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"