Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Voyage of the Damned

It's a Christmas special, so prepare for an over-dose of twee. Or at least that's what seems to become the pattern. However, maybe I'm being a bit harsh. Or not.

The problem is with Voyage of the Damned is that it is pretty forgettable. Even as I write this bits of this story keep drifting away from me like icebergs, which is ironic considering all the Titanic references.

If truth be told the only thing I really remembered about this from the first time was Kylie Minogue in her maid's outfit. Sadly I think that might end up being the only thing I remember this time around.

Basically, Voyage of the Damned is the Poseidon Adventure meets Robots of Death in space.*

Viewed as a kind of homage to the festive disaster movie and it is OK. Truth be told OK is pretty much the best description I can think of for this story. It's not awful. The acting is mostly up to snuff, even if most of the cast are clichés or designed purely to make a point, although I George Costigan's Max Capricorn definitely skirts the edge of ham but I suspect he was asked to make him like that so the blame lies elsewhere I think. And could Rickston Slade (Gray O'Brien) be any more of a capitalist cliché?

However, Slade is there to make a point. That the Doctor doesn't get to choose who lives and who dies. Mostly in this story the nice people die, although Midshipman Frame (the lovely Russell Tovey) and Mr. Copper (Clive Swift) also make it. It is Mr. Copper who makes the point about how if the Doctor could choose who lived and who died it would make him a monster. However more importantly you'd think the Doctor would have stopped promising people that they'd come out of everything alive by now. It's a recipe for unhappy memories.

Let's face it the Doctor must be suffering from a pretty terrible case of survivor guilt and you start to wonder whether perhaps underneath the series adventurous veneer there isn't a much darker and more terrible programme about the survivor of genocide and war with a death wish who is desperately trying to distract himself from the horrible memories. Unfortunately with each adventure, despite his constant victories against terrible odds, the list of the dead grows longer and the Doctor's guilt goes deeper.

Fortunately, no one in their right mind would make a series as bleak as that so we get the fun and frolics instead, which is as it should be.

And in typing that paragraph almost everything about that story is lost: Geoffrey Palmer gets to be his lugubrious self in New Doctor Who has appeared in the Classic series, Clive Swift is good as Mr. Copper also adding himself to the list of actors who've done the Classic and New Doctor Who. There's a really awful Allons-y-Alonso joke. Bannakaffalata (Jimmy Vee) is rather sweet and is used to make some rather superficial but politically correct comments about prejudice. The special effects look great.

Anything else.

The robots appear to have been ripped right off of Robots of Death, but that's OK. There's a rather sweet over-weight couple Morvin and Foon van Hoff (Clive Rowe and Debbie Chazan) who are clearly too in love and happy to survive the story to the end. There's a nice little bit of stuff involving Kylie's...sorry Astrid's shortness when she gets to kiss The Doctor. The Doctor kisses a ghost in a rather disturbing bit at the end revolving around trying to save Kyl...Astrid.

And that's about all.

It's not bad. It's not great. It's not particularly memorable. It's a bit cheesy.

It's a Doctor Who Christmas special.


*For full enjoyment please read that sentence out in the style of the person introducing Pigs in Space: A demonstration

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Utopia-The Sound of Drums-Last of the Time Lords

And so it ends. Series Three. With an epic three-part adventure in time and space and it starts off brilliantly with Utopia where the Doctor, Martha, and a re-appearing Captain Jack find themselves at the end of the Universe.

Here the scattered survivors of humanity - plus some sharp-toothed cannibals known as Future Kind - have gathered with a view to reaching Utopia, where the last stand against the end of the Universe is rumoured to be taking place. There's a rocket but Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi) is having trouble getting it ready for launch.

Fortunately, the arrival of the Doctor and crew kick start the project and the rocket. It also starts off a whole bucket load of trouble because Professor Yana has a watch. A similar watch to the one that the Doctor had in Human Nature-Family of Blood and Martha has noticed it.

It's Martha's reaction and the steady drip-drip of words from the past that make Professor Yana pay proper attention to the watch. And before the Doctor can reach him the Professor opens the watch...and The Master is reborn.

Derek Jacobi's performance as Professor Yana-The Master is one of the best by any actor in the entire history of Doctor Who. His transformation from Yana to The Master is done almost entirely with the eyes. It's wonderful to behold. Professor Yana was friendly, slightly dotty and rather charming. Jacobi's Master would have been made one hell of an opponent for the Tenth Doctor but he's shot by his assistant Chantho (Chipo Chung) and is forced to regenerate. Into John Simm.

The Master nicks the Doctor's TARDIS, which - we will discover later the Doctor managed to semi-knacker before disappearing. Unfortunately, that dumps the Master on present-day Earth. Where he's off to do devious Master-ish things. Starting with taking over the world. I sometimes think of the Master as Brain from Pinky and The Brain: "What are we going to do today Brain?" says Pinky at the start of every episode. "The same as we do every night. Take over the world." The Master's persistence in the face of constant defeats is almost cartoonish. Now he's back there's no end to his evil.

Anyway, I digress. Utopia is a brilliant episode, perfectly paced by director Graeme Harper and superbly acted. It does a great job of re-introducing the Master, tying up some of the seeds sown in earlier episodes and launching us into the final two episodes.

The Sound of Drums is effectively an entire episode devoted to explaining what the hell's been happening since the Utopia, what the Master's plan is and getting the Doctor to the point of almost total defeat.

There's some rather silly stuff in here and Simm's performance occasionally goes over the line into ham, especially some of the grinning killing moments. Which makes the tone of this episode a bit weird. An example is the mass murder of the entire cabinet and the brutal dispatch of journalist Vivien Rook (Nichola McAuliffe) done almost as comedy.

But I realized when discussing this yesterday if there weren't these more 'light-hearted' scenes and the Master's was deadly serious then The Sound of Drums might have turned into one of the darkest and bleakest episodes in the programme's history. There's so much horror going in on here and at the end of the episode, the Doctor looks utterly defeated. And the Master's decision to decimate the Earth - in its very specific original meaning - is pretty nasty even by his low standards.

By this point The Master had managed to make himself Prime Minister, acquired a wife called Lucy (Alexandra Moen), round up Martha Jone's entire family (except Leo), set up a telepathic satellite network to help him hypnotize the Earth, set up an arrangement with The Toclafane', turn the TARDIS into a paradox machine, built a 'laser screwdriver', used Professor Lazarus's technology to enable him to age the Doctor....say what you like about the Master but his work ethic is pretty damn impressive.

It's not looking good. But Martha has escaped and the Doctor's given her a job to do.

Oh and there's a couple of rather lovely scenes: the Doctor's discussion with Jack and Martha about Gallifrey and who the Master is and The Doctor and The Master's telephone conversation. Which shows what Simm's capable of when he dials it down a bit.

The Last of the Time Lords is set a year later. The aged Doctor is being kept as a pet by the Master, Martha's family are working for the Master as servants/slaves, Lucy Saxon's gone oddly stoned and Martha's been traveling around the world on a mission. Now she's back.

Mostly this isn't bad considering the whole purpose of the episode is to get us to the end when the Doctor undoes the Master's plan and wins through. There's a couple of false dawns. Jack gets killed again. The Doctor gets aged to the point at which he turns into a sort of wide-eyed wrinkled little thing. Like Gollum but with Deputy Dawg's eyes.

Martha's plan is explained to Professor Docherty (Ellie Haddington) and Thomas Milligan (Tom Ellis). One of whom, of course, betrays her to the Master. The other one dies. Martha is captured and it all looks like it is over.

The Master has destroyed the weapon that she was sent to find by the Doctor and is about to die. But it's all an enormous double-bluff. As Martha explains to us (and The Master). The weapon was a bluff. Instead she's been travelling the world telling everyone about the Doctor and the Doctor's been...well I won't spoil it all for you.

Suffice it to say the end is the Doctor - like some kind of fairy - gets believed back to normal. It's the Doctor as Jesus. He gets to fly (and I have a friend who has a very convincing explanation about Time Lords being able to fly) and forgive The Master for his terrible crimes, which is rather magnanimous of him all things considered.

The Toclafane are banished back to the paradoxical future when the Paradox machine is destroyed by Captain Jack and we go back in time a year to the moment just after The Master has executed the President of the USA. Nothing ever happened but Martha, the Doctor and her family remember. So does the increasingly lop-sided Lucy Saxon.

Just when it looks like the Doctor is about to settle down somewhere with the Master Lucy shoots him. And in a bizarre fit of peak - cutting of his nose to spit his face on an epic scale - he dies, refusing to regenerate. The Doctor weeps.


Martha stays behind. To look after her family and because she's realised that she can't waste her life trolling around the universe with a Doctor who can't - or won't - love her. It's a sensible decision and surprisingly realistic one for Doctor Who.

But it isn't over. At the end a hand picks up The Master's ring from amongst his ashes. This is Doctor Who The Brain...sorry, the  Master can always come back.

So three episodes. It's pretty well-paced and directed. The acting is pretty much up to snuff and there are some great scenes throughout but it fades a bit as we build towards the final acts and frankly the Doctor as Jesus is rather syrupy, not to say silly. I wish the end had been more rooted in something real (which I know is massively contradictory when I'm talking about a science-fiction series but to (sort of) quote Walt Whitman, "Do I contradict myself. Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes).

Simm's Master is a grower. Far better when calm and quiet than exuberant and grinning. It's a good return for the Master and it is nice to have him not be the cool cat with the beard for a change. He's manic. He hears the sound of drums. He's definitely one roundel short of a full TARDIS but he's pretty good in the end.

And what of Freema Ageyman's Martha. She's had a season and although I don't think she's the best actress in the world she's had her moments and it will be interested to see who they replace her with. But first Kylie Minogue.

Monday, April 1, 2013


After the double-whammy of delight that was Human Nature - The Family of Blood we get Blink, which is equally wonderful but in quite a different way.

A little more light-hearted and Doctor lite the episode is driven by a brilliant performance from Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow. I'm not sure where on her rise to Hollywood glory Mulligan was at this point but you can definitely spot an actor destined for good things here. Sally Sparrow will probably go down as the Doctor Who companion that never was, which is a shame.

The story also introduces us to the Weeping Angels, a set of creatures so gobbledygooky that their very existence is dependent on not looking at each other. They're 'quantum locked' apparently. That probably means something to someone but like a lot of Doctor Who science sounds a lot more convincing when delivered by a good actor at ninety-five miles an hour - for which I salute David Tennant once more. If you stop to think about it for a moment then it becomes less convincing, like government economic policy.

The Weeping Angels are nicely sinister though, which is great and Blink as a whole is nicely atmospheric. The Weeping Angels method of 'killing' people is also rather civilized if a little confusing. No one really 'dies' but their potential...creatures of the abstract....blah-di-blah. You know it looks less fun written down than it does on screen.

Blink is great fun though and a highlight of Series Three so far. Not THE highlight, which I reckon is Human Nature-Family of Blood but still pretty damn good.

It's also another Moffat script, which means playing around with the concept of Time travel and how time isn't quite as straightforward from the outside as it is from the inside. No Time's Arrow here, more Time's Wibbly-Wobbly Ball of Rubber Bands. Moffat is certainly a clever and thoughtful chap but I don't know it feels a little like cheating sometimes. Like the Sonic Screwdrivers 1001 get outs for the Doctor Who writer the 'leaving notes for yourself' school of Time Travel just doesn't seem very Doctor-ish to me. I like it when he has to respond to everything on a wing and a prayer, not a wing, a prayer and a series of helpful hints a future self has provided for him.

I am aware as I type all those words that I'm doing a bit of time traveling of my own, criticizing the over-whelming Moffatness of the future seasons rather than talking about Blink. Blink is also rather different in that it is Sally Sparrow who helps out the Doctor with his future and so feels slightly less convenient than they sometimes do.

Partly I'm having a problem padding this out. It's always harder to write these blogs when you like what you've seen and I do like Blink a lot. I like Sally Sparrow. I like Larry Nightingale (Finlay Robertson) who makes a good foil for Sally. I like the melancholy ending to DI Billy Shipton's story. I like the pace and direction by Hettie MacDonald. I like the 'let us scare the kids' post-story coda. I like the story's lightness of touch. I like the design of the Weeping Angels. I like the line about chickens.

So you see it's hard to say much else. I do miss the Doctor, but this would have been a much different tale if he'd been there and Sally and Larry wouldn't have had quite so much room to breathe as characters.

Good stuff.