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 d├ębut 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"