basic revelations. Beyond that, however, things start to get messy. This occurs with smaller details – the 'secret song' to open the secret passage that Merry suddenly remembers is a blatant cheat by the writer. However, this messiness becomes more serious when it affects the entire resolution of the plot. The use of the 'most important leaf in the universe' should have capped the Doctor's use of his memories and tied up well with the (apparently disconnected) teaser. However, such is the lack of tightness, it could seem that the Doctor's stand-off with grandfather was clumsily patched in to bulk up the episode. The meaning of the leaf and the infinite potential it represents, the stories told and untold, is not properly explored, so that makes the leaf feel like it was clumsily patched in, even though it blatantly wasn't. Characterisation also suffers somewhat - the story of Clara's parents aims for an Up style impact, but fails. However, this does not affect the story disastrously.

The realisation of the story, however, is nothing short of spectacular. From the moment Clara opens her eyes to view the titular rings, we are treated to one gorgeous image after the next. Monster fans are in for a field day with enough bizarre alien species to put the Mos Eisley Cantina to shame (including a namecheck for everone's favourite super-intelligent shade of the colour blue). There is the terrifying threat of the Vigil and the utterly intoxicating operatic section where Merry and the Chorister sing to 'Grandfather' – who, it turns out is the star at the centre of the system, with a terrifyingly evil grin. Farren Blackburn outdoes himself in making this story a visual feast from beginning to end – note the subdued, almost desaturated colours in the flashback scenes contrasting with the vibrant colours of Akhaten (great work from cinematographer Dale McCready). Character, as I said before, is not the episode's string point, but Blackburn makes sure every performer gives his or her all. The regulars are as good as ever and we are given our first peek at what makes Ms Oswald tick, which is very welcome.

"The Rings of Akhaten" is well worth watching, despite its many flaws, which are all due to the writing. The story does work on a basic level, so the plot doesn't completely fall apart – it is, however, frustrating to imagine just how great story it could have been, had the script been given a few more drafts.

NEXT: "Cold War"

Friday, 5 April 2013

"The Bells of Saint John"

"The Bells of Saint John" is a strangely old-fashioned story – an odd thing to say about something which is just as energetic as we have come to expect from 21st Century Doctor Who. However, it feels more like a RTD era story than any other since Moffat took the reins. Nevertheless, it still has the unmistakeable mark of Moffat to it, especially in the way it keeps its various narrative plates spinning and things like the random diversion to the Cumbrian monastery in 1207 (not the best time for monks or legendary outlaws). The foe in the WiFi is, fittingly, something that seems both very Moffat and very RTD, but the concepts are still sound (Moffat is inspired again by his superlative short story "Corner of the Eye") but, despite the seriousness of the threat, one thing that becomes obvious is how much the Doctor is in control at all times, never being outmanoeuvred for long – no sooner is a petard deployed than the Doctor ensures that the foe is hoisted by it. However, Moffat is far too good a writer to become repetitive and just when it becomes a bit too obvious that the story was written by a man in his fifties (not even 'not knowing about the internet' would preclude any 24 year-old making a joke about Twitter) such things as Clara’s use of the webcam and the Doctor’s use of his Spoonhead feel joyous, rather than stale

A probable reason for Moffat giving the Doctor such an apparent easy ride is the fact that, despite this being her third appearance, we still know less about Clara than we did about Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy after their first episodes. This is obviously deliberate and, with all the plates that Moffat has to spin, there has to be a sedate core for the character to even start to settle in the viewer’s mind. This is, of course, assisted by Jenna-Louise Colman’s performance and Matt Smith’s wonderful chemistry with her and Clara certainly feels like a character, rather than a plot device with a pretty face, which is the important thing. Colm McCarthy helms a very confident production, equally adept at the comedy, the menace of the Spoonheads and the awesome sight of the Doctor racing vertically up the Shard. and a fine supporting cast. Celia Imrie never fails to be excellent in whatever role she is in and the brash confidence of Miss Kizlet is well played, which makes the performance of the final moments of the character all the more jarringly effective. The main villain is revealed to be the Great Intelligence which, apart from meaning the very welcome return of Richard E Grant, hopefully bodes well for the return of its more corporeal and fuzzy embodiment.

I have to say that this is probably my least favourite season opener of the Matt Smith era – the fact that we still don’t know much about Clara at the end (deliberately) makes this story a bit harder to love than the others. However, I have absolutely adored the others, so that is no real insult. In any case, "The Bells of Saint John" is still a hugely enjoyable 45 minutes of a programme that is entering its 50th year with panache.

NEXT: "The Rings of Akhaten"

Friday, 18 January 2013

"The Snowmen"

Those expecting a Steven Moffat take on It's a Wonderful Life or The Box of Delights were to be disappointed, as Doctor Who’s 2012 Christmas special is not a reinterpretation of a well-known Christmas story but, instead, weaves a tale set in that most Christmassy of Yuletides, the Victorian Christmas. This is probably because, for the first time, Moffat has more to do than to tell a tale of seasonal peril. He has to introduce the replacement for the longest running companion since the programme returned.

If there is a theme to the story, it is that of elective loneliness. The Doctor is in shock after losing Amy and Rory, so he has retired to his castle on a cloud. Captain Latimer loves his children, but cannot connect with them. And, of course, the entire crisis begins with a small boy who refuses to make friends. When the title of the episode was announced, as well as possibly paying homage to Channel 4's most beloved Christmas tradition, long-time fans of the programme spotted a similarity with a previous story which, as it turned out is no coincidence- amongst its other aims, this story could also be called "Genesis of the Great Intelligence". The development of the menace itself is, perhaps, the weakest aspect of the script Although the progression of the crisis does make sense, it is somewhat workmanlike (in that respect, very much like the Yeti stories!) and, it has to be said, that Dr Simeon is not given as much richness in the script as he should do and it is testament to the considerable skills of the would-be/sort-of-was Ninth Doctor, Richard E Grant that he makes as much of an impression as he does.

However, as with The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, there is so much more to enjoy in the story. The dialogue is as tart as ever- the ‘answers of one word’ sequence has one expecting a standard writing exercise and becomes so much more and, of course, the comedy sequence are as funny as ever We also have the welcome return of Madame Vastra and Jenny, with the much-appreciated resurrection of Strax the Sontaran. Tom Ward gives a very convincing performance as Captain Latimer, and we have none other than Sir Ian McKellen lending his inimitable baritone as the voice of the Great Intelligence. However, the heart of the story is the Doctor meeting his new companion for, as it turns out, the second time. Jenna-Louise Colman continues to captivate and has no problem in filling Karen Gillan’s shoes. The Doctor’s reluctance to help and to reach out, with his joy in finding a new friend is effortlessly conveyed by Matt Smith.

Saul Metzstein directs a sumptuous production, which, whilst it doesn't match the extravagant visuals of the past two Christmases, is seasonally cinematic, nonetheless, with such breathtaking images such as the stairway to the clouds ('taller on the inside'). The Snowmen are genuinely memorable creations which will no doubt influence winter playtimes for years to come. A minor flaw in the production is that the masks for Madame Vastra and Strax could do with refurbishment and a fresh light test, but it hardly matters.

"The Snowmen" ends with the mystery of who Clara Oswin Oswald really is- did she go the way of Scaroth in the Time Vortex? Perhaps the fact that the Great Intelligence only ‘rings a bell’ with the Doctor is relevant- is it just one thousand years of memories, or have memories been stolen? Again, Easter can’t come too quickly...

NEXT: "The Bells of Saint John"