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"