Thursday, 23 October 2014

Second Sight written by Nick Wallace and Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley and Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: The actions of Mr Rees have alerted the Time Lords of Gallifrey, and Romana has assigned her best warrior. Independently, the Sixth Doctor has arrived on Earth. A power from the dawn of the Universe is about to be unleashed once more…

Softer Six: With the Space/Time Telegraph you never quite know who is going to turn up and Mike Yates is quite perturbed to see the sixth Doctor arrive, rather than either of the two Doctors that he is most associated with. Full of bombast as ever, old Sixie tells him he should be grateful that it is him. We get a nice insight into how the Doctor sees the universe when he revisits places that he has been to before, sometimes they thrive and sometimes they decay but they always change. Normal remains the same, even people too. At UNIT shindigs they expect people to have names as well as titles which makes the Doctor something of an anomaly. He strikes up an immediate rapport with Mike Yates and the interplay between Colin Baker and Richard Franklin is instantly listenable - impressive given they have never worked together on audio before. His skills with the TARDIS have never been in doubt he'll have you know.

President: Lalla Ward can turn up in any Doctor Who story as far as I am concerned, whether it requires Romana or not. Even when Gallifrey reached its nadir in seasons four and (especially) five, Ward always delivered a powerhouse performance and knocked my socks off. Given she hasn't appeared alongside Colin Baker since the genesis of Big Finish (way back in The Apocalypse Element) it is surprising to see them so smoothly pick up where they left off. The Doctor and Romana talk in short hand with each other and understand the severity of the situation and how to reduce the technobabble and myths to a level that Mike would understand between them. I was laughing my head off when they rushed at Leela, screaming some kind of off-putting war cry. The promises to get Romana and Leela back to Gallifrey safe and sound in no time...but there is always the question of his ability to navigate. Oh how I would love a series of adventures with Sixie, Romana and Leela.

Mike Yates: Nice to see that this is a direct continuation of the story set up in The Screaming Skull.

Noble Savage: Leela is being sent on dangerous missions by Romana because she knows that she is more than capable. This time she has been dumped in exactly the right place, right into the hands of Rees. We all know what Leela is capable of and so the thought of having Rees inside her mind manipulating her actions is quite a frightening one. She takes the opportunity to get to know her enemy, to understand him. The more she gets to know him, the easier it is to hunt him down. The Doctor understands Leela, if she doesn't want to be found she is a born survivor who is an expert at dodging her hunters.

Rees: Ultimately Rees is just a sadist who got lucky, who was in the right place at the right time and managed to extend his life through supernatural means. I rather like the idea that he is some grand super villain or God from the Dawn of Time, just a casually violent man who enjoys watching people suffer and has had the opportunity to make it happen for over a century. He likes the screams best, it isn't the same when they don't let you know how much it hurts when they die. We get a sneak peek into the past at Rees as a little boy, his mother dying, killing his father and mending the music box that she gave to him. The gift that the Doctor bestows upon Rees is probably more than he ever deserved given the terrible atrocities he has committed but it is a touching close for the character and ties up his story very satisfyingly. That is all I ask for.

Standout Performance: Colin Baker. Lalla Ward. Louise Jameson. Richard Franklin. An odd bunch to throw together but an engaging recipe for success.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I may have cheated just a teensy weensy bit...'

Great Ideas: Oversight is a multi-national scientific project, a huge transmitter in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest that is designed to send messages into deep space. Peru? Is that what the Brigadier was up to when he missed out on the Sontaran attack when they tried to turn the planet into a clone bank? Romana sent Leela to recover the music box, containing the mind of Rees. The art is a relic from an unknowable time, a time when even Rassilon was young, an age before records and memory. A universe where the higher races strode across the stars and bent existence to their will - their power matched only by their arrogance. Some of the battles raged for thousands of years and burned galaxies and the lesser races were caught in the crossfire. Isn't it amazing that as soon as script starts talking about mythological battles from the dawn of time that the scale of the piece sudden broadens exponentially. These are just throwaway lines that add substance to the relic but I can see entire stories, entire seasons taking place in the early days of the universe, the Doctor caught up in the battles that left their footprints on time. It's ironic to hear the Doctor and Romana talking about devastating Wars that consume so many lesser races given what is coming up in their future. If only they knew how shatteringly history is going to repeat itself. The art was a defence, certain individuals developed a skill, a psychic power that enabled them to project a shield around their whole world. Gradually chaos became order and the wars ended - the art wasn't needed anymore, the ability lost. Rees has survived death by planting his mind into an inanimate object and only those particularly adept at the art would be able to achieve such a feat. Oversight not only transmits data to the stars, it also receives information too. UNIT systems receive surveillance data, using the Oversight technology to monitor every phone call, security feed, radio signal, network CCTV camera in the world. Rees can hijack that system, sending his mind along the same pathways as the data comes in to transmit his chaotic malevolent influence into every receiver. He can possess practically anyone.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, doorbell, the polite chatter between dignitaries at a UNIT function, chaos breaking out, a full scale riot, jungle noises.

Musical Cues: Bombast gets taken to a new level when the sixth Doctor arrives and Ding Dong Bell suddenly becomes the inspiration for the most dynamic of soundtracks as all hell breaks loose. How Carter and Briggs have worked the nursery rhyme into all four stories to create a unified musical identity and yet altered the tone of the motif according to the genre has been quite masterful. It plays out in all its serene glory over the public address system and turns the dignitaries and guests into homicidal maniacs. I don't think I'll ever listen to Ding Dong Bell in quite the same way ever again.

Standout Scene: Thanks a little prodding from Mike the Doctor realises that he can head back into Rees' past and make a stand to stop him from making a terrible decision that will send him on a path of destruction. At first I thought this was going to move into A Christmas Carol territory with the Doctor blatantly manipulating the mans life to his own ends. I had a real problem with the haphazard way the eleventh Doctor tinkered with Sardick's childhood and turned him into the man he'd like him to be rather than the man he was destined to be. Rather wonderfully the writers take a much more effective stance than that and a much more subtle one. It's not that the sixth Doctor manipulates Rees, he offers him an alternative way of looking at his father and how events played out. It's not tinkering, its suggestion and that is a whole different thing. How he tenderly gives Rees his father back and encourages him to listen to the man is extremely touching. People object to Sixie being turned into a big softie but it's at moments like this when it really brings home the emotional nuance that this version of the Time Lord can tap in to. I was quite moved. When you realise the trick he has pulled off, well that's even more impressive. I love any story that allows the sixth Doctor to shine.

Result: The sixth Doctor, Romana, Leela, Mike Yates, UNIT, a trip to Peru and a fight to the death to prevent Rees from reaching his apotheosis. That's either absolute genius or the ultimate fanwank. Unlike any of the other stories in The Worlds of Doctor Who, this is less of an extended advert for their respective ranges and more a case of throwing together as many characters from the Doctor Who universe as possible and getting them to solve a big, bad problem. Given it's random approach (I have no idea why these particular characters were chosen - there is no particular reason that the 6th Doctor, Romana or Leela should be involved - the only one who deserves to be there is Mike because of his involvement in the previous story) it is astonishing that it works out as well as it does. Baker, Ward, Jameson and Franklin gel together infectiously and magic pours forth. It could have just have easily have felt haphazard and indulgent but the fluid storytelling, joyful dialogue and express pace (not to mention a great big threat that is beautifully conceived and delivered) all help to turn Second Sight into something rather wonderful. I thought there was no way that four stories worth of material could be tied up satisfyingly in the final fifteen minutes but Goss and Richards manage to pull it off, giving Rees an emotional (if ambiguous) send off and suggesting further adventures for Sixie, Romana and Leela (yes please). Overall it was a strong piece, equal to the best of the rest without pushing into the realms of the classics. The box set as a whole can be considered a huge success though, there is enough Doctor Who here to lure people in and a strong enough example of the three other series to leave newcomers wanting more. A smart move and a very entertaining series of stories: 8/10

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Screaming Skull written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley & Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Disgraced soldiers Ruth Matheson and Charlie Sato are called back into action by Captain Mike Yates, when the UNIT Vault is mysteriously locked down by a deadly force. Together they must infiltrate the Vault and get those trapped out alive. But what enemy are they facing?

Mike Yates: We haven't spent a great deal of time in the presence of Mike Yates with Big Finish beyond a handful of companion chronicles and one Lost Story but the few occasions they have dealt with the character he has proven to be a surprising hit. I think the relative rarity of the character comes down to his involvement in the Nest Cottage audios, to avoid any confusion between his modern day timeline in the Audio Go 4th Doctor series. Since that company has now gone into administration there is no longer a conflict of interest. Richard Franklin has proven to be a fine narrator and whilst you might think that Yates was something a cardboard character on screen, his ousting from UNIT and subsequent humiliation have turned out to be great dramatic points in his life that has warranted further exploration. Yates has returned to service now. There is a mutual link between Yates and the two Vault employees, they have all been considered a security risk by UNIT at some point. He understands the suspicion they must be under and the scrutiny they must be facing. Mike has effectively come out of retirement to go on this suicide mission into the Vault but then he never was the sort of person to sit back and do nothing. He has personal reasons for doing so which he is keeping close to his chest. Walking around the Vault brings back all kinds of memories for Mike, seeing plastic daffodils and stone gargoyles that link back to alien incursions during his time serving with UNIT. One of the missing officers is called Lucas and she and Mike had a relationship when she was a new recruit and he was a training officer. A career in UNIT and a personal life don't really mix and it didn't work out but his connection with her is enough to draft him in to rescue her. He was clearly quite the ladies man behind the scenes since Yates alludes to nights spent with Corporal Bell too. He went along for the ride with the Doctor and Jo to Karfel (pre-Timelash). He tries his damndest to keep his affiliation with the Doctor a secret from Rees but he has been such a dominant figure in his life it is impossible to scour his past and not find his footprints imprinted all over it. Jane genuinely was in love with Mike and when he was discharged she tried to help him but he pushed her away, perhaps too strong a reminder of everything he had lost. It is hard for him to ask UNIT to shoot to kill Jane, even though she is dead already.

Sato & Matheson: Probably the easiest to get a handle on (for me) and the least explored 'spin off' of the box set, the continuing adventures of Charlie Sato and Ruth Matheson and their career in the UNIT Vault is something I have been looking forward to ever since the gripping climax to Mastermind in the final year of the companion chronicles. In Tales from the Vault, Jonathan Morris created a brand new playground for Big Finish to play about with in the UNIT Vault, a sinister environment where all the artefacts and gubbins from the various attempts to invade the Earth have ended up in storage. Each artefact comes with a story that for the most part is linked to an adventure with the Doctor. In Mastermind the treasure turns out to be the Master, a prisoner of the organisation and a man who is manipulating his way out of custody. At the end of that hypnotic tale we left Charlie (a new recruit to the Vault) and Ruth (a long serving member) trapped in a lockdown, mesmerised by the Master who has escaped and left behind as collateral damage to his escape. Exposure to and manipulation by the Master meant that they could never be trusted again. Morris said that he thought there were more stories to be told with these characters and in this setting...and now has set himself the task of proving it. It seems appropriate that the TV series has acknowledged the existence of the Vault (The Day of the Doctor) and it is an alternative spin on the same idea that was touted in the Sarah Jane Adventure, Enemy of the Bane. They are still prisoners of their own people at the beginning of The Screaming Skull, Charlie have come to terms with his fate but Ruth convinced that she can talk her way out of confinement. She has passed every psyche evaluation that they have thrown at them and refuses to sit around feeling sorry for herself. Because of how they handled themselves in this escapade, Ruth and Charlie are no longer considered a security risk. That makes Ruth equal in rank to Mike.

Standout Performance: Franklin commits 100% to every audio he is working on. His performances in the past decade have been so much more impressive than he ever was on television.

Great Ideas: Recently two investigators have been sent in to the Vault and they have no way to ascertain whether they are still alive in there. In an emergency the Vault can only be opened from the outside. C19 were the forerunners of the Vault and they moved it here in the 90s, stating that it didn't feel right for the base to not be underneath a landmark. Morris has great fun alluding to previous Doctor Who adventures without explicitly stating anything, everything from Invasion of the Dinosaurs to Pyramids of Mars. Even previous Big Finish tales are referenced with a Terrovore from The Crimes of Thomas Brewster buzzing about to cause mischief. Rees is active inside the Vault, animating the corpses of the dead. There doesn't seem to be anything extraordinary about the music box in the Vault but it is known to be linked to the Reesinger Process that was dealt with by the Countermeasures team back in the 60s. Sir Toby put it in storage and it was it was given to UNIT in the mid 70s. Apparently the UNIT file on the exploits of Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot is quite the page turner. For the last half century the music box (and Rees within it) has been incarcerated beneath the Tower of London. The flesh may perish but the mid endures. The idea that Rees is trying to piece together a new body for himself like a cut price Frankenstein's monster is genuinely ghoulish, luring officers into the Vault and murdering them, lopping off bits here and there to make stitched together shell to place his mind in again. Rees divided his spirit between the music box and the skull, both practically immortal but unable to do anything on their own. It's only when they have been moved in to the vicinity of each other in the vault that they have been able to achieve a critical mass and he has been reborn as a mental intelligence. The music box has vanished and Mike is ordering the activation of the space/time telegraph to call in the Doctor.

Audio Landscape: A growling car, playing violent video games, sea rolling and crashing, helicopter blades screaming, groaning in pain, humming Terrovore, shooting lasers, the screaming, humming voice of Rees, wind whipping.

Musical Cues: After the ghoulish version of Ding Dong Bell used in Mind Games and the more percussive version in The Reesinger Process, it seems very appropriate that the same nursery rhyme should be adapted for the more action packed and modern world of a UNIT story to something much more cinematic and bombastic. There is an exciting, militaristic bent to the soundtrack in this release that made diving into the story and being dragged along in its wake quite effortless.

Standout Scene: I want to be above the giddy excitement of wandering through the corridors of the Vault and discovering items that have taken part in previous Doctor Who adventures...but I'm not.

Result: What an unexpected delight. This was the story I was expecting the least from (because it doesn't have the weight of an entire range behind it) and what it achieved was quite unforeseen - that I wished there was a spin off series to follow. Don't get me wrong I have thoroughly enjoyed both Vault stories from Jonathan Morris (especially Mastermind, which still ranks as one of my favourite companion chronicles) and it was great that further opportunities have been handed to Ruth and Charlie. Drafting in Mike was a stroke of genius and Franklin, Ashbrook and Tso make quite the trio of UNIT misfits heading off on a dangerous mission that could potentially allow the organisation to wipe their hands of their previous disgrace. Having Mike and UNIT involved makes this feel more like a Doctor Who story than the first two instalments of the Rees saga and The Screaming Skull is packed to the gills with continuity references from the TV series, previous audios and even the AudioGo series that Mike has defected from. It's deliriously enjoyable to be steeped in the past like this, such is the nostalgic opportunities that the Vault offers. Despite the fun, this is quite a claustrophobic story and the closest this box set has come to an out and out horror. Rees is taking on the survival methods of the Master, a new body at last and the way he is going about it is quite macabre. Tying together the worlds of Jago & Litefoot, Countermeasures and the UNIT Vault should have the adverse effect of making the Big Finish universe feel smaller by containing all of them within but bizarrely it had the reverse effect on me. Pulling them all into a cohesive mythology left the impression of a expansive, diverse universe that allows for many different types of storytelling that strides across decades and having them all referenced together in this tale gave me a genuine thrill. The strongest segment yet, with typically snappy Jonny Morris dialogue, some great ideas, an excellent pace and a trio of UNIT characters that are begging to be explored further: 8/10

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Worlds of Doctor Who: The Reesinger Process written by Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley & Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: London, 1964, and the repercussions of Jago and Litefoot’s adventure are dealt with by Sir Toby Kinsella and his crack team of specialists at Counter-Measures. What is the Reesinger Process – and who is behind it?

Countermeasures: It is clear immediately that the three actors that played Gilmore, Rachel and Alison in Remembrance of the Daleks have developed a good rapport over the past three seasons. Although both Simon Williams and Pamela Salem do sound noticeably older (unavoidably so since it is astonishing to think that Remembrance aired 26 years ago) they still embody the parts that Ben Aaronovitch wrote for them and Karen Gledhill sounds like she has just stepped through time. I think Rachel would have made a superb companion for the seventh Doctor, she was an instantly vivid character played by a great actress and 'Chunky' Gilmore served as a Brigadier before the Brig's time, embodying all those characteristics that we adored about Lethbridge Stewart (his earnestness, the twinkle in the eye, his shoot first and think later policy). Again Alison was the odd one out, not really sketched in enough to make an impact but that is something the audios have a lot of time to do. Gilmore sees himself as something of a civil servant these days, much to his chargin. I love the idea that the Countermeasures team investigate the Reesinger Organisation from separate avenues and meet up unexpectedly once they are there. It proves that they are all independently capable and able to surprise one another too. Alison comments that it wasn't even a date and Gilmore stood her up - do these two have some kind of history? Rachel manages to cobble together a device that will counteract Rees' brainwashing, serving as the teams scientific advisor just as the Doctor was to UNIT in the 70s.

Great Ideas: The budget of the Ministry of Defence pays for the Countermeasures team to continue their investigations but there are questions being asked in very high places as to whether it is necessary expenditure. Sir Toby Kinsella is directly responsible for the team, a conduit between them and the government. Rees is up to his old tricks, convincing high ranking civil servants or those in the military in the 1960s to commit despicable acts: pushing people off trains, firing blind in a post office, grinding up sleeping pills and adding them to a night time tipple. Colonel Swinton attacked three officers and attempted to commit suicide, a gun to the head. The Reesinger Course is specifically designed to promote contingency character building. The clever use of Rees' name and his raison detre from the previous story tells you everything you need to know about just how he is enhancing their character on this course. It's just a matter of a waiting game to see how long it takes the Countermeasures team to figure out what his behavioural manipulation entails. It's unusual to be this far ahead of the heroes but it works in this respect especially when it is a race against time to prevent the loss of any more unnecessary deaths. When the victims of the Reesinger conditioning succumb and vacant their position (a polite way of saying kill themselves) there always seems to be somebody ready to take their place. And since they are all in vertiginous positions that puts whoever is controlling these replacements in a position of power. Rees has been inside Miss Wilton's mind, whispering in her ear, setting this whole operation up. His body is still lying at the bottom of the well, just bones. After he has been driven out of her mind, the music box still lingers and Ding Dong Bell is hummed in the final scene...Rees' presence still lingers on.

Audio Landscape: Big Ben chiming, cars chugging past in London, a scream, a gunshot, a train screaming along the tracks towards a screaming passenger, gunshots in a post office, the chinkling of china, throwing punches, marching soldiers, waters flowing, Ian smashing equipment, alarms sounding, walls crumbling.

Musical Cues: I rather like the theme tune for this series, as it sounds like a compromise between the melodramatic themes from 60s spy series and the more stylish expectations of shows these days. The rattlesnake motif at the end was particularly nice, as was the flute which added an air of mystery. I enjoyed the percussive soundtrack that guided the story along, it is an unusual musical style that is unique to this series. Ding Dong Bell is used to sinister effect again, too.

Isn't it Odd: About two thirds into the story we start entering into Star Trek Voyager territory, where technobabble starts to overwhelm the story. Unfortunately having Rachel spouting off a lot of scientific babble about brain waves isn't the best use of her character. She's smart but as an audience all we need to know is that Rees can brainwash people without going in to all of the specifics. The technical jargon does rather stall the story.

Standout Scene: Another strong climax where loyalties are tested. This time Rachel has to decide whether to use the machine to wipe out Rees' influence over Miss Wilton and potentially destroy the minds of her two friends in the process.

Result: 'If I can't have her...neither can you!' Now here is a series that I am relatively new to and I certainly haven't written any reviews of the range as of yet. Both Countermeasures and Survivors have been filed under 'Must Listen to when Big Finish's Doctor Who output becomes less prolific and I have the time.' I'm not a huge fan of the 60s Spy genre so it didn't draw me in like Jago & Litefoot did (I'm a sucker for Victorian chillers) but after exposure to Countermeasures in The Assassin Games and now The Reesinger Process it is clear that there is much more to this series than a rehash of shows like Adam Adamant, The Saint and The Man From UNCLE. For a start you have a superb ensemble cast who have gelled together very nicely, which helps the stories progress smoothly but there is also the added element that the Countermeasures team is constantly trying to prove themselves and that their funding could be cut at any minute. It's a team desperate to make an impression, break the rules and get results that satisfies themselves and those big wigs in the government who make the important decisions. There's a real world grit to this series that is absent in the heightened reality of Jago & Litefoot (I couldn't imagine an encounter between the Countermeasures team and the Scorchies for example) and it produces quite dour stories as a result. However if you are up for something moody and granular than you needn't look anywhere else. The Reesinger Process is a smart little story for the most part, one that takes the elements set up in the opening story and utilises them in an ingenious way. Rees is quite the machiavellian plotter and has had time to bed his plans, smuggling away in the mind of an innocent, manipulating certain parties and murdering his way into power. It falls apart a little in the last third when what appears to be a much more epic story has quite an intimate climax, concentrating far more on Rees' desire for to find his remains rather than the grand scheme for overthrowing the government which was where I thought this was heading. Still it is skips by effortlessly for the most part and certainly does its job - Countermeasures has bumped up the list of series that I must listen to soon. I can't see how this is a series that lends itself to particularly diverse storytelling (but then that is a criticism I levelled at Jago & Litefoot when series one was announced and it has been able to push the boundaries of expectation in so many ways) but I look forward to finding out how it might achieve that. Onwards to the UNIT Vault, I think The Worlds of Doctor Who series has been a very smart move on Big Finish's part and has already proven more worthwhile than the multi Doctor arcs (Excelis, Drashani). Beyond the running storyline (which is gathering momentum) it offers exposure to these wonderful worlds that Big Finish has created: 7/10

The Worlds of Doctor Who: Mind Games written by Justin Richards and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: In Victorian England, Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot investigate worrying events on the streets of London – which seem to be linked to the New Regency Theatre’s resident act, the mesmerist Mr Rees…

Theatrical Fellow: If you're new to Jago & Litefoot and are frightened that his blustery personality might have been watered down over eight seasons of exploration then put your fears to one side. He is absolutely the same man as he was in Talons albeit with a new element in his life that allows him to flourish and his best characteristics to come forth (that element is of course George Litefoot). Jago likes to think that he can keep a clear head during the intermission of the shows at his theatre but he doesn't like half measures either. He's always alert to the extraordinary, people are always candid with him because he has the ability to put them at their ease. Probably with a drink or two in their hand. Jago says he is not afraid to die but that is clearly a lie as anybody who knows him would know. Jago talks very well with his fists as it turns out, a punch that saves their lives.

Posh Professor: When dealing with the perpetrator of a grisly crime, Litefoot insists on making the definition between a gentlemen and a man. According to Jago he is a monolith of the professional fraternity. Litefoot happily pretends to soothe one of the victims of Rees control into thinking they have just had a bad dream when his gut is telling him that something much more sinister is going on. He's quite the performer in that regard. The climax is very good indeed with the good Professor forced to point a gun at Henry against his will. I think if he was forced to go through with the act George might very well have taken his own life whether he was influenced to or not.

Rees: A character that will stride from one spin off to another, Rees is the central antagonist of the Worlds box set. Played with silky voiced perfection by Jamie Glover, he cuts quite an impressive villain in the opening story. He's a sadist who enjoys forcing people to do things against their will and has the perfect opportunity to do so in his mesmeric act on stage. Jago has objected to his cruel act that sees women choking down on raw onions and worse but he refuses to change a thing, informing the impresario that he is pulling in the punters and making him a fortune. He does it because he enjoys it, forcing somebody to kill themselves or others gives him a thrill that cannot be captured in any other way. Worse, he likes to watch too.

Standout Performance: Benjamin and Baxter. It almost seems glib to still be placing them in this category after all these series but to put a fine point on it, this series simply wouldn't work without them. You'd still have the great storytelling, the atmospheric productions, etc...but without this pair of spectacular actors bringing their vivid roles to life it would lack the heart that makes it so unique. Bask in the glory of their work and the fact that years on it is still as entertaining as it was back when The Mahogany Murders was released.

Great Ideas: It is probably not a bad idea to start the Jago & Litefoot section of the box set, a box set that is setting out to introduce those people who haven't dipped their toes into the spin off ranges to see what they are all about and to their tastes, with an identical beginning to Talons of Weng-Chiang. An act at the theatre and Jago waiting in the wings to give the order for the curtain to go down. It makes the audience feel right at home. It's almost stereotypical Jago & Litefoot (Litefoot in the mortuary discovering the details of the latest case) but that is no bad thing as the norm on this series is still very good it has perfected the formula which has run a successful eight series now. The New Regency Theatre seems to be the hub of which the spate of recent murders is taking place in. People are having disturbing dreams about murdering people, like voices in the head telling them to perform the homicidal acts. They are all people who have been mesmerised by Rees on stage at the Regency Theatre. We might look back at the Victorian times and acts like the mesmerist that forcing people to behave in obscene ways to please the cheering crowds that want them to be as embarrassed as possible but (if you have the stomach for it) you should stick on The X-Factor auditions and you will see that things haven't changed one bit. There are still those who are desperate to see people disgraced and degrade themselves for the sake of entertainment. I don't think we've moved on in the slightest, we've just sought better ways of enticing people into being humiliated by dressing up the circus as an opportunity for them. I was pleased to see Ellie getting a substantial role, the writers seem keen for her to take a more active part in the series these days. She gatecrashes Jago & Litefoot's trip to the theatre, makes her feelings perfectly clear on the grotesque style of entertainment and almost suffers the fate of being the next victim. In a very funny moment it appears that Jago has instigated the birth of audio drama, promoting the idea of recording the acts at the theatre for punters to play back when they are at home. He foresees a time when there will be a big enough audience for full cast dramas to be recorded! It is a smart way of using the phonograph later in the story to fill in some of the expository gaps for Ellie and PC Quick and an imaginative to present the story in a different format.

Audio Landscape: Jeering, cheering audience, applause, the hustle and bustle of a bar, pouring a drink, a flashback to a suicide/murder with the water sluicing, footsteps, running water, birdsong, gunshot.

Musical Cues: As ever, Howard Carter's music is exemplary and he ploughs ahead with a sinister, slowed down version of a nursery rhyme that gives the piece a creepy, Sapphire and Steel-esque feeling at times. When Rees murders a prostitute in the street with the melancholic chimes of a kids tune playing it adds a whole new level of menace. 

Isn't it Odd: I have seen this plot played out before, people being manipulated by their dreams to kill, but it is such an insidiously creepy idea it pays off regardless of whether it is original or not. It takes our heroes an age to figure out that Rees is behind the murders, given that they lay out the clues that link the attacks and the people who have been on stage quite early on.

Standout Scene: My buttocks were firmly clenched during the scene where one of Rees's victims holds a gun on Jago & Litefoot and it escalates to a point where it looks like he is going to successfully commit suicide.

Result: The Worlds of Doctor Who kicks off with a tradition romp from Jago & Litefoot and that feels appropriate for anybody who might be thinking of dipping their toes into Big Finish's most successful (in my humble opinion) spin off range. Whilst long term fans of the series might be a little disillusioned that this wheels out the conventional elements, they are all used extremely well and brought to life by the inestimable talents of Howard Carter the whole story feels wonderfully immersive and atmospheric. What you take away from Mind Games is the creepy villain of the piece Mr Rees, an popular act at Jago's theatre who is slaughtering his way through Old London Town. Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter are effortlessly good (I don't think I will ever get bored of their chemistry, it simply glows) as ever and Lisa Bowerman continues to provide superb support as Ellie. There's nothing in particular to discuss in this summary because Justin Richards' perfectly acceptable script never wants to break outside of the box. It is here to present the glorious world of Jago & Litefoot in a bite size package and to put in place the arc elements of this box set. It is rare for the opening segment of a Big Finish box set to be the best of the bunch (the first Dark Eyes set was the exception to that rule) and Mind Games proves to be a worthy diversion but nothing that makes me heart skip a beat. If you bought a season of Jago & Litefoot in this vein you might feel a little short changed but as a taster it is quite engaging, especially the superb climax where the two gents prove how much they care about each other: 7/10

Series Eight

Deep Breath written by Steven Moffat and directed by Ben Wheatley

Result: The first half an hour of Deep Breath might just be the most worst opening to any regeneration story. Previous recipients were either so shocking they were like having a bucket of cold water thrown in your face (the Doctor strangling Peri) or paradoxically so dreadful they were deliriously enjoyable to watch (Kate O'Mara dressing up and doing her best Bonnie Langford impression). I found myself drifting off to make dinner and just listening with one ear. Which is bizarre because the last half hour does some genuinely interesting things with its characters. Deep Breath has an extra 35 minutes to play with but it doesn't use them wisely. Time of the Doctor tried to squeeze too much into to short a time...Deep Breath has the opposite problem. Although there is the odd nugget of gold in the script, the dialogue is frequently painful and the plot is entirely made up of recycled ideas. Those who are declaring this as one of Moffat's best are clearly coming to the show from a different place critically than I am. Just because we so desperately want this to be a bold new era of Doctor Who...that doesn't mean it automatically is and whilst this has some fresh elements to it (mostly the Doctor's brooding darkness in the wake of Smith's wackiness) this is still laden with the flaws that have been apparent in Moffat's approach since series six. Perhaps this was the point where a new showrunner (hate that term), one who is not a fan should have taken the reins. It worked for Hinchcliffe. The new Doctor is deliberately awkward and non-conformist and whilst that might work for Doctor Who fans who understand that it takes a while to settle into the role I can only imagine the wider audience watching and recoiling at the enforced strangeness that the protagonist is forced to exhibit. Capaldi pulls it together in the last half an hour and focuses on the Doctor's exciting newfound murkiness but he really struggles in the opening half of this story. Clara is improved exponentially simply by reacting to the situation like a human being rather than the unfazed super companion she was last year. When did acting scared become a revolutionary concept for a companion? Only in the wake of Amy and Clara Mark I... While the plot never thrilled me, there were some intriguing scenes in the tail end of the story (mostly down to Capaldi's riveting performance) and whilst I never for one moment bought that the semi regulars would be killed (people don't die in the Moffat-verse, remember?) the climax is at least dramatically satisfying. Ben Wheatley is a name that has excited a lot of people but judging by the material here he was lauded a little too early. I would say he is one of the weaker directors to have realised a story yet. I would sum up Deep Breath as an abject failure as a story but an intriguing success as a character tale...once it got going. I would say that on strength of Time of the Doctor and Deep Breath back to back that Steven Moffat has gone bankrupt creatively (he has exhausted his well of ideas) but still has some tricks up his sleeves when it comes to his characters. It is a frustrating situation because I want razor sharp stories and strong characterisation but after the trinity of terror last year (Journey, Nightmare and Time) I will happily take at least one or the other for the time being. I am genuinely excited to see what the new writers bring this year with new set up but Moffat is going to have to up his game exponentially, in story terms, in order to get the show up to scratch: 5/10

Full Review Here:

Into the Dalek written by Phil Ford & Steven Moffat and directed by Ben Wheatley

Result: Given the last collaboration between showrunner and Phil Ford produced the superlative The Waters of Mars (still my idea of the perfect Doctor Who story) I was expecting great things of Into the Dalek. It was certainly a step in the right direction after Deep Breath but unfortunately still riddled with flaws that kept it from being just above average for me. Into the Dalek wants to be a mad Fantastic Voyage style adventure, a gripping Dalek massacre and a psychological examination of both the Doctor and the Dalek and simply doesn't have the time to do justice to all three and so much of the material is rushed. It performs all three adequately (visually it works a treat) but I would say that The Invisible Enemy, The Parting of the Ways and Dalek tackle these three individual elements in a much more effective way because they have the time to explore them. Squishing them all together means there is barely a moment to breathe and in some cases the genres are fighting each other (Honey I Shrunk the Kids style running about inside a Dalek and a psychological face off between the Doctor and the Daleks are hardly the most complimentary of concepts). This so desperately wants to be Capaldi's Dalek but it isn't as hard-hitting or as intimate and he simply isn't scared enough of the creatures for it to have the same impact. Dalek was so raw it was practically bleeding, this discusses emotions and feelings but it doesn't show the characters experiencing them and there is a massive difference between the two approaches. Whilst it doesn't engage me psychologically, I have long awaited the time when the Daleks were behaving like total bastards again after being slowly castrated throughout the Moffat era and here they get to do what they do best, kill indiscriminately. The scenes of them storming the base and massacring the crew are a highlight. I found this entertaining, occasionally quite profound but this desperately needed an extra 15 minutes to add extra depth to the characters, detail to the setting and to allow the plot some time to breathe. Into the Dalek is packaged in such a mechanical way that it pretty much guts the story of any real tension. Kudos for the action content though and I can't wait to see a lighter side of Capaldi next week: 6/10

Full Review Here:

Robot of Sherwood written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Paul Murphy

Result: Romps. Some Doctor Who fans come out in hives at the mere mention of the word. Filler episodes that are designed to do nothing but fill an hour with energy, excitement and amusement, I rather like them when they are written with care and brought to the screen with some oomph. The Unicorn and the Wasp set the romp benchmark very high for me; a witty, beautifully cast and filmed mystery and a poignant character study to boot. Style, substance and humour. Robot of Sherwood doesn't reach anywhere near that lofty position but it is a step up from Curse of the Black Spot (it is more energetic and amusing) and a step down from The Lodger (it lacks the drama) in the romp stakes (hohoho). The biggest drawback to this episode is the intrusion of a SF story (signposted in the title, spoiling the surprise reveal of the robot) which is half baked and a bit embarrassed to be there amongst all the high jinks, peeping through the comedy tentatively. I question why this couldn't simply have been an exploration of myth (because that is much more interesting than slavishly copying the plot of Deep Breath) because the SF elements bring with them gaps in logic, irritating questions and an mortifying resolution. I want the show to be daring and attempt a pure historical without any SF trappings. The first half worked better for me in that respect but then the robots came stomping in on the fun and rob us of a genuine historical romp. I would have happily have accepted that the myth was real without all the is he/isn't he a robot nonsense. The biggest strengths of Robot of Sherwood are the superb central performances by Tom Riley (I think I fell a little bit in love with Robin) and Ben Miller, the generally gorgeous direction, light tone and stylishness of the whole affair. Gatiss isn't a comic genius so his humour misses as much as it hits but the moments it hit genuinely left a big smile on my face. A plot so light a gentle breeze would carry it away, a curmudgeonly Doctor spoiling the good heartedness of it all, charismatic guest performances, the impossibly smug and self assured girl, beautiful locations and a rousing score, terrible presentation of the narrative - I'm torn between the jolly mood and the moronism (ooh I've invented a word) of the writing. Robin Hood, Hollywood style, like a beautiful piece of art without intellectual worth: 5/10

Full Review Here:

Listen written by Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon

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 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

Full Review Here:

Time Heist written by Steven Thompson & Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon

Result: Doctor Who's current obsession with Hollywood continues. We've had Jurassic Park in Victorian London, Fantastic Voyage in side a Dalek, Robin Hood with robots and now we are treated to Ocean's Eleven with time travel. On my first viewing I was glued to the screen because I was tricked into thinking that this was leading somewhere spectacular, something I haven't been lulled in to for some time. It's been an age since I last watched a Doctor Who episode where I didn't know what was going on and was simply enjoying the ride so much. The destination is nowhere near as enjoyable as the journey, that's unfortunate but this is still a thrilling first watch, one that ultimately spoils repeated viewings because of its questionable twists towards the conclusion. As usual it could have done with an extra fifteen minutes (the structure of the story would be completely different if it had that luxury) to allow the story time to breathe (this one is sprinting all the way through) and flesh out the characters (Keeley Hawes isn't given a character, she plays standard smug villainess number eighty four) but the fluidic nature of the storytelling and the breathless pace convince you whilst you are watching that it is the perfect length. It is only when you think about things afterwards that the cracks appear. Typical Moffat then. Still it is sporting some delicious visuals, terrific interaction between the actors, some acerbic lines and wonderful ideas. I cannot come down too hard on an episode that gets all those things right. Not only that but it is a Doctor Who story set on an alien world with exotic characters on display and that is something I can always get caught up in. Despite the wealth of faults which I have explored above, I found myself seduced by this one. It wasn't anywhere near as clever is it was trying to convince you that it was but this is a story that by its very nature is designed to be all style and no substance and boy did it deliver some style. Farscape sported a very similar episode to this (a bank heist on an alien world) on what must have been double the budget and with twice the perversion and imagination (more dumbed down for a family audience?) and as such this is a pale shadow of that, but in Doctor Who terms this was pretty classy stuff. I rather liked how sexy it all was but I can understand why some people were turned off: 7/10

Full Review Here:

The Caretaker written by Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Murphy

Result: It's the robot I feel sorry for. Billed as the most deadly killing machine ever, it waddles into action like a hyperactive duck waving it's arms about... I couldn't help but go 'beedy beedy beedy' every time it showed up. It belonged in another episode too, like Robot of Sherwood it was another superfluous splash of SF in an episode that was trying to stay grounded in another genre altogether. I'm not sure Waterloo Who has legs to stand on; the school bound drama concerning two teachers, the alien caretaker that interferes with their love affair and the gobby student who stands in the background with her hands on her hips unimpressed by everything. If Moffat is trying to recreate the magic of the original TARDIS line up he has quite a way to go. What to think of The Caretaker? It was entertaining enough, but I did spend most of the hour wondering why I was watching this instead of something more engaging. 45 minutes passed harmlessly enough; some of it made me smirk, some of it made me clock watch and most of the relationship stuff fell flat because it was told without any joy. It's all character development, a story is barely considered. This is proof, if it was needed that I wont watch any old kitchen sink domestic drama and give it a free pass as some seem to think. This is what Russell T Davies was trying to achieve without the charm to make it work, this is domestic drama played for real without the entertainment value of warm and funny characters that makes getting close to them worthwhile. I am a long way from being convinced by Clara and Danny's love affair, which might just be the most sombre relationship I have ever witnessed on television. It's missing two things that would really make it work, humour and passion. In contrast the Doctor/Clara relationship has really started to gel for me now and they share a number of moments in The Caretaker where the characters sing together. It might have something to do with how Clara was wrong footed throughout, how the Doctor constantly kept her on her toes. They just work, in a way that Coleman and Smith never really did for me. The Caretaker is another episode this season that left me quite ambivalent (just like Deep Breath and Robot of Sherwood), I question whether this is a story that needed telling. Danny's integration into Clara's other world did not require an entire episode and if it was necessary I question whether it was told with enough pizzazz. There were some funny lines and moments but this wasn't a patch on Aliens of London (secondary characters drawn into the Doctor's world), School Reunion (the Doctor undercover in a school that evolves into the ultimate love triangle), The Lodger (the Doctor posing as a human and interfering with a blossoming relationship) or The Power of Three (companion who hops from one life to the other trying to reconcile the two). It was an awkward hybrid of old episodes, like most episodes in season eight, struggling to say something new but passing the time amiably enough. A situational comedy, that's where all the humour is (in the situation) and there is none left over for the characters, a fatal error: 5/10

Full Review Here:

Kill the Moon written by Peter Harness and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

Result: 'It's time to take the stabilisers off your bike...' I think I might be turning a corner with season eight. With the advent of Kill the Moon (and Mummy on the Orient Express for anybody who might be interested) that is four of the last five episodes that have ranked from good to great. Kill the Moon was written by a new writer to the series and it shows because it isn't resting on the laurels of the past but pushing ahead with something unique and groundbreaking (hoho). The fact that fan reaction to the extraordinary twist that the Moon is an egg was so divisive proves that he must be doing something right, until this point in the season I don't think there has been anything worth getting this het up about. This was a massive risk and for some (like me) it paid off in spades. I love how the episode shifts gears from your traditional Doctor Who spook fest (which the director pulled off with some gusto) to something much more dramatically substantial and philosophical. For once an episode tossed out the timey wimey clever cleverness and actually seemed to be about something. Whereas I have been slouching back and enjoying the show for what it is in season eight there were three times in Kill the Moon when I bolted upright on the edge of my seat and really paid attention (for the record it was the egg twists, the Doctor choosing to exonerate himself from responsibility and Clara's devastating accusations in the closing TARDIS scene). There is so much to admire about this episode; the stunning filming in Lanzerote, the arachnophobiacs nightmare, the standout performances of Capaldi and especially Coleman who truly proves her worth in the devastating climax. I'll take a point away for the humourless and generally staid guest cast of characters and another because Courtney's presence baffles me but overall this joins Listen as the best episode of the year to date for me. I feel as if the season is gaining more momentum as it progresses and new regime is starting to click into place. It's nice to be so positive about the show again. More new writers please, it is clear that the Moffat era can still flourish with some new creative blood to back him up: 8/10

Full Review Here:

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Love & Monsters written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Dan Zeff

This story in a nutshell: Are you kidding me?

Mockney Dude: Enchanting how a story that hardly features the Doctor can embody and mythologise him so completely. I love that fans criticise this story for doing exactly what they do, forming fan theories, imagining travelling with him, looking for what he means to us. Love & Monsters reveals the love fandom has for the show and the reception to it from the more militant quarters and reveals the hypocrisy and sheer anal fartitude of some quarters. It holds up a mirror to both the best (the sense of community, the love of the Doctor) and the worst of fandom and I'm sure that is the reason why plenty of people find it an uncomfortable watch - because it doesn't always paint them in a comfortable light. As a parody of a Doctor Who fan this is much more fun than Greatest Show’s Whizzkid because Davies bothered to give his wannabes character and charm whereas The Greatest Show in the Galaxy featured a walking gag who was bumped off once the point had been flogged to death. The scenes showing the Doctor as a spectre in the night, haunting Elton on the day that his mother died is another terrific example of looking at the central character afresh. That is an approach which is exemplified by this episode. It suggests that to be touched by the Doctor means that somebody in your life might be marked. The Absorbaloff wants to taste the Doctor’s experiences and intelligence. I hope he's got a hell of an appetite. I like the menacing idea that if your touch the Doctor’s life, even for a second, things change and sometimes for the worst. What does that say about Rose? There have been portents about her future because of her proximity to the Time Lord but this is the most forceful warning yet. It made you question at the time what Davies had planned for these two. I love the idea of only being able to see snippets of his adventures from afar too such as Elton does in the teaser. It makes his adventures look like one big long joke involving slapstick and monsters. It's an absolute riot. During his stint on the show Davies offered several new perceptions of the Doctor (as a romantic figure, as a man running from his past, as a man who bends the laws of Time to his will) but I think the image of his visiting a little boy at night like a spectre of death might just be my favourite.

Chavvy Chick: We see another side to Rose in Love & Monsters too, through her mother’s eyes. It is particularly useful in Rose’s case since she has become something of a jealous caricature of the character she played in the first season by this stage of series two and seeing how her absence affects Jackie gives us a unique new angle to her character. As much as you might not like how domestic the show became under Davies banner you cannot argue that it afforded a whole new perspective from the companions point of view on the show that had barely been considered before. It might have gotten out of hand come series eight with the companion popping in and out of their domestic lives and the TARDIS but back in the first four years companions were allowed to be companions (ie travelling in the TARDIS full time) with the occasion peek at the emotional consequences of who they have left behind. I love it when she steps out of the TARDIS furious that Elton has upset her mum but seeing how upset he is at losing Ursula she puts her arms around him and comforts him. It’s a wonderfully tender scene, which shows Rose at her best.

Not That One: These Doctor/companion lite episodes have given us some wonderful characters in the shape of Elton Pope, Sally Sparrow and Craig & Sophie all of which I feel are strong enough to hold up their individual episodes and could work as potential companions. Well maybe not Sophie but all the others. Marc Warren is astoundingly good in this episode (and that’s faint praise); he makes Elton sympathetic, funny, sexy, geeky and quite a delight to spend time with. At times he plays the characters more childish characteristics up but that only serves to make him even more sympathetic. He's you and me, sitting at home behind our keyboards and trying to get as close to the Doctor as possible. I think Davies and Warren have pitched the character perfectly, just pathetic enough to feel for him and confident enough to rise above his flaws and fight back. I love his na├»ve innocence that is expressed in how he can hurt the people around him (like Jackie) because he is so obsessed with the Doctor and cannot see that that obsession might have a profound effect on others. His romance with Ursula is played at exactly the right level with the two of them at arms length but desperately involved with each other emotionally and not coming to terms with their feelings until they are almost torn apart for good.. His realisation that he loves Ursula and wants Jackie as a friend leads to spectacular moment of regret where he betrays his friend by not being honest with her. How can you not cheer when he finally stands up to himself and gives Victor a piece of his mind. I could happily spend more time with Elton Pope, especially the way he so outrageously breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience all the time. Imagine a whole season of crazy narrative tricks and addresses to a video camera as Elton joins the TARDIS and records their visits for posterity. It's not such a crazy idea, it worked out fine in Stargate Universe.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The most beautiful sound in the world…’
‘So…we meet at last, LINDA.’
‘Because it’s never me is it?’ – that line should sound selfish but it's devastatingly delivered by Camille Coduri.
‘She tastes like chicken.’
‘The truth is the world is so much stranger than that and so much darker and so much madder and so much better.’

The Good Stuff: The opening really grabs your attention as you are plonked somewhere in the middle of the story told from the point of view of an outsider. That's the sort of subversion of the norm that you can expect throughout Love & Monsters. I have seen countless Doctor Who monsters, from both the classic and the new series, that look a damn sight less convincing the Hoix. For a monster that has been cobbled together at the last minute it is extraordinarily good. Miles better than the Absorbalof, strangely enough. Is this only the second time we have had farce in Doctor Who of this nature? The Doctor, Rose and the Hoix running about with buckets is every bit is chucklesome as Barbara whooping out loud and attempting to escape the clutches of a very horny in The Romans. I'm not a massive fan of this brand of comedy but when it is pulled off this well it is better to just go with the flow. A whole story in this vein would be too much but as a glimpse into the insane world of the Doctor ('You said red!' 'I said not red!') it works a treat. Russell T. Davies was a genius to recount the Earthbound new Who invasions from the point of view of a civilian, again something that has never been attempted before and it successfully manages to make the timeline since the show returned feel as though it is building up an impressive mythology. The re-enactments of Rose, Aliens of London and The Christmas Invasion are inspired, enough to make any fanboy squeal with delight. I especially like Elton's reaction to the Autons smashing through the window. It is very easy to get to know Elton when he is talking directly to us. Davies exposes the joy of meeting new friends through their love of the Doctor and the pain of those friendships being torn apart through the work of one dominant personality. You don't have to have dabbled too long in Doctor Who fandom to understand what he is getting at here. When it comes to capture the essence of humanity there was no finer writer on Doctor Who. He's a great wit too, scripting the scene in the launderette with sharp gags (Elton never had a chance as a spy when Jackie set her lustrous sights on him). It is by far Jackie's best appearance from her time on the show, allowing her to be screamingly funny (the moment she throws the wine over Elton is deliriously naughty and trampish) but giving her a great deal of extra depth and poignancy too (I've already mentioned her reaction to Elton's betrayal but her moment of stillness after speaking to Rose on the phone really hits home, suddenly making her realise how pathetic she is playing around with what is essentially a boy). Her love and loss for her daughter is keenly felt and Elton’s lies cut deep, making for a sharp rush of emotion in what is generally a very funny episode. The thread of Jackie being left behind to cope without her daughter (when it is clear that Rose gives her life meaning) adds a layer of heartbreak to seasons one and two that hasn't been matched since (there was a touch of it in series four but Wilf was only too delighted that his Granddaughter was out amongst the stars). You can imagine fandom diving behind the sofa at the thought of Bliss' face bulging out of the Absorbaloff's arse cheek but that's exactly the sort of naughtiness that I quite admire. It makes me chuckled that Davies made Clom and Raxacoricofallapatorius next-door neighbours, placing his two least loved monsters in the same neighbourhood. It seems like he knew that this Blue Peter competition inspired monster wasn't going to go down very well! It's very sweet that it is friendship that tears the creature apart. I'll take that over the 'love conquers all' nonsense that we've suffered time and again over the past couple of years. The Absorbaloff melts in a slushy puddle of green crap - we haven't seen anything quite this surreal in the show for some time (perhaps since The Collector suffered the same fate in The Sun Makers). Is the living shadow that haunted Elton’s house the first instance of the Vashta Nerada on Earth? Every now and then you have to throw something at the Doctor Who audience that makes them throw their hands up in disgust just to keep them on their toes. A pavement slab giving head is pretty gross but it does make me laugh every time. If you can't get a handle on that, I do understand. I feel for you, but I do understand. The episode ends on a great sentiment that deserves to be repeated (see above).

The Bad Stuff: The Absorbaloff is a fine idea in theory but I thought we had all but disposed of the idea of men in ridiculous rubber suits. If I were William Grantham I would ask for my money back. It really should have been rendered in CGI with the faces being far more animated and bulging in and out of the layers of fat. The scene where it wobbles after Elton down the street uin a thing is one of the few genuinely rubbish moments in NuWho.

The Shallow Bit: Marc Warren has a cute little chest, you can see why Jackie was so determined to get his kit off. The moment when he changes the light bulb and she admires the V that leads down to his crown jewels might just be the hottest moment in Doctor Who ever.

Result: The most controversial episode of NuWho in what was the most uneven season of the show (until seasons six and seven came along). Make of that what you will. It’s a story that playfully deploys all kind of tricks to keep the audience amused, aroused and enchanted; a non linear plot, narration, montages, flashbacks, character synopsis’, cine footage, drama, laughs, singing, sex, monsters and a kids dream to design a Doctor Who monster and see it brought to life. It defies all expectations and redefines what Doctor Who can be about. It plays by its own rules and effortlessly draws you in to its unique atmosphere. It manages to be the most exquisite love letter to Doctor Who (and Doctor Who fandom) and still upset half of its audience terribly. Not every Doctor Who story could be as incendiary as this one but after the complacency of much of season two (even the highlights have mostly been kisses to the past - gothic horror, Sarah Jane, base under siege) Love & Monsters proved that it was still possible to put a firework up the arse of fandom and give them a short sharp shock of innovation. The fact that some people will claim that it is as good as Doctor Who ever gets and others declare it the worst piece of television to grace their TV screens proves that he certainly got peoples attention and gave the show an injection of innovation. I think the first half of this episode is just about flawless in what it is trying to achieve with some exquisitely drawn characters (of the like we just don't get on the show any more) and a beautifully mounted scenario with people coming together through their love of the Doctor. The second half is more problematical because the Absorbaloff itself is so utterly outrageous (and the realisation could hardly be called a success) but there are still some startling scenes (Jackie confronting Elton, the Doctor at the bottom of the stairs) and some effective emotional nuggets. Marc Warren holds the whole episode together, giving one of the strongest guest performances as Elton. I could 100% believe in his character (because he is effectively me) and my concern and affection for him kept me interested all the way through. One of the most subversive episodes of Doctor Who and one of the riskiest. For the most part, I love it: 9/10

Monday, 13 October 2014

Kill the Moon written by Peter Harness and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

This story in a nutshell: It's all in the title...

Indefinable: Apparently the Doctor's rules these days include 'no hanky panky' so he's either been reading fandom's wish list (except the shippers who have been penned awaiting execution) or hanging out with JNT in the 80s. Either way it is nice to hear it expressed in a way less vomit inducing than 'I'm not your boyfriend.' Yeah, I'll never stop mentioning that line just so it doesn't happen again. This Doctor doesn't big people up and make them feel special, it simply doesn't register to him that that is something that he needs to do. It's such a marked difference from the hugging boys of old that you have to wonder if the Time Lords didn't deliberately toss in a little asshole juice when they blew the pixie dust out of Amy's crack in the sky. Try reading that sentence out loud. Watch him hopping about in front of his captors, babbling on about his endless regenerations if he should be shot again and no point does he try and make a single character feel comfortable in an already tense situation. Whereas the tenth Doctor had his fixed points in time that he can't change, the twelfth Doctor enjoys moments in time that he can't see or anticipate. The former came with emotional consequences of its own (not being able to interfere with terrible disasters) but the latter offers the unknown and for a character that became far too self assured and all knowing in his previous incarnation I find this a very satisfying development. Let's hope we visit a lot more of these unknowable points in time where the axis could shift dramatically either way. The Doctor makes a decision in this story of a sort that he has never done before. He chooses to remove himself from the climax and leave the hard choices to his companion. And what an impossible choice it is. I still haven't decided how I feel about this because I find myself siding with Clara at the climax when she calls him an insensitive, patronising bastard. However I can also see why he would want to leave this decision to the human race and not interfere (this would be ideal material for his next trial). Is it cowardice? Respect? He's so unknowable in his decisions it is hard to determine. It's a fascinating choice, dramatically, not only for the position it puts Clara in but also for the reaction from the audience. Are we supposed to like this man who will happily deal with the monsters but skip out of the way when the tough choices need to be made? I've seen this episode three times and I am still on the fence. Kudos to Harness for daring to do something as unusual as this. It's not until the Doctor sees how far he has pushed Clara that he will even acknowledge that he might have mishandled the situation. Fascinating stuff.

Impossible Girl: Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Finally! Sorry, I'm doing a little happy dance as I type. Finally Clara has been put in a situation that she cannot smile, charm or waltz confidently out of. She has to stay and make an awful choice, she has to face the emotional consequences of making that choice and she has to do it without the Doctor's help. How could I not empathise with Clara in this position? Suddenly she feels like a real person dealing with a real situation (albeit one that is utterly outrageous). She sheds tears. She reaches out for help. She's upset and afraid and alone. All the things I have wanted to see from her since the beginning of series eight. People who say they don't understand her anger at the end of the episode are failing to put themselves in her shoes. The fate of everybody on the planet at your fingertips, the fate of a newborn child? It's a catch-22 situation where it looks like something extraordinary has to be destroyed (the Earth or the creature). I would be furious if I was dumped in that situation and the man with all the answers popped off for coffee without a care in the world. Coleman is astonishingly good at the climax, crying what feels like real tears and facing a man she used to love and being slightly terrified by what he has become. I genuinely felt something for Clara that I never had before - pity. I don't like her allusions to domestic violence again, though ('I'll smack you so hard you'll regenerate!'). I can't wait to see where this goes. If Clara has walked out of the Doctor's life for good this moment will remain one of my favourite companion departures - it's the Tegan decision all over again but brought bang up to date ('If you stop enjoying it, give it up'). Clara has been belittled by the Doctor for what feels like the last time and she has had enough. That is quite a brave statement to make about a Doctor who is still finding his feet.

Angie the Second: I'm not entirely sure why we should be giving a damn about Courtney either, Doctor. There certainly isn't enough character there (yet) to offer her a pass as a companion and it did feel like she was the element that was shoehorned into the episode awkwardly. Harness said he wanted a younger character involved and that was his prerogative but the bizarre way she is deployed, heads back to the TARDIS and then wants out again when things get interesting makes it feel as though she has been bolted onto a story that doesn't really need her. Clara could have been the one who was menaced by the spider (and as the actual companion probably should have been) and the philosophical debate could have been handled by the adults alone. Certainly there is nothing that Courtney adds to the debate that contributes to the Moon's fate. On the plus side I could tolerate the actress and she's far less of an irritant than Angie was (despite my rather disingenuous title above) but saying that she still displays a lot of the attitude that bugs me about a certain type of child. I love the fact that the Doctor doesn't give a damn about her and takes her along to the Moon on a whim. Even better, when it appears the three of them are going to be shot the Doctor shoves Courtney in the firing line first. That moment was divine and very Colin Baker. At least she's not useless, spraying one of the giant spiders to death. Surely she realises that she cannot put pictures of the Moon on Tumblr?

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Little moments where big things are decided. And this is one of them.'
'The Moon's an egg...' - enjoy this moment, it might be the only point when Capaldi's Doctor smiles in the entire episode. He's clearly tickled by this insane development, something that even he wouldn't have conceived. The universe can still surprise him.
'It's your Moon, womankind. It's your choice.'
'Get back in your lonely bloody TARDIS and don't come back.'

The Good:
* A teaser where there is no hoping about to a million destinations to get to a very simple point? Where the central dilemma of the episode is alluded to within seconds? Where the dramatic thrust of this piece of drama is laid bare for the audience to see immediately? Peter Harness, you can stay. He was told to Hinchcliffe the hell out of the first half of the episode (or words to that effect) and he certainly has a damn good try at recapturing the feel of the opening episode of those mid 70s stories - suspicious guest characters pointing guns, a creepy alien landscape, the wreck of a spaceship crawlies with beasties. It's the stuff of nightmares and it feels like proper old school Doctor Who. As much as Doctor Who fans are open to the original ideas (although if they are too 'out there' they will reject them outright as this episode proved) they are just as comfortable with the base under siege formula that has served the show since its origins. Dark corridors, flash lights, scuttling creatures, imminent's a recipe that will never get old and always thrill (as long as it is directed as well as it is here). I especially love the image of the bodies twisted in webs lying on the Moon's surface. How chilling.
* And spiders? Come on, you know that is going to be a winner. They worked a treat in Planet of the Spiders when they were leaping onto peoples backs and they provide a thrilling (and terrifying if you are arachnophobic) monster for this story. Clearly the work of CGI, that doesn't make them any less skin crawling as they are scuttling over the walls at a rate of knots, leaping at victims with giant fangs and dribbling saliva and nesting in a dark crevice on the Moon, legs twisted together, crawling on top of one another and leaping out to attack unsuspecting visitors. It would have taken a real numbskull to mess this one up because two thirds of the audience are already terrified at the though of seeing a spider. But I have to say the director did a great job of taking the horror as far as it can go in the time slot, especially the attack on Courtney and sudden shock as the Doctor is leapt at from the nest. Very well done.
* I cannot in all good conscience provide a critical appraisal of this episode and neglect to discuss how stunning the production values are this week. I was quite taken aback by the quality of the production and how a trip to the moon was pulled off with cinematic visuals on a BBC budget. Whoever had the notion to use the volcanic plains of Lanzerote to double for the Moon's surface deserves a massive round of applause because the ensuing shots of the deserted landscape are just gorgeous. Doctor Who has presented quite a few versions of the Moon's surface and most of them have been pretty good but to have actors out on location in such vast space truly sells the notion of the unending desolation on the lunar surface. 
* It helps that the direction was a damn sight more imaginative than usual too. The dissolve of the moon into Clara's eye, connecting the orbiting body and the character in a visually arresting way provides the key to this episodes central dilemma without uttering a word.
* There are two musical themes this year that I have fallen a little bit in love with. One I am calling 'the Doctor Reacts', which is the blood pumping, pacy score that accompanies the more exciting moments of the season (such as the ship screaming down to the Moon in this episode). The other is 'The Doctor Muses' which is the unnerving, darker motif that plays every time he is deliberately try to creep people out (and sounds remarkably similar to and yet entirely unlike Stannis Boratheon's theme in Game of Thrones). Listen out for it when the Doctor talks about the gravity levels on the Moon, pointing out the inexactness of the situation. Add to that the piece that plays as the Doctor and his companions reach the Mexican colony and study the surface photos of the Moon. You're in no doubt that the shit has hit the fan...and is about to do so again.
* I love Clara's assertion that the Moon is still around in the future because it makes you think of the future times that she has visited and whether she would have taken the time to look up in the sky and check. It reminds us that the celestial body that effects so much of our lives is practically ignored by everybody except poets and children. We know it is there, we except that it is there, it lights up the sky at night but do we often take time to appreciate its dark beauty and its duty of care? I doubt it. Maybe we'll glance up at the sky tonight and offer a smile to the old Man in the Moon.
* We've been told that the Moon is getting heavier, we have the evidence of its newfound gravity and suddenly it starts splitting apart (in one glorious shot taking the shuttle down one of its cracks). This is suddenly a race against time to prevent a natural disaster and that always creates a sense of tension. But what on Earth is up with the Moon? Oh yeah, it's an egg. Hang on...what? The Moon that has been hanging in the sky longer than any of us have been on this Earth is a living creature gestating inside a shell. That's insane. It's whacky. It's impossible. It's so out there that half of fandom's love for the show shrivelled up and wilted away to nothing. It's just madness. I love it. It's as brilliant and bold and imaginative as a man with two hearts and the ability to regenerate travelling around time and space in a box that is bigger on the inside than the outside. It's the sort of crazy ideas that Doctor Who has been dining out on for 50 years. Scientifically it might be absurd (especially in relation to it hatching and the seas failing to let rip on the planet) but creatively it is one of the riskiest and bravest twists that Doctor Who has ever attempted. I was applauding.
* Suddenly this predictable, Hinchcliffe horror has become much more interesting, and consequently because of Lundvik's suggestion that they kill the creature and prevent it from hatching, a whole lot darker too. I personally found the second half of Kill the Moon far more engaging because suddenly the show was firing on all thrusters again, not dallying in a formula from the past (which so many episodes this year have been guilty of) but pushing for a dark, philosophical debate over an outrageous concept. It's more innovative than the show has been for year. You have three women discussing the rights and wrong of abortion. Those who choose not to see that are ignoring the evidence of their own eyes. Lundvik, Clara and Courtney have to make the decision whether to abort a child or destroy the Earth. It's an overwhelming decision and Clara buckles under the pressure. What a terrible position to put her in (and by golly it is about time).

The Bad:
* The curse of the dreary guests characters in season eight even extends to its better episodes. I have never been a huge fan of Hermione Norris and have often found her to be the sort of actress to walk through roles like she has a bad smell under her nose. Something haughty and unlikable. And as if to exacerbate that she is given a haughty and unlikable character to play in Kill the Moon. On the plus side I felt there was enough of a back story for her to feel like a real person but she wasn't anybody that I was desperate to give the time of day to. With the Doctor behaving in an exclusively abusive manner, Courtney acting out like your typical teen and the remaining guest characters being little more than canon fodder, I was stuck in the unfortunate position of only having Clara to have any feelings of warmth towards. Lundvik has an important dramatic role to play in Kill the Moon but by golly is she a bore. Has she never heard of gallows humour?
* Taking Courtney back to the TARDIS is a weird diversion from the story. I feel that once they reached the base the story should have remained there for maximum claustrophobia. The scene of her huffing and puffing in the ship hardly enamours her to the audience.
* A shame that once the purpose of the spiders is revealed that the writer and director ditch the idea of making them scary again. They become a bit irrelevant to the story, proving they were just there to kill time in the first place.
* The lights going off around the world? That all happens terribly quickly. It's one of those times when a big decision has to be made in a hurry because there simply isn't any time for it to play out at a more relaxed, thoughtful pace. The fact that the people of the Earth chose to kill the creature genuinely surprised me though, I thought there would be more lights left on. I guess we are a self-preserving species above all else after all.
* Even I had trouble with the creature inside the Moon laying another egg to take its place. Since when does a creature have the capacity to lay an egg at birth that is of larger mass than itself? Let's just assume this is an extraordinary species that we don't understand and hop along.

Result: 'It's time to take the stabilisers off your bike...' I think I might be turning a corner with season eight. With the advent of Kill the Moon (and Mummy on the Orient Express for anybody who might be interested) that is four of the last five episodes that have ranked from good to great. Kill the Moon was written by a new writer to the series and it shows because it isn't resting on the laurels of the past but pushing ahead with something unique and groundbreaking (hoho). The fact that fan reaction to the extraordinary twist that the Moon is an egg was so divisive proves that he must be doing something right, until this point in the season I don't think there has been anything worth getting this het up about. This was a massive risk and for some (like me) it paid off in spades. I love how the episode shifts gears from your traditional Doctor Who spook fest (which the director pulled off with some gusto) to something much more dramatically substantial and philosophical. For once an episode tossed out the timey wimey clever cleverness and actually seemed to be about something. Whereas I have been slouching back and enjoying the show for what it is in season eight there were three times in Kill the Moon when I bolted upright on the edge of my seat and really paid attention (for the record it was the egg twists,  the Doctor choosing to exonerate himself from responsibility and Clara's devastating accusations in the closing TARDIS scene). There is so much to admire about this episode; the stunning filming in Lanzerote, the arachnophobiacs nightmare, the standout performances of Capaldi and especially Coleman who truly proves her worth in the devastating climax. I'll take a point away for the humourless and generally staid guest cast of characters and another because Courtney's presence baffles me but overall this joins Listen as the best episode of the year to date for me. I feel as if the season is gaining more momentum as it progresses and new regime is starting to click into place. It's nice to be so positive about the show again. More new writers please, it is clear that the Moffat era can still flourish with some new creative blood to back him up: 8/10