Sunday, 25 June 2017

"The Eaters of Light"

"The Eaters of Light" is, at its simplest, a story of a monster threatening a village with an inter-dimensional rift and Picts and Romans thrown in. The background is the famous disappearance of the Ninth legion – generations of children in Britain and elsewhere read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth, as Bill did and the mystery has intrigued many before then. The story of how the Doctor, Bill and Nardole help the Picts join forces with the Romans is not surprising in its broad strokes, but we are dealing with a writer of subtlety and intelligence and the devil is in the details. The ‘gift of the TARDIS’ is explored more fully than it has ever been before, where the Picts and Romans are suddenly able to understand each other, and see each other as people. The story explores concepts of folk memories and oral histories and turns a typical Doctor Who joke (crows being in a huff and not talking any more) to something genuinely moving. The Picts and Romans are given understandable motivations which make their actions seem natural. The guest cast form a very capable ensemble with Rebecca Benson standing out as Kar.

The team of writers that Andrew Cartmel discovered in the final era of the Doctor Who’s original incarnation were bursting with talent and the one who has gone on to the most acclaimed career is Rona Munro and so, after 12 years, a writer from 20th Century Doctor Who has returned to pen a new tale; perhaps fittingly it is the one who penned the swansong. Munro clearly has her own ideas on who the Doctor is – he is keen to help, to sacrifice himself, even, but he has no patience for blind hostility and self-pity. Peter Capaldi excels when portraying this interpretation and his backup is well up to the challenge. Charles Palmer comes back to helm a very assured production, dripping with atmosphere. In the very best way, the feel is like a first rate BBC children’s drama – only the scene about Roman sexual orientations would look out of place in one, and perhaps not even that. The monster attacks are genuinely disorienting and the Doctor’s trick with the popcorn utterly joyous. It goes without saying that the march of Kar and the remains of the Ninth into the portal is genuinely moving. The production is flawless, with Munro’s evocative use of Pictish monument carvings forming an integral visual aspect of the story. Note also, that the Roman costumes are not recycled from "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang".

"The Eaters of Light" just shows what a brilliant writer can do with a few bullet points for a brief and is a story that will surely reward repeat viewings. There is not one ounce of fat in the story, but that is because it takes up less than 40 minutes. We conclude with a remarkable coda with Missy and the Doctor perhaps realising that their relationship will change in the future. But, as we all know, the past will catch up before then…

NEXT: "World Enough and Time"/"The Doctor Falls"

Sunday, 18 June 2017

"Empress of Mars"

If there is one thing which can be said about Mark Gatiss's considerable output under the Doctor Who banner, it is that he loves a pastiche. From the Dickensian Yuletide Ghost story to the found footage horror story, Gatiss has a fascination with reworking the old – and on "Empress of Mars", we see a patchwork-pastiche of even greater complexity. We finally have an Ice Warrior story set on the Martians' home planet, but, in addition, the title recalls the tales of Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The conflicted colonialist attitudes of the humans recall Malacandra, the Mars of C.S. Lewis. The humans in question seem to have arrived on Mars just after the Battle of Rorke's Drift – as immortalised in Zulu. And, they bring an Ice Warrior back to his native land, ostensibly as a servant, but hiding his own agenda – which is, of course, a major part of the plot of King Solomon's Mines. And we have not even started on the references to Doctor Who itself. The set up again relies on the resurrection of an Ice Warrior and in other ways, the story brings to mind the first two episodes of Tomb of the Cybermen. References are made to the Tythonian Hive – either a (misspelled) reference to Pyramids of Mars or to the title character in a rather less well-loved story. And, of course, there is the cameo for another Brian Hayles creation...

The story, unoriginal though it is, works because it creates a constructive ending rather than a destructive one. Themes of redemption and honour drive the plot through the clichés. The examination of British Imperialist attitudes is not as detailed as in "Thin Ice", but there are some nice touches – the fact that the Ice Warriors are clearly more advanced than Victorian Britons does nothing to temper colonialist arrogance. However, the characterisation never rises beyond the basic – disgraced commander, ambitious junior officer, cheeky NCOs. Aiding this enormously is a very talented supporting cast. Anthony Calf makes Colonel Godacre very sympathetic, whilst Ferdinand Kingsley shows a lot of the charisma and raw talent that made his dad a star. Ian Beattie is great fun as Cockney chancer Jackdaw – a far cry from his most recognisable role, the loathsome Ser Meryn Trant in Game of Thrones. On the Martian side, Adele Lynch chews the scenery gloriously as Iraxxa, the titular empress. It is a bit of a shame that the Ice Warrior voices have moved even further from their original sibilant hiss, but, as they have a lot more dialogue, this is a necessary sacrifice for character over effect. The regulars are on reliably wonderful form. Nardole is removed for most of the episode, but we have, again, a great showing from Peter and Pearl – the Doctor has never seen The Thing, Terminator or The Vikings, but, like seemingly everyone on Earth, he is very familiar with Frozen. Of special note is the scene between the Doctor and Missy, which hints at so many hidden depths.

Wayne Yip holds it all together very well. It must be said that the fact that the fact that this is a very studio bound story is clear, more so than any other story this century. Increase the shot length and reduce the shot number, and you would have something very similar to a Doctor Who story from last century. It still looks fantastic, being painted in contrasting primary colours, the ochre of the Martian caves, the red of the army tunics, the green of the Ice Warriors. Yip also manages to make the effect of the Ice Warriors' sonic guns look shocking, when it could easily have come across as ridiculous.

"Empress of Mars" will never go down as a classic. It is, however, tremendous fun and well worth a rewatch.

NEXT: "The Eaters of Light"

Saturday, 10 June 2017

"Extremis"/"The Pyramid at the End of the World"/"The Lie of the Land"

The longest collective title since 1979 heralds the arrival of the longest story since 1979. Like "The Girl Who Died"/"The Woman Who Lived", this is the work of more than one director and more than one writer but it does tell a more linear story than the tale which introduced Me, in this tale of the sinister Monks. However, each episode has its own particular qualities which should be addressed separately.

The reality bending "Extremis" is an episode that must surely rank with the finest Moffat penned stories. It is scary, thought provoking, human and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. The concept of the Veritas and the Haereticum hints at what The Da Vinci Code would have been like, had it been written by someone who could write coherent sentences, and the way in which a covert collection of cardinals can crash Bill’s attempt to have a date is farce of the most exquisite variety.¤ A story that hinges on suicide moves the programme into potentially very dark areas, but Moffat is easily skilful enough to make it work, as the very notion of epistemological reality is brought into question. When we realise that none of what we have seen is true, we are not disappointed because we are given the irresistible notion that a computer simulation of Doctor Who has made an episode of Doctor Who for Doctor Who to watch!

"The Pyramid at the End of the World" takes us into the real(ish) world with the juggling of the accidental release of a potential genetically engineered pandemic with the modus operandi of the monks all wrapped up in the cosiness of a UNIT story without actually having UNIT there. Moffat’s collaboration with Peter Harness, whilst lacking the flagrant inventiveness of "Extremis" is an exciting and fresh way in harmonising two quintessential Doctor Who plotlines – the man-made threat to Earth and the alien invasion. The treatment of international politics is simple without seeming simplistic – a hard line to walk and we have an all-time classic scene to conclude the episode – where the battle is lost because our heroes succumb to both their best qualities and their worst judgement.

The dystopia of "The Lie of the Land" has hints of both "Last of the Time Lords" and "The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon" and, for the most part holds its own in its story of a renegade Time Lord holding sway over a world ruled by cadaverous creatures who can bend our perception of reality. However, we know this Time Lord all too well and it is clear the Doctor has a plan to defeat his enemies. The plan involves a key phrase that has formed a rather egregious nodule in the 2017 zeitgeist – 'fake news' and, it could be argued that the solution seems strangely lightweight (although perfectly sound) for such a long story and, skilful as its execution is, one is left feeling slightly unsatisfied - perhaps, inevitably, it is the only episode that would not work as a stand-alone story with a few tweaks.

The direction is excellent throughout, with Daniel Nettheim and Wayne Yip doing sterling work. "Extremis", in particular, is a wonder of dynamic pacing and variant tones like a visual Cardiacs song. In the whole story, sequence after sequence sticks in the mind - the pyramid neutralising the threats against it, the reality boosts that the Monks broadcast, and, of course, the nail-biting sequence that concludes "The Pyramid at the End of the World". Even when spectacular effects are commonplace, this story contains sequences that impress - the pyramid capturing the bomber, the montage of the Monks throughout history and prehistory and, of course, the horrifying appearance of the Monks themselves. There are real scares in the story - the disintegration of Douglas is genuinely shocking. The three regulars are spectacular, with Matt Lucas showing a range that few knew he had - his horror at discovering he is only a simulation is palpable. Pearl Mackie is fast heading towards making Bill my favourite companion with another arresting performance. And then, there's our leading man. Capaldi never lets us go and the sequence where he seems to confirm to Bill that he has joined the Monks is breath-taking. Michelle Gomez makes a very welcome return, solving the mystery of who is in the vault and her performance leaves us guessing as to what Missy is truly up to. We have a fine selection of guest actors. Tony Gardner is always a welcome addition and we have great turns by Ivanno Jeremiah, Corrado Invernizzi, Rachel Denning, Togo Igawa and many others.

This very ambitious story promises a lot, but, ultimately, is very slightly less than the sum of its parts, which is a real shame as it could have ended up as one of the crowning achievements of Moffat's Doctor Who. However, each episode is, at the very least good and, at best, brilliant. The Monks are defeated rather quickly but, I doubt we have heard the last of them...

NEXT: "The Empress Of Mars"

Sunday, 21 May 2017

"Oxygen"

I, like many, was very impressed with Jamie Mathieson’s previous contributions and was very much looking forward to what he would come up with next. As with other stories broadcast this season, I must use ‘old-fashioned’ to describe "Oxygen". Of all the base-under-siege stories that have been made since the programme returned, this story of a threat on a space station is the one that could fit most easily in Patrick Troughton’s first full season. However, as I said for "Cold War", this story has the advantage of being much shorter, meaning a much leaner narrative. It is told in a series of memorable set pieces and is so focused on driving the narrative, that much is left unstated – the time when the story is set, the location of the station (although references to ‘Ganymede’ imply a Jovian setting) although these are not plot holes and do not detract from the story. Another consequence, as with the Troughton stories that influenced, characterisation of the guest characters is rather thin. What we do get is some very convincing world building, which gives the story a certain political bite. We have a world where oxygen is a commodity and the sheer size of the human population means that a human life is a very inexpensive commodity. Mathieson makes the Doctor discover the dark secret of this iteration of the human story and then turn it on its head, as only the Doctor can in a story that has the most overtly left-wing agenda yet – some more committed conservatives might have a few problems here!


"Flatline" and "Mummy on the Orient Express" also distinguished themselves by being scary and, again, we have a Jamie Mathieson story that goes right up to the boundary separating frightening a child and traumatising it. The special effects and make-up complement these sequences perfectly – the first space zombie that the TARDIS crew find looks terrifying, with its blue face and glassy eyes. We are helped along by the very welcome return of Charles Palmer to the director’s chair, after nearly a decade. The first appearance of the suits – basically space zombies – is brilliantly realised by Palmer. The rescue of Bill from the vacuum of space is masterly, with her regaining of consciousness shot in flashes of post-production slow-motion. Even the look of outer space is distinctive - very different from the colourful nebulae more often seen in the programme. Here, space is stark and silent, with the stars dim against the blackness of space. This is the darkness of 2001, of Alien, rather than the brightness of Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy.

Despite the characterisation not being a priority, we have some very good performances from the guest cast, which move them beyond the traditional base-under-siege antagonists. Standing out is Dahh-Ren, played by Peter Caulfield, showing that humanity will gain a few more ethnic groups in the future. The regulars are in a new configuration. Nardole takes a more proactive and serious role and Matt Lucas manages to do this without us losing sight of Nardole’s inherent humour. Bill has less to do, but Pearl Mackie continues to excel – Bill’s cry for her mother is genuinely heart-breaking. The character of the Doctor is written like his Fifth personality – but the other Peter takes it into wholly new directions with the virtuoso display that we have come to expect.

Again Jamie Mathieson has fashioned a truly memorable tale, even without the shocking turn of events at the end. It will be very interesting to see what this Zatoichi-Doctor will do, in the light of things…

NEXT: "Extremis"

Sunday, 14 May 2017

"Knock Knock"

It is surprising that it has taken so long for Doctor Who to tackle teen horror, but here, finally, we have a bunch of youngsters of varying levels of competence facing off against a spooky house that is picking them off, one by one. However, despite the usual ingredients being present, there is another that makes this very different from the usual low-budget shockfest – everyone’s favourite time traveller.

Acclaimed playwright Mike Bartlett writes a very impressive script that manages to juggle a lot of narrative balls successfully.The Doctor’s presence means that each shocking event is a learning experience, rather than culminative displays of stupidity by the characters and, as we learn more about the situation, we learn that it is more than a madman luring and killing people, rather a more tragic tale of the devotion between parent and child – and who fills what role.

"Knock Knock" is, of course, lower budgeted than even a modest feature film of this genre. Yet there is one thing that this story has over the vast majority of cinematic shockers – a villain portrayed by an actor of David Suchet’s calibre. Suchet’s underplaying of the role means that he can seem like a slightly odd old man with a big house that anyone would have no problems with trusting. Yet the sheer craft that Suchet brings to the role means that depths are opened up with each revelation that belie the subtle changes in his performance. The regulars are on fine form and their interplay perfectly utilises the dynamic between the alien genius and the untutored, but perceptive intelligence of the companion. We must also not forget a very fine performance from the excellent Mariah Gale as the tragic Eliza and, indeed, our clutch of foolhardy teens. Credit must be given to director Bill Anderson for using this marvellous cast so well and he does not take his eye off the ball visually, with some very memorable scenes and a very confident production – the image of the wooden Eliza is incredibly striking and such shocks as Pavel being trapped and the Dryads devouring their victims. The Dryads become less threatening once they are revealed, but this is probably to the story’s purpose and makes the restoration of Bill’s housemates acceptable in story terms. Perhaps more so than any story since "Midnight", the sound mixing is crucial to its success, and the special binaural mix makes it an unforgettable headphone experience.

"Knock Knock" is wonderful entertainment and a fine example of something Doctor Who has done well for decades – taking a well-worn genre staple and making it something else entirely.

NEXT: "Oxygen"

Saturday, 6 May 2017

"Thin Ice"

Sarah Dollard made a strong impression with her debut story, "Face the Raven" and I was looking forward to what she would come up with next. To say that "Thin Ice" exceeded my expectations is the least of it. As with "Smile", there is nothing particularly original about "Thin Ice" and again, a good writer elevates the plot into something else entirely. "Thin Ice" is even more old-fashioned than "Smile" and its plot of a colossal leviathan imprisoned under the ice of the Regency-era Thames, wouldn’t look out of place in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. Antecedents can also be found in "The Beast Below" amongst others. It seems picky to point out that it is the plot that is (comparatively speaking) the weakest aspect of the story. However, as anyone who has read anything that has more words than pictures in it will tell you, plot is only the beginning. The cosiness that one finds in such early-in-the-season adventures forms a very thin veneer in this story - the storytelling is a good deal more raw, meaning that, fun though the story is, it cannot be describes as a ‘romp’. A street urchin is killed and the racism that Bill faces is very accurate to the time – slavery may have been legally unenforceable in England and Wales for 40 years in 1814, but there were still slaves elsewhere in the British Empire. We have the common man being ground in the gears of the Industrial Revolution and the common man taking the palaces of the mighty from his conquered masters. The handling of such variance in moods and tones shows remarkable skill on Dollard’s part – the funny bits are hysterical, the shocks are real and, whilst the plot may be rushed, the story satisfies. Most notable of all, Sutcliffe’s treatment of Bill makes a very serious point comedically and gets away with it.

Anchoring this is the triumph in the characterisation of the Doctor and his companion. The Doctor is clearly not human in his reactions, seeing the big picture and connections that humans cannot. Yet he is also revealed as a master pie-thief and bonds with urchins left, right and centre - the difference between not-human and inhuman is clearly made by the story. Dollard gives the Doctor some magnificent speeches about the nature of his detachment and the nature of his compassion and he is equally adept at the story’s comedy. It goes without saying that Capaldi faces this challenge seemingly effortlessly. Supporting him is Pearl Mackie who just gets better and better – Bill’s shock and cold fury at the death of the urchin is flawlessly played, without it damaging the joie de vivre of her character. The supporting cast is excellent, with a sparky performance by Asiatu Koroma as Kitty, the head urchin. Perfectly cast as the odious grandee Lord Sutcliffe, is Nicholas Burns, an actor who can portray smug in 50 different ways.

Bill Anderson directs with great feeling, getting a good sense of period and making the action sequences very striking, particularly the pilot fish zeroing in on the prey and the wonderful scenes of the Doctor and Bill diving in the Thames (with slightly anachronistic suits, but, aesthetically, really the only way they could have gone!) The beast below the Thames is never seen whole, its size being shown by expertly framed shots of parts of it.

"Thin Ice" bears comparison, as said, with many pseudo-historical stories of the past, but in evaluating it, I must draw comparison to "The Zygon Invasion"/ "The Zygon Inversion" – a wonderfully entertaining story that shows precisely how wonderful a programme Doctor Who can be.

NEXT: "Knock Knock"

Saturday, 29 April 2017

"Smile"

Frank Cottrell-Boyce's previous contribution "In the Forest of the Night" was a very hard story to evaluate - a fresh, imaginative science-fantasy that somehow completely failed to work as a Doctor Who story. However, Cottrell-Boyce is simply too good a writer for his work to be dismissed and I am very glad that he was given a second go. Although it deals with such contemporary scientific thinking such as swarm robotics (a leading proponent gives his name to the Vardy, the nanobots of the story) "Smile" is a very old-fashioned Doctor Who story - more than half of the story consists of the regulars walking around the colony making discoveries, very similar to the first episode of The Ark in Space. This means we have the odd situation where two name guest stars (Mina Anwar and Ralf Little) are there to basically only set up and resolve the plot respectively. But Cottrell-Boyce have never been one for taking the obvious route, even in a story as archetypal as this one and using the regulars as the only point of view characters is a very effective way of changing the Vardy from an inexplicable threat to a life form with rights. It must be said that the ending is a bit rushed and the conclusion has all the mechanics of a rabbit-from-a-hat ending, but is handled very well and works better when the story is viewed as a whole. We therefore have the very interesting situation of having a very human story with no real supporting characters; seemingly a defect, but actually working in the story’s favour.

As a consequence (again) we have a rather small supporting cast, but as said before, that is deliberate and is an inevitable consequence of, perhaps, the greatest triumph of the story; one of the best interactions between Doctor and companion that the programme has ever had. It is a real joy having the Doctor just show his friend the wonders of the Universe and the performances by the regulars have a sense of warmth and fun which indicates that the combination of the Doctor and Bill will be a truly winning one. Bill’s genuine sense of wonder is infectious and never descends into annoying naivety, such is the power of Pearl Mackie’s performance.

Lawrence Gough makes everything look marvellous, helped in no small way by the stunning location filming at the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències in Valencia, with Gough using wide shots to beautiful effect. The nature of the Vardy is excellently handled - their initial break off from the structure of the city is easily overlooked, so that the second time is hugely surprising. The emoji bots are an instantly memorable creation, both very much a 2017 concept and timeless, both cute and terrifying. The effects work complements the amazing locations and cinematographer Ashley Rowe effectively contrasts the city location with the ship location.

"Smile" shows just what a good writer can do with basic concepts and what an excellent one can do when playing with what lesser writers would regard are core foundations in scriptwriting. It seems that we are in for a lot of fun in the future.

NEXT: "Thin Ice"

Saturday, 22 April 2017

"The Pilot"

The clanking of the robotic body of Nardole notwithstanding, it is a very sedate shot which opens Doctor Who for 2017. In fact the very first scene is based around comfort and stability. This episode is called "The Pilot", which drives home the fact that there will be a whole new group of new fans, some of whom were not born when David Tennant was the Doctor, who will be looking for a point to jump on.

Like in "An Unearthly Child" and "Rose", we get to discover the Doctor as a man of mystery. The nature of our favourite Time Lord and his time machine is revealed piecemeal as it is to the new companion and we are treated to a trip to the future, to the past (albeit a Dalek past with bonus Movellans) and even Down Under. Perhaps, in the service of this, the plot isn’t as well-developed as we are used to, but it is comprehensible and full of cool moments.

Which brings us to our new leading lady. Bill is the first companion of the Moffat era to have a perfectly normal life and not an impossible girl. She is bright, far brighter than her education level would indicate and is looking for answers to life and love in equal measure. I have loved all of the companions who have joined the Doctor this century, but I have to say that Pearl Mackie gives the most accomplished debut performance of any of them, taking Moffat’s trademark zesty dialogue and making it her own. Her reaction to the Doctor’s gift to her is brilliantly nuanced acting, where a lesser actor would have settled with tears and a hand over the mouth. Steven Moffat has never been as good at writing the commonplace as Russell T Davies, but he does it excellently here. The Doctor has been channelling his old friend Professor Chronotis in his new(ish) job and Peter Capaldi manages to make the Twelfth Doctor noticeably different from his previous appearances, yet still the same person. Matt Lucas is a bit more in the background, but he never fades into it. The supporting cast is tiny, but Stephanie Hyam still stands out as Heather, the girl with the star in her eye, with her delicate features becoming downright terrifying as she is possessed. The direction by Lawrence Gough is very accomplished and his restraint in marshalling effects is very welcome – note the giant CGI water head that chases the regulars into the TARDIS.

In the end, the Doctor opens the TARDIS doors to yet another friend with promise of greater adventures to come. The last stage of the Twelfth Doctor's tenure looks to be an enjoyable one.

NEXT: "Smile"

Sunday, 16 April 2017

"The Return of Doctor Mysterio"

2016 was a very grim year on very many fronts, a grimness that was not alleviated by a new series of Doctor Who being broadcast, with the gap of exactly one year being the longest since the return of the programme. I said, when I reviewed "The Husbands of River Song" that it was a 'carefree romp'. However, although it can hardly be described as a romp, "The Return of Doctor Mysterio" is, if anything, even less concerned with anything other than being thoroughly entertaining.

Initially, the fusion of the world of Doctor Who with superheroes may seem odd – the Doctor's modus operandi is defiantly different from any of the costumed crazies that Marvel, DC and the like throw at us. However, the threats they face are very similar; and this is the stage on which Steven Moffat works his magic. The main influence is, of course, Richard Donner's Superman, a film that, despite its faults, has influenced every single superhero film that followed it. There are scenes which are practically restagings of sequences from Superman, most notably the rooftop dinner scene. And, of course, we have our surrogates – a Superman, a Clark Kent and a Lois Lane. However, this is a Doctor Who story, so as well as the plucky reporter sneaking in and eavesdropping on the villains' plotting, we have the Doctor snacking on sushi, standing next to her. When the villain threatens our heroes with a gun, the Doctor suggests they be shot in the back. Of course, there is a certain metatextuality, as Superman is a known fictional character in the confines of the story, but it is unobtrusive – one can ponder about the super hero as wish-fulfillment and the ins and out of super-puberty at one's own pace.

Capaldi is as bonkers, as dashing, as funny, as powerful as he always is – it is still remarkable how much sadness he can convey through his face alone. Making a surprise return is Matt Lucas as Nardole who fills the companion's shoes very well and shows (as if we didn't know) that he can carry the drama, as well as the laughs. The Ghost himself is excellently played by Justin Chatwin who skilfully keeps the character just on the right side of parody. The very English Charity Wakefield is an unusual choice for our intrepid all-American heroine, but she brings real vibrancy to her character. As the face of Harmony Shoals, Aleksandar Jovanovic is suitably chilling as Dr Sim.

The biggest fear I had, was with the return of Ed Bazalgette. I was very unimpressed with his work in the last season, and his lacklustre work in Class didn't change that opinion. The best that I can say about him is that he doesn't mess any of the scenes up – although if you are going to use the comic panel effect, it's best not to confine in to the one scene that could fit into pretty much any drama or comedy.

This story is hugely enjoyable and, with Harmony Shoals seemingly being set up as a Big Bad (and with the similarity to the name of a character we all want to return). I am very much looking forward for the long awaited return of our favourite programme.

NEXT: "The Pilot"