Thursday, 18 September 2014

Listen written by Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon


This story in a nutshell: Probably the hardest Doctor Who story to define in its long history...

Indefinable: Before I saw a lot of potential in Peter Capaldi's gruff and moody Doctor and already this approach is already starting to pay off and astonishingly early in the season too. Listen is ambitious and far reaching in the way it attempts to reveal further shades about the Doctor, not an easy feat given he has been on our screen for fifty years. Facets of the Doctor's dark character are actually perpetuating stories, he's deliberating going looking for answers to the riddle of his psyche. At the end of this season the Doctor will have examined his soul inside and out and will make a perfect Time Lord therapist, perhaps he can set up shop when he gets back home (the long way round). I don't think there has ever been a time when the series has been quite so obsessed with the character of the Doctor himself as it has since Day of the Doctor, and it was pretty self reflective before then. In the wake of Day of the Doctor and Listen some surprising things have been revealed...but can we get back to having him simply materialising and meeting some interesting guest characters please? That hasn't happened in ages. All this self-examination is practically In Treatment: Gallifrey. The Doctor has been running away from himself ever since he thought he destroyed Gallifrey...now he is ready to look inwards and examine the blackness within.

Capaldi is a revelation in this, it is exactly the sort of material he has been waiting for. Not arsing about on rooftops with dinos or having a bitch fight with Robin Hood. Here he has the chance to put those eyes and teeth to sinister use, to get to grips with some intense material and for the mood of the episode to match the dark, ruminative disposition of his Doctor. They go hand in hand this week. Unlike the first three episodes of this season, this is specifically geared to Capaldi's Doctor. There is no way Matt Smith could have played this material with the same intensity. He grins maniacally at the thought of seeing what horrors lie under the bed. 'Have you seen the size of human brain? They're hilarious!' He's a fantastic counterpoint to Clara's assuring behaviour, deliberately going out of his way to disturb young Pink and point out that there is nothing wrong with being scared. You could grow very fond of this Doctor. I wonder if there are any parents out there who are jealous of his Dad skills?  He can't leave even if their lives are in danger because he has to know. Sixie said something similar in The Mysterious Planet. Questions to which I must have an answer. He barks at Clara to get back in the TARDIS - he really reminds me of Colin Baker's Doctor at times. It might be why I like him so much.

Impossible Girl: I am starting to worry that Clara is going to turn out to be the Doctor's mother and daughter one day, in an insane timey wimey twist that sees her fulfilling every role he has ever had in his life. My only real problem with Listen is Clara and how she is still as insubstantial as a character can be...is it any wonder that the story delved into the history of Danny and the Doctor but failed to do the same for Clara. There is nothing significant to be found there beyond a crusty old leaf. It's getting beyond a joke now how slight this companion is, especially since Moffat keeps manoeuvring her into vital points in the Doctor's life. The least substantial companion turns out to be the most important...that's so funny I almost fell off my chair. Clara is now the architect of all things Doctor Who and given her opaqueness that is rather embarrassing for the show. We're being asked to invest in the Clara/Danny relationship when we don't really know anything about either character. In Danny's case that is understandable but in Clara's it is inexcusable. So whilst I could acknowledge the material, nod my head and go 'I see what he's implying there' (about them having a child in the future), I wasn't emotionally invested in it because I haven't gone on a journey with them. It's like peeking at the end of a book. A little humour between the two characters would be a good start. And whilst I acknowledge that Moffat's brain doesn't work this way I would really like to see just one relationship in his tenure playing out naturally with two people meeting and simply getting to know each other, getting on and falling in love. No meeting out of order or daughters travelling back and being their parents best friends or skipping forwards to the future and seeing how it all works out. Not even a simple date can be...well simple in Moffat's hands. Concentrate on the emotional worth of the relationship rather than simply playing clever tricks with it. Then you'll hook your audience.

How thoughtless was her comment to Danny? Any sympathy I might have had with the character vanished in a moment of utter thoughtlessness. There is an easy chemistry between Capaldi and Coleman that is nice to watch which almost (almost...) pushes Clara's flaws to one side (Coleman is that good). Naturally Clara is the one who takes a little boy under his bed and dispels every fear he might have about what is lurking under there. That is because she is impossibly dauntless and brave and never bats an eyelid at anything. I was really hoping there would be something dark, pulsing and unknowable under there to bring her out in a sweat. Even when there is every reason to be petrified (somebody sits on the bed) she is still smiling. Bring back Sarah Jane, she would have still confronted what it was but she would have been terrified with it. I could believe in her. Plus she is repeatedly proven to be smarter and more observant than the Doctor and nobody can get one up on him as often as she does. She's superwoman in practically every way, she's without flaws. It's infuriating. The Doctor sought out the dangers of the universe because Clara told him so...and he chose the TARDIS he end up with because Clara told him so...and he was saved from countless dangers because Clara was there to help him...and he ultimately saved Gallifrey because Clara doesn't believe he could go through with destroying it. She's the ultimate time meddler.

Pinkster: I like Danny. I'm not sure if it's Samuel Anderson's vulnerable performance or simply the fact that Moffat seems to write far more convincingly for male companions than he does female ones but he has done relatively little to win me over and has already succeeded. He's exposed and I really like that in a man and he has a complex emotional past which is ripe for exploiting. He outstrips Clara by a factor of ten in the interest stakes and he has only appeared in cameos in two episodes. He hasn't got much of a sense of humour but I figure that he might lighten up as the season progresses. There's a massive chip on his shoulder (for a very good reason, his personal history is turbulent stretching right back to his childhood) but because of it I feel as if I have gotten to know him rather well already. It makes each smile a victory.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Question: Why do we talk out loud when we know we're alone? Conjecture: Because we know we're not.'
'What if the breath of something on the back of your neck is something behind you?'
'The room looks different at night. It ticks and creaks and breathes.'
'The TARDIS isn't supposed to come out this far but some idiot turned the safeguards off...'
'It doesn't matter that there is nothing under the bed or in the dark...as long as you know it is okay to be afraid of it.'

The Good:

* I've said it practically every week but it is worth re-iterating...this is my favourite new series TARDIS console by a factor of ten. It feels like a living, pulsating, mood driven cathedral and is wonderfully shot in Listen to capture the aching sadness and rumination that is inherent in the script.
* My Facebook feed has been full of the perplexed exclamations of fans who are desperate to know precisely what the protagonist was in Listen. Horror often leaves its mysteries ambiguous and if I'm honest I sometimes prefer it when it does. When a film or book reveals what has been menacing the heroes in the darkness it rarely manages to be as frightening as what you conjure up in your mind. It is much more scary when you simply cannot get a handle on the nightmare or monster. As much as I find the twist in Hide quite quirky, the episode no longer has any chance to freaking you out on repeat viewings when you know that it was simply two twisted freaks who are looking for love. When a story is this deliberately obscure you have to be sure that you have sufficiently built it up to get under the skin and Moffat achieves that wonderfully in the scene with the cloaked figure on the bed. It might be a child playing tricks. It might be an evil from the dawn of time. It might even be Samantha Mulder revealing where she has been all along. If somebody had thrown that sheet away suddenly a scene that has been butt clenchingly frightening becomes something mundane...why would anybody want that? The ambiguity in Listen is deliberate, the uncertainty there to frighten (or frustrate those who like tidy answers) and for me it worked a treat.
* I big poke in the eye to cynics like me who have suggested (perhaps with some evidence in the past half season or so) that Murray Gold no longer has anything to offer the show. Listen goes someway to providing a counter argument and is the best score in ages. It's ambient mood music all the way, barely drawing attention to itself and being all the more sinister for it.
* Can you imagine getting out of bed at night and a hand grabbing your foot from under the bed? Just put yourself in that position for a moment. Anybody that says they wouldn't scream like a baby is big fat liar. Imagine going to get a glass of water in the middle of the night and coming back and finding a cloaked figure sitting on your bed? I'm wondering if these scares are little too subtle for children...but I bet there were plenty of adults sitting there in a cold sweat. The idea that your own imagination and paranoia can make the most innocuous of noises take on a very sinister meaning is a startling one. It is something we do all the time.
* Where has Douglas Mackinnon been hiding these directing skills? I'll be fair his debut story had some very impressive action sequences in it but if I'm honest parts of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky felt as though they needed tightening up. The Power of Three was quirkily brought to the screen but never really went for the scares. Cold War seemed entirely unsuited to Mackinnon's style, the claustrophobic that was required failed to ignite and story seemed to plod along with relatively little atmosphere or chills. Then Listen comes along. Every scene moodily lit and filmed. Effortless scene transitions. Slow reveals of scares and a camera that is willing to hold on reaction shots and frightening images for a period that unsettles. Half the battle with a horror is how it is realised and this is the work of a suspense magician. Who knew this was what Mackinnon was capable of?
* Moffat managed to wrong foot me completely at one point. I genuinely thought that the Doctor had invaded Clara's meal in a spacesuit just because he was in a bit of a playful mood. I never expected for the visor to be removed and for Danny to be the occupant. Nicely played.
* There is a disquieting atmosphere to the scenes set on the last planet in the universe. It is a location that manages to be eerie just because it is so quiet. It reminded me of the Library in that respect. Not a breath or sliver or a click or a tick. This is the silence at the end of time.
* Sometimes Moffat's timey-wimeyness can yield some effective results and Clara seeing that the words she chose for young Rupert Pink having a profound effect for the next 100 years (the toy still being carried by his ancestor) is a great example. It is rather touching.

The Bad:

* If the nature of the threat is imaginary...does that mean it is our own imaginations that we should fear? That is a really scary idea that fell to the wayside. The fact that I am asking profound questions of this nature about a Saturday night show scheduled against The X-Factor is something to be celebrated though.
* If evolution were to create a creature that could hide from view...if? I thought that was the Silence?
* I feared that Moffat may had become so obsessed with trying to scare his audience that he had forgotten how to do it. The early scenes in the TARDIS, whilst beautifully realised, are trying so hard to understand the nature of fear that they almost spoil the chance for the audience experience it. Talking about why people are afraid doesn't cut it...that's taking the educational approach to shitting somebody up. You have to dump these characters in genuinely fearful situations, which is precisely what Moffat does when the ruminations require answers. Brilliantly, none of the questions pondered in the opening ten minutes are given a satisfactory response. And that's what Moffat was getting at.
* Some pretty dodgy 'let's pretend to be having a nice chat with our dinner' acting going on in the background to the restaurant scenes. Check it out.
* Companions having babies together? Haven't we covered that already?
* I'm in too minds about Moffat continually mythologizing the Doctor and putting his own stamp on his past. There are some things that don't need to be shown and the Doctor's childhood is one of them. Do we really need to know that he was a big cry baby that didn't want to join the army? Does that in any way enhance the character? It strikes me as trying a little too hard to play God and make a lasting impact long after he has gone. If Moffat was a braver writer he should have had his older self storm out of the TARDIS and treat his younger self just like he did Rupert Pink. Give him a slap around the chops (Blinovitch be damned) and tell him that everything he is afraid of is real and waiting to be fought. Instead Clara gets the honours, which strikes me as giving one assistant far too much influence over his timeline. The scene is well done in of itself (I especially loved it when she grabbed his foot) but I question whether this kind of self-aggrandising mythology was needed in Listen.

The Shallow Bit: When it comes to looks, Clara and Danny are just about the hottest couple to have appeared on Doctor Who. Nobody would ever pip Polly and Ben for me though.

Result: 'Fear makes companions of all of us...' The most complex, baffling, thoughtful and frustrating Doctor Who story since Ghost Light, Listen practically defies explanation and will leave viewers as thrilled as it will irritated. I rather like that, it is Doctor Who pushing the boundaries again and not rejecting Hollywood concessions for the audience. Listen expects some people to be appalled. And others to be aghast at the liberties it takes. And others to be bowled over by its exploration of the unknown. Listen deliberately asks more questions than it answers which is bound to cause a portion of the Doctor Who fan base (who like to tidy away everything into boxes - take the subject of canon for example) to self ignite. It is basically four vignettes that are only tenuously linked; the first set piece being a take on the Russell T. Davies era (a date in a restaurant that goes disastrously wrong specifically reminds me of Boom Town), the second a mix of The Girl in the Fireplace (something under the bed), Blink/The Eleventh Hour (open/close your eyes and something nasty will happen), the third a riff on Midnight (a claustrophobic attack in an SF setting by something unknown) and then finally a reproduction of The Name of the Doctor (Clara playing a vital role in the Doctor's past). While none of these sketches are prototypal, this time Moffat has taken inspiration from the best of New Who and lumps them all together in one episode. I still think he is creatively bankrupt in his twilight years but Listen manages to sum up the best of NuWho in a very satisfying, cohesive way. And isn't Peter Capaldi superb? Whilst the individual set pieces all work for me in their own right (I have a few reservations about the one set on Gallifrey but the reveal that the little boy is the Doctor is expertly done), Moffat is still having trouble structuring a narrative. Or maybe that was the idea...an incoherent narrative to accentuate the obscurity of the threat and the lack of answers. To deny the viewer any of things they expect from television.  Listen chugs along moodily...and then just stops as disquietingly as the material that has just played out. The quality of the writing does suggest that Moffat has been filling a role that doesn't suit him, wasting his time structuring seasons and doing an endless roll call of openers and finales when he is much better at concentrated, standalone adventures. It is trying to be more cerebral and philosophical than your average Saturday night fare (Primeval it aint), intelligent material like this should be commended and encouraged. It's taking an intellectual approach to exploring fear so it never reaches the anxiety levels of Midnight, which was very much an emotional exploration of the same idea, and that exposes the major difference in Moffat and Davies' writing. One is discussing what makes things frightening and the other is simply frightening. You decide which approach you prefer. Exquisitely shot, full of strong ideas and trying to say something vital about the titular character, Listen is the best standalone episode since Hide and if we could only write off Clara in a hideous accident it would score even higher. Had this been original it would have been an absolute classic: 8/10


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Amy’s Choice written by Simon Nye and directed by Catherine Morshead


This story in a nutshell: ‘Amy’s men, Amy’s choice…’


The Nutty Professor: Highlighting the differences between the ‘never looking back’ tenth Doctor we open this story with the eleventh Doctor visiting Amy and Rory five years after they left him. When he sees Amy’s life in the dullest village known to man he wonders what they do to stave off the self-harm. He threw the TARDIS manual into a supernova because he was cross and he disagreed with it. Not even the Doctor can withstand the charms of a nice old lady who wants you to try on a woolly jumper for size. The Dream Lord is instantly charismatic and insulting, taking the piss out of the Doctor’s many ridiculous nicknames. The madcap vehicle, the cocamene hair, the clothes designed by a first year fashion student…if he had any more tawdry quirks he could open a tawdry quirk shop. He sniffs out things that aren’t exactly as they seem. Why does everybody expect him to always know everything? Fascinating that the Doctor figures out who the Dream Lord is on the strength of how much he hates him and that opens up a whole universe of possibilities about the Doctor’s level of self hate post the Time War. That might have been worth examining further but it is never touched upon again. The old man that prefers the company of the young? Ouch Amy has really put the Doctor on a pedestal and when he cannot save Rory she questions what the point of him is.  Like he is responsible for everybody in the universe. I would have reciprocated that sentiment and aked what the point of her is. Matt Smith’s quiet ‘okay’ as Amy reveals that she wants to kill herself in this reality because she cannot bear a life without Rory is desperately sweet. You just want to hug him. The darkness in Amy and Rory would have starved the Dream Lord because the Doctor chooses his friends very carefully but in over 900 years to choose from the Doctor was a feast. The last shot is very telling – the Doctor still has his own demons to face and the Dream Lord is waiting…

Scots Tart: This episode was the making of Amy for me, the point where I could actually see some potential in the character beyond being aggression and flirtation. It's at this point where she stops being a generic Scots redhead with an attitude problem and over excited libido and actually becomes a character with some degree of consideration. Why is it that the guest writers are bringing this character to life with so much more effectiveness than the showrunner? Amy screams so loud she scares a crow from a tree. How funny does she look with the bowl of pudding mix perched on top of her pregnant stomach and rampantly stuffing her face with mixture? Equally hilarious is her fake pregnancy moment when she manages to turn the Doctor as white as a sheet with a simple scream. It’s fascinating that when Amy has to make her choice before both men she says Rory but doesn’t even look at him. She’s gone from the day before her wedding to telling her fiancé they will get married ‘some day.’ Amy’s casual ‘whack her!’ makes me wet myself. Sometimes her bossiness is amusing rather than annoying. There is more insane humour as she does her little poncho boys dance. The Dream Lord manages to get to nub of this seasons problem: Amy ran away with a handsome hero and would she really give that up to be with a bumbling country doctor who thinks the only thing you need to remain interesting is a ponytail? Interesting that Amy doesn’t like being asked to make a choice of which life is the real one. Both are enticing to her. The big question is does Amy really deserve Rory when she only realises how much she loves him after he dies…and that it takes two attempts at this to really drive the point home? If real life is the world where Rory is dead Amy doesn’t want it and she makes an unforgettable decision to kill herself and make the other world a reality. I do question the sanity of making the nature of Amy and Rory's relationship her choice because she really doesn't deserve it given her behaviour over the past couple of episodes.

The Loyal Roman: Rory’s ponytail has to be seen to be believed (by Amy also it seems who takes a sly look behind his back the first time they wake up in the TARDIS). Rory, bless him, is so deluded that he thinks the Doctor is the gooseberry in the TARDIS. He wants the village lifestyle so badly and he is convinced that it is reality. All of Rory’s dreams are encapsulated in seeing the nursery for their baby and Arthur Darvil captures your sympathies effortlessly as he sags over the crib. Amy’s reaction to him cutting his ponytail gets me every time, it's such an oddly tender moment.


Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’ve swallowed a planet!’
‘When worlds collide!’
‘You can’t spot a dream while you’re having it…’
‘Time to sleep…or are you waking up?’
‘It can be the night before our wedding for as long as we want!’
‘Loves a redhead our naughty Doctor. Has he told you about Elizabeth the First? Well she thought she was the first…’
‘You’re probably a vegetarian aren’t you, you big flop haired wuss!’

The Good Stuff: Straight away we are back in a lovely green environment – this really is the season of the scenic country landscapes and villages and I just happen to find charming. I love the camera shot that comes over the side to slowly reveal Amy’s pregnancy, that’s some clever camera work that expertly reveals a plot point. I also like how the pollen falls through the Leadworth scenes almost imperceptibly (you could almost mistake it for light rain most of the time). You have three distinct personalities in the TARDIS now; Rory thinks of their life in a sweet little village being married to Amy as a dream come to true, to the Doctor it was a nightmare and as far as Amy was concerned she was the size of a house. It's brilliant to spend so much time in the new TARDIS giving the audience a chance to get used to the feel and size of it and it is interesting that when the ship loses its power and is plunged into darkness it is far more atmospheric than the last time they tried to do this (Rise of the Cybermen). Without a doubt Toby Jones gives one of the finest villain performances since the series came back, he’s a delight to watch and sports some very witty dialogue. Jones is such a strong performer anyway but matched with Nye's sharp dialogue they are practically untoppleable. Nice to see that the Doctor is still concocting weird devices out of household objects (this time a corkscrew and a whisk) ala The Time Monster. A cold star is another simple but effective fantasy idea in this fairytale season, the Ship is literally drifting towards a cold sun. There is a magical shot of the TARDIS approaching the star with ice crystals bursting on its shell. The march of the octogenarians is very quirky, I was cheering upon the first broadcast. Ice can burn and sofas can read dont’cha know? How funny is it when the Doctor knocks that old woman off the roof – it’s so wrong but I can’t help but laugh! The cut from Amy driving the van into the cottage to the snow crusted console room is one of the best scenes of the year and the imagery is unforgettable.

The Bad Stuff: People bemoan that the psychic pollen explanation is disappointing but the method for whipping up their dream state isn’t important. It’s the character work that is important. I still find Amy an irritant, despite the good work that is done here. It's probably irrational on my part but I just cannot warm to this character.

Result: Nice to see the old ‘sideways’ adventures leaking back into the series and this is a particularly good example. The premise is so simple; two worlds and one of them is a dream and our heroes have to figure out which one is which. It brings to the surface a whole universe of feelings that exists between the three main characters and finally puts to rest the three in a bed tack that has been plaguing the last few episodes. Murray Gold provides a memorable score and the episode is full of unusual imagery but what really impressed me was the wealth of quality dialogue that Simon Nye conjures. This is only Doctor Who to mention self-harm, feature old ladies being up, ends in suicide (twice over) and explores just how much the Doctor might hate himself. It wont be to everybody’s tastes because there is a distinct lack of traditional elements but I found the character work enchanting and the layered plot one of the most successful of the year. The direction is occasionally stilted and I am naturally irritated by anything that has 'Amy' in the title but those were the only issues I could find with this oddball piece. I would love to see the Dream Lord back again: 8/10

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Top 50 Doctor Who Adventures

Because I have been accused of late of being a right old curmudgeon and hating everything I listen to/watch/read I thought I would take a departure from the usual reviewing duties and have stab at something I know a lot of people of a geekish persuasion enjoy...lists! This is going to be comprehensive list of my top 50 Doctor Who adventures taking in the classic series, the new series, the audios, the books and the comics. It's time to spread a little love...

The TV Series (Classic)

The Daleks' Masterplan - An epic adventure that plays out with drama, comedy, incredible risk taking, great acting and one of the best ever uses of the Daleks. The final episode is absolutely terrifying.
The Power of the Daleks - Six episodes of pure bliss, showing off the Daleks at their scheming best and playing a fascinating game with the audience over the new Doctor. The tension escalates masterfully.
The War Games - Changing Doctor Who for ever and doing it with absolute class, this whopping ten part adventure fees shorter than some four part stories such is the pace and the enjoyment I get from it. Troughton delivers probably the best ever portrayal of the Doctor and the whole production is given a huge lift by David Maloney's incredible direction. As fresh today as it ever was, especially the revelations.
Inferno - Few Doctor Who stories have scared me as much as this one. Not the Primords, they are a stock Doctor Who monster. No it is the terror of the alternative universe scenes as the regulars realise the futility of their situation and yet strive to escape any way. Episode six might be the most perfect Doctor Who episode to date, skin crawling and unrelenting.
Genesis of the Daleks - Justly praised, we might know the dialogue back to front and inside out but this is still an exquisite script, masterfully delivered by one of the best ensemble casts and delivered with an unusual violent touch by David Maloney. I can't watch this one too often but whenever I do I am blown away. Davros' introduction is unforgettable.
The Seeds of Doom - It's all about how this one is directed. Douglas Camfield is my favourite director to have worked on the show and his swansong is his best work; an atmospheric, pacy, gripping and shocking horror tale that features men being turned into plants and makes it the most terrifying thing ever. Also featuring Tom Baker and Lis Sladen at their most sublime.
Talons of Weng-Chiang - Witty, frightening, atmospheric and packed full of great characters, this is the story to show to a non-fan to prove how good classic Who can be. Robert Holmes' dialogue was never better and you'll be hard pushed to find a better guest cast.
City of Death - Like Talons, a funny story that reaches classic status. Douglas Adams and Graeme Williams produce one of the series' most imaginative scripts and the gorgeous acting and scenery is just a bonus. This one constantly surprises in a way that few Doctor Who stories do.
Enlightenment - I'm surprised I included this and it was a close call between this and Androzani. However this is far more imaginative and reflective, which is far more to my tastes than the guns and bombs of Davison's swansong. Everything I look for in a classic Doctor Who story is here and it looks beautiful too.
Revelation of the Daleks - An atypical story that stands out because of it, Revelation never ceases to amaze me with how far it pushes adult content and humour in a teatime slot. Eric Saward is Holmes' protégé and finally he delivers something that rivals his mentors work. Too many blackly funny and memorable sequences to mention. Astonishing characters.
Ghost Light - The last classic Doctor Who story made, Ghost Light saw them out in style. I wish the McCoy era had been more like this because it seems to be all the things that Cartmel was striving for; a gripping Doctor and fascinating companion, complex storytelling, top notch dialogue and characters and everything stylishly brought to the screen. Hard to fault.

The TV Series (New)

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances - This blew me away on first transmission and it has rarely been bettered since. The period is classily realised, the story manages to genuinely haunt me and the relationship between Eccleston's Doctor, Rose and Jack simply flies off the screen. One of the most satisfying Doctor Who adventures with a climax that always brings me to tears.
Human Nature/The Family of Blood - As complex as characterisation gets in Doctor Who, this is the sort of story the series hasn't dared to tell since. War is examined psychologically and the resulting drama is extremely powerful. David Tennant was never better...and considering how good he is usually that is quite a statement.
The Sound of Drums - I make no apology for this. One of the most perfect 45 minutes of Doctor Who with one glorious scene after another. The final ten minutes are dazzling, climaxing on the massacre of 10% of the Earth's population.
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead - Steven Moffat's masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. He has never bettered this story. I was staring at the screen after Forest of the Dead finished for an age, literally astonished at the intelligent, probing and emotional drama that had just unfolded. Tennant and Tate are simply extraordinary.
Midnight - The scariest Doctor Who story ever in my book. Read my review for why I think so. My buttocks were clenched for a good 30 minutes and I was probably sweating at the end.
Turn Left - For Catherine Tate's standout performance (the best companion performance ever in my book), the perversion of continuity, the jet black tone, the astonishing characterisation, the efforts of Cribbins and King, the shocking ending...the best Doctor Who story to barely feature the Doctor.
The Waters of Mars - Graeme Harper's masterpiece. Gripping throughout climaxing on a shock suicide, it doesn't get any better than this.
The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone - Moffat is still on fire here, fresh faced and delivering all the elements that have made his standalone efforts in series 1-4 such a delight. The Angels are treated differently but the imagery surrounding them blew me away.
Vincent & the Doctor - Any story that reduces me to a blubbering wreck like this has got to be doing something right. Simply the finest character drama in Doctor Who ever.
The Doctor's Wife - Gaiman's debut script knocked me over. It's quirky, funny, imaginative and heartbreaking.

Audios (Main Range)

Dr Who & the Pirates - A Doctor Who musical? Surely not? Works on so many levels but primarily because it is the audio that made me laugh the most...and the one which shocked me the most too. An unbelievable turn by Colin Baker, finally being able to bring everything he has to the role.
Jubilee - One of the most substantial audios, a cutting satire on commercialism delivered with razor sharp wit and psychological scares. So good it inspired the return of the Daleks in the new series.
The Wormery - This has a unique atmosphere all of its own, somehow melancholic and hilarious. I never get tired of listening to The Wormery and the dazzling Colin Baker/Katy Manning double act.
LIVE 34 - Using the audio format to its fullest, I was shocked at how good this was on my last listen.
Son of the Dragon - The Dracula myth is brought to audio with a superlative central performance by James Purefoy. History at its most gripping and the best example of the surprisingly thoughtful trio of the fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem. The passion in the performances really sells this one as a classic.
A Thousand Tiny Wings - Still one of the most haunting, disquieting audios with Sylvester McCoy's best ever performance in the role. A fascinating slice of history, beautifully dramatised and re-introducing one of Doctor Who's most interest guest characters.
A Death in the Family - Everything you have hear about this one is true. Check it out.
The Forth Wall - Some might be surprised to see this one on my list but the more I listen to it the more it, the more I am taken aback by the deeply intelligent things it has to say about writing fictional characters. It's also startlingly creative, boldly characterised and features the shock death of a companion. I adore it.
The Silver Turk - Traditional Doctor Who delivered about as stylishly as it can be.
The Curious Incident of the Doctor in Night-Time - From this years output, Nev Fountain stretches the format of Doctor Who about as far as it can go and says something very profound and touching about autism in the process.

Books

Nightshade - Mark Gatiss' masterpiece. I wish this could make it to the screen, grisly deaths and all.
Just War - For what it puts Bernice through, I will never forget the content of this novel. Trapped within its pages, it is startlingly oppressive.
Eye of Heaven - The scenes written from Leela's point of view are done with such style I could have had the whole book told in that style. A non-linear narrative that satisfies, gorgeous prose, shocking content...Jim Mortimore didn't always get it right but when he did he was rarely bettered.
Festival of Death - A Doctor Who story told backwards with a wealth of great jokes, mood, insane twists and some very poignant moments. The climax is most satisfying.
The Infinity Doctors - Lance Parkin's greatest opus, using a wealth of continuity and expanding upon it with reckless abandon. Some of the best imagery and individual scenes in any of the books and the ultimate expression of the Doctor.
Alien Bodies - It's just glorious, isn't it? Lawrence Miles might be nuttier than squirrel shit but he is still a genius.
Father Time - The most beautifully written Doctor Who book of all, one which puts him in the position of being a father for the first time and makes it a stunning prospect. I've read this more times than I care to remember. The writing is so good in spots it gives me shivers.
The Adventuress of Henrietta Street - Terrifying in content, this is the boldest Doctor Who book and one that may have over stepped the mark for some. I loved it, especially the strength of characterisation and the brutal imagery. Shocking twists that have a profound effect on the Doctor.
The Tomorrow Windows - Ridiculously funny and imaginative, there are more ideas in this book than in any other Doctor Who story. It never stops giving, right up until the last page. Just magnificent.
Prisoner of the Daleks - An NSA in the top ten? Go and read this and tell me different.

Comics

The Star Beast - Beep the Meep remains my favourite Doctor Who villain of all time. And Sharon kicks ass too, a black companion years before Martha Jones.
Voyager - Some pages of this comic are pieces of art, not just panels in a comic. I can sit and stare at them for ages. For innovation, this cannot be bettered.
Ground Zero - They wanted the seventh Doctor to depart the comic strip in style. They succeeded. What an ending.
The Glorious Dead - Epic in scope with some insane twists and turns and mind expanding artwork, for me this is the ultimate Master story.
Beautiful Freak - A one issue wonder that shows how devoted the creators of the strip were to the characters of the eighth Doctor and Izzy. God I love that TARDIS in the strip.
The Flood - I first read this in graphic novel form and couldn't believe the scale and striking nature of the storytelling and artwork. Two for two, the strip provided me with my favourite Master story and my favourite Cyberman story.
Time of My Life - Jonny Morris is something of a genius and it is not co-incidence that he has turned up several times on this top 50. Stunning vignettes showing unseen Doctor/Donna adventures, beautifully captured on a page each (check out the bordering) and with a gut wrenching climax.
The Crimson Hand - I adored Majenta and her caustic relationship with the Doctor so I was intrigued enough already when her past finally caught up with her. Dan McDaid saw his companion out in real style, providing a dramatic backdrop to force her to choose where her allegiances finally lie. It says something about the quality of the characterisation of this companion that I wasn't at all sure which way she would jump.
The Professor, the Queen & the Bookshop - A beautiful Christmas tale that left me cooing like a baby.
Planet Bollywood! - I love Bollywood! This quirky, madcap adventure is my personal favourite of the Eleventh Doctor's run because it jettisons the need to be timey wimey and just has a great deal of fun. Colourful, pioneering and very funny.

Signs and Wonders written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The end of the world is nigh. That’s what everybody is seeing in their nightmares. That’s why they are congregating in Liverpool for the party to end all parties, hosted by Rufus Stone, a celebrity turned doomsday prophet. He claims he’s the only one who can save them when the day of judgement comes. Because he’s on the side of the angels. The Doctor, Ace and Hector arrive to find the city in the grip of apocalypse fever. There are lights in the sky, earthquakes and power cuts. The Doctor is determined to investigate, while Ace is more concerned about finding a way of restoring Hector’s lost memories. Meanwhile, in the river Mersey, hideous, slug-like creatures are stirring...

The Real McCoy: Some people never learn. McCoy cannot convincingly pull off hysterical drama. Go and watch Survival ('Don't moooooove!') or listen to The Rapture ('Let McShane goooooooo!') or countless other adventures. However McCoy does play brooding, purring menace well (go and watch Ghost Light and listen to Master). So why does nobody tailor these scripts to his strengths instead of highlighting his deficiencies? The end of episode one is a carbon copy of The Rapture at exactly the same point, the 7th Doctor in a nightclub screaming his head off like a lunatic and coming across as an absolute buffoon as a result. Check out your back catalogue, Big Finish, this duplication of something that was startlingly inept the first time around is unacceptable. I can't believe that this Doctor tries to suggest that humans are not tools to be used...that's all he ever does, move them around like chess pieces. Apparently it took the near destruction of the everything to bring Hex back and the Doctor and Ace consider it worth it. Should these two really be protecting the universe?

Oh Wicked: 'Sergeant Barbie to the rescue!' What the hell does Ace think she is doing? She's attempting to force Hector to confront his past as Hex, taking him to his grandmothers house and trying to force him to mourn her death. She's doing everything that the Doctor did to her in Ghost Light (shoving a mirror up to the past) and because she has experienced this treatment herself that makes this ten times worse. She's learnt nothing from these adventures. Over and over and over again he has said that he doesn't want to be Hex anymore and still she relentlessly tries to peel off Hector mask. It's quite a baffling state of affairs. Ace is so twisted she wants to take hold of a reasonably well adjusted individual (who is Hex in all but name anyway) and try and force him back into a mould where he has feelings for her and can experience the gutting reaction of losing a loved one. That's twisted. Sally points out that everything is a competition with Ace and Ace tries to defend that stance. It's a feat of one-upmanship she has been trying to win for 25 long years since Dragonfire. Ace's adventures with Chunky, Alistair and Winifred are alluded to, pointing out she has a long history with UNIT and her DNA is even on file. Why don't Big Finish make the bolder decision and write out Ace? What else does this character have to offer after so many adventures? I have never known a character that simply wont go away, lingering on like a bad smell. She's given the Doctor a hard time over and over again, she's transformed herself into a mature individual and back into a teenager again, she's suffered more angst than anybody else in the range and has fought and screamed and insulted her way through more adventures than I care to count. There is nowhere to take this person, Ace has been exhausted of her potential. Prove me wrong, Big Finish. Do something ground-breaking with this character.

Alter Ego: Remember when I said in the review of Mask of Tragedy that it was absurd to pick up a character as soon as they gave them an effective conclusion. I also mentioned the last time I was this tired of a companion was when Charley hung around for an interminable amount of time with the 8th Doctor. They are trying to repeat the success of that, aren't they? Charley was getting stale and as a result they wrote her out and in a bold move had her skip Doctors to an earlier incarnation where she had to spin a web of lies to keep her true identity from him. It was a gripping scenario that played out over a number of well written adventures and it provided a new leash of life for the character, not only because she was suddenly having to be so evasive but also because she was playing against a different Doctor (Colin Baker and India Fisher had fantastic chemistry, which certainly helped smooth the transition). With Hex they have done the same thing, given him a departure and then tried to put a new spin on the character almost immediately, desperate not to lose Olivier from the McCoy adventures. In doing so they have fundamentally misunderstood what made the character work in the first place, provided a carbon copy whilst trying to convince us it is a new man. I don't think I have read a single comment on this arc that has greeted this extension of the Hex storyline positively. Worse they have put the character in similar situations to Hex, drawing our attention to their similarities and had the Doctor and Ace act in the most self-indulgent fashion around him. It's horribly misconceived and the whole thing needs a line drawn under it. Fortunately that happens here but not before one more episode of Eastenders, Greek Gods.  What nobody seems to mention (which is very remiss of them really) is that Hector is a personality in his own right and that by attempting to bring Hex back to the surface they will be effectively killing somebody off. It's a moral debate that has been completely avoided in amongst all the epic madness with the Elder Gods. It could have been as agonising as the John Smith/Doctor deliberation in Human Nature/The Family in Blood but the writer is not looking to probe this situation in any great depth. The story requires for the status quo to be corrected and so back Hex pops, Hector be blowed and off into the sunset he walks with Sally. Am I the only person who finds this solution a little too easy? Am I also the only person who wonders that perhaps he had a better ending the first time around when he died a horrible death? Hector is effectively murdered when Hex emerges but it goes unmourned - so what was the point of trying to get us close to that character for the past four stories? Was he really so disposable? After all this struggle and angst the Doctor and Hex don't even get to talk - he just buggers off to the next adventure. The disrespect for these characters is awesome. Even Ace, who has been agonising over Hex ever since Hector put in an appearance just wanders off with a 'catch you later, mate.'

Sally: Picking up where Afterlife left off, Sally as been in Liverpool for two years and is ready to hit the road. It is so good to hear from her again and I still live in hope that she will hop into the TARDIS with the Doctor and shoo Ace and Hector out. Sally isn't sure if soldering is for her but it is all she knows in this crazy world and she is going to stick with it. She's having the dreams too. She stayed with Hex's gran all this time to look after her, something she was very willing to do for such an incredible woman.

Standout Performance: Check out McCoy in this adventure, it is the very definition of an actor who doesn't know how to respond to a script. I don't think he has sounded this unsure about how to judge the tone of a story since Bang-Bang-a-Boom. He's especially hysterical and unprepared in episode three, ranting and cooing like he is back in Unregenerate.

Great Ideas: The collective nightmares of a nation predicting the end of the world? Rufus Stone seems to think so and he is setting up the concert to end all concerts as the doomsday prophet to save them all. Church leaders are objecting saying that he is stealing from every organised religion and stirring things up himself. That's a bold, dramatic place to begin a story. Like we have been dumped in the middle of Russell T. Davies' The Second Coming. Aliens projecting a solar shield and assisting the conjuring act going on down in Liverpool, keeping everyone in the dark. The Aquillians think they are destined for Godhood. They guard this section of England jealously and repel any alien invasions...I guess that would explain why Liverpool hasn't featured prominently in any Doctor Who stories before Afterlife. They are saving the humans, preparing them for the final battle with the Herodines. They are inter-dimensional leeches sucking up psychic energy bleeding between realities, controlled only by appetite. The Doctor and Ace have turned up with a boy who shouldn't exist, someone the Elder Gods moved heaven and Earth to destroy. The parasites try and drain the TARDIS.

Audio Landscape: A chanting crowd, thunder and lightning, train intercom, the Herodine bursting free, walking through the shallows of the Mersey, Hex being dragged out to sea is delivered in the most claustrophobic fashion possible, you might just find yourself gagging for air, guns firing, alarm abandoning ship.

Familiarity: Just an observation, not a criticism but has Ken Bentley become the in-house director of the main range these days? It is getting as predictable as it was when Gary Russell's name turned up and I have a theory that at the time that was a money saving exercise at the time. There isn't that excuse anymore. Bentley has proven time and again that he can bring decent material to life but like Gary Russell he doesn't seem to have the ability to rise above the duff scripts. Some Doctor Who stories are terrible in conception but salvaged in execution. That doesn't seem to be Bentley's style. If it's a good story, he can make it flourish. If it's a bad story, he will flounder. I only bring this up because there has been some bad press about the main range lately and I wouldn't want Bentley to have the blame pinned on him as the go to director for that series at the moment. It's the paucity of the material that is holding the range back and it would take the work of a genius to bring lacklustre scripts such as Antidote to Oblivion, Moonflesh and Tomb Ship up to scratch. Watching Bentley struggle gamely is almost an exercise in persecution. Aside from Nicholas Briggs and the occasional Barnaby Edwards directed tale, I don't see any variety in the roll call of directors and that does tend to make everything feel a little samey. Maybe it is time to branch out.

Isn't it Odd: The premise of a prophet bringing his words of wisdom through music gave me uncomfortable stirrings because it recalls The Rapture, one of Big Finish's first ever stinkers. Music was used as a narrative tool far more effectively in Fanfare for the Common Men last year in the 60s trilogy, the music was really foot tapping for a start. Not the god awful noise it is here. I'm not sure if I like this blame culture that has built up around the Doctor. It's not something that was often considered in the classic series which made the few times where his actions were called into account (The Massacre, Genesis of the Daleks, Trial of a Time Lord) quite effective. I blame the New Adventures, personally. They were so obsessed with exploring the darker underbelly of the series, probing the title character psychologically that they introduced a level of self-criticism for the titular character that as a result has been woven into the new series and has been taken on board by Big Finish. Back when these audio adventures began they were brilliant, often gripping, sometimes funny standalone affairs that allowed the Doctor to play an active role in his adventures without finding himself at the end of some weighty accusations every five minutes. Nowadays (especially in the McCoy adventures) all he seems to do is explain away his actions to people, pleading for their forgiveness. Hex tore several strips out of him in Project Destiny and A Death in the Family, Ace spent an entire episode giving him a hard time in Afterlife and now Hector has beef with him and how he conducts his affairs. This blame culture has gotten out of hand. He should just show them both the door and say if you don't like it then bugger off. Like I said this sort of thing works well every now and then. It worked for me in Arrangements for War because Evelyn had lost several people who were close to her but Hector's overreaction at the end of the last adventure feels unjustified, firing off accusations just to create some drama to send him home. The fight between Ace and Sally which starts out with insults but evolves into a genuine bitch fight has to be heard to be believed. How can this be passed off as audio drama? Killing off Janet was a mistake, she was just about the most interesting character in the whole story. Why couldn't it have Ace been who was picked up like a rag doll and dropped. That would have been much more effective. Hector is screaming his head off at the end of episode two...in exactly the same way that he was in Mask of Tragedy at the end of episode three. What is it about these 7th Doctor/Ace/Hex stories that always descends into hysteria? Despite his many speeches throughout this story I never felt I really got under Rufus' skin and figured out who he is. Come to mention I didn't get much of a feel for Gormley either which made his self sacrifice a little empty. The moment itself was well done but I didn't really feel anything. Enough with the Elder Gods already, it was fairly interesting in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and The Curse of Fenric but they have been rearing their ugly heads for so long now that they have haemorrhaged interest ever since (every other New Adventure seemed to feature some mythological deity from the Dawn of Time and this is the third McCoy adventure in the last handful to feature them). I'd like to see the 7th Doctor have some more intimate affairs now, less duelling with inter-dimensional idols and more engaging with real people.  A big superhero ending where Hex fights with all the power of the Gods, energy shooting from him like the Master in The End of Time. It's all a bit ridiculous, isn't it? Add to that the battle of the squeaky voices and the conclusion to this tale is showdown full of headache inducing bluster (including some dramatic musical stings). Hang on a moment - Hex fancied Ace for years and then when Ace lost Hex she realised that she had feelings for Hex too...and when he finally returns from the ether he heads off into the sunset...with Sally? Am I missing something here? This feels like the perfect way to tie up both Ace and Hex's storyline in one whack. The whole Hector dead end was pointless but it might have been excusable if it were to offer a clean break for the 7th Doctor by pairing off his two companions and saying au revoir to them both. To reject this neat ending for both characters and keep Ace around...it renders the whole Afterlife-Signs and Wonders run even more worthless. This is where the Hex arc has been heading all these years?

Standout Scene: The one part of the conclusion that I did really like was Ace and Sally summarising Hex's adventures and his history, proving that before his storyline got horribly disjointed he was a well fleshed out character.

Result: Signs and Wonders was moving along attention-grabbingly enough until...you guessed it...the regulars turned up. Then a moody drama becomes a melodramatic slug fest, drowning in angst and soap operatics and dodgy performances. I said the same thing about The Crimson Horror last year, this would have worked much better without the TARDIS showing up at all. The scene where Hector bangs his head against a brick wall trying to explain to Ace that there is a Hex shaped hole in him that she cannot fill it with her idea of who he is mortifyingly embarrassing, as Hollyoaks as I hope Doctor Who ever gets. That is until the bitch fight between Ace and Sally in episode two. This melodrama feels so tired, this bunch have been having similar rows over different things for years now. Just get rid of them. The story itself settles down to be a mash up of The Fearmonger (creating a psychic stir with propaganda), The Rapture (a prophet spreading his message through music), Project Destiny (a hysterical apocalypse in a major British city), Afterlife (picking up many of the themes from that story) and Gods and Monsters (the Elder Gods), not exactly where I would look for inspiration given those are some of those are the weakest of the McCoy audio adventures. Ken Bentley tries to direct with flair but there's no denying that we have seen all this before. Ultimately this was another noisy affair trying to be as epic as possible, the sort of thing that the main range churns out every other month now. It seems to be a result of the trilogies that each one feels the need to climax on as ambitious a story in scope, if not imagination. It means we get a great big and somewhat empty New Series finale every three releases. I would like for a trilogy to buck the trend and climax on something small and intimate. Like Mask of Tragedy, this probably would have worked better condensed into a 45 minute episode with all the flabby bits cut away. It wouldn't disguise the paucity of original ideas but it would be a much more digestible piece. I thought the Klein trilogy last year was ill-judged but the Hector trilogy has been even worse, not only poorly thought through but coming off as a poor repeat of everything we have already heard. Why force a character to stick around only to have them exit the range again only not as effectively? Why not take this opportunity to write out Ace, a character that has outlived her usefulness to a factor of ten. A bothersome end to a futile trilogy: 4/10

Monday, 15 September 2014

Victory of the Daleks written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Andrew Gunn


This story in a nutshell: The Daleks are Churchill’s secret weapon against the Nazi menace…

Cheeky Chappie: Bravo to Matt Smith who is working his ass off to make this awkward material come to life. Taken as a whole Victory of the Daleks does offer him a fair amount of scope, from outright rage to defiant heroism. I would say that he is very good at delivering the latter but still has yet to find a comfortable way to display anger. He just goes for it with the spanner and the result is a reminder of McCoy's inability to play hysterical emotion. Nobody can top Colin Baker in that field. It's the natural theatrical genes. I think it is rather wonderful that the Doctor is on such good terms with Churchill (check out Terrance Dicks' novel Players to see a previous encounter between the two men) and I wonder how many other famous historical figures he has this kind of bromance going on with. He admits he has just started running the TARDIS in. You can really see the difference between Smith and Tennant’s approach to acting in the scenes where the Doctor tries to convince Churchill about the nature of the Daleks. Smith plays it very gently and calmly whereas Tennant would have been all wild eyed and feral. Both are valid approaches but Smith's is the less invasive. When Smith loses control and batters the Dalek casing with a spanner it is the sort of thrilling anger we have never seen from this Doctor before.The Daleks are everything he despises. His jammie dodger trick delights, I love the idea of a man who is willing to take on three death machines with a biscuit. There are few moments where Gatiss forgets himself and he writes for the 11th Doctor like the 10th (‘Don’t mess with me, sweetheart’ would never be said by Smith later in the season and his ‘You’re brilliant’ is a replay of a scene in Journey’s End). I don't know that Gatiss ever quite got the hang of writing for the 11th Doctor (or as a friend of mine said recently whether the 11th Doctor is a definable character in his own right) - here he is still constructed out of leftovers from his predecessor and come Cold War and The Crimson Horror he has surrendered to little more than a handful of quirks. Night Terrors is probably his best stab at the incarnation (focussing on his attraction to young child in trouble which kicked off the era) and even that is far from the 11th Doctor's shining moment. Destroy the Daleks or save the Earth – the script makes it abundantly clear that the Doctor will do anything to finally rid the universe of the Daleks but the only thing that could turn him away from that is his favourite planet in peril. When trying to convince Bracewell to live the Doctor manages to capture the joy and the madness of being a human being (I love his reaction to the name Dorabella). At the end it is pure fury as the Daleks once again live to fight another day but Amy manages to remind him of what a fabulous job he has done. And that fury lacks conviction. He’s always worried about the Daleks.

Scots Tart: One of Amy’s best showings in her first season because she isn't portrayed as a morally corrupt, self centre harpy but a generic companion providing adequate support for the Doctor. This was the point however where I realised that we didn't know anything definable about Amy as a character and that she was severely lacking in the identification department compare to her predecessors in the Davies' era. Amy is positively orgasmic with excitement at turning up in the cabinet war rooms. She gazes out at the blimps and bombs with awe, history happening right in front of her. Real focus is given the fact that Amy doesn’t remember the Dalek invasion, the first big indication that something is wrong with this companion. Poor, naïve Amy actually marches up to a Dalek and interrogates it (‘Love a squaddie!’ made me wince). Amy gets to be thoughtful, sensitive and resourceful...what a shame they couldn’t keep this up. When it comes to convincing Bracewell not to crack open the planet Amy mentions fancying people that you shouldn't and this might be a back door reference to the shocking moment that was to come at the end of the next story. This is her wake up call that this life is dangerous.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If Hitler invaded Hell I would give a favourable reference to the Devil.’
‘Would you care for some tea?’
‘KBO of course. Keep Buggering On.’
‘I don’t care if you are a machine Bracewell. Are you a man?’

The Good Stuff: I realise Ian McNiece is offering up a parody of Churchill (like the Doctor of series seven, this is just a series of gestures that constitutes a definable shadow of the man in question without any of the depth) but he’s so cheeky and likeable that I can’t quite bring myself to disapprove. Compared to the treatment they gave Hitler this was positively authentic.  Bill Patterson is an actor I have long admired and he gives a superb performance in this story, I’m really happy he has finally made it into a Doctor Who adventure. Gatiss might be a little short on logic (a little?) but he does know how to construct an entrance for the Daleks and watching their bolts of energy launch into the sky and blow the bombers up is a reminder of glories past for the nasties. You can see how Steven Moffat might have been seduced by the idea of the Daleks turning out to be Churchill's secret weapon, it is such a delicious concept that it breaks my heart that they didn't run with it for the entire episode. There are a number of memorable visuals where we get to see the Daleks going about their business in the background and the Doctor watching on suspiciously. I love the moment the Daleks drop their façade and we cut to the saucer in orbit, unlike most Dalek stories that follow a predictable path I had absolutely no idea where this story was heading (which is a very exciting feeling for a change). You can see the director trying desperately to make the mundane set that the Progenator Daleks are created in more exciting than it is by fluidly swinging the camera back and forth to give the bubble bath toys full exposure. The new Daleks destroying the old ones is a visual representation of the Moffatt regime wiping away the Davies one. Unfortunately it was not a move for the better. The entire sequence of talking Bracewell out of detonating is one of my favourites of the season; the performances are sublime, the music hummable and it captures some real emotions. Bracewell’s freedom is very sweetly played too. I think these moment all come down to Patterson being a fine actor. The ominous crack in the wall makes another appearance. Something is officially going on.

The Bad Stuff: Why did they bother with the pointless subplot about the woman and her squaddie boyfriend? If it was to add layer of emotion to an episode that is emotionally vapid then we needed to spend much more time with her for this to have an impact. We are introduced to her at the beginning of the episode and she grieves for her lost love at the end. That's about it. Perhaps if we weren't arsing about with bubble bath toys we might have had time to make the war setting have a lasting impact on the viewer by getting closer to characters like this. The new Daleks = epic fail of the kind the series hasn't witnessed since it came back. Even Love & Monsters, which divides fans right down the middle has those who are willing to lay down their life to defend. The new Daleks were met with a practically universal critical panning and it boggles the mind that such a stylistic error could be made on a show where everything is cross examined to such an extent. The Fatleks lack any kind of menace; bulging at the sides as though the mutants inside have eaten far too many Skaro-based delicacies, coming in a variety of day glow colours and talking as though they have been suffering from mutant flu for some time. When you have a design that has successfully redefined the Daleks as a stylish, unstoppable menace why would you replace them with this? It was such a disaster that the production backtrack almost immediately and it was the first sign that perhaps the Steven Moffat era was going to be a bumpy ride. Why have we never heard of the progenitor device before? Why wouldn’t the Daleks not recognise their own kind? They’ve got bloody sink plungers and whisks! Also isn't it rather anti-climactic for these Daleks to wake up and then run away without doing anything of significance? They have single handedly taken the most frightening force in the series and gutted them of their ability to get under your skin. Spitfires in space? I know I should just surrender to the general bank holiday spectacular (if that is the right word) of the piece but logic is thrown so far out of the window that my ability to enjoy something as quirky as spitfires in space is scuppered. How were they built so quickly? How comes the regular soldiers aren't going mad for being out amongst the star firing at spaceships? You have to lobotomise yourself to such an extent that it isn't worth the hassle to find some enjoyment from this madness. ‘Do you worst, Adolph!’ – I hate these moments where the writer is desperately trying to please the audience.

Result: Another Moffat era story that has gone down in my estimation, Victory of the Daleks has not aged well at all. Maybe it has something to do with the waste of a perfectly good premise (Churchill's secret weapon) for a far more ridiculous one (the new Daleks supplanted the old ones) or maybe it is because the design of the new Daleks was so ineffective that the production team immediately tried to backtrack and return to the original, Davies ones, as soon as they possibly could. It's a wartime story being told in the broadest of strokes, lacking any serious detail or education and far more invested in the bank holiday spectacle that these sorts of films have to offer. You've got Ian McNiece and Bill Patterson, two extremely strong actors, being wasted on roles that have no great depth or lasting worth to them. Matt Smith is single handedly trying to hold the story together but he can't quite manage it this time...and he still can't portray anger with any great conviction and Karen Gillan is at her least offensive but that is because Amy is given practically nothing to do. I should point out that the first 15 minutes do show some potential but as soon as the Doctor is transported up to the Dalek ship the story dive bombs into a well of decrepitude. Remembered as the story that rivals Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks as the worst new series Dalek story, personally I would rate it lower because even the direction of Victory is awkward and unsure of itself. With a script like this to realise, I am not at all surprised: 4/10

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Mask of Tragedy written by James Goss and written by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Athens, 421 BC. An ancient civilisation of philosophers and poets and the birthplace of theatre. The Doctor has decided to show Ace and Hector how it all began, with help from the great comedian Aristophanes. But life in Athens is no laughing matter. There’s the ever-present threat of invasion from the Spartan horde. The plague that turns people into the walking dead. The slavery. The tyrannical rule of the paranoid, malicious Cleon and his network of informers. And the giant flying beetle with knives for wings that stalks the city streets at night. What Athens needs is a hero. And who better to be a hero in ancient Greece than a man called Hector?

The Real McCoy: For once the Doctor wants to fit in and he dons a toga for this visit to Athens. He pays for one of Aristophanes comedies to be put on every year. How interesting to hear the Doctor admitting that Mel fitted in far more comfortably in Athens than Ace does. Oh that this were a Seventh Doctor and Mel story...gosh when did that role reversal happen? Does anything ever work out the way the Doctor plans it? I love the idea of the Doctor fronting an argument that saving lives is irresponsible, just like he did in Medicinal Purposes. He hates the way the universe works but what happened in history happened in history and there's not a damn thing he can do to change that. Hector declares him a cunning old fox...that's just how we like him.

Oh Wicked: Ace has spent her time in the TARDIS watching Hollyoaks? It's either that or she has spent a few months in the future and never missed an episode. What an entirely unproductive waste of her time. Is it my imagination or has Ace reverted back to her childish days in this latest trilogy? After the embarrassing days of Colditz ('I hate Nazi's!') and The Rapture ('Dance McShane, dance!') I thought they were promoting a tougher, smarter, more mature Ace who was mentoring Hex through his time travelling days. All of a sudden she is overly emotional, reactionary and prone to some very immature moments. Unfortunately sexism is rife in this period of history (isn't it the case in all periods of history before the suffragette movement?) and you can just imagine Ace's calm and collected (not) reaction which hardly brings out the best in Sophie Aldred's performance. There is a question of Ace's ability to act...which unfortunately reminded me of Aldred's inconsistent ability in the area of audio drama. The tone of the two stories is completely different but check out Lisa Bowerman's commentary in James Goss' Bernice Summerfield adventure The Winning Side - now that is an actress narrating with passion. Aldred's efforts in comparison are a little amateurish. She hollers her way through the opening scenes of episode two and it gave me a right earache...and blow me if she's hollering away right at the end of it too. Remember when Leela joined forces with Boudica and marched on her enemies? Imagine Ace doing that with the Spartans but with about one hundredth of the conviction. It was humiliating listening. 'I'm sick of Gods!' This character is beyond tired now, her endless adventures being churned out of the storytelling factory for over 20 years (the TV series handed the baton over to the novels and the comic strip who handed the baton on to Big Finish). Someone make it stop. 'You lying Spartan! You said you didn't lie!' Oh please.

Alter Ego: Hector does not enjoy being compared to Hex all the time, which is kind of difficult given that he is exactly the same character, right down to how Olivier chooses to play him. Towards the end of episode two where the Doctor and Hex had spent the entirety together I found myself saying aloud 'this is Hex!' There is no differentiation between the two characters despite what the script constantly points out. It snatches away the bold decision to get rid of the character in Gods and Monsters and instead turns it into a weak manipulation of the audience, tempting them with the idea that he has snuffed it when a carbon copy is to be dropped in their laps immediately afterwards. It's Star Trek Nemesis all over again. The only thing worse than being a range that refuses to take risks is one that pretends to take them and then chickens out. Hector's mind is still vulnerable from his previous adventure where it took a battering from the Nucleus of the Swarm and he is in no fit state to control the consciousness of the city once wearing the mask. When he rants about history not being fun and games and how impotent he felt in not being able to help people...haven't we been here before with Hex? Hector has a paddy and wants to go home. Good stuff, let's get through Signs and Wonders and hopefully that will be an end to him.

Standout Performance: Those that find the jolly musical commentary in The Gunfighters annoying should steer clear of this adventure...Sophie Aldred's narration is so amateurishly enthusiastic that I wanted to stuff a rag in Ace's mouth at some points (that goes for all her bawling in the main body of the story too). Philip Olivier's attempts on the other hand are pretty intriguing, simply because of the accent he chooses to sport. Olivier's hysterical response to having the mask crushed on his face was the first time I really sat up and paid attention, such was the intensity of the performance.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Athens: cradle of civilisation and temporal tourist hotspot.'
The Spartans are like 'Daleks with good hair. All curls and ringlets...reminds me of Wham.'
'Let's not stand around a wait for the reviews!'
'We've done nothing but help the Doctor invent light entertainment!'

Great Ideas: The opening scenes of Signs and Wonders suggest that this is going to be one of the more impressive stories to come out of the main range this year; Athens is introduced in a beautifully scripted overture and Hector is already written into the narrative. An intriguing opening. You have to have a hero, a villain and a chorus, whether you wanted them or not. Beetles with huge wings like flashing knives...that's a pretty sinister visual. Tragedy dispersed by comedy...there is some mileage in that and Goss goes some way to realising the idea.

Audio Landscape: Cheers, jeers, clapping, steel on steel, crackling flames, birdsong, a dog barking, chickens crowing, heartbeat, chorus of frogs.

Musical Cues: The music leapt out at me immediately as being something quite different from the norm and expertly composed...I shouldn't have even looked to see who it was. Fox and Yason have done it again, providing music that builds in the epic scope and mythological importance of the Athenian setting. Whilst it contributes to the cacophony of noise in the later episodes just listen to this score on its own...it really is very good.

Isn't it Odd: Although it plays about with the time tourism idea agreeably enough, the gigglesome DWM strip Hotel Historia and the BBC novel of temporal mind fuckery that is The Last Resort devoted themselves to the notion and explored it with more effort. I could have done without the intrusion of science fiction elements at all if I am honest - what has happened to the pure historical these days? Goss has the flavour of Athens at his fingertips, he could have written a perfectly gripping straight historical recounting the attack of Athens by the Spartans and I'm almost willing to bet it would have been a knockout. Maybe dented by this TARDIS team a little, but much more gripping. Considering the time it is set in there are far too many pop culture references in this story and why this TARDIS team (who have rarely gone in for this sort of thing before) should start sounding like they are working from a Russell T. Davies script is beyond me. It was pretty distracting and not it a positive way ('Look out Germaine Greer! Guards!'). The story ends with a double pun, one about the Beatles and one aping Superman and neither are as funny as the author thinks they are. Wouldn't it have been nice for the beetle to have been the Terravore from The Crimes of Thomas Brewster? I'm starting to tire of historical characters being quite so blasé about insane science fiction concepts. You're time travellers from the future, says Vincent Van Gogh, I knew it as soon as I looked at you. That's a time machine and Martha is from the future, deduces Shakespeare. Aliens visiting Athens is just like the Gods popping in, says Aristophanes. Groan. Self awareness can trip over into narrative smugness. For everybody else who bought into the idea that Hex became one of the Ancient Gods then the suggestions that this might dovetail into that (Olivier's English accent, Hector taking on the bearing of a God) might get very excited. I was just hoping it would bring this misbegotten arc to a close as quickly as possible so the seventh Doctor could be free of its shackles and head off for some fresh adventures. Too much noise, not enough discussion, the third episode devolves into a lot of action that we can't see and shouting. The end of episode three and EVERYBODY is screaming screaming screaming screaming... The Doctor has had a go, Ace has been doing it all the way through, the people of Athens are in uproar, the Spartans have unleashed their battle cry and now Hex is bawling out hysterically...prepare yourself for a barrage of noise in this one. Bring some painkillers.

Standout Scene: McCoy was mega naff (to quote Ace) in Revenge of the Swarm but seems on much surer footing in this story, its quirky tone playing to his strengths as an actor. As such his speech to the jurors in episode three is a real oddball highlight and he aces the monologue in a way that he rarely does when he asked to deliver a dramatic speech (think of the climax of Battlefield or the 'evil from the dawn of time' speech in Curse of Fenric).

Result: Big Finish just don't know when to let it go, do they? Hex brought a spell of success for a handful of trilogies so rather than bring his character to a natural end they resurrect him in a new guise (after killing him off in the most hysterical fashion) and have this perverted story arc hinder what might have been some very decent stories (well, not Revenge of the Swarm). Without the impediment of the Hector arc running through it like a stick of rock, this might have scored higher. Mask of Tragedy starts out as a rather jolly affair, perfectly entertaining for the most part without ever being enthralling. I expected much more from James Goss but that is only because he has set the bar for himself extremely high (The Last Post, In Living Memory) and I was hoping that dipping his toes in the main range for the first time would be the jewel in the crown this year, just as John Dorney's The Forth Wall managed a few years back. The dialogue is perky, the pacing excellent and there was an element of wit that made it very easy to swallow down. It is a perfectly serviceable Doctor Who story that has all the predictable elements in place (history, aliens, a villain). Somewhere along the line though it all devolves into a chorus (hoho) of hysterical noise, trying to deafen the audience and posing as drama. What really spoils things, though, are the regulars. I'm bored rigid of this line up and not even a writer of James Goss' eminence can find anything new to say about them. Ace seems to have devolved back into a child, Hector is Hex for all they mention otherwise and the Seventh Doctor has nothing fresh to do with these companions. Everything has been said about this line up that is going to be said and continuing it just because they were once popular has the adverse effect of poisoning their run. I haven't been this fatigued by companions since the endless eighth Doctor and Charley saga. McCoy needs somebody new to bounce off (Sally would have been ideal). This is very much in the same vein of Starlight Robbery in the ill-fated second Klein trilogy, a bout of frippery before things get very serious indeed. It's nowhere near as successful and let's prey that Signs and Wonders doesn't turn out like Daleks Among Us. You wouldn't think a story of plague victims and encroaching Spartans could be spun as light entertainment...and if I'm honest I'm not sure it should have been. In Mask of Tragedy science fiction encroaches on history and murders any lasting impact, which is a shame because there are some lovely conceits that are rooted in real history (such as the Doctor being Aristophanes sponsor, a genuine figure in his life). This wasn't appalling but there were times when I wanted to shut myself in a dark room and make all the screaming go away: 5/10