Tuesday, 22 July 2014
This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who and the Pirates!
Nutty Professor: Bonneville aside, Smith is absolutely the best thing about this episode and it surprises me to note that this is the only episode of the entire season that sees him on an entirely unplanned, unconnected adventure from the season long arc. In a way that makes it feel like the sore thumb of the season (even Night Terrors which was supposed to take this episodes place feels weighed down with the news of the Doctor’s inevitable, oncoming death) but in another way it is vital because it allows the Doctor to simply travel and have some fun for a change. The result is one of Smith’s loosest performances and this is the sort of gleeful irreverence that I was hoping to see once the thorny issue of his death was dealt with at the end of the season (to be fair there was a five episode period of that from Asylum-Manhattan but he was soon caught up in the machinations of another characterisation strangling arc with the Mysterious Girl). All the pirate clichés are there (from ‘Yo-Ho-Ho!’ to ‘Ooh-argh!’) but coming from Smith they feel fresh and exciting, his smiley eyes delighted that he has wound up in one of the greatest of adventure genres. The Doctor finds that curses are big with humans when they can’t find an explanation for something and that might just be one of the most sensible things he has ever said about the human race. The idea of two great Captain’s coming together in the TARDIS is cute and well worth it to enjoy the Doctor’s pride in his ship and Avery comprehending the basic functions because all ships are practically the same. Bonneville and Smith share some fun chemistry which makes me wish they could have whisked off for a very different sort of adventure altogether. It's odd to see the Eleventh Doctor pouring on the moral indignation (‘Just how much is that treasure worth to you man?’) which would have suited Jon Pertwee to a tee but sounds odd coming from the usually frivolous mouth of Matt Smith. Whilst Amy and Avery are excited to see Rory and Toby in the medical bay, the Doctor gleefully runs over to the TARDIS and kisses her. It's one of those moments when Smith is instantly, unmistakably the Doctor.
Scots Tart: Kudos where it is due, there is a massive attempt to make both Karen Gillan and Amy more likeable this season and she really does get into the spirit of things by dressing up as a pirate, swinging through the rigging and wielding a sword! Unfortunately this whole sequence does the character no favours because it is so sloppily directed it literally feels as though it is being staged rather than the very real danger of Amy making it up as she goes along. And actually Amy is far more proficient with a sword than she has any right to be. It would have been much funnier if she had managed to subdue the crew in a slapstick sequence that sees Amy ineptly taking them all down with all manner off accidental thrusts and cuts. You know, Pink Panther on the High Seas, that sort of thing. It probably would have taken far too long to set up and shoot especially when this slapdash attempt will do. Amy’s vision of Madame Kovarian in the wall is either an intrusive arc moment or an intriguingly mysterious haunting that outshines the rest of the episode. You decide. Almost to confirm our worst suspicions Amy goes from crying at her dead husbands side to ‘I thought I was an excellent pirate’ and ‘goodnight, Doctor’ as soon as she knows he is alive. Even Amy knows that death is irrelevant in the series now and can brush off a near thing with a spring in her step. I don’t find this convincing in the slightest.
Loyal Roman: The Curse of the Black Spot is hardly Arthur Darvill’s finest moment either and I consider him to be the stand out performer of the season. His charm (or stupidity) is his loyalty to Amy and his ever growing devotion to the Doctor and it scores some of the seasons emotional high points later in the season. His drunken comedy act here (which seems to slip depending on the mood of the scene being absolute delirium one minute and gentle merriness the next) lacks conviction and he winds up looking like an idiot again which is a step backwards after the last four episodes has really tried to build him up into something much more than the comedy partner (A Christmas Carol excluded). His ‘everything is totally BRILLIANT!’ is one of those hide behind the sofa and cringe moments that turns up in NuWho every now and again. Rory’s near death experiences are starting to feel like a running gag in the ‘Oh my God - they killed Kenny!’ style. It was shocking the first time he died but he’s starting to feel like the companion with nine lives now how he leaps back from the grave! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with how Rory’s resuscitation is performed by Karen Gillen or how the scene is paced by the director but there is a feeling of been there, done that to the climax which matches much of the rest of the episode. By the end of the season death is no longer a dramatic option to keep these characters apart because it is exhausted after all these attempts to convince us that Rory really is dead this time. They have to manipulate the plot to the nth degree to tear them in two and make it dramatically satisfying (The Girl Who Waited). When death isn't a threat...why should we care any more?
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What kind of rubbish Pirates are you?’
The Good: This is definitely one of those times when you get a celebrity of the week vibe from the main guest star and Hugh Bonneville fresh from the set of Downton Abbey was a massive publicity draw for the series that worked beautifully. Not only did it give the episode some public recognition (because I honestly feel it would vanish into obscurity otherwise) but Bonneville gives a typically masterful performance, quietly understated to give the famous pirate Captain Avery a sense of dignity and honour despite his reputation. The opening scenes have a palpable sense of atmosphere with the gorgeous and deadly siren dragging an injured man into the water. When the Siren makes her presence known it is another of those wonderful fairytale moments that the Moffat era excels at, a heavenly woman shining with turquoise exuberance transforming into a screaming, hissing Devil woman in seconds. The last shot has leapt from a storybook again but this time it the gorgeous juxtaposition of Captain Avery and his pirates flying a spaceship which is a charming place to leave his story. Murray Gold’s exquisite music is going all out to convince us that Amy has failed to save Rory and it is by far the best element of that sequence. How comes after six years his music still feels brand new?
The Bad: The Curse of the Black Spot is impressively filmed on an actual ship which genuinely looks the part but the one element that desperately lets the side down (despite the odd CGI shot of the ship sitting lonely in a massive stretch of water) is that I never got the impression it was more than two foot from the shore. There needed to be far more establishing shots to suggest a ship in threat than there was but as it is it feels as though the crew could just leap from a rope to the bank to safety which severely damages the sense of claustrophobia. We needed to hear lapping waves, see the ship rocking in the sea and to hear the wind whistling. The sound FX boys go for absolute silence which kills any sense of atmosphere. Whereas our last excursion with pirates almost half a century ago (no not The Pirate Planet because that subverted all the clichés in a brilliantly technological fashion) managed to juggle the genres clichés into an engaging tale, Black Spot feels like it is literally bringing a kids bedtime story to life and the inclusion of Avery’s stowaway son feels like it is not only tipping its hat to the genre but slavishly copying it without adding a new element. And enough with the children in the Moffat era please. This is the sort of motif that can lead to Angie and Artie. Considering The Smugglers managed to squeeze in a pirate ship (both in the studio and on location), inns, churchyards and some glorious beach filming around Cornwall’s famous caves and bays this is one of those rare times when post 2005 Doctor Who actually feels cheaper than an equivalent story in the classic series – especially one from the black and white years. The TARDIS disappearing is a lovely moment but irrelevant to the plot and it would be handled far more dramatically in the next episode when the scene is duplicated. Whilst he gives a respectable performance I really wanted to slap Avery’s son for making so many excuses for his pops when the evidence of his piratical ways are clearly evident. I’m not sure what to make of the storm because it is clearly the work of atmospherics rather than having anything to do with the plot but even on that level it fails because it should have been a wild, unpredictable, death defying ride rather than a touch of rain that a good brolley could have seen off. I can’t imagine a more anti-climactic ending than the black spot turning out to be a tissue sample and the Siren a holographic Doctor that has been curing people with a melodic anasethic, not killing them. The entire episode has been built around false tension and that feels like cheating somehow.
Result: A throwaway adventure with far too many faults to be memorable, The Curse of the Black Spot fails to match up to the quality of the previous pirate stories in seasons four and sixteen. There is too much reliance on storybook clichés, the direction is quite flat and lacks the gumption of a real swashbuckling adventure and there is a real sense that the budget cannot quite pull this cinematic concept off. Clearly all the money has been spent on Moffat's lavish opener. Matt Smith feels perfectly at home in this setting and Hugh Bonneville gives a grand turn as Captain Avery but I was very disappointed with both Amy and Rory who feel perfunctory and awkwardly characterised. The episode lurches into a very different story after half an hour which takes all the potential threat of the Siren and gives it the most clinically unsatisfying payoff imaginable. Big Finish pulled off a Pirate adventure which managed to juggle comedy and tragedy with great aplomb and in comparison The Curse of the Black Spot is simply average fare, not much substance and not much style. Mildly entertaining in spots but instantly disposable: 4/10
Monday, 21 July 2014
This story in a nutshell: How to have and lose a family in 45 minutes…
Mockney Dude: There is some interesting material for the Doctor here but much of its overwritten and given too much emphasis (which could often a problem with the tenth Doctor) and yet David Tennant is such an old hand at playing the part now he gives it all a great deal of significance. He’s not impossible just a bit unlikely. He’s not what you’d call a natural father, especially given his dangerous lifestyle with no roots. I love his casual suggestion that if they want to peace why not stop fighting? So simple and yet so true and something that so many people forget when they are caught up in conflict. Go and watch the scene where he threatens to take down Cobb and stop his genocidal plan, it’s the most natural response for the Doctor but I hate the way the Doctor bigs himself up in this fashion, making himself feel important. The Last of the Time Lords listens to his daughter’s twin heartbeats and has a little taste of home. There's a great scene in the cell where he calls her an echo of a Time Lord and the that the real thing is so much more; a sum of knowledge, a code, a shared history and a shared suffering. David Tennant sells those quietly mournful scenes perfectly. The Doctor fought and killed in the Time War so how are he and Jenny that different? The script rushes the Doctor’s unexpected adaptation to fatherhood but Tennant gently softens his character discreetly and somehow makes it convincing. The Doctor talks all the time and but doesn’t say anything. He’s not sure if he can face looking at Jenny each day reminding him of what he has lost. The day the Time Lords died a part of him died with them. This is essential foreshadowing for Day of the Doctor. Tennant milks the ending for all its worth even when the material is beyond syrup but I can’t help but think we’ve seen this incarnation lose too much now. Couldn't he have seen Jenny survive and go on to continue his work to make him proud? Having Jenny survive was a marvellous idea (although it is a shame that she has never returned - I would have thought she would have been a given in The End of Time) but the Doctor is left heartsbroken at the climax just like so many other episodes. He wants them to make the foundation of this world a man who never would. Imagine how controversial this episode would have been had the Doctor shot Cobb. Paul Cornell would have a heart attack. He's a Doctor that doesn't mind handling a firearm when the situation calls for it (The End of Time).
Delicious Donna: Catherine Tate makes me laugh so much, I love how she delivers the line ‘Have you got that, GI Jane?’ Donna coins the name Jenny for the Generated Anomaly, which is kind of cute. Her characterisation is inconsistent from scene to scene, at first she thinks Jenny is nothing but a soldier (GI Jane), then a person (Jenny), then a soldier again (you’re not really real) and then starts telling the Doctor he should live up to his responsibilities as a parent. ‘Oi! Cool the beans, Rambo!’ Donna has picked up some womanly wiles over the years but thank goodness we don’t get to see them being deployed. I like how Donna is depicted as intelligent, good with numbers and always thinking. She might be reactionary but she's smart too. Donna is not afraid to challenge the Doctor’s forceful opinions; she was such an excellent foil for him, confronting his prejudices whilst never demeaning him (as Amy and River often seemed to). She thinks the Doctor is wrong and the Time Lords will return. Let's call her Cassandra. Donna figures out the numbers are completion dates for each section. How can she ever go back to normal life after this, she asks? She’s going to travel with the Doctor forever. Oh dear, whenever a companion starts talking like that there’s going to be trouble.
Marvellous Martha: I am very fond of both Martha Jones and Freema Agyeman as a performer; I like the character for her intelligence and resourcefulness and the actress for her charm and infectious enthusiasm. This is probably Martha’s weakest episode though, shoehorned into a story that doesn't really need her and feeling more like the obligation of a promise to the actress rather than a necessary inclusion. She still gets lots of stuff to do but it kind of feels like Martha has been added to the story so Donna can comment on the Doctor’s parenthood and another character can tag along with the Hath. Martha loves the bit where you step out of the TARDIS. She protects the Hath even though they were shooting at her a few minutes earlier. Martha is very independent at this stage, heading to the surface despite the dangers. Martha’s panic as she sinks in the swamp is uncomfortable to watch and losing her friend adds a touch of poignancy to this otherwise over milked episode. She recognises that she cannot live the Doctor's lifestyle any more, that she has Earthbound responsibilities now.
The Good Stuff: Propergation from a single organism, one biological entity is both mother and father. I can imagine that is the method of procreation on Gallifrey rather than surrendering to the lust of the flesh. I love the Hath design, piscine creatures with jars clamped to their mouths to allow them to breathe underwater and move about. It’s a fresh idea for an alien and it's clever how Martha has to learn to communicate with them. The new series shies away from that kind of alien weirdness, often trying to boil alien civilisations down to recognisable Earth terms. Joe Dempsey is far more convincing than Georgia Moffatt so maybe this would have been better played as The Doctor’s Son? The surface is a beautifully stark landscape of temples and moons. Jenny’s laser acrobatics is one of the best set pieces of the year. Ridiculously overdone, but impressive nonetheless. When the technobabble is the best thing on offer you know you are in trouble but I really like the idea of a device used to rejuvenate a planets eco system. We actually get to witness the gases escaping and triggering the terraforming process.
The Bad Stuff: A casualty of the new series in 45 minute episodes is you do not have the time to set up the location in the style of the classic series. To explore the landscape and generate some atmosphere. It's all wham bang plot and the pre-title sequence in this episode is the crudest example yet. You’ll be shaking your head as soon as the title music kicks in and thinking how the hell did we get here? The ‘she’s my daughter’ and ‘hello dad’ dialogue was written for the trailers but it's completely unrealistic within the episode. The sets look remarkably low budget for the new series, lacking the imagination of what would have been achieved in the classic series. I love the idea of a theatre being turned into a triage centre but it isn't pulled off with any style. It all feels remarkably under-dressed. I don’t buy Georgia Moffatt as Jenny; she lacks any kind of gravitas or naturalism (‘You are such a soldier!’). I would have imagined the Doctor's Daughter to be a little more quirky. Idris from The Doctor's Wife, that sort of thing. Jenny is so...normal. Check out Lance Parkin's excellent Doctor Who novel Father Time to see how this was handled originally and with far more care. Nigel Terry is too much of a softie to be the ruthless military man he is written as. Jenny’s completely arbitrary death milks the melodrama to a new level (although the music is excellent). I remember me and Simon watching this episode and when Donna and the Doctor reveal how long the war has been going on and 20 generations in day blah blah blah and looking at each other in puzzlement. We declared this the least convincing twist ever. Until Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. What happened to the editing during the climax? I would have liked to have seen more of Jenny's revival and escape but this real blink and you'll miss it stuff. It seems weird that the beginning and end of this episode is rushed and yet all the stuff in the middle is so ponderous.
Result: The weakest episode of series four by some margin, The Doctor’s Daughter is the series pretending to be bold but running on the spot for 45 minutes. It's an odd one because it is an idea that can be worked (Father Time) but it needs double the running time, a braver writer and a stronger actress in the central role of Jenny to even begin to be able to pull it off. I wouldn’t want to sit through another 45 minutes of this. It's biggest selling point is fudged by the fact that Georgia Moffatt is stiff and unconvincing in the role and her pointless death scene and resurrection feel like blatant manipulation rather than a natural conclusion to the story. Both David Tennant and Catherine Tate add some charm and lovely moments but poor Freema Agyeman is worth more than the material she gets here. Add to these problems a jumbled narrative with an unconvincing reveal at its heart, some lousy production values, under dressed sets and cloying music and you have a troubled episode planted right in the heart of the season. I genuinely believe that Steven Moffat took his inspiration from Russell T. Davies in this episode, recognising that it had a spike in the ratings because of it's enticing title and trailer. It is the blueprint for The Doctor's Wife, The Wedding of River Song and Name of the Doctor amongst others. Episodes that don't really live up to their titles...unless you twist their meaning out of recognition. Fortunately there are six episodes of pure bliss coming up as an antidote to this messy adventure: 3/10
Saturday, 19 July 2014
This story in a nutshell: It’s the moment you've all been waiting for…the Sontarans invade the Earth!
Mockney Dude: The Doctor is in a tetchy mood around UNIT and clearly the good old days of them fighting side by side are over. He declares that people with guns are usually the enemy in his book and I’m really not sure when his vision became so black and white. He can be quite a moody git like this from time to time, a fully flawed character who often thinks that he is right. Martha describes the Doctor as being like fire and if you stand too close people get burnt. If that seems like an exaggerated statement then hold judgement until Journey’s End when we see a poignant montage of just how many people have lost their lives because of him. Donna literally touches his fire and pays the price. I remember when I first saw the moment where the Doctor mistakenly thinks Donna is going to leave him and found it a bit cringe worthy but the more I see it, the more it amuses me (I think it is the performances). The way he tries to sell the wonders of the universe reminds me of the final scene of Invasion of the Dinosaurs but what really makes me chuckle is how Donna lets him go on saying how marvellous she is simply because she enjoys making a bit of a fool out of him. It's not malicious, it's just bursting that ego of his a bit. The Doctor’s reaction to the truly unspectacular explosion of the ATMOS device is a great gag. Wilfred wants the Doctor to promise that he will take care of his only grandchild but the Doctor has to admit that she takes care of him. He can see through the fake Martha in about five seconds flat but plays along for an age. It is interesting to hear him considering the idea of settling on the Earth again when the TARDIS is stolen - he thinks it would be hell to be stranded in one place and one time. I was initially infuriated by the Doctor’s arrogance when he barges in and conducts the negotiations with the Sontarans until he put his feet up on the desk and switched over to a cartoon during their war cries. That was pretty cool. My husband is terribly fickle when it comes to his Doctor’s and seems to switch allegiances every time he regenerates. He was very fond of Tennant until Matt Smith came along but now finds more to criticise than to praise. One of the criticisms Simon levelled at Tennant was that he was far too excitable and that sometimes underplaying moments is just as effective as shrieking uncontrollably. Watching The Poison Sky I begin to see his point because he gets awfully shouty at times, doesn’t he? Screaming his head off at Colonel Mace in a way that, had it been the Brigadier, he would have gotten a cuff around the face to remind him to remain mannerly. The tenth Doctor really needs Donna to keep his monstrous ego in check. Watch out for the scene where he brings the real Martha Jones back to life and he treats the clone with no dignity or kindness, he rips the life right out of her. Don’t get this guy mad. He’s not all tantrums though, I love the bit where he tosses away Luke’s gun without breaking his stride. His method of defeating the Sontarans by igniting their ship and wiping out thousands of them is very bloody but considering they are on a war footing what other option did he have? Diplomacy? At least he tries to give them a choice. They made this rod for their own back. Helen Raynor provides a mixed characterisation of the Doctor but given a touch of magic of season four, it is still most fabulous.
Tempestuous Temp: Showing the trust he has in her, the Doctor is teaching Donna to fly the TARDIS but she keeps veering too close to the 1980s (‘What am I going to do? Put a dent in them?’). I cannot tell you how glad I was that Davies and Raynor did not go down the obvious route of having Donna and Martha bitch fighting each other over the Doctor. Knowing how fiery Donna is and how much Martha was in love with the Doctor it is easy to understand why people might think this might be a powder keg of resentment but nothing could be further from the truth. They are both very adult and get on like a house on fire from their first meeting. Donna’s maturity never ceases to amaze me because it always shows up when I least expect it. It's great to see Donna sticking up for the ordinary people who are being bullied and treated like criminals by UNIT. It would seem that she is everybody's conscience. Her work as a temp comes in handy as she figures none of the ATMOS workers have had sick days. I bet she had the odd duvet day and sneaky shopping trip. Donna’s homecoming is beautifully presented; from the soaring crane shot that follows her down the road, the autumnal colours suggesting a melancholy feel and Tate and Cribbins reactions when they see each other from across the street. She admits to her grandfather something that she would never tell the Doctor, that he is amazing and that she trusts him with her life (although Gramps still comes first, naturally). This family just feels so real especially with Sylvia always coming down hard on Donna and considering her a bit of a failure (she’s definitely the matriarch in this household). It is Sylvia's presence that stops this unit from becoming too twee. Donna's time travelling exploits are like a naughty secret between Gramps and Donna and I love it that way. The Doctor and Wilf recognising each other from Voyager of the Damned is cute but not as sweet as the very human line of ‘you must be one of those aliens!’ Sylvia’s dislike of the Doctor is very consistent. Mind you the Earth nearly comes to an end every time they meet and that sort of thing sticks with you. DO NOT if you value your life try and burgle Sylvia Noble’s house because she has an axe and she’s not afraid to use it. Both Rose and Martha were thrilled to be trusted with a TARDIS key but Donna, ever the realist, says they can get sentimental when the world stops choking to death. Until now Donna has been protected from the aliens she has met by the Doctor but this time she is alone and trapped on a Sontaran ship and I think it is a testament to her bravery that she ventures out with a bloody great mallet and gives one a whack right up the probic vent even though she is terrified. It is lovely that Raynor allows Donna to be afraid because one of my biggest problems with the new series companions as audience notification figures (especially Amy and Clara) is that they seem to take every threat in their stride. If they aren't afraid for their lives...why should we be? It's astonishing how much emotional weight the families of the companions can bring to a story; it was exposed with Jackie in Love & Monsters when she turned on Elton and reminded us how awful it must be to be left behind and it is just as devastating here where we cut to Wilfred in the middle of the action trying to comfort his little girl as she breaks down on the kitchen floor. Just heartbreaking, and an angle the show hadn't really touched on before Davies took the reins. When the Doctor is beamed back from his suicide mission Martha hugs him but it's Donna that provokes the biggest reaction, making me howl when she smacks him on the arm for being so stupid. Wilf’s parting sentiment to Donna that she should get out there and see the stars for him because he is too old to do it himself was so beautiful it left me in tears (what is it about Bernard Cribbins that makes me cry?). It makes me smile inside to think that one day he would be able to see the stars for himself.
Marvellous Martha: How lovely to see Freema Agyeman back in the show and forming such a great rapport with Catherine Tate. Martha is engaged to Tom Milligan from The Last of the Time Lords although What happens there is best left to the imagination because she is engaged to Mickey come The End of Time. Perhaps he never came back from Africa (or perhaps Tom Ellis is off filming Miranda?). We’ve always suspected that the Doctor’s companions go on to have fulfilling lives after they have left him but here we actually get to see it with Martha working as a Doctor in UNIT and doing just dandy for herself. Donna questions if this is what the Doctor did to Martha – turn her into a soldier - and considering she was originally going to have a quiet career in medicine you have to concede that she might have a point. The point about turning his companions into fighters is driven home in The Stolen Earth. It feels as though Martha's potential is being exploited to the full now; showing off her bravery, her compassion and her intelligence. She refuses to carry a gun and she figures that if she can surround herself with men that do perhaps she can make them better people. Martha learnt the hard way what keeping your life with the Doctor a secret from your family can do to them and so she is in the perfect position to warn Donna of the deadlier side of travelling with him. Evil Martha is a great idea and it gives Freema Agyeman a chance to do something other than enthuse about everything – this is one of the better evil duplicates I have seen in a while because it is nicely underplayed. I kind of wish she had been given a bit more to do than stand around in the background, fake Francie style (Alias) and I don't like the idea of a stinky Martha!
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It's like a potato! A baked potato! A talking baked potato!’ ‘Now Ross don’t be rude. You look like a pink weasel to him.’
‘I admire them! The bravery of idiots is bravery nonetheless!’
‘Back of the neck!’ – best Donna line ever.
‘You go with him, that wonderful Doctor. You go and see the stars. And then bring a bit of them back for your old Gramps’ – how is it Cribbins always makes me cry?
· It strikes me as something treasurable that the most classic NuWho two parter (try saying that three times fast) begins with the single most classic Who opening scene. A journalist cum UNIT secret agent (it's Sarah Jane for the next generation) being kicked out of the Rattigan Academy and suffering the shock of something very normal turning against her and killing her. It’s the sort of gloriously simple opening that could have taken place in the 70s, the 80s or even in the 2100s. I swear at points I thought I was watching classic Who. I love the idea of evil cars (it was originally Russell T Davies’ idea, I believe, but Raynor uses it spectacularly in the opening sequence) and that chilling parting line ‘This is your final destination’ justifies the idea entirely. It seems this is the year that consumerism is under fire because both fad diets (Partners in Crime) and cars are turning deadly and making the consumer pay for their vanity. What’s worse, the Sontarans are using our fear of global warning against us too with ATMOS reducing carbon emissions to zero. The car shooting into the river is one of those images that lingers in the mind.
· They’ve got those exterior shots looking into the TARDIS spot on at this stage (earlier episodes were clearly just photographic backdrops) and Donna walks down the ramp towards the doors as the Doctor stands outside the ship greeting Martha. Very nicely done.
· Finally we are treated to a proper, full blooded UNIT story. We have flirted with them in Aliens of London and The Christmas Invasion before the show turned it's attention to Torchwood (with the odd mention here and there) but this is the UNIT I remember from the Pertwee years (and Battlefield). A military force packed with buff young things clutching at rifles and trying their damnedest to protect the Earth from alien menaces. The idea that they are searching for ‘illegal aliens’ in a factory is a subtle political comment whilst still being entirely within their remit. An on site base inside a haulage truck – how awesome is that? They have massive funding from the United Nations in the name of home world security and it shows – I don’t think I have ever seen so many soldiers in a Doctor Who story. It's clear that the myriad of alien menaces that have been made public have forced UNIT into a position of power again. The nail biting sequence with UNIT attempting to set off nuclear strike at the Sontarans was very reminiscent of the last episode of The Invasion when UNIT were on tenterhooks for precisely the reverse reason – waiting to see if a nuclear explosion would tear the planet apart. Just when you think that UNIT might actually have lost their touch you realise that the writer has dragged them down under a Sontaran bombardment just to send their reputation sky high. You can't help but punch the air when they turn the tables and kick some Sontaran ass. Love the kiss between Mace and his subordinate, a moment of character I wasn’t expecting which poses some intriguing questions about their relationship.
· People consider Luke Rattigan a poor character but they forget that the whole point of him is that he is supposed to be annoying and Ryan Sampson pulls off that mix of insane genius and unpredictable childishness really well. He's as childishly unpredictable as the Master was last season. I always admire actors that aren’t afraid to make themselves look fairly idiotic and I sympathise with Luke because his monumental sized ego shrouds the fact that he is bring taken for a ride. In a way this is how Luke Smith could have turned out had he been exploited by the Bane rather than raised by Sarah Jane. Luke’s rant about the Doctor’s ATMOS system tautology says everything you need to know about this character and the Doctor sums him up perfectly with a curt ‘It's been a long time since anybody has said no to you, isn’t it?’ Luke looks out at the Earth and says ‘It was never big enough for me.’ Bless him, the way he mimics the Sontar-ha war cry is just a little bit pathetic but again completely in character. It is clear that Luke has probably played one too many combat games in his childhood because he is ready to explode when the Sontarans go on a war footing. Luke has surrounded himself with yes men for so long and when they are smarter than he is for seeing through the ridiculous Earth.2 nonsense he pulls out a gun because force is the only way to control them once that spell of obedience is snapped. He proves himself to be a weak little boy bullying people into obeying him and just like every Doctor Who villain with that spec you know he is ultimately going to be brought down by his own inadequacies. He was so deluded that he was going to be God of his own little world that he had the nerve to design a mating programme. Poor foolish little Luke. When he realises the truth he ends up crying in the corner, the fate of all fascists. Astonishingly, Raynor allows the character a final moment of redemption as he follows up on the Doctor’s suggestion that he do something useful with his life and sacrifices it so the Doctor can live. I never saw that coming on my first watch and it is a satisfying end to a fascinatingly twisted character. Love his final ‘Sontar-ha!’ In your face. Staal, like the audience, underestimated him.
· Their introduction scene aside, this is a great use of the Sontarans and the script is obsessed enough with them to more than justify their inclusion. Compare and contrast to the Autons in Rose who were little more than stock villains and you can see how badly this could have ended up. Their redesign is quite subtle compared to other aliens that have transferred from the classic series. Christopher Ryan has a gorgeous throaty voice that is perfect to portray an aged Sontaran commander and his performance never falters away from that stern, military mindset. The Sontarans are pretty miffed that they weren’t allowed to take part in the finest war in history – the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks. We’ve only ever seen single Sontaran ships before so imagine my delight at seeing their arrow shaped warship with a ring around its middle that can deploys hundreds of spherical scout ships. The Sontaran/Rutan war has been raging on now for 50,000 years and their plan to turn the Earth into a suitable clone world for more soldiers to be hatched suggests that it is not going so well for them. They pitched the sequence where the Sontarans go on the attack exactly right. It is almost hilarious watching these humpty dumpty numpties marching in formation a hundred strong but this is soon followed up with an agonising close up of Ross, a character we have come to like a lot, sprawled dead on the floor. The story is saying we know these guys are ridiculous but look what they can do. Suddenly the Sontarans are a genuine military threat. Even when UNIT begin fighting back and kick their shiny blue asses they are still grinning and getting off on the honour and glory of fighting to the death. This is 100% the same creatures that Robert Holmes created in The Time Warrior and it's great to finally be able to see a large scale skirmish worthy of them. At the risk of bashing Moffat more than I already have on this site this is the only time the Sontarans have appeared in the series and been a credible threat. Strax is a nice character but he has condensed the race into a comic parody of their former magnificence.
· I cannot believe it has taken four seasons to give us an Earth-in-danger cliffhanger like this. We’ve had Slitheen popping out of body suits, gas masked zombies attacking, Dalek fleets emerging, Cybermen on the march, the Beast coming out of the pit, Daleks and Cybermen revealing themselves, a Dalek human hybrid, John Smith having to choose between his best friend and his girlfriend and the Master sending down his Toclafane army to attack the Earth… The last one might qualify but that never happened but what I’m talking about is an attack from the Earth’s point of view with all of the Doctor’s friends caught in the action. Like the end of The Invasion episode six. Or Invasion of the Dinosaurs episode one. This feels like the definitive classic cliffhanger; cars emitting an evil smoke, Wilf in danger, the Sontarans having a little jig and the Doctor apparently helpless.
· The effects heavy second episode is packed full of great images. London is seen disappearing in a swirling smog, as is New York, Istanbul and Sydney. There is a shot of Donna phoning home to Sylvia in The Poison Sky where she is sitting just on the periphery of the console room and you can see the full size and scope of the size – it's easy to forget what a carefully designed and lit set that console room is. It's probably my favourite in the shows entire run. The director cleverly uses rapid camera movement to follow the blast of a Sontaran weapon to it's victim and there is an impressive pan across the warehouse as the UNIT troops are massacred. The Valiant was a highlight in The Sound of Drums but it is even more so here where we get an epic shot of its mighty engines clearing away the smog. No matter how daft setting fire to the atmosphere might be, it looks awesome. Oddly for a science fiction show Doctor Who has steered away from using it's CGI budget for battle scenes and spaceships ala Star Trek and usually pushed the money in a more imaginative direction (like the Krillatines, the Werewolf, Lazarus’ monster and the Adipose). Here however they get to go nuts with the warships destruction, escape pods flying off to escape the exploding mother ship but tearing apart as the flames reach out and consume them. It's gorgeous eye candy.
· The final burst of nostalgia is the little treat at the climax as the TARDIS veers out of control and the Doctor, Donna and Martha grip hold of the console. I felt as if I was back in the Davison era.
· What a shame that the Brigadier could not be involved in this story (for whatever reason) because if there was ever a place for him in the new series this massive snog to the Pertwee era is it.
· Clearly the director is channelling The Two Doctors because the Sontarans are introduced in the most undramatic way possible – Staal just turns up in the middle of a scene and starts nattering. This is a far cry from their astonishing reveal at the end of The Time Warrior episode one.
· Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have had the Doctor visit the Rattigan Academy in Bessie? Or is he too hip these days for a yellow roadster?
· This is going to seem like the oddest of criticisms but there is a very feminine purple light which invades most of the scenes that are supposed to be creepy. Note to future lighting engineers, electric purple = not scary.
· ‘Intruder window’ was bad enough the first time. We really didn’t need it repeated.
· I got the message without Sylvia having to remind me the story had a message about ozone and carbon. Don’t talk down to the kiddie winks because they are a lot smarter than you give them credit for. Smoke belching from cars and filling the sky is enough of a visual clue to suggest car fumes = bad news.
· Setting fire to the atmosphere? What about the planes in the sky? Did they ground them all? And the birds? Are there millions of birds frazzled around the world? I’m sure that I buy that as a solution but really want else could they do after setting themselves a problem this international to solve? If the Valiant had gone round hoovering up all the mist around the world it would have felt too anti-climactic so at least they went with the exciting (if ludicrous) option. And they did set it up adequately by introducing Luke’s terraforming equipment very early in the story.
Notes: If you want to find out what happened after this story head over to the debut story of season two of the Sarah Jane Adventures which sees one Sontaran scout managing to escape their defeat and planning on bringing down the Earth in revenge.
The Shallow Bit: Too many gorgeous UNIT soldiers to mention! Ross Jenkins is up there as one of the five hottest males ever to appear in the show and his death is far more affecting than a bit part character has any right to be.
Result: Sontarans, UNIT, evil duplicates, a boy genius and everyday objects turned bad; the first episode of this two spectacular is a glorious nod to Doctor Who of days gone by. If there is a fault with this action movie slice of Who it is that the set up for the first episode means the pace slackens a little too often but that is more than made up for in the second episode which is pretty much one long magnificent action set piece. There is the odd moment that misfires (the Sontaran introduction scene is shockingly undramatic and I’m not sure if setting the atmosphere on fire makes any sense intellectually) and the direction might not be quite as tight as usual (although it is certainly imaginative in spots) but overall this story has a great deal of energy and excitement, a furious momentum peppered with lovely moments of character. The Sontarans make a stunning debut (mind you with Christopher Ryan in the driving seat how could they fail?) and there is fantastic reason for what they are doing to the Earth that is saved for the tail end of the story. David Tennant is a little too hysterical for my tastes and evil Martha means we are denied a proper return story for her but that is balanced by the gorgeous work being done with the Nobles who make my heart smile whenever they appear. Helen Raynor still hasn’t written her perfect Doctor Who story but she is definitely getting a lot closer and as a tribute to 70s Who we should thank her for this deliciously old school style adventure. This is terrific family entertainment just as the show promised to be when it hit our screens again: 8/10
Thursday, 17 July 2014
What's it about: From time to time, everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has things from their past they'd like to undo, but nobody gets a second chance. What's done is done and we can't change that. Zoe's mistakes have led her to imprisonment at the hands of the Company. But when news reports trigger memories of the Doctor, Jamie and an appalling threat, she begins to sense a way out. An opportunity for redemption opens up to anyone willing to take it. Nobody can alter what's been done. Nobody gets a second chance. Or do they?
Brains'n'Beauty: Zoe is haunted by the events that happened on Artemis because she feels as though she failed the people who died, that her skills weren't good enough to stop the virus that was ripping through both metal and flesh. It was a valuable lesson for her to learn, to realise that sometimes she wasn't smart enough to make a difference. It punctured her ego and left a scar. Now in the present she has a chance to make amends for those deaths, to prevent the same thing from happening again. How could she possibly refuse? Being able to look at the Doctor and Jamie in the flesh again is an experience that cements her belief that she had more adventures with them than the one true memory of them that she can trust (their adventure on the Wheel with the Cybermen).
Who's the Yahoos: Jamie wants to know why the TARDIS never takes them back to Scotland and the Doctor cheekily suggests that the Ship might scared that he will leave if it does, to become a Laird.
Standout Performance: Wendy Padbury has always been critical of her interpretation of Patrick Troughton's second Doctor but she has nothing to worry about. She has perfected it to a fine art by this point, to a point where I would say she rivals even Frazer Hines' authentic portrayal. She's got both the subtle consideration and menace of the character and the panicked apologies to perfection. She also tackles two versions of Zoe (taking her voice up several registers when she is playing the younger version) and does a passable Scots accent too. Where I have had some issues with the storytelling in some of the Wendy Padbury narrated stories in the past I have never had a problem with the delivery itself. Padbury is a marvellous actress and this showcases her skills to a very high standard.
Sparkling Dialogue: 'Let's skip the capture and escape stuff. We don't need that. Let's not pad it out.'
'I don't remember. What a brilliant abdication of responsibility.'
'She gets to live, gets to dream of a second chance...'
Audio Landscape: Door opening, TARDIS arriving, party music, smacking out a fire, computers beeping, Zoe typing, asteroid strikes, creaking bulkheads, heart monitor, alarms, crackling fire, screams, the airlock door ripping away and people being sucked into space, the gunshot, the station breaking up around them.
Isn't it Odd: I wonder if this story should have ended just a few minutes earlier and left Zoe's fate ambiguous.
Standout Scene: I literally had shivers when the shit hit the fan towards the end of episode one and the crew of Artemis Station realised that they were being left to look after themselves to prevent infection of the virus. It has attacked the system and is starting to eat away at the crew and mass panic erupts. It's gripping. I wasn't at all prepared for the twist that Kym was using the information that Zoe was giving her in the first episode to make those events happen. She is using Zoe's foreknowledge of the near future to turn it into a reality. What a fantastic twist, one which I could only imagine the timey wimey (shudder) mind of Steven Moffat could have foreseen. Devilishly clever. And Zoe turns out to be the person on the other end of the call informing Artemis Station that they are on their own. The final scene on the station between Zoe and Kym is one of the highlights of Big Finish's catalogue and had me on the edge of my seat.
Result: 'Nobody gets a second chance in life...' This is not where I thought the Companions Chronicles would park themselves for the time being, the decision to bring them to a close with a second Doctor story quite surprising. Keeping me off guard right until the end, just as they always have done. I imagined a powerhouse first Doctor story would take this slot, probably read by William Russell or Peter Purves since they have been the strongest of the range. The second Doctor entries have been far more varied in quality, the Zoe stories especially so (Fear of the Daleks and Echoes of Grey did nothing for me whilst The Memory Cheats and The Uncertainty Principle were both superb) but they have been building a mini arc of their own for some time now (in the same vein as the Sara Kingdom and Oliver Harper arcs) based around the idea of Zoe and her inconsistent memories of the Doctor and Jamie. John Dorney scores a double whammy in Second Chances with both storylines proving to be a gripping draw; the framing narrative coming to an unforgettable climax and the space station based disaster movie utilising Zoe's skills in a riveting race against time scenario. Brilliantly he finds a way to tie up the two stories, bringing the horror of Zoe's haunting memory into the present and having some intellectual playtime with the idea. The second episode reminds me pleasingly of Peri & the Piscon Paradox, the events of the first part taking on much greater meaning (both emotionally and narratively) when they are re-considered in a different context. Second Chances is clever, personal, dramatic, emotional and imaginative...all the strengths that have come to associate with the strongest range Big Finish has ever put out. What a fantastic opportunity to put them to rest on a euphoric high. This is one of John Dorney's best ever scripts and if you know anything about the standard he regularly delivers, this is high praise indeed: 10/10
This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who finally takes on the moon landing...
Scots Tart: Immediately it feels as if Moffat is trying a little harder to make Amy more approachable. Her and Rory are at the bar supping cokes whilst the parents catch up. The Doctor is inextricably woven into Amy's life from childhood so when it appears that he has been murdered she is devastated which won me over more than any of her material in the previous year. Amy swearing on fish fingers and custard is a lovely touch. It would appear that Moffat has to go to some lengths to torture Amy in order to make her appeal since the sequences in and around the orphanage really put her through the wringer and I was behind her every step of the way. Her deathly scream as the door closes on her is disturbingly memorable, the juxtaposition of her being in the child’s bedroom and her shriek of pain suggests the agonising pain of childbirth. A portent of the future? It's irresistible to want to talk about future developments revealed in The Almost People but I wont except that Day of the Moon’s Amy scenes takes on a whole new meaning when you understand what is happening. Needless to say she isn't exact herself here.
Loyal Roman: Arthur Darvill has subtly changed his performance as Rory since his character-changing act as the loyal Roman in last season finale. I'm still not sure why he is back as a human after the universe was rebooted by Amy simply willing it to be so (The Big Bang has some serious problems, narratively speaking) but I am glad he is because his presence now tempers Amy rather than making her more acerbic (as it did last year). Gone is the ridiculous buffoon who trips into trouble and in steps a mature and engaging Mr Pond. Astonishing that it is Rory who holds it together and sends the Doctor respectfully on his way and not Amy. He walks from the TARDIS a pasty, bony British man begging not to be shot. When Rory turns on the Doctor and tells him that Amy always knows he can hear her and that he will always be coming from her a new understanding builds between them. He has reclaimed his wife now and the Doctor is the outsider. Which is how it should have been all along. We ache with sympathy for Rory when he listens to what he thinks is Amy telling the Doctor that she loves him. He admits in a quiet moment with the Doctor that he remembers every second of his 2000-year vigil waiting for Amy. I still don't understand that either.
The Only Water in The Forest is...: I love how River has invisibly become a series regular and her escapes from prison are skipped over so effortlessly nowadays. Why do his companions give him such a hard time these days? Her cold anger towards the Doctor when he turns up after his death is fierce - doesn't she know how timey wimey (grr) his life is these days? Her mastery of the TARDIS consoles makes me laugh every time. The scene between Rory and River is exceptional and all the more powerful because the story stops trying to impress for a second and just enjoys a moment of character between them. When you discover later that this is her father it takes on even more meaning. With some horror River realises this is the first time the Doctor has kissed her and that this will be the last time she kisses him. I might object to their lip-locking but that is a poignant realisation. River told Rory that she was scared that one day the Doctor wont remember her at all and from her perspective that will be their last meeting – she’s off to the library next where the tenth Doctor won't know who she is.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘A Time Lord’s body is a miracle. Even a dead one.’
‘Even by your standards this is cold…’
‘You were invaded a long time ago. America is occupied.’
‘Welcome to America!’ – how else would Canton greet the Silence but pumping lead into them?
‘You’ve just raised an army against yourselves and now for a thousand generations your going to be ordering them to destroy you every day.’
The Good Stuff : The trip to America was worth it, this is some of the most awe-inspiring location work the series has witnessed in its 50 year history. Look at that Ariel shot of the bus as it stops in the sun kissed desert backed by Monument valley. That's feature film quality. The astronaut in the water is exactly the sort of weird juxtaposition that Doctor Who gets away with where few other shows would. Whilst I object to the idea of the Doctor's death scene being posed if it is never going to be followed up satisfactorily, the realisation of the moment itself is astonishing with some dramatic handheld camera work to give it some edge. It was daring to suggest that this was the Doctor's death scene, to see him shot once to trigger a regeneration and again to murder him during it. Beautiful imagery haunts the Doctor's wake as his burning pyre is released on the water at dusk. If you are going to have a story set in the White House (and why not – to see Doctor Who aping The West Wing is a personal dream of mine) you need actors as strong as Stuart Milligan and Mark Sheppard in the lead roles and they acquit themselves beautifully. Odd that the long shots of the Silence should be so ineffective because the masks are one of the most butt clenchingly scary things we have ever seen in Doctor Who. I love the sequence of the poor woman who succumbs to their sizzling fingers in the toilet, Doctor Who is trying to be properly scary again. The idea of a monster that you forget the second you look away is another smashing Moffatt concept to chill the blood – how do you know if this monster is behind you if you cant remember them? Brrr... It looks as though the ship in The Lodger was the property of the Silence, linking these stories up. The fact that Doctor Who can feature a scene of one of the regulars potentially shooting a child is remarkable and shows just how far the show has to go these days to shock its audience. A friend of mine said she was bored in the middle parts of this episode but was gob smacked by that cliffhanger. It is particularly grim when we realise later this year that Amy almost murdered her own child. I know this is going to make me sound like a screaming hypocrite (wait until you read the paragraph below) but I love the opening teaser to Day of the Moon despite the fact that it is leaping about like a flea on a griddle. It has a formidable narrative drive to it as the Doctor’s friends are captured; features some astonishingly gorgeous location work (the swoop over the mountains, the long shot of Rory at the dam) and clever ideas (the prison, River landing in the swimming pool). Doctor Who has never felt more like a movie (even when it was a movie) and it’s glorious to bask in how expensive and epic it all looks. At this point season six genuinely feels as though it is going to be EPIC. I love stories that suggest the passage of time (Marco Polo, The Romans, Trial of a Time Lord) and the Doctor’s beard and Rory and Amy on the run suggest a wealth of ‘in between’ adventures. Let's count the wonderfully scary clichés in the orphanage scenes – lashing rain, lightning, a scary old man, bloody writing on the wall, squeaky doors, an empty staircase, a child’s bedroom, a rocking horse moving on its own…it is fantastically scary stuff. Love the zoom from the shuttle with the Doctor enmeshed in its workings. How creepy is that moment when Amy enters the room in the orphanage and suddenly she is covered in black counters? It brings home the conceptual horror of the Silence in one small but undeniably creepy action. Just how many times has Amy tried to escape that room? The glistening, creaking Silence hanging from the ceiling is one of the ickiest Doctor Who moments ever. It might be completely out of place (but no more so than Rose appearing at the end of Partners in Crime or in other quick shots in series four) but the shot of the eye patch wearing woman saying ‘I think she’s just dreaming’ in the wall is wonderfully bizarre. Moffat uses the Moon Landing media splash to expose the Silence – they are hardly the brightest of nasties if they are taken in by the Doctor's manipulation when the whole world is watching. After a manifest of gay characters in the Davies era, Moffat trumps him by producing one of the most well rounded, likeable and smart characters in Doctor Who who just happens to be gay. The regeneration scene at the close is a deliberate appetite whetter. It did the trick with me.
The Bad Stuff TIA: I don’t want to sound like I don’t want clever television or to have the narrative spoon fed to me but Steven Moffat needs to calm down on these location swapping teasers that eat up so much budget but only tell a fraction of the story. It was glossy and wonderful in Time of Angels, clever and clarifying in The Pandorica Opens, but here it is starting to feel as though this is the only trick that Moffat can pull off in his teasers. Anything that is this expensive should not feel pointless. Sometimes I wonder if Moffat stresses the discontinuity of the Doctor’s life just so he can keep using the phrase timey-wimey – what is wrong with a crisp, linear narrative? The sort he employed so successfully in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances? Can the show be too clever for its own good? I certainly felt during the first episode that the leaping about was squeezing the life from whatever plot was trying to breathe out. To have River’s Time Travellers Wife relationship entangling with the Doctor’s possible death enmeshing with Amy’s potential pregnancy sees a set of distinctive regulars that are twisted up in a bit too much plotting. Whatever happened to simply travelling off to the next destination? All we need is Rory to reveal that he isn’t real and you would have a et of regulars who are only interesting because of complicated character narratives rather than simply being well written and engaging. There was once a time when Doctor Who was inveigled into plots by the cleverest of means but simply dumping the TARDIS in the Oval Office is unsubtle and the Doctor simply mouthing his way into a position of power is unconvincing. The child on the tape channels the Empty Child but it’s nowhere near as scary. Sometimes this story is trying so hard to have significance at a later date that it struggles to find an identity of its own. Certainly I recall this two parter as one that is very much ensnared in the retarded plotting of this season rather than a story in its own right. That's probably why I don't revisit it very often. ‘Night terrors with a hotline to the White House’ – as an explanation for why the President is getting the phone calls from the little girl this is a little ambiguous. The Silence have been influencing human history since the very beginning and as a result I am starting to wonder if we actually achieved anything as a species with all these aliens piling up to take credit for our leaps in evolution (the Daemons, the Jagaroth, the Silence – do they take it in turns?).
Musical Cues: The music for the Matt Smith era continues to impress with a lovely Southern American twang to some of the series themes and some touching chorals during the Doctor’s funeral.
The Shallow Bit: Needless to say Rory and River as the Nixon’s aide and secretary both look gorgeous in their unusually formal clothes.
Result: An expensive attention grabbing two parter with a wealth of beautifully realised and memorable scenes. However it is far from perfect and The Impossible Astronaut is unhappily one of the most awkwardly paced and frustratingly plotted Doctor Who episodes of all time that holds its audience at a distance by trying to be too clever for its own good despite the astonishing sequence of the Doctor’s death. Regardless of strong performances and witty lines by the end of the first episode I was distinctly unengaged simply because the plot progression was so haphazard and frustrating. It almost feels like Steven Moffat is trying a little too hard to live up to his own reputation of being a clever sod. Day of the Moon is far more attractively written with less emphasis on continuing plot threads and more interested in having an identity of its own. Amy’s visit to the orphanage is the first truly scary set piece of the era and I love pretty much everything about the insanely creepy Silence creatures. Everything builds to an exciting and (here’s that word again) clever conclusion but one that leaves more questions lingering than delivers answers. This is a deeply flawed two parter but has too many fantastic scenes to deny it some praise and for all it's narrative problems it does manage to grab your interest and hurl you into the new season with some confidence. River is still welcome, Amy seems so much more likeable, Arthur Darvill is finally given material that shows what Rory is made of and holding it all together is Matt Smith’s phenomenal performance as the Doctor. The Impossible Astronaut earns a 6 and Day of the Moon a 8 so overall this schizoid stunner gets: 7/10
Monday, 14 July 2014
What's it about: The Point of Stillness. A place the Time Lords are forbidden to go. It cannot be drawn, it cannot be whispered, it cannot be thought. And yet somebody is very keen to reach it. Deep within the TARDIS, something unusual is happening. One of the ship's oldest secrets is about to be revealed, and once it is, nothing will ever be the same again. As danger materialises deep within the ship, spectral strangers lurk in the corridors and bizarre events flood the rooms, someone long-forgotten is ready to reappear. The Doctor and Leela are soon to discover that their home isn't quite the safe stronghold they thought.
Teeth and Curls: 'Do you really think you can fly this old bucket?' I love the idea of the Doctor taking her back to ancient Gallifrey to learn from extraordinary scholars, what an incredible gift to her. The seventh Doctor did a similar thing for Ace once but put her through all manner of cruel psychological tests before hand. He has no doubt in his mind that the TARDIS can hear him and understand. The Doctor is a mass of contradictions, telling Leela that machines have no feelings and then responds to the TARDIS as though she is a living thing requiring tact, love and encouragement. Machines are only as imaginative as those who programme them and it is the Doctor who programmed the TARDIS and therefore she is at the height of creativity. The Doctor is seriously protective of the TARDIS and gets quite angry when Three starts manipulating her controls. The Doctor remembers a time during his childhood where he spent time with the Outsiders in the snow, staying for days with them. He admits that he didn't go to every class in the Academy because there were places to go. I enjoyed the illusion of the Doctor appearing to have gone completely bonkers, sawing the hat stand in half and then asking who did it. Let's be honest if you wanted to make a case for psychological instability it would be the fourth Doctor with his boggle eyes, barking laugh and random comments that you would turn to. Like all little boys the Doctor had an imaginary friend called Binka who has been actualised by Marianna.
Noble Savage: Given that this is a script of Louise Jameson's devising it makes a lot of sense that it would highlight Leela and one of the unique aspects of her relationship with the Doctor, the way in which he was always trying to educate her. The Doctor has begun the unenviable task of trying to teach Leela the basic functions of the TARDIS console, a task that she doesn't seem to be enjoying. She is the second most intelligent being that the Doctor has known in the last 500 years or so, after himself. All she lacks is education but she has the aptitude to learn. She asks intelligent questions and can spot an illogical point a mile off. She is determined to understand what he is teaching her, even if it seems like it is beyond her grasp. Leela reads the story of the old woman in the shoe and points out all the facts that don't make any sense. She finds herself talking like the Doctor when she addresses the TARDIS. The conversation between Leela and her father is given extra poignancy by the (shallow) examination of her relationship with him earlier in the season. Named after the Sevateem's greatest warrior and now she is living up to that name.
Sparkling Dialogue: 'There is something seriously wrong with the TARDIS, Leela.'
'I was bricked up, abandoned to the bowels of this grand puss!'
'Who gives a tuppenny toss?'
Musical Cues: Nigel Fairs has always provided some catchy and decisive music for his stories and The Abandoned is no different. There are some sinister snatches of fairytale music (the sort he aced in The Child) and when the fourth Doctor theme kicks in it is slowed down and given a melancholic treatment that I rather liked. The flute stings also stood out and the choral screams.
Isn't it Odd: The second episode is much, much more satisfying than the first where the answers are spilled and the assault of madness of the first episode is put into context. That initial instalment can be a bit wearying at times though as you try piece the jigsaw of lunacy together. All those mad sound effect and random happenings are beautifully explained away by the power of the point of stillness that can realise anything that exist in your imagination.
Standout Scene: All the elements of delusory madness cohere at the end of the first episode to provide a crescendo of mania. It's difficult to figure out what is going on but that is the exciting part, the Doctor and Leela gripped by something that cannot be defined.
Result: 'What is the point of the point of stillness?' Brave and challenging, it's time for something completely different. There are going to be people who really don't like this kind of thing because they have a certain expectation of what they want from Doctor Who. And there will be others that adore because it is pushing the boundaries and giving a range that has surrendered to nostalgia and predictability more often than not a shot in the arm of creativity. I'm mostly in the latter category and think it is long past time that this range started displaying some individuality but I do have an issue with some elements of the execution of the tale. I did enjoy some of the TARDIS based atmospherics and Nick Briggs certainly fulfils the remit of utilising the sound effects of the ship to create an unique audio environment, playing to the strengths of setting a story entirely within its walls. The moments of random weirdness reminded me of Sapphire and Steel but the first episode might test your patience because it doesn't appear to have any structure to it and there are some moments of assaulting shrieks and laughter that encourage the application of paracetamol. As you might imagine from a script partly written by Louise Jameson the characterisation of the Doctor and Leela is extremely strong, returning them to their roots of teacher and pupil but also saying some new things about both characters. That genuinely surprised me in a period where I have come to expect little definable examination of the regulars. Stephanie Cole is one of my favourite actresses and I have always wanted her to appear in a Doctor Who story so I can cross that off my wish list. With a little binding of the script and production so that it wasn't quite as all out cuckoo, this would have been an absolute classic. As it is I would still say it is a massive leap in the right direction for the 4DAs, an attempt to try something completely exclusive rather than trading on past glories. Nigel Fairs and Louise Jameson should team up again, they are clearly full of ideas (the former brings his penchant for fairytale notions and the latter a willingness to experiment and pioneer...and Jameson certainly brings a narrative coherence that has been lacking in Fairs' last two scripts) and are invested in the characters. With firmer notes from the script editor they could produce something truly outstanding instead of something flawed but fearless: 8/10
Sunday, 13 July 2014
This story in a nutshell: We’re off to the Ood Sphere to start a revolution! Oh wait…they’ve done it already! Carry on.
Tempestuous Temp: You see this is why we love Donna so much. She’s absolutely terrified to be on an alien planet and grinning about it all the while. Imagine the similarly verbose Tegan Jovanka in this situation…she would be slitting her wrists whilst offering to do everybody else at the same time. Donna loves the unpredictability of this life and so do we – she’s basically us but funnier and gorgeous. Fabulously she doesn’t wait around whilst the Doctor makes a grand speech about travelling in the TARDIS, she’s already back inside fetching the cutest fur coat on the planet! The few laughs we do get all come from Donna and I especially enjoy the moment when she picks up the translator ball thinking that is how the Ood communicate. It's embarrassing and feels very real. She is so sweet when she strokes the aliens head when she realises it has died. Her ‘why d’you say Miss…do I look single?’ feels like a direct leap from her own sketch show which I happen to adore but for others who are less keen it might be a step too far.It's unavoidable in some scene because there are only a certain amount of ways that you can say lines. How formidable is Donna? Not only has learnt to kick doors down (to try and catch naughty lovers in a clinch) but she also learnt to wolf whistle down West Ham every Saturday. I have heard the complaint that Catherine Tate pours out tears in every single episode and whilst this may have some merit the writers ensure that each and every time it happens there is a damn good reason for it (the deaths of thousands in Pompeii, returning home to her Granddad, realising she is going to die…I defy you to remain stoic and emotionless in the same situations) and every time it breaks my heart because Tate is just so good at driving the emotion of these scenes right at you. Maybe it's because she is so shallow and bolshie at times that these moments truly stand out and humanise Donna or perhaps the writing, direction and performances are just really good. When Donna hears the silent scream of the Ood she wells up and so do we – she is hearing the sound of an oppressive race crying out for help and that is a genuinely moving experience. Suddenly all this horror means something. It's enough for Donna to ask the Doctor to take her home because the horrors of this world have repulsed her so much she just needs to experience something normal.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Are we like explorers or more like a virus?’ ‘Sometimes I wonder’ – Donna and the Doctor discussing the human race!
‘Being with you I can’t tell what’s right or wrong anymore!’ ‘It's better that way…’
The Good: How groovy is that kaleidoscopic effect of zooming in on the Ood in the teaser? What could be more glorious visually than the TARDIS as a minute dot on a stunning snow swept landscape with giant stalactites hanging from canyons and planets with rings filling the sky? There is a glorious feeling of classic Who about this adventure with the Doctor and Donna enjoying each others company as friends (they remind me strongly of the fourth Doctor and Sarah), location work around some industrial nightmare (the sort you would find in Day of the Daleks, The Green Death, The Sun Makers), an icky looking monster in the snow (Revelation of the Daleks) and scary monsters with red eyes and silky voices (ala The Robots of Death). Oh yeah and there’s a giant brain that features strongly in the conclusion (Time and the Rani). The mention of the Sense Sphere reminded the audience in the know that the Ood resemble the Sensorites. It is a forty year plus reference only Doctor Who could get away with. Tim McInnerny shows the others how a good villain ought to be portrayed; he gives a twitchy, stressed out performance that makes you wonder which way he will jump, he’s thoroughly nasty to his employees and has a surprising bloodlust and love of money that seems to be the staple of all the memorable bad guys. You want to hiss at him like a pantomime villain even though he isn’t played as such (we’ll leave that to Anthony Ainley) and being so thoroughly despicable is what makes him so memorable. Businessman never get a fair deal in Doctor Who, do they? They’re all corrupt murderers (Morgus, Max Capricorn, Sil) or ambiguously villainous (Drax). Intercutting between an Ood being hunted down and Solana making a speech about how they are happy to serve and do as they are told is dynamically realised– it's far more assured storytelling than the unsubtle pre credits sequence. A rabid Ood being gunned down is a surprisingly adult thing for the show to even imply but they charge on brazenly. Images of the Ood being marched like Jews in a Nazi slave camp and being whipped if they fall behind is typically powerful Graeme Harper direction – he would pull off more effective wartime imagery in Turn Left when Rocco is driven off to a slave labour camp to similar disturbing effect. The location work in and around the power complex is stunning, Harper employs plenty of low angles to ensure that the scale of the plant fills the background of dialogue scenes. The notion of a telepathic scream encapsulating all the fear and pain that the Ood are going through is powerfully alien. You will never find a better example of what Doctor Who can do with its fast direction and stunning effects in the new series than the sequence where the twitchy, aroused guard menaces the Doctor though the storage bay with the mechanical claw. Dynamic, exciting and climaxing with that gorgeous crane shot of the claw hanging silently right over the Doctor. There’s an awesome political commentary that practically goes unnoticed because it is so brief; Donna suggests that if people on Earth knew what was going on they would be appalled but Solana declares that they do know but they ‘just don’t ask.’ There’s so much that could be applied I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Action sequences in the snow? How can that be anything other than a feast for the eyes? Some of these pans across the gunfight look as though they have leapt from a feature film. Halpen letting his personal slave Ood go and join his people (even if that will probably result in his death) is a small act of mercy that momentarily made me reconsider this character – a great touch. Ugh – how nasty as the Ood that savagely bites at the scientists face? What’s so glorious about Halpen’s transformation at the end (besides the fact that it is still a shock despite being signposted throughout) is that I thought his hair loss was already a wonderful punishment for being such a creep. It's almost as if his body is rebelling against his nature, saying that he cannot be a nasty piece of work and a good looking man. Then they go one further and have him literally peel his head away to reveal the face of the very creatures he has been enslaving and killing. It has such a disgusting irony to it I felt like applauding, it shows that the Ood are far more savvy than they appear and director Graeme Harper magnificently refuses to shy away from the horror of the scene. Gooey skin peels away and tendrils vomit from his mouth. Its just glorious. Murray Gold’s music comes into its own during the climax as the Ood sing their song of freedom.
The Bad: The Ood killing Halpen’s business associate comes far too soon into the episode. It rather spoils the idea that there is anything wrong in Ood Central and gives you a massive hint as to the revolution that is to follow – all in the first minute of the show! I know that in single part stories this is the one chance to squeeze in a cliffhanger (of sorts) but had this moment come ten/fifteen minutes into the episode it would have been far more memorable. Unusually for NuWho the guest characters don’t really live up to their name. Take Solana for example, we figure she is competent at her job and makes the mistake of turning on the Doctor but we never learn anything about her life, whether she has any strengths, weaknesses, quirks…she’s a function of the plot rather than a character driving it and you could say that about all of the character except Halpen. The most we learn about her is ‘it's nothing to do with me’ when it comes to assigning the blame which just doesn’t cut it in my book. Her death is unfortunate too because it seems as though the episode is saying that everybody who makes a wrong choice gets punished but that is far too black and white to be realistic. It’s the same with the sadistic guard. It would have been far more effective had one of them escaped at the end and been left contemplate their choices. The Homer Simpson gag falls way short of the mark for me. Perhaps if the Ood truly were complicit it might work but this is the same discomfort I would feel with poking fun at the retarded. The idea of filling containers full of Ood and shipping them out like groceries might have laboured the point a bit too far. The song was affecting enough, did we really need the added touch of the brains in their hands (although I did love Donna pointing out that makes them peaceful)? It's odd how this episode can swing like a big dramatic pendulum between the restrained and the mallet over the head extreme. The drunken executives all need to be shot too, what dicks. Where the hell does that subplot about ‘Friends of the Ood’ come from? That hasn’t been foreshadowed in any way besides the character (who has makes very little impression otherwise) lurking around like Halpen’s shadow. That’s the worst kind of twist, one which doesn’t surprise the audience as much as it does cheat them. Still he does get eaten by a giant brain so its not all bad.
The Shallow Bit: How stunning does Catherine Tate look with her hair styled like this? Billie Piper, Freema Agyeman and Karen Gillan might be what people consider conventionally beautiful but this is a natural looking redhead who has a hell of a lot of style.
Result: Planet of the Ood is an odd story for sure because it has all the ingredients that should make it an instant classic; the return of a memorable monster, Catherine Tate as exuberant as ever, Graeme Harper giving the action scenes a sense of scale and gritty atmosphere and a fabulous villain in Tim McInnerny’s Halpen. It's certainly not a bad episode by any means and it looks like it has ten times its budget but my only problem is that it is so unrelentingly grim that (like a classic finale of the Davison era I could mention) that I rarely feel the urge to take it off the shelf and give it a re-watch. Saying that though there are lots of other pluses too – a bona fide alien world that is exceptionally realised, some real gore that the new series has been lacking and some smirk worthy b-movie moments (a giant brain, the title sequence which could have come straight from the classic series) that no other show would dare to attempt. It's almost a shame that it is so serious because some smart humour and a few more likeable (or even interesting) characters would have made this near perfect. As it is it is a perfectly serviceable action tale with plenty to drink in visually and possibly even intellectually if you are in the right mood (although this swings dramatically between the subtle and the obvious that it is quite jarring in places) but there’s not a lot here to make you smile. Massive kudos for Murray Gold’s score which manages to express so many emotions whilst remaining lyrical and strange: 7/10