Monday, December 17, 2012

The Idiot's Lantern

I didn't remember anything about this story from my original watch in 2006, which surprises me a bit. It's not that it is a brilliant story. It's distinctly average really but it is unusual for me to remember absolutely nothing about a story.

I thought The Wire was a suitable creepy villain, even if I was less than convinced about the explanation of her attack methodology and the ease by which one can recover from it afterwards. The mind suck thing might just work but what's the deal with the face sucking? It doesn't really make sense*but it is nicely sinister so that's what counts I suppose.

So kudos for Maureen Lipman's performance, especially as she (I assume) didn't get much interaction with the other actors. She's got the perfect ability to put ice beneath the posh, which makes for a good villain in my small book of things that make a good villain.

Poor old Mr. Magpie (Ron Cook) does a good job as the henchman acting out of fear and loathing rather than a real desire to do evil.

The thing that didn't ring quite true - or maybe wasn't needed - was the whole Connelly family saga, which felt like Mark Gatiss was taking a writing sledgehammer to make a point about fascism and the changing generations. Eddie Connelly (Jamie Foreman) is a domestic tyrant, his son Tommy (Rory Jennings) is bright and wants to go to college (and might be gay, or might not be) and his wife Rita (Debra Gillett) appears bullied, whether this is limited to verbal or is physical too I don't know. We certainly never see him raise a hand.

Eddie is also called a coward, for grassing up the victims of the Wire.

Eddie fought in World War Two, which doesn't excuse his behaviour, he might have been a bastard before he went to war but war (and experience in it) does strange things to people and whilst making unsubtle digs at fighting fascism to become a fascist you might also have been able to make a point about the damage inflicted on soldiers by war.

It's Rose who gets Tommy to go after his Dad, 'because he's your Dad' (which makes sense in view of Rose's past) but equally the Doctor could have said something about how war changes people and perhaps Eddie wasn't always like this. (A perfect example of how perceptions of a parent can be changed by discovering their experiences in war watch Patrick Stewart's 'Who Do You Think You Are'.)

Maybe Mark Gatiss never wrote him like that. Maybe Mark's version of Eddie was always a coward and that perhaps he spent the war without seeing the front line once. It happened. So maybe I'm being unfair or obsessive or too kind to a genuine bastard. The fact that Tommy does go after him suggests he's not entirely bad.

Anyway, the dangers of reading too much into a story.

I liked the scene with the Doctor and Detective Inspector Bishop (Sam Cox) when the Doctor flips the whole power relationship around in the space of a couple of sentences. Tennant's a bit less impressive when raging after seeing what's been done to Rose. Perhaps its because the line he's given is so rubbish that he can't quite bring himself to say it. Plus it's shouty, which doesn't really work for the Doctor. Tennant's so much better at quiet anger and quiet threats. When he's shouty it's just another angry bloke. Less shouting Doctor please.

Poor old Billie Piper gets put on ice for a chunk of this episode so, apart from a bit of standard flirting at the beginning, and a nice bit of investigating - which leads her into danger - this is not one of the best episodes for Rose fans (but her smile at the end is simply amazing [Yes, I know].

So file under entertaining but underwhelming and move on to the next episode(s).

*Yes, I'm aware that quibbling about this stuff when the fundamental basis of the series you're watching is an alien travelling through time and space in a Police Box which is bigger on the inside etc. is rather pointless but I like stories to vaguely make sense.

Rise of the Cybermen + The Age of Steel

The Cybermen are back! The one or two readers that have been following this blog since the beginning will be aware that I have become a little sniffy about Classic series Cybermen. Their stories are regularly a wee bit disappointing. Equally I have sung the praises of Big Finish, who seem to do bring out the best in the Cybermen.

So the first encounter with the Cybermen in New Doctor Who was always going to be interesting. Overall I think it works pretty well, although I do look back fondly on Cybermen in moon-boots and cricket gloves. I miss their fist thumping 'Excellents!" But I know this is all nostalgia.

The first thing to say is that new alt-universe Cybermen (who should really be called Cybusmen) look fantastic. The tear drop mask (and there's something truly tragic about that tear drop), the solid metallic look and their clumping unified march gives them an impressive screen presence.

I don't know whether it was show runner RTD or the writer Tom McRae who made the decision about setting this story in an alt-universe but it is such a simple way to re-boot the Cybermen and lift some of the weight of continuity off of their backs, even if I do miss all the David Banks levels of Cyber history. Unencumbered we get a new creation story for them via dying businessman John Lumic (Roger Lloyd Pack) on an alt-Earth, which is fine as it goes but does edge rather close to Dalek mythology with the wheelchair bound Lumic sitting in for Davros.

Lumic however isn't as memorable a creation as Davros. Partly because Roger Lloyd Pack's performance is a little too arch for my liking. It's like he's trying a little bit too hard and partly because of his conversion just makes him just another Cyberman.

The alt-universe also gives us a chance to tempt Rose with her father being alive (again) and the story of her interactions with the alt-Jackie and alt-Pete are a core part of the story. But there's no Rose is this alt-universe. Pete and Jackie never had kids.

There is however a Mickey, even if he's called Ricky. Suddenly we get an insight into Mickey's life and Mickey gets an insight into his own life.

He's been badly treated: by the Doctor, by Rose and here by Ricky's friend Jake but here in the alt-universe he gets a glimpse of what he could become and what The Doctor and Rose have become. It's rather sweet that Rose gets so upset at the end but it is nice to see Mickey the Idiot unleashed. Indeed if there's one character in New Doctor Who that has come the furthest it is Mickey, which is rather lovely. And at the end he almost gets to be Rick from Casablanca.

The one thing that this story did do well was to re-introduce the horror element of the Cyber conversion process. To make Cybermen scary again. None of this fainting at the sight of a gold coin stuff. This story makes you realise how horrible that threat of 'You will be like us" truly is. The scene in the corridor with the damaged Cyberman who is 'so cold' also hammers that home rather darkly. So well done to Tom McCrae for that.

There's a couple of minor quibbles re. silent Cyberman sneaking up on the Doctor and Mrs Moore (Helen Griffin). Mrs Moore seems to be one of those characters we are permitted to know and like just so her death can have impact. My other quibble is about how The Doctor knows Mickey is watching him on the security camera. It's not really explained, unless I missed it but without that and the Cyber Controller's desire to engage in a debate with the Doctor the good guys might not have won. Oh and how does Jackie Tyler remember who she is?

Tennant, Piper and Clarke are all rather good here, which helps. I particularly like Clarke's scene on the doorstep with his grandmother (who is alive in the alt-universe), which is both nicely written and played. I also like Shaun Dingwell's Pete Tyler.

A good first Cyberman story for the New Series, which is nice.

Next up, 'The Idiot's Lantern'.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Girl in the Fireplace

Written by Steven Moffat, 'The Girl in the Fireplace' shares its authors fondness for exploiting the time travel elements of Doctor Who. It's use of time windows to skip from moment to moment of Reinette's life is interesting and a good way to illustrate the complications of the Doctor's life.

Indeed this story compliments and reinforces some of the themes of 'School Reunion': that the Doctor can take the short road whilst his friends and companions must be content with the long road built of hour that follows hour and day to day even unto the last syllable of recorded time; that humans grow old whilst the Doctor doesn't and that the Doctor is alone. Reinette says that he was lonely as a child, lonelier now, which is genuinely one of the saddest lines of dialogue I've heard.

This story rests on a brilliant performance from Sophia Myles as Reinette. The brightest star in the 18th century French court, Mistress of Louis XV and rather fetching to look at. She gets a number of excellent scenes, but my favourites are her scene with the Doctor where he does the Gallifreyan mind meld on her and she gets into his mind too. The other is her discussion with Rose that ends with her stepping aboard the spaceship for a few moments. But the most moving moment is just a single, heart-breaking 'No' when the Doctor, trying to get back to rose and Mickey, asks her to wish him luck.

David Tennant is also rather good again throughout, although I could have done without the wink and the 'I've snogged Madame de Pompadour' bit but that's just me.

There's some Moffat trade marks apart from the timey-wimey stuff. There is talk of the Doctor dancing: "There's a time when even the loneliest boy must learn to dance" (Or words to that effect.) And then there's the Doctor who question, which Reinette asks and suggests is more than just a secret. So the Moffat's deviousness is long term, not just for a season.

Billie Piper is a little side-lined again with the Doctor focusing more of his time with Reinette plus the addition of Mikey, who I like more and more with every story. His gradual change has been an interesting one, even if he doesn't settle into the companions life as easily as Rose. There's something of the ordinary bloke about Mickey's reactions that I like.

To conclude this is a clever and moving episode, with a exceptional ending. It might have done with being one or two stories away from 'School Reunion' because whilst it echoes that story it also risks the Doctor looking like a bit of a serial heart breaker. 

O and the Clockwork Men are a lovely piece of design. Slightly creepy with their masks on and then lovingly crafted when off. It might just be me but there's something aesthetically pleasing about clockwork.

So good story, well-acted and rather touching.  

School Reunion

I do like 'School Reunion'.

The basic tale is simple enough: nasty aliens have taken over a school and are using the children to help them break the McGuffin Paradigm, which will allow them to re-build the universe in their image. The Doctor and gang have infiltrated the school after Mickey got in touch (via Rose's mobile I assume).

The teams investigations get caught up with those of ace journalist, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen [as if you need telling.]) Thus laying the foundations for some genuinely emotional scenes, some funny stuff and for Rose to get a glimpse - which she promptly ignores - of her potential future and some of the Doctor's commitment 'issues'.

The slight problem with this is that RTD has re-booted the Doctor and Sarah Jane's relationship to be more like that of the Doctor and Rose, which it never really felt like at the time. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane were 'best friends' so the idea of Sarah Jane spending thirty years - or twenty-ish depending on your feelings about the UNIT dating controversy - mooning after the Doctor seems wrong. Sarah Jane was always a stronger character than that. Sarah Jane was a brave woman, a feminist (by Doctor Who standards) and a go getting, take no prisoners investigative reporter. Of course she would miss the Doctor and I'm sure the culture shock of a return to normal life after dashing around the universe would be horrendous but there's something not quite right about it.

However it is played beautifully, particularly the hairs on the back of the neck moment, when Sarah Jane sees the TARDIS, backs out of the room and we see the Doctor standing moodily behind her. It's a great moment and the following conversation is beautifully acted too.

And Sarah Jane gets the key speech at the end of the story: everything has its time and everything ends. It's her role here to persuade the Doctor that what Mr Finch (Anthony Head) is offering isn't 'right'. In a way its an echo of her 'Do I Have That Right' debate with the Doctor in 'Genesis of the Daleks' and it is one of my favourite scenes in the story with all the Sladen, Tennant and Head all delivering performance wise.

Anthony Head makes a fine villain and Mr. Finch is another in a long line of nasty Head Masters. He gets  a couple of good head-to-heads with the Doctor (and Sarah Jane). The swimming pool conversation in particular is sharply written and nicely played. I think Tennant's line: "I'm so old now. I used to have so much mercy" reveals a side to this Doctor that we will see again and again. The Doctor that needs to be stopped. The Time Lord victorious.

Tennant's definitely starting to look more comfortable in the role now. Showing real signs of Doctorishness and being able to flit between dark and light in a moment. He's not 'eccentric' or particularly 'alien' by Doctor standards (and actually always looks a bit uncomfortable trying to do the zany, which is good. He should be.) but he is recognisably growing in to the part.

This isn't one of Rose's best stories. Billie Piper is fine but she's slightly sidelined by Sarah Jane and made to look rather pathetic and petulant: "I thought you were different" for heaven's sake. This is when you realise Rose is doomed because the only way for this relationship to end is badly. One way or another the Doctor's going to let her down.

It is nice to see Mickey Smith back and Noel Clarke seems a lot more up for it than previously. His realisation of his status: 'The Tin Dog' alongside his gradual acceptance by the Doctor is amusing. It's interesting that he asks to travel with the Doctor this time and the Doctor says yes. It's Rose who has issues with it, which is funny.

As is K9's return. All battered, rusty and broken he's restored to life by the Doctor and proceeds to behave magnificently. I always liked K9 (perhaps I was the right age when he first showed up: too young to be embarrassed by the childish addition of a cuddly robot to my adult series.) Nice to see him back.

Anyway to cut a longer review than intended short I loved this story and the 'My Sarah Jane' bit makes me cry every time. It made me cry before Elisabeth Sladen's untimely death. Now it seems even more heart breaking.

It's great. Enjoy it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tooth & Claw

This is such an improvement on 'New Earth'. It feels less like we're gooseberries intruding upon The Doctor and Rose's coupledom and more like a 'proper' old school Doctor Who adventure.

It rattles along at a fair pace but still has time to breathe. It allows us one or two character moments - Queen Victoria's little monologue about missing her husband for example. It also gives us moments of genuine heroism and sacrifice from both Captain Reynolds (James Sives) and Sir Robert (Derek Ridell). Both of them are aware that they are about to die but both of them, in true stiff upper lip British style, will do their duty.

I'm not sure the karate monks quite work as they just seem a little out of place in the setting. It's not so much the Monks, nut the martial arts. Monks in full sinister mode make a fine addition to a creepy historical but when they start flying through the air in red pyjamas it just looks...wrong. But that is a minor quibble if I'm honest.

I loved Pauline Collins's Queen Victoria. She's capable of defending herself and her honour both physically and verbally. Her - off-screen - dispatch of Father Angelo (Ian Hanmore) seems to have been triggered as much by his insult to her person as fear on her part. I also like the fact that her world view seems to find not just Werewolves but The Doctor: "blasphemous". Indeed I had some sympathy with her telling the Doctor and Rose off at the end. People died. Lots of people and the Doctor and Rose seemed more interested the fun of it. And their attempts to get Queen Victoria to say, "We are not amused." I know fundamentally death in Doctor Who is something that gets skated over (generally) or used portentously to refer to the dangers of travelling with and getting caught up by The Doctor. I know this has to be done because it is 'just' an adventure story but when - for example - Rose stands and watches Captain Reynolds dying it seems ridiculous that her reaction is so minimal.

The danger with making the Rose - Doctor relationship so key to these tales is that it skews their reaction to what's happening and our reaction to them. Or my reaction. So you get a scene where the Doctor and Rose get knighted by Queen Victoria in front of Sir Robert's GRIEVING WIDOW when they're all giggles and in-jokes, which doesn't feel quite right to me.

That's all rather harsh I suppose based on how enjoyable the whole story was. There was genuine fear and tension throughout. It felt sufficiently creepy to be one of those stories that puts a modern generation behind the sofa. The transformation of The Host (Tom Smith) into the Wolf was particularly well-done (and damned  painful looking too). In fact the juxtaposition of the meal (with its civilised telling of tales and class distinctions) with the people trapped in the cellar watching The Host and waiting was impressively done, particularly as Rose tried to get information from it.

I also liked Rose's response to the Doctor's late arrival and the Doctor's response to seeing the creatures.

I still get the feeling that David Tennant is feeling his way with the part and trying to steer a course towards something properly Doctorish. There's a couple of moments in this where he's particularly effective: the look he gives Sir Robert when Sir Robert is about to go out and 'hold up' the Wolf and his scenes in the library.

Billie Piper is seamlessly up to her usual standards, including the lovely bad Scottish accent.

So overall I enjoyed that tremendously, caveats outlined above.

Next up 'School Reunion'.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Brave New Town [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]

Brave New Town, written by Jonathan Clements, is an atmospheric little tale featuring an English village that hasn't changed since 1991 - horrifically they still think Bryan Adams is number one. Being Doctor Who there is more than just dusty shelves in the newsagents to worry about.

It's feels oddly dreamlike this story, which is partly to do with the setting and the situation and - for me - partly to do with Derek Griffiths providing the voice of Jason Taylor. Derek Griffiths has such a calming voice, especially I suspect for people of my generation. He's good in this too as a concerned father who gradually comes to see what should have already been obvious to him.

This is another one of the family of Doctor Who stories that doesn't really have a villain. There's a potential rather nasty villain that doesn't quite make it, there's some mercenaries who might turn out to be rather unpleasant and then there's the people of Thorington themselves who might be a problem.

There's a great cast, with Adrian Dunbar as the mercenary Captain; Nick Wilton as PC Sharp, Lorna Want as Sally Taylor and the aforementioned Derek Griffiths as Jason Taylor.  Katarina Olsson also crops up - again - doing two parts. She's a pretty amazing actress is Katarina. She's really does sound quite different in every part she plays and she can cover and pretty much any accent you can imagine. It's a rather good talent to have.

It is - again - light of jeopardy, even if high on weirdness. At no point did I ever think The Doctor or Lucie were really under threat, even right towards the end when the Doctor is forced to do a lot of talking in order to distract Jason and Sally. Even Adrian Dunbar's Captain McCarthy is boringly sane for a military officer in a Doctor Who story, which actually makes a rather pleasant change. The way that almost every character behaves in a way that feels real is rather nice. There's not really a false note anywhere.

Even the ending feels rather right. McCarthy has plans, the villagers are back and the Doctor is leaving. There's a story to be told about life in Thorington after the Doctor's departure and what happens to the loose ends. Just as there was a story to be told about scientific experiments by Russian scientists exploiting alien artefacts, which took place way back in the days before the Doctor arrived in Thorington. The Russian equivalent of UNIT - or Torchwood - were obviously keener on exploiting alien tech than our own team (although I have a theory that one of the reasons the Doctor Who universe has a British Space programme etc is that the British Government are using the alien technology that's fallen into their hands since...say...the Totter's Yard incident...and are accordingly a bit ahead of the game versus the real world.)

It goes without saying that Paul McGann and Sheriden Smith turn in fine performances. I think they make a good Doctor - Companion pairing, particularly now the sharp tone of their banter has become more amusing and more friendly.

So another competent Big Finish production with one rather lovely idea at the centre of it missing just a little oomph - in terms of danger - perhaps. But maybe that's just me.