Saturday, 21 November 2015

"Sleep No More"

The ‘found-footage’ premise has become a very popular approach since The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, where it has been used to add a degree of verisimilitude to various genres and it is now the turn of our favourite hero to have his tale told in this manner. Immediately, this story looks different, because, for the first time ever, the Doctor Who opening sequence is completely absent from a story. Gone, too, is Murray Gold’s incidental music. We are left alone with the sets, the lights, the cameras and the actors…

It is fitting that, as with other unusual stories, this episode is helmed by a newcomer to the series, in the shape of Justin Molotnikov. The camerawork is either static or hand-held and we are initially led to believe that the sources for the images are helmet cams and security cams. Molotnikov effectively builds up tension and real scares when the Sandmen attack as well as brief, but awe-inspiring views of Neptune from orbit and, of course, the end, which is genuinely unsettling. The set design is as good as ever and, with no non-diegetic music, the sound plays a more important role than usual.

There is effective world-building – the Indo-Japanese fusion, the genetically engineered Grunts and, most notably, the concept of Morpheus, the system that compresses sleep into five minutes. Characterisation is, perhaps inevitably, sketchy, but this is helped by some good guest performances, notably Amy Tan as Nagata (Indo-Japanese-Geordie, going by her accent!) and Bethany Black as Grunt 474 – designed to be less than human, yet involuntarily striving to be more so. Best of all is Reece Shearsmith as Rasmussen, the final member of the League of Gentlemen to appear in the programme. The regulars are more reactive than is usual, but this is no Eric Saward script and the Doctor soon takes charge. However, there is more going on in Mark Gatiss’s script than meets the eye. There are no cameras either in the helmets of the troops or the station itself. Moreover, events occur seemingly only for effect. In an inspired twist, it turns out that the episode itself is the means for the infection to spread, in the most metafictional the programme has been. It is therefore not, found footage after all – it is an edited mixture of a sinister reality version of Peep Show and the video from The Ring. It is a real pity, therefore that the script shows all the marks of a first draft. Personally I don’t find the idea of sleep dust forming the base of a malevolent new entity particularly ridiculous, especially when the realisation in as effective as it is here, but the way in which the plot develops, though understandable, is oddly paced and resolutions are few. Perhaps this is intentional – even the Doctor says that events make no sense – however, there is a slight sense of dissatisfaction left at the end, which is only partly assuaged by the promise of a sequel.

Nevertheless, this is a gripping tale that definitely works. I hope that the sequel (which I hope is called "Rheum With a View") builds on the foundation laid down.

NEXT: "Face the Raven"

Saturday, 14 November 2015

"The Zygon Invasion"/ "The Zygon Inversion"

Doctor Who very rarely “does politics” and, in the past, the results have been mixed. The Green Death managed to be an engaging story as well as informing the viewer on environmental matters and their political ramifications and The Curse of Peladon takes a look at an independent body joining a composite political entity that could be applied to EEC/EU membership. However, we also have the less successful likes of The Mutants in the 20th century and the ‘massive weapons of destruction’ which form the weakest part of the weakest story of the Eccleston era. "The Zygon Invasion"/ "The Zygon Inversion" immediately attracts, due to its irresistible title(s), but it also attempts to deal with some present-day hot-button issues - especially bearing in mind the events of 31 October and 13 November of 2015, chillingly close to broadcast. These aims have to hit their mark, especially now and the degree to which the story succeeds is completely unprecedented.

Following the events of "The Day of the Doctor", 20 million Zygons have assimilated into the human population. The overwhelming majority are peaceful, but a few of the younger generation are growing restless with the need to hide, to conform and have radicalised to form the group Truth or Consequences. The elder generation are appalled, but insist it is best for them to be dealt with by their own. It doesn’t take a genius to realise how much of this applies to radical Islam but the script by Peter Harness makes the issues easy to understand, without grossly simplifying them. Both sides spout hateful rhetoric, yet the viewer can understand the motivations of the characters spouting it. However, the dangers of radicalisation are only a part of the whole, for Harness and Moffat are just as keen on attacking modern warfare, indeed the entire concept of war itself. One abhorrent aspect of modern warfare that the vast majority of people just ignore or worse, accept, is the use of drones. Killing has become like a computer game, where, in a place of complete safety, operators can target images on a screen. Dehumanising the enemy makes their killing more effectively, and a dehumanised target is a faceless target. This story simply, yet devastatingly effectively, shows what happens when the faceless are given a face. Daniel Nettheim’s direction is unshowy, yet devastatingly effective in realising this and many other things. It takes a second to realise that the tumbleweeds in New Mexico are something more sinister and the dynamics of the Doctor negotiating peace with what looks like two little girls in a playground are fully explored for both incongruous comedy and grim drama. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers aspect of the Zygons is alluded to more strongly than ever before, most notably the 1978 version. It goes without saying that the production is fantastic, with the scene with the forced transformation of the peaceful Zygon being a deft mixture of the grotesque and the poignant.

The dialogue is brilliantly effective – the scene where the Doctor and Colonel Walsh have to give a pep talk to the UNIT soldiers follows a scene where they have a fundamental disagreement. Their speeches complement each other, yet do not betray their disagreement. However, it is in the key scene with the Osgood boxes that concept, dialogue, direction and performance combine to form one of the greatest sequences the programme has ever had in its 52-year history. War, the Doctor points out, is both preceded and succeeded by diplomacy and is the middle-man that needs cutting the most. Capaldi truly gives one of the best ever performances in the title role and, with the kindly smile he gives Bonnie, you can swear that you see all 2000 years of the Doctor’s life in his eyes. Jenna Coleman is great as both Clara and Zygella (sorry, Bonnie!) and we have the welcome return of Jemma Redgrave’s Kate and the brilliant Ingrid Oliver as, the far steelier, but still adorable, Osgood. We say goodbye, all to soon to Jaye Griffiths's Jac, but hello to Rebecca Front as Walsh - there is not a hint of The Thick of It when she and Capaldi share scenes.

"The Zygon Invasion"/ "The Zygon Inversion" doesn’t end with a bang, but neither does it end with a whimper. Zygella doesn’t betray the peace at the last minute and Kate doesn’t order UNIT to blow the Zygons up. What we have is better than a bang, a crescendo. "The Zygon Invasion"/ "The Zygon Inversion" is a story that I am tempted to throw superlatives at – ‘the best UNIT story since Inferno’ springs to mind. However, what I will say is this; there may be better stories than this one, but I cannot think of one that better shows how marvellous a programme Doctor Who is.

NEXT: "Sleep No More"

Sunday, 1 November 2015

"The Woman Who Lived"

Catherine Tregenna was the writer "Captain Jack Harkness", unquestionably the best story of the first series of Torchwood and she makes her debut writing for the mothership here. Amongst the writers who have worked on the programme since its return, Tregenna is unusual, in that she has never professed to be a lifelong fan of Doctor Who, which immediately gives this story a fresh feel. The influences are a bit more esoteric. Ashildr’s life (including times spent as a man) bears shades of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and, of course, a woman highwayman disguised as a man and putting on a man’s voice immediately brings to mind "Amy and Amiability" which I would call a hilariously classic episode of Blackadder the Third if that wasn’t a complete tautology.

Ashildr’s journey is funny and tragic at the same time – unlike Captain Jack she isn’t a unique space-time event, which means that she can only remember a fraction of her 800 year life. Her diaries may record the rest, but they might as well be someone else’s. Maisie Williams, so strong in the irresistible Game of Thrones is wonderful – sweet, yet steely as Ashildr, detached, yet not too remote to be brought back as Me. There is great support from Rufus Hound, who is very likable as Sam Swift; as with Frank Skinner last year, he is clearly having the time of his life. The alien invasion seems to be over egging the pudding a bit, but Ariyon Bakare lends his commanding authority to Leandro. Our leading man is on fire in both parts of the story whether channelling Tom Baker with his bad Odin impersonation or channelling his previous iconic role when assigning the Vikings their nicknames. Capaldi continues to impress in fresh ways as he goes on.

However, in both parts of this story there is a considerable handicap. The direction by Ed Bazalgette is, in my opinion, the worst since the programme came back. There are some good sequences, most notably CGI used in handheld shots. However, Bazalgette fails to keep track of the small things and the editing is clumsy. If you are showing a rider passing a milestone, it is a good idea to clearly show what is on that milestone, for example. Other sequences fail to make sense on first viewing because of choices Bazalgette has made, most notably the gag concerning the Vikings’ first use of real swords. Possibly linked to Bazalgette’s inconsistent helming is the fact that Murray Gold’s score is a disappointment. However, the production team is so strong that it can paper over most of Bazalgette’s cracks and the design is first rate, despite being completely inaccurate, historically – the horned helmets are understandable, but the sense of period in "The Woman Who Lived" is non-existent – the costumes and iconography are from the eighteenth century, yet the setting is unambiguously the Commonwealth Interregnum a century earlier.

Despite these flaws this is a hugely enjoyable story and I look forward to seeing more of Me(!).

NEXT: "The Zygon Invasion"/ "The Zygon Inversion"

"The Girl Who Died"

NOTE: In this two-parter-heavy series of Doctor Who, this tale is something of an oddity. It is anchored by the same supporting character and made with the same director, yet each part tells a very different story and is written by a different writer, so I will look at these stories separately – for the most part.

Jamie Matheson, who made an immediate impact in his two excellent debut stories last season, returns (assisted by his boss) in this gloriously enjoyable romp. In this story of a Viking village staving off an attack by warlike aliens, there is the obvious influence of The Seven Samurai and Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness. Despite several well worn (and inaccurate!) Norse clich├ęs, the idea of having the pillaging part of the population removed quite soon means that we have a rather atypical bunch of Northmen and Northwomen. The story is full of cracking one liners and lyrical monologues and the way the plot resolves itself is very satisfying, because of, rather than in spite of the contrivances used to get there.

The ‘not the best half’ of the village is memorably cast, with such memorable figures as Lofty the blacksmith and the not-very-fierce Heidi, played excellently by Tom Stourton and Barnaby Kay. In the key role of Einar (or ‘Chuckles’) we have a wonderfully steely, yet warm performance by Ian Conningham. It has to be said, however, that David Schofield, fine actor though he is, isn’t quite commanding enough for Odin – if ever there was a role tailor made for Brian Blessed's return to Doctor Who, it was this one. Clara’s role is mainly confined to this half and, again, Jenna Coleman knocks it for six in a space suit.

Which brings us to the key character of Ashildr. A tomboy in her late teens, she is the engaging storyteller of the village whose imagination is fuelled by the adventures of the raiders, who love her, misfit though she is. The defeat of the Mire is largely due to her gifts, and what happens is tragic. However the girl who died is dead no longer and the centuries race by...