Sunday, 14 December 2014

"Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven"

There are a fair few things that are a bit dodgy about the two part finale to Capaldi’s first series. Some of the explanations for certain concepts are a bit woolly, the motivations for pivotal characters in relation to the events depicted require something of an imaginative leap on the part of the viewer. However, "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" is so engrossing that these observations are totally blown away when one is watching it and the real impact of the ideas and emotion of the story ensure that they cannot even come close to ruining it. Rachel Talalay brings her considerable experience to bear in a very assured production with epic action scenes working hand in hand with more intimate sections, combined with some stunning visuals, especially the technological vault of the firmament that features early in the story.

The Cybermen of 21st century Doctor Who may physically revamp themselves less than their 20th Century forbears, but conceptually, it is another matter. They started out (as did their predecessors) as humans who took spare part surgery a step too far. In "Nightmare in Silver", they were a cyborg collective controlled by a central intelligence. Now, they are nothing short of being a cybernetic undead plague controlled by a hive mind – for the first time ever, the Cybermen seem genuinely unstoppable. Conceptually, the Cybermen’s effectiveness has always been driven by the fact that they are based on the fear of death and nowhere has this been more chillingly explored than in this story. The afterlife that we have been teased with (or 'NetherSphere' as it is dubbed) is simply a reservoir of minds that have been harvested throughout human history, to be installed into Cybermen. The existential horror of the Three Words would be arguably going too far for a programme made for children, if it were not part of the story’s aim of death and how we can deal with it.

However, although the Cybermen are central to the plot, the heart(s) of the story are the characters in it. The key event in the story is the totally unexpected death of Danny in the opening scene of the story. It occurs in an all too common way, making the loss seem more real than others have been. Clara’s reaction to Danny’s death is as unexpected as it is believable and the scene where Clara tries to blackmail the Doctor is completely convincing thanks to Jenna Coleman's astonishing performance. She is complemented by great work from Samuel Anderson as Danny, showing real grit combined with vulnerability. UNIT make a very welcome return with Jemma Redgrave’s brilliant Kate Stewart and the sad demise of Ingrid Oliver’s Osgood. Sanjeev Bhaskar’s Colonel Ahmed isn’t as lucky as his wife’s character was four years ago, but it is always good to see him, as is Chris Addison. However there is another very important returnee. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had guessed that Missy was the Master. Michelle Gomez’s is, physically, as close as one can get to a female Roger Delgado - both possessing 'demonic' good looks – and her unhinged, yet controlled performance makes her great fun to watch – yet we do not forget the sheer wanton sadism of her murders. It proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that changing the sex of a regular character can work perfectly well, if the right actor is found...

This series of Doctor Who has been seen by some as being darker in mood and having the Doctor himself as a darker character. The Doctor has less time for fools in this incarnation and certainly less time for tears. However, it is clear that this is still the man we love; if there were any doubts, his unconditional forgiveness of Clara silenced them forever. The Doctor has wondered whether he was a good man, has been called a good Dalek, but here, he embraces what he truly is – an idiot. His anger is still real, as his enraged frustration over Gallifrey show, but he is still that madman with a box. I never doubted Peter Capaldi for a second and his performance in this story caps an astonishing run.

Peter Capaldi’s triumphant first season makes me look forward all the more to a very Frosty Christmas...

NEXT: "Last Christmas"

Sunday, 2 November 2014

"In the Forest of the Night"

Getting Frank Cottrell-Boyce as a writer is a coup as big as the hiring of Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis. His screenplays are constantly surprising, whilst still managing to tell a story and, indeed, the plot progression in this story is very different from anything we have seen before. However, it seems to me that Cottrell-Boyce's method of telling a story without adhering to tried-and-tested plot structures produces some decidedly mixed results.

The problem, such as it is, is not the basic story line or the quality of the writing, but the fact that it is uses many of the devices of magical-realism without a thought as to how they can be made to work in the context of a Doctor Who story. "Kill the Moon" used a story that was superficially far fetched, but exploited its mythic resonance with clear roles for the regulars and therefore managed to work as a Doctor Who story. For "In the Forest of the Night" to have worked, it really had to have a child as its point-of-view character – in other words had the story revolved around Maebh, it would have worked much better as it is in the viewpoint of a child that magic and science fiction can really combine. Doctor Who is hardly hard science fiction, but questions that can be ignored in such a story may require answers when the Doctor is involved - magic trees need a more logical explanation, Maebh's 'Red Riding Hood' run through the forest seems forced, rather than archetypal and Maebh's sister hiding in the bushes is now a contrived ending, rather than a fairy tale happy ending. There is also the rather disturbing view taken of psychiatry which seems like it is verging on Hubbardism without the filter of a child's point of view. On a fannish and crudely scientific note, it could also be argued that the 'tree-line defence' fits in rather uneasily with the Doctor Who mythos – unless it is (despite the claims made by the tree spirits) only a comparatively fleeting phenomenon that is extinct by the time of The Ark in Space, to say nothing of not preventing the mass extinctions that allowed the dinosaurs to conquer the earth and then ended their reign.

This does not take away from the fact that Cottrell-Boyce is a fantastic writer and the concepts, although they sometimes clumsily fit together are still striking. There is also the dialogue, which is fantastic throughout 'If you remembered how things felt, you’d have stopped having wars … and stopped having babies...' and, of course, the Doctor's unexpected retort to Clara's rebuke from "Kill the Moon". Director Sheree Folkson, with the assistance of cinematographer Mark Garrett, creates some stunning visuals, with the backlit glade where the tree spirits talk to the Doctor and the wonderful scenes with the wolves and the tyger, where the story almost manages to succeed. However, it has to be said that she sometimes struggles with Cottrell-Boyce's methods of storytelling. The cast she marshals, however, is excellent – the Coal Hill Kids are an unusual and welcome addition and the regulars are on fine form, none more so than Peter Capaldi gives a performance of grouchiness, humour and real sympathy – witness the scene where he tries to convince Clara to save an ever dwindling set of people. However, the Doctor's place in the plot is purely as an observer. Such stories have worked before, but, with neither the Doctor being the driving character, nor Maebh being the point-of-view character, the story loses an important personal focus, another critical flaw in the story.

Despite the considerable talent behind its realisation and some truly great moments, "In the Forest of the Night" barely works as a Doctor Who story and it is probably one that I won't revisit too often.

NEXT: "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven"

Sunday, 26 October 2014


Jamie Mathieson's second story in as many weeks takes us to the land of trip-hop, where people are being turned into 2-D images. This, of course sounds very familiar. While it was not exactly bad, "Fear Her" was a very flawed story that rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. To say that "Flatline" learns from the mistakes of its predecessor is something of an understatement...

The key reason for its success is that it is genuinely frightening. Unlike the Isolus, a fresh concept of an alien that was thoroughly explained and given a motivation for, the Boneless remain as inexplicable at the end as they were at the beginning. The Doctor muses as to whether their attacks are merely a means of communication by a race so fundamentally different from us (which recalls such illustrious precedents as Stanisław Lem's Fiasco) but, whether they want to conquer or communicate, they kill to do so and, in the end, they are monsters...and we know what happens to monsters. The way in which the plot unfolds is typical of so many 'using the enemy's power against them' stories – yet, when it is as well done as it is here, the results are joyous. The concepts are, on the surface, simple, yet they are irresistible – a miniature TARDIS with a full-sized Doctor carried in Clara's handbag is an idea for a series in its own right.

Douglas Mackinnon puts in another phenomenal turn in the director's chair with an embarrassment of memorably scary scenes – PC Forrest being flattened is brilliantly rendered. The 3-D realisation of the massive attack of the Boneless, starting with the shock of the giant hand snatching Al away, is awesome with their unsettlingly jerky motion of the shapes of the dead. However, Mackinnon also brings humour when needed, especially in the brilliant scene of the Doctor literally moving the TARDIS by hand, which manages to be both hilarious and exciting. Mackinnon and the production team also manage to convey the inimitable quality that Bristol possesses, a mixture of industrial grime and bucolic cosiness. The guest cast is hugely effective. Joivan Wade is great as tricky kid Rigsy and PC Forrest's awful fate is made all the more poignant with Jessica Hayles's plaintive screams. However, the best guest performance is that of character actor extraordinaire Christopher Fairbank, who makes the loathsome jobsworth Fenton into a truly memorable character.

As he appears throughout the story, it is easy to forget that this is a Doctor-lite story, but Peter Capaldi does not let his confinement to the TARDIS limit his performance – I particularly liked his happy dance when he (temporarily) saved the shrunken TARDIS. This leaves Clara basically playing the Doctor, something that Jenna Coleman does with relish.

"Flatline" is a fun, frightening and phenomenal tale that shows that Doctor Who can scare in a multitude of different ways, without becoming boring.

NEXT: "In the Forest of the Night"

Friday, 17 October 2014

"Mummy on the Orient Express"

The title of the story promises a jolly romp, with nods to both Agatha Christie and classic monster movies; more in line with a Christmas special than a regular episode Indeed, the first shot, with its period-style costumes and setting are line with this. However, the sight of the mummy itself soon dispels any notion that this episode is disposable filler, and we are immediately shown that this episode will take us into darker territory.

Jamie Mathieson's script is clever and insightful, whilst remaining hugely engaging throughout. The story is a fantastic monster tale and can easily be enjoyed on that level, but it cannily uses the monster to draw out character in truly inspired ways – the monster attack is, effectively, the same attack repeated. This moves the spotlight away from the mummy and onto the people reacting to it and the nature of their reactions, which leads to an inspired left-turn, when it is found out that the Orient Express is, in fact, a laboratory, with the scientists being the subjects as well as the conductors of an experiment.

The supporting characters are drawn in enough detail for them not to be simple Christie clichés, and are brilliantly performed by a stellar cast – Janet Henfrey is always worth watching, even in such a small role and Christopher Villiers is very effective as the doomed Professor Moorhouse. Daisy Beaumont, almost unrecognisable in a blonde wig, makes Maisie into something more than the usual shrinking violet and David Bamber brings unexpected depth to the role of the Captain. Frank Skinner is clearly having the time of his life as Perkins and I’m sure it was a wrench for his character to refuse the Doctor's invitation. Paul Wilmshurst puts in another sterling effort in the director's chair The uniformity of the mummy attacks do not mean that Wilmshurst makes them all look the same, as he finds fresh ways to make those 66 seconds look scary. He is helped, of course, by a truly terrifying monster that will live on in the nightmares of a generation of children. The opulent design is another triumph for the production team and the cinematography is exquisite.

However, it is the regulars who do the most demanding work of all of the actors. The spotlight is frequently on the Doctor, in his attempts to not only deal with the mummy, but the ways in which he helps those around him. The collateral damage in Doctor Who is always high and we get a rare glimpse of how the Doctor reacts about the bodies left in his wake, rather than how he reflects later. The Time Lord is calculating, but he always tries to make the best choice, even when the choices aren't good. This is, crucially, after Clara's damning rebuke of the Doctor at the end of "Kill the Moon" and Clara is prepared for this to be their last great adventure. However, the Doctor respects her enough to not modify his behaviour and be honest with her as far as it is possible. Jenna Coleman is vital in making us feel why Clara, in the end, wants to stay with the Doctor, but it is our leading man who takes the laurels. The scenes with the Doctor talking to himself are mesmerising, with a wonderful scene where he channels one of his previous selves. He is affected by the deaths, but, as he says, 'People with guns to their heads cannot mourn'. However, he carries jelly babies in a cigarette case and would rather talk about planets than relationships. Most importantly, the joy in his face when Clara decides to stay is wonderful to behold.

Again, we have been given an excellent 45 minutes entertainment that uses an old concept to tell a wonderfully fresh story.

NEXT: "Flatline"

Saturday, 11 October 2014

"Kill the Moon"

"Kill the Moon" is, on the surface, a story of the Doctor and some monsters. It also has hallmarks of that old Troughton staple, the base-under-seige story. The situations that form the plot are easy for anyone to follow. Yet the combination of all these things somehow results in something really striking, proving that simplicity does not equal stupidity. "Kill the Moon" is a début story for both director and writer and this fresh take really makes the story work. Peter Harness writes each scene with total conviction, which makes the (frankly bonkers) revelation of the story – that the Moon is, in fact, a giant egg, completely convincing. Harness manages to bring out the mythic resonance of such a plotline, which has precedents in folklore around the world, to make the concept seem epic, rather than silly.

Paul Wilmshurst realises Harness's vision with great skill, making the spider-germs truly terrifying. An obvious precedent is the superficially scary, but ultimately silly 2011 film Apollo 18, but this story is better in every conceivable way. The location filming in Lanzarote gives the lunar surface a real sense of depth and Wilmshurst deals excellently with the subtle shifts in mood; horror, tension and wonder, with the unforgettable sight of the Moon hatching being particularly breathtaking. The performances from the limited cast are excellent, although again, it's a shame that an fine actor like Tony Osoba is used so little, in his third appearance in the programme (in easily his best story!) The main guest star is the brilliantly charismatic Hermione Norris, who makes Lundvik a very relatable character, despite her archetypal function in the plot. We also have the return of Ellis George, showing a whole new side to Courtney.

However, what elevates the story into a whole new level are two key scenes. Once the true nature of the Moon is discovered, there follows a debate over whether or not to, well, kill the Moon. This recalls a similar sort of discussion in "Cold Blood", but the writing here is so much better. The decision to let the Earth vote leads to some wonderful visuals as the lights on the globe blink out. In all this, the Doctor has done what he couldn't do on Mars, or even Pompeii – he leaves it entirely to the humans. The Doctor's wonder at a new piece of history being freshly revealed to him is infectious – until Clara reveals to him exactly what she thinks of this manipulation.

This scene is excellently written, but is only improved by outstanding performances by the regulars, of the same standard as Steven's taking leave of the Doctor in The Massacre. We have seen the Doctor detached from humanity and we have seen the human he is closest to pulling him back to Earth and reminding him of his duties to his favourite planet. Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi have never been better than in this story, a remarkable feat, indeed.

"Kill the Moon" is a brilliant first story for its creators and another highlight of what is turning out to be a great season.

NEXT: "Mummy on the Orient Express"

Saturday, 4 October 2014

"The Caretaker"

It seems that every time the Doctor has to go undercover as a normal person, Gareth Roberts is the man brought in to draft the job. However, if there’s one thing his scripts for the Moffat era have shown, he is excellent at those little moments of human drama and comedy. The normality of the story is further emphasised by the fact that (apart from the frenetic pre-credits sequence and the coda) it is mounted like a normal drama set in a school, which just happens, one day, to have an alien killing machine rampaging through the set. We even have a seemingly normal (albeit very funny) parents’ evening. Although the script contains a wealth of laughs, ranking as one of Roberts’s funniest, the core of the story is more ambitious. Again, the alien threat is not placed in the foreground, for this is the story of Danny finding out the truth about Clara. Roberts’s writing here is superlative, dealing with Danny’s need to establish trust and Clara’s managing both the emotional and temporal disarray that travelling with the Doctor causes to meet that trust.

However, the programme is still called Doctor Who and our hero is by no means in the background. As the monster is of reduced importance plotwise, it is has very basic motivations and is dealt with logically, which works perfectly with the type of story that this is. This leaves the Doctor in the role of concerned father figure, trying to figure out what to make of Clara’s new beau. The difference between this Doctor and his predecessor is immediately obvious - ‘deep cover’ means putting on a brown coat, rather than making any behavioural effort to fit in. Capaldi is unique, but I like to think that his portrayal in this story is what Hartnell would have been like had he been 50 years younger – high praise, indeed. Jenna Coleman is a delight, being a charismatict teacher, loving partner and time and space traveller and all of these colliding abruptly. However, the performance of Samuel Anderson as Danny is key. The scene where Danny and the Doctor have their face-off in the TARDIS is brilliantly written and performed giving the viewer a fresh insight on the effect the Doctor has on people, but Anderson’s soulful performance gives it an extra resonance – clearly this confrontation will have repercussions.

Paul Murphy is well up to making the story work with all its changes in mood and genre. The school sequences are perfectly paced, yet the sequences with the Skovox are shot and edited with great urgency – despite the monster’s comparatively small role and the unshowy effects work to realise it, the sheer force of its presence is memorable and the scene where Danny vaults over it is fantastic. Apart from the regulars, none of the supporting characters are that important, but they are all well played, especially young Ellis George as the bratty, yet strangely likeable Courtney Woods.

"The Caretaker" is a seemingly inconsequential story that manages to accomplish so much more than it promises.

NEXT: "Kill the Moon"

Saturday, 27 September 2014

"Time Heist"

Although, I like both of Stephen Thompson's previous stories, the main reason they succeeded was due to the production, rather than the script - "The Curse of the Black Spot" in particular was rather lacklustre. So, although I was not wary of this story in the way I used to be wary of a Chris Chibnall script prior to "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", I did have some trepidation. However, like Chibnall's archosaurian runaround, the one-line pitch of the story is irresistible and (perhaps due to Steven Moffat's co-writing credit) the puzzle-box nature of a heist plot is executed without the half-baked plot twists that characterised Thompson's earlier work. We are thrust into the story with a teaser than gets the viewer instantly hooked and the cogs of the plot keep turning throughout. There are a few things which could have been more fully explained, such as the nature of the mind link between the Teller and Madame Karabraxos - however, these do not stand in the way of how the plot develops.

The key thing that elevates this above Thompson's previous efforts are the characters. The Doctor's partners in crime Psi and Saibra are well defined characters who are given clear motivations and the appealing performances by Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner flesh them out fully - I hope they make the return that the story seems to promise. Madame Karabraxos and her clone are brilliantly brought to life by the wonderful Keeley Hawes, radiating classiness and icy sadism. Douglas Mackinnon again does sterling work in the director's chair, giving the break-in sequences a real sense of tension, supervising editing to bring out the time-bending aspects of the plot and giving us some real scares. The fate of the poor shill who is the first on-screen victim of the mind-erasure is truly shocking. The production is of a very high standard, and stunning alien vistas are used judiciously and it was only after I had watched the story that it dawned on me that the corridors were the same corridors with different lighting and that there was only one Teller costume. Speaking of which, the Teller is a masterpiece of design and, under Mackinnon's direction manages to both be genuinely frightening and (later) sympathetic.

This is the type of adventure that would have fitted well with any Doctor since Eccleston, but Capaldi immediately makes it indubitably a Twelfth Doctor story. When he believes that Psi and Saibra are dead, he obviously feels the loss, but doesn't let it get in the way of what he has to do. Psi even gives a fresh reason as to why he's called the Doctor. However, his 'payment' for his part in the heist is the rescue of a creature that has only tried to kill him. This man might be different, but he's definitely still the Doctor. Clara isn't given as much to do as in previous weeks, but Jenna Coleman continues to shine.

"Time Heist" is tremendous fun throughout, a great romp for all the family!

NEXT: "The Caretaker"

Saturday, 20 September 2014


One of the many things that I loved about Stephen Moffat’s contributions in the Russell T Davies era was that the plots always unfolded in a completely unpredictable way. As showrunner, Moffat has had to be more measured in his writing, but "Listen" proves, if nothing else, Moffat still has it in him. It seems at the start that we are in for another tale where Moffat exploits a very basic fear – that you are never alone, that there really was something hiding under your bed. The precedents for such a story were clear – Vasta Nerada, "Midnight", Moffat’s superlative Doctor Who short story "Corner of the Eye" and so on. Yet by the end, we are taken in directions that we were genuinely not expecting. The subplot of Clara’s date with Danny turns out not to be a subplot at all, but an integral part of the story. The terrifying presences that pop up during the story may not actually be monsters at all. The settings range from the exotic climes of 1990s Gloucestershire and further forward in time than even "Utopia". And, of course, in one sense, we are taken further back in time than we have ever been before...

Each strand of the plot is given as much attention as if it were a separate story. Danny and Clara’s date is funny, delightful, heartwarming and frustrating all at the same time. The scenes with young Danny (Rupert) and Orson Pink are brilliantly written little horror stories. Director Douglas Mackinnon is fantastic at making these scenes work in subtly different ways. The scenes in Rupert’s bedroom succeed as exploration of a child’s fear in ways that "Fear Her" and "Night Terrors" could only dream of. The Doctor waiting to see what knocks outside Orson’s capsule is reminiscent, yet very different from "Midnight", as Mackinnon has his own ways of mounting such a scene. Samuel Anderson continues to impress not only as Danny, but as his descendant as well, playing the toughness, tenderness and awkwardness to perfection – Danny banging his head on the table will take a long time to get old! as the younger Rupert, Remi Gooding makes a very impressive debut. Mackinnon has a very long history with the programme, but this is his best work, from the astounding opening shot and the following montage to the shot of the firmament reflected in the eye of someone who will know the name of each star…

However, it is the revelation about our lead that is the real heart of the story. In a truly jaw dropping scene, we are taken to a boy sobbing and then being grabbed from under his bed. But it is Clara under the bed and the boy will grow up to become a father and a grandfather, steal a TARDIS and start the greatest journey in the universe. The core of the story isn’t, therefore, the Doctor defeating the monster under the bed. It is how the fear of the monster drove the Doctor’s insatiable curiosity, how the man who is never cruel or cowardly uses his fear and the real difference between bravery and fearlessness. As Moffat says the Doctor would ‘throw himself off a building if he thought it’d be interesting on the way down’. Now we find out why, and why fear is so vital for all of us. Peter Capaldi, so early in his tenure, gives one of the best performances ever in the title role – his burning curiosity combining with his desire to keep his companion safe, his inconsistent comforting of children and his inability to take a hug.

There is a degree of timey-wiminess at work here. Orson is wearing a Sanctuary Base 6 space suit, which may be significant in the future. Then there is the endearing way in which Clara and Danny finally kiss thanks to serious bending of the laws of time. There is the fact that a plastic toy given to Rupert can make it to the end and the beginning of everything. The use of the line ‘Fear makes companions of us all’ from the very first story is not mere self-indulgence, it has truly been earned in a truly wonderful story that will go down as one of the true classics of Doctor Who.

NEXT: "Time Heist"

Friday, 12 September 2014

"Robot of Sherwood"

After the Dalek slaughter and Time Lord introspection of last week's adventure, it's time for a bit of light relief, as the Doctor meets the most famous figure in English Folklore (King Arthur is, at best, Welsh and, at worst, French) in Mark Gatiss's romp though the greenwood of 12th Century England, for it's time for Robin Hood to nock his arrows and defy the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham, to rob from the rich and give to the poor etc, etc. In looking at this story, I have to make one statement - if there's one programme I have always loved more than Doctor Who, it's Robin of Sherwood, the classic 1980s HTV drama created by Richard Carpenter that has cast a very long shadow, influencing every retelling of the legend since - the Saracen Merry Man, the darker Will Scarlet, they all came from this series. It is refreshing, therefore that, despite its title, the story all but ignores Robin of Sherwood and instead goes back to the joyous 1938 Errol Flynn movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood for his inspiration. Gatiss has stated that he has no particular fondness for any of the Robin Hood TV serials - in fact the only one that is referred to (apart from a very cheeky reference to the first televised Robin Hood) is the brilliant children's comedy Maid Marian and her Merry Men, what with Little John's nickname name being more literal than ironic and a namecheck for Worksop. Gatiss is intent on portraying writing a more innocent, playful version of the legend (although I wish that the epithet 'wolfshead' had been retained to refer outlaws - it's just really cool!). Two staples of nearly every depiction of the legend are present and correct, with some striking modification. Robin fights with a future ally on a log bridge over a river - only it isn't Little John with a quarterstaff, but the Doctor with a spoon. Then, there's the iconic archery contest, where the splitting of arrows is taken to hilariously ridiculous lengths. The story as a whole has, perhaps the funniest script that Gatiss has contributed so far to the programme, with the brilliant dungeon scene and the Doctor trying to get tissue samples from the Merry Men in a far less subtle way than he did in The Moonbase.

Robin is played with cocky charm by Tom Riley, making the Errol Flynn style prince of thieves work in the 21st century. The other merry men take more of a back seat, but with actors as talented as Trevor Cooper playing them, they don't fade into the background. The stage is therefore set for the other main guest role - Ben Miller as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Miller is a supremely gifted comic actor and he manages to make the Sheriff an entertaining villain without totally going over the top. Most impressively, although one can see bits of Nickolas Grace and Tony Robinson, the final portrayal is Miller's own. Peter Capaldi has a ball as the Doctor, buckling his swash with the best of them, playfully licking and licking with his spoon, shamelessly cheating at archery and, most brilliantly of all, really not getting on with the guest star who holds very different opinions as to banter and heroic laughter. With Maid Marian being reduced to a rather minor role, it is Clara who takes her place and Jenna Coleman shines, particularly in her interrogation of the Sheriff. The episode is directed with flair by Paul Murphy and the production is of a very impressive standard with great design work on the robots. Interestingly, although the characters and costumes show no influence from Robin of Sherwood, the locations for the village and the archery contest look very similar!

The plot itself is the standard pseudo-historical mash-up and does suffer from a rather rushed denouement - I can't quite buy the firing of the golden arrow to produce the right amount of gold for the ship to leave the Earth's atmosphere. However, it is the details that make such stories work and with rip, roaring action, great gags and Jenna Coleman looking fabulous, this is tremendous fun throughout.

NEXT: "Listen"

Friday, 5 September 2014

"Into the Dalek"

The Daleks are brought into play for their earliest appearance in a new Doctor’s tenure since Patrick Troughton. The setting is a commandeered hospital ship holding human soldiers desperately fighting off against the Daleks. The exact situation is unspecified – these could be the human/Dalek wars from the 20th Century series, or a new war with the growing post-Time War Dalek empire. However, the setting is by no means vital, and neither are the story’s influences, which it wears on its sleeve – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fantastic Voyage (and, obviously, The Invisible Enemy) and "Dalek" itself, for the story uses its well-worn tropes to probe more deeply into the relationship between the Doctor and his oldest nemeses than ever before.

Ben Wheatley assembles a very impressive cast, with Michael Smiley giving the Colonel a dour, yet sympathetic grit and the always watchable Ben Crompton gives the small role of Ross his all. Most memorably of all is Journey Blue. Zawe Aston is a megastar in the making; she has brought unexpected depths to the comedy roles I have seen her in, and she makes Journey a truly vivid character and I’m sure that I’m not the only one who was disappointed that the Doctor did not acquiesce to her plea to join the TARDIS crew. The production is a triumph, with the awesome space battle at the start, the jaw dropping miniaturisation sequences and the design triumph of the giant Dalek interior. Wheatley’s missteps in directing the fight sequence in "Deep Breath" were clearly a glitch, as he orchestrates some of the finest scenes of Dalek slaughter ever seen on the programme.

Despite this, as with Rob Shearman’s story nine years ago, it is the scenes with the Doctor and a lone, captive Dalek that are the heart of the tale. A damaged Dalek is par for the course for the Doctor, but it is the idea of a Dalek that is so damaged that it has become good that intrigues the Doctor. As I said many moons ago, when it comes to the Daleks, it is not a game for the Doctor and now we find out a bit more about that eternal relationship– the Doctor finally found out who he was when he first met the Daleks and ‘Doctor’ became more than a name. The very concept of a good Dalek is an attack on his identity and he denies that possibility until the very end. In "Dalek", the titular monster said that the Doctor would make a good Dalek, and in this story we see the Doctor as more ruthless and detached than we have seen him since he was last Scottish – his pragmatic use of Ross’s death to save the others and his tasteless joke about it later are not things we would have had from his two predecessors. Capaldi’s performance is a triumph and the fact that this darker, more detached persona is still the Doctor is shown in the scene where the Doctor asks Journey to ask him to take her to the Aristotle nicely - despite the harder exterior, the Doctor still wants to make people better. Phil Ford and Steven Moffat’s script deliberately does not use love or any other emotion as the trigger for the Dalek’s epiphany, but detachment, bringing the Dalek closer to the Doctor. When this Dalek repeats the accusation that Van Statten’s captive made, the implication is different and the look on the Doctor's face speaks volumes.

The fundamental question is whether the Doctor is a good man, something that Clara is unsure of any more. The new relationship between Clara and the Doctor crackles. There is the joke that Clara is his carer, caring so he doesn’t have to, but this is closer to the truth than ever before, with the scene of the Doctor being slapped by his companion being played seriously for the first time. Jenna Coleman makes Clara more appealing as the series goes on and I look forward to seeing how this relationship develops, together with the one with Danny, in which role Samuel Anderson makes an immediate impact.

"Into the Dalek" is, all in all, something of a triumph, transcending its plot to become an adventure that stands up to many multiple viewings. As in "Bad Wolf", there is a lot of transmatting just at the point of death, with Journey meeting the Doctor and Gretchen being the second person we see meeting Missy. Things are getting intriguing...

NEXT: "Robot of Sherwood"

Saturday, 30 August 2014

"Deep Breath"

When speaking of ways of instantly grabbing the viewer, there are probably few more effective than an episode immediately starting with a Godzilla-sized T. rex thundering along the bank of the Thames in Victorian London and then spitting out the TARDIS. It is from here that a reasonably straightforward plot about robots harvesting human organs is taken into weird and wonderful territory in a story that has to deal with the most radical reformatting of the title role since the Ninth Doctor nine years ago. Although a bit frayed around the edges, Moffat’s script is as scary, intriguing and funny as ever, the story feels different - slower, with longer scenes and a lot of sitting down and talking. All this is done in a script that is still full to the brim with great lines and gags.

I was initially a bit apprehensive about both David Tennant and Matt Smith – they were pretty much unknown to me before their announcement, although they won me round pretty quickly. The same cannot be said of Peter Capaldi. As I said when he appeared in "The Fires of Pompeii", the man’s range is formidable and he has charisma oozing out of every pore. My expectations were high and he had no problem in exceeding them, whether squeaking ‘You’ve got a dinosaur too!’, or mumbling the creature’s thoughts in his sleep, whether calmly asking his adversary to join him in a Scotch or baring his teeth in fury when giving his adversary in ultimatum, this new face with old features and attack eyebrows is, without doubt, the face of our favourite Time Lord. The Doctor’s associates carry more of the story than ever before – if you ever wondered what a Paternoster Gang spin-off series would be like, this episode would give you a pretty good idea and our favourite multi-species Victorian gang is on fine form as support. However, it is Clara who helps us truly love this new Doctor. Clara here is portrayed, for the first time, in terms of her life and reactions as a normal human being, rather than as a plot device and Jenna Coleman shines in showing Clara coming to terms with an unfamiliar face on her best friend.

We have a very familiar group of monsters for the story, and the viewer needs no prompting to recall "The Girl in the Fireplace" but with clear differences. The clockwork droids from the SS Marie Antoinette have been trying to repair their ship for tens of millions of years longer than those from SS Madame de Pompadour and they have developed some odd beliefs – perhaps the fact that Marie Antionette’s head became readily available was not the panacea that they were hoping for. The lead droid, the ‘half-face man’ is menacingly portrayed by Peter Ferdinando, who also brings out the desperation and sadness in the character.

The story is directed by Ben Wheatley, one of the most promising new British film directors – I can highly recommend the genuinely unsettling Kill List, in particular (if you have the stomach for it!) Wheatley gets very nuanced performers from all the actors and makes the slower scenes contemplative or tense or menacing as required. However, he is out of his comfort zone when it comes to the fight between the Paternoster gang and the droids, which is a disappointment after the wonderful scenes of Clara holding her breath trying to escape. The whole production is very assured, with a real Talons of Weng-Chiang feel to it (although there is a whopping continuity issue when the Doctor drops out of a tree onto a horse – that is in a courtyard with no trees in sight!) The effects are great throughout, with the outsize T. rex an obvious highlight and it has the depth of a feature film and would work well in a cinema.

Although it is my least favourite debut for a Doctor this century, Peter Capaldi makes the role his own with little effort – whilst it was wonderful to see Matt Smith again, there was no need for him to validate a new Doctor that needed no help to gain our attention. We are left, therefore, with the unexpected revelation that the half-face man found his Promised Land –the maitrêsse d’ of which, ‘Missy’ (sparkily portrayed by the inimitable Michelle Gomez) is a bit too familiar with the Doctor for comfort...

NEXT: "Inside the Dalek"

Saturday, 8 March 2014

"The Time of the Doctor"

All too soon, it seems, the saga of the Eleventh Doctor comes to an end, such a short while after celebrating the seeming immortality of the character. In fact, one of the things "The Time of the Doctor" is about is confronting the inevitable fact that the grave waits for all of us, even the Doctor. However, this is not the main aim of the story. Neither is the fact that it pretty much ties up all the loose ends in what can loosely be termed the Eleventh Doctor's Arc. The story is about how this silly man can be the greatest warrior and the greatest hero the universe has ever seen.

A mysterious coded message broadcasting to all of space and time has attracted some of the most fearsome armies in the universe to a seemingly innocuous planet. When the Doctor decodes the message, it reveals a question that he has been running from all his life emanating from a crack in the Universe he vainly hoped he had left behind him. A question whose answer could rip the cosmos apart – for it is the Time Lords who ask it and the planet is Trenzalore and, with the Daleks closing in, the Time War could start again. It is here that we meet the oft-mentioned Papal Mainframe, led by Tasha Lem, the 'Mother Superious'. The way in which the layers of Steven Moffat's additions to the Doctor Who mythos finally integrate is joyful – the Silence is a religious order of the Papal Mainframe that was formed to stop the Doctor answering the question, with some chapters breaking off and actually declaring war on the Doctor – all the while unknowing that they are being groomed to become a bridgehead for the Doctor's greatest enemies to finish what they started.

This all seems to indicate a grim story of siege and attrition – yet all two of the three principal characters want to do is celebrate Christmas. Throughout the story, Clara is cooking the Turkey for Christmas dinner with the Oswalds, whom we finally meet in the 'present day'. Although Clara's family do not register as well as they could, this is not true of Ms Oswald herself. Clara is put through the wringer more than she has ever done and Jenna Coleman's performance is delightful and very moving, from her faking her romantic relationship with the Doctor to demonstrating the strength of their real one. Supporting the regulars is the fantastic Orla Brady as Tasha, making us instantly feel that she is an integral part of the Doctor’s life, despite only just having met her. Moffat manages to garnish the story with his trademark humour, juggling the varying moods perfectly. He is helped by a stellar production, with vast fleets of starships, wooden Cybermen and the beauty of a day that lasts minutes. Jamie Payne brings all of this to life with style in another excellent outing in the director's chair.

The Doctor celebrates Christmas in a different way – for Christmas is the name of the town on Trenzalore where the TARDIS materialises. The Doctor will protect Christmas, but not by using its inhabitants as soldiers. When Moffat inherited the role of showrunner, the Doctor was a man who was haunted by the belief that he had committed genocide against his own people. The events of "The Day of the Doctor" removed that burden from his past and now, "The Time of the Doctor" removes another burden from his future. Trenzalore promised a battlefield strewn with the graves of those who died defending the planet. What the Doctor does is defend the people as well as the place; now the graves are those of the people who were saved by the Doctor. The people of Christmas love their saviour, a man who can fix young Barnable's toys whilst holding off the greatest army in the universe. Believing this to be his final life, the Doctor is allowed to retire as only he can, saving the universe and, approaching the end of his second millennium (probably) he looks very much like he did twelve lives ago. However, as has been said before, even the universe cannot bear to be without the Doctor.

Anchoring all of this is the final regular performance in the title role by a man who confounded all initial expectations and exceeded all subsequent ones. Matt Smith inherited the role from a man who made it his own in a way no-one else had done for 30 years – and managed to inhabit the role completely in less than an hour. The youngest actor to play the Doctor managed to make him feel like the oldest, which is reflected in the way he meets his end – his predecessor didn't want to go. He knows what is inevitable, although his successor will not get the bow tie. As I have said before, Peter Capaldi is a phenomenal actor and he immediately makes an impression. But the raggedy man with the big chin will never be forgotten...

NEXT:  "Deep Breath"