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"