Friday, November 29, 2013

Amy's Choice

Amy's Choice is an odd little Doctor Who story. It's less about things happening and more about relationships. Yes, there's aliens. Yes, there's the Dream Lord. Yes, there's psychic spores but really it is a good, old-fashioned conversation about love, trust and being a gooseberry.

It's written by Simon Nye, who is best known for writing Men Behaving Badly, but actually there are probably less comic moments in this than in the average 'New' Doctor Who story. I think he's experience juggling the relationships in Men Behaving Badly obviously helped with this.

The story starts off in the peaceful village of Ledworth...sorry Upper Ledworth. Rory and Amy are married. Amy is heavily pregnant. Into this story pops the Doctor who was passing by. Sort of. This rural idle seems to be Rory's idea of paradise, less so Amy's. But then the three wake up in the TARDIS. Talking about their weird dream. Before popping back into Upper Ledworth. And back. It's all a bit dreamy-weamy. (Sorry)

Then up pops the Dream Lord, played with a fantastically sharp nastiness by the never less than brilliant Toby Jones. (Toby Jones following Helen McCrory following Iain Glen is a joy to be savoured. Doctor Who really is getting some master acting crafts people in this Series) This mysterious figure, cosplaying the Doctor when he first appears, has control of the TARDIS. And its occupants dreams.

One of the two scenarios outlined above is real. One is a dream. In both the TARDIS crews life is at risk. They have to decide which is real and which is the dream. In the dream your death will just mean you're waking up. In reality, of course, your dead.

In Upper Ledworth the TARDIS crew are besieged by a gang of alien infested old people. Inside the TARDIS meanwhile a failing ship is heading towards an icy doom. Which one is real, which one is fantasy. I'm just a poor boy etc.

The story turns on Rory and Amy's relationship. Once more Arthur Darvill is brilliant, although this time everyone seems to raise their game. Matt Smith is great, particularly when he realises who the Dream Lord actually is (that's a spoiler I'll let you discover for yourselves). He does play the Doctor as a sort of modern day version of the Second Doctor with a dash of excitable toddler. It works for me. I like it.

Karen Gillan too is better in this than in the rest of the season so far. The scene when Rory is killed her anger and sadness is genuinely pretty moving and she gets to be cruel to the Doctor as a result. That 'then what are you for?' line is really, horribly unpleasant and feels like grief.

But it is the loss of Rory that decides for Amy which is the real reality and which is the dream. Or at least pushes her to the point of not caring either way. A universe without Rory is not one that Amy Pond wants to live in.

It's all rather sweet. It manages, just, to avoid turning into the sort of saccharine horror that we might come across at other points. Amy and Rory are the first 'real' couple to inhabit the TARDIS so undoubtedly their relationship will crop up again. And the Doctor's role as gooseberry/rival too.

I do like Amy and Rory. They feel like a real-ish couple. Not just an artificial creation. It's not perfect and I'm not sure how Doctor Who it is but then, as I've said before and I'm sure I'll say again, the format of Doctor Who allows you to put a lot of stuff in it that might not fit comfortably in to other series. Why can't Doctor Who be a science-fiction romantic comedy occasionally? Well, it can. Like it can be a Western, a soap opera, a space opera, a surreal unworldly thing, a historical drama, a War film or any other blessed thing. The joy - and greatness of Doctor Who - is its utter ability to absorb pretty much any genre into its DNA.

That you've got to love.

This is definitely a step up from Vampires in Venice. Next up our second two part story of the series: The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. My review that will probably not go up until Sunday as there's a busy weekend ahead at Patient Centurion Mansions.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Vampires of Venice

The Vampires of Venice is a disappointment. Normally 'New' Doctor Who suffers from trying to get in too much in too short a time but here I think there's not enough. It's a bog standard Doctor knocks off new Monster in passing whilst we focus on the bigger picture stories.

Sometimes 'New' Doctor Who stories suffer from a sort of fictional insecurity when they're not key parts of whatever arc the showrunner is obsessed with at the time. They're kind of throw away entertainments. Neither awful nor good The Vampires of Venice is one of those stories. It's all just feels like a first draft. Or a final draft that no one was paying proper attention to because they were all distracted by the big shiny story arc which gets a nod here.

There are some nice moments, but that can be said about the whole of The Moff's era. It's all about the cool moments: The Doctor popping out of the cake at Rory's stag night in the pre-credits sequence, Rory's brave but incompetent battle against Guido, Rory's stinging telling off of the Doctor for being dangerous because people want to impress fact there's a pattern here.

The best thing in this story, for me, is Arthur Darvill's Rory who is both comic relief and the most normal person in Doctor Who since Griffin the Chef in The Enemy of the World. Darvill has fantastic comic timing and can act without looking like he's acting, which is one hell of a talent. His addition to the TARDIS crew is a good thing. He's bounces off both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan as well as making both of them better.

Although I'm a bit disappointed with Matt Smith in this story. He's great in parts but also on occasion I think he's relying too much on ticks and tricks. He's still pretty damn good to watch but sometimes you just want him to do a little bit less.

Maybe I'm just grumpy.

Helen McCrory is rather brilliant as Rosanna though. Another fine actress whose talents are almost wasted in the part but who - paradox alert - makes Rosanna a far better character as a result. The balance in a performance between acting and writing fascinates me. How much of a good performance is the lines and how much the acting. Great actors can make (mostly) banal lines seems golden, bad actors can make Shakespeare as clunky as a clunky thing.

So yes I think Helen McCrory is a far better actress than a part like Rosanna deserves but because she is such a good actress she makes Rosanna a far more memorable character. The scene between her and Matt Smith, which ends with the Doctor angry that she couldn't remember the late lamented Isabella's name, is brilliant. And that's because of McCrory. In the hands of an average actress it would probably be nothing more than yet another dull clash between the Doctor and a villain.

Final conclusion: reasonable entertaining but pretty tediously average in both ambition and result. If I were a teacher I'd be finishing this with that tried and tested phrase: "Could do better."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone

Overall, I enjoyed both The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone. Although there were a couple of things that irritated the hell out of me.
River Song.
River River Song Song.
Right, I don't actually mind River Song as a character most of the time. Even if the idea of the Doctor running around the universe as some kind of taxi service rescuing anyone seems a bit odd. If he could do that why is he not constantly picking up and dropping off companions? Oh, I hear you cry, River Song's special.
Yes, I'm sure she will be. But at this point she seems irritatingly over-confident and pushy. The sort of person for whom the phrase 'high maintenance' was invented. She can't just fly the TARDIS, she can fly it better than the Doctor. Oh and that joke about the handbrakes was worth it wasn't it. Ha ha. And never heard of again. Indeed so never heard from again that the Moff makes the sound of the TARDIS materialisation the sound of hope by the time we get to The Day of the Doctor.  (Oops spoilers).
I'm not sure how much I can blame Alex Kingston for her choices or the original character outline for this but it's bloody irritating. Although - to be fair to everyone - it does calm down a bit after the initial twenty minutes or so.
The other irritating thing was the Moff's decision to turn the Weeping Angels into cold bloodied killers. OK so their original modus operandi didn't make much sense but at least it made them different to your bog standard beasties. It doesn't reduce their creepiness I will admit but then that creepiness was there when they didn't break people's necks. Or whatever it is they actually do.
It does present us with the nasty form of poor old Angel Bob though whose fate is rather unpleasant and clearly has an effect on the Doctor's response to the Angel's, which leads to the 'Into a trap' cliffhanger which Matt Smith delivers with some panache. And on DVD at least it wasn't ruined by the voice of Graham Norton. (Although I'm surprised that option wasn't available on the DVD for that full 'as live' experience).

Those are probably my only complaints. The rest of it is pretty damn good. 

Karen Gillan is starting to grow on me as Amy Pond and her walk through the Forest of Angels is incredibly tense, although it's a shame she has to come over all Susan and trip over, especially as she's...well let us move on. Oh and bonus points for the countdown to the Moff. That was nicely done and rather spooky.

Matt Smith is excellent. There's some lovely moments but the best for me are the 'Trap' speech as outlined above, the 'Hold On' moment and best of all Octavian's death (which is to some degree the Doctor's fault for faffing around too much.)

In fact my favourite thing in this whole story is Iain Glen's Octavian. No one ever seems to bring his performance up when talking about guest appearances but he's brilliant and his death scene is one of the most moving and brilliantly played in all Doctor Who history. I'm a big fan of Iain Glen's and have been since I saw him in a rather fantastic little series called 'Frankie's House' back in the early 1990s. He's been on my list of possible Doctor's for a while too. So it was nice to see him do such a fantastic job throughout.

So my early complaints aside I should reiterate how much I did enjoy this. It looked fantastic, had a real tension about it from the moment we first see the Angel on video to the end...and I liked the fact  that the Angels sealed their own fate.

It also keeps the arc ticking along nicely as we see the crack from Amy's wall appearing and doing some rather unpleasant things to soldiers and Angels alike.

A much needed improvement on Victory of the Daleks and perhaps the sign of good things to come.

Ah, one final not so sure about it moment. The end of the episode with Amy trying to get off with the Doctor. I'm not sure if that doesn't quite cross a line that Doctor Who shouldn't cross. I'm not entirely sure but it felt a bit awkwardly tacked on to me. But we shall see.

Good stuff. More of this please.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Personal Pointless Top 10 Things From the 50th Anniversary

So that was the 50th Anniversary that was. Did we all enjoy ourselves? Good. Here, for no reasons apart from personal ego, are my Top 10 Favourite Bits from the 50th Anniversary. I'm sure you've got your own.

1: The Curator

I've watched this bit of Day of the Doctor about six or seven times and I love it a little more each time. It's beautifully played by both Tom and Matt and because Tom is my Doctor this scene meant quite a lot to me. The perfect Doctor Who moment for me.

2: "Whatever you guys are up to. I'm in. Work permitting of course."

The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot was fantastic. Congratulations to everyone involved, particularly writer - director Peter 'Fifth Doctor' Davison. There's so much good stuff in here but Paul McGann's bit cracked me up. Which brings me neatly on to...

3: The Night of the Doctor

I can forgive the Moff a lot of Doctor Who related writing crimes for this 7-ish minutes. My pre-50th Wish List had Paul McGann coming back quite high up on it. And here we are. Yes, he doesn't get to be in the special (which is odd because you could have put the McGann Doctor in there instead of John Hurt's and it would have still worked. Possibly a little better in fact.) but this was a nice little moment. And we get to see him regenerate. Closing a irritating little gap. At least for me.

4: "I don't want to go"

An Adventure is Space & Time was, for me, rather wonderful. Kudos to Mark Gatiss for his fine work. I'm sure those who've research the era can find reasons to niggle about facts & faces but I thought it was lovely. And I was a bit teary all the way through from the moment David Bradley's  - who was fantastic - Hartnell broke down to the end.

5: Fleeing in Terror from the War Machines (see picture)

This one is very personal but on the morning of the 50th myself and Leslie McMurtry, editor of the fine Doctor Who fanzine "The Terrible Zodin" went out & about in London exploring Doctor Who filming locations. We concentrated on The War Machines with a brief digression into Remembrance of the Daleks. It was great fun and there's a little geek frisson when you realise you're standing where a War Machine or a Dalek once stood.

6: The Regenerations Panel at Excel

If The Five (ish) Doctors Reboot hadn't conclusively proved it to the nation that Davison, Colin Baker & McCoy make a fine comedic partnership then this panel would have done. Their timing is excellent but on top of that they are genuinely interesting to hear talking about Doctor Who. All three of them a great advocates of the series and all three of them make fantastic Big Finish Doctors. Which brings me to...

7: The Light at the End

Big Finish's Anniversary story featuring the first 8 Doctors was a majestic tribute to both Doctor Who itself and the Big Finish version in particular. If you haven't listened to it already then I recommend it. A lot.

8: "It's a scientific instrument"

The best bit of multi-Doctor stories is the interaction between the Doctors and this was a big part of The Day of the Doctor too. Hurt's Doctor was particularly brilliant at mocking the childishness of the other two but they also worked exceptionally well together helping to make the central part of the story hold together whilst The Moff's usual fireworks were going off around them. So let's hear it for John Hurt, David Tennant & Matt Smith.

9. "I'm a bit of a tosser."

Another - probable - personal moment for me. This occurred whilst listening to David Quantick's excellent and amusing 'Blagger's Guide to Doctor Who'. (It's on BBCi-player but was split into two bits by whichever muppets were in charge. This might have changed. UPDATE: full version is now here) The quote above turns up as Michael Grade describing himself after the 'hiatus/cancellation' is discussed. I know it is petty and silly but you know I laughed a lot.

10. Being a Doctor Who fan

Yes, there will be differences of opinion about how good the 50th story was. Yes, there are people who would have preferred anyone but The Moff to be writing it. But you know overall it has been a fantastic time to be a Doctor Who fan.* Whether you've watched since the first episode or came on board with Matt Smith it has been a fantastic experience. As a said in the blog previous to this one - and Paul Cornell's 'bullying' comment in the Culture Show's Doctor Who special (which just misses out on this Top Ten) made clear - being a Doctor Who fan wasn't always as wonderful an experience as it (generally) is now.

So the fact that we're still here. That the programme is still here and reaching out to new fans and new countries all the time** is bloody brilliant.

Here's to the 100th.

*But dear BBC let us never speak of the Live After Show Party again.

**Excel had German, Russian and American fans in attendance (that I heard/spoke to). There were probably many, many more.

PS I've left out a lot of other great things. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Night Before a Whovian Christmas

I was at the first day of the BBC's Official Doctor Who Convention at Excel today. And whilst it came with a lot of queuing it was a brilliant day. The culmination for me of the run up to tomorrow's Day of the Doctor.

I've become increasingly excited as we've crept towards the 23rd November, possibly to the annoyance of all my non-Doctor Who fan friends and family. There's been Paul McGann's return and regeneration. There's been last night's rather fantastic An Adventure in Space and Time, which I'm afraid to say had me blubbing away through the last ten minutes or so. There's been trailers. There's been programmes on radio and television. There's been posters. There's been newspaper reports and (more) rumours of Missing Episodes. It's been brilliant.

It's like Christmas.

Before Christmas. We've still got that Christmas Special and regeneration to come. The Eleventh Doctor's time is almost up. The Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi, sits waiting in the wings. Doctor Who carries onwards and upwards.

The international nature of Doctor Who fandom was bought home to me today too. Is there a country where the Doctor doesn't have a fanbase these days? Probably but it's a rather giddy experience meeting German Doctor Who fans. Or sitting next to Russian fans. Or realising that The Day of the Doctor is being shown live in 84 countries. It'll be in cinemas. It'll be in 3D.

As an old school fan. As someone who remembers how oddly Doctor Who fans were perceived in the late 1980s and 1990s. As someone who remembers how unloved it was by the BBC and how badly those making it were treated as they were starved of support and funds. As someone who watch Season 24 and still came back for Season 25 to be rewarded with the simply magnificent Remembrance of the Daleks. As all those things (and more) this validation of the greatness of Doctor Who feels both wonderful and uncomfortable.

On the one hand I want to stand on the rooftops and shout 'SEE I WAS RIGHT' but I don't need to. The BBC is doing that for me. Steven Moffat is doing it. On the other I feel as dazed and confused as someone who watches their lower division football team climb up to the top of the Premier League. Where were you when we were shit? Where were you all when I needed you?

Then I remember it doesn't matter. You're here now. Welcome to the party. There's drinks and nibbles. There's fun and games. There's arguments but most of them don't matter. It's just a joy to be here.

I've been watching Doctor Who for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories of life are tied up with my earliest memories of Doctor Who.

Like Nick Hornby's Arsenal fixation I sometimes wonder if Doctor Who has come to mean too much.

That a lot of my politics comes not from the works of Marx or Benn but from Doctor Who sometimes embarrasses me a little. That Rose Tyler's 'Chip Shop Speech' about the Doctor is how I wish I could behave when it comes to politics : "You don't just give up. You don't just let things happen. You make a stand. You say "no"! You have the guts to do what's right when everyone else just runs away!" That's my definition of political courage.

Is it bad that I set my moral compass with the assistance of a fictional character in an almost 50 year old children's programme? Possibly but I don't care. Or most of the time I don't.

I've spent a lot of time and money on Doctor Who since watching - and probably not understanding much about them - back in 1975/1976. I've met a lot of good people as a result and I've been vastly entertained. I've written about it, talked about it and dreamt about it. I've seen - or listened to - every episode.

I love the discussions, the obscure theories and the rumours. I love the fact that the old series could pop a rubbish monster into a story and still produce something magnificent: I'm looking at you Skarasen and Magma Beast and plastic Kinda snake. I love the intelligence of it and the silliness. I love The Web Planet, The Horns of Nimon and The Happiness Patrol. I think the first episode of An Unearthly Child is one of the finest pieces of television ever made. Full stop.

I love Hartnell's grumpy grandfather, Troughton's interfering explorer and Pertwee's neck rubbing James Bond. I adore Tom Baker. I loved rediscovering the unshowy brilliance of Davison. I love Colin Baker's bombast and McCoy's devious angel. I love McGann's coolness. I love that Davison, Colin Baker, McCoy and McGann have been given a second lease of life by Big Finish and given a chance to show what they could have done if the BBC had cared. I like Eccleston's seriousness and Tennant's joy de vive. I love Matt Smith's alienness.

I know, in the end, it is just a television programme but it's the best bloody television programme ever made.

Here's to another fifty years.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Adventures With The Wife in Space [Book Review]

When I first stumbled across Adventures With The Wife In Space I was incredibly jealous. Why? Because here was I watching Doctor Who from An Unearthly Child to The Name of the Doctor and blogging about it, trying my best to find something interesting and amusing to say and I'd been out-witted by Neil and Sue.

Their take on things was annoyingly funny. And even when I disagreed with Sue's scores (5/10 for Robots of Death I ask you and don't get me started on the wonders of The Web Planet) the blog was well-written and interesting and I wondered why I was bothering.

Fortunately my ego got the better of me and I've carried on slowly blogging my way through the Whoniverse. But I still have to admit to admiration for Neil and Sue's blog.

Perhaps the best thing about it was here were two people who seemed normal doing something pretty abnormal. I mean what sort of weirdo watches Doctor Who from 1963 to 1996? But neither Sue nor Neil (for all his protestations of geekdom) seemed particularly weird.

And this comes across in the book, which is fantastic. [So if you've got a short attention span there's the review in a nutshell.] It's fantastic partly because it is pretty damn funny, partly because there are parts of it that any Doctor Who fan can relate to but mainly because it isn't really about Doctor Who. It's about growing up and - most importantly of all - it's a love story.

For, if anything, this book shows that Neil and Sue have got Doctor Who in its proper perspective and that there are clearly more important things in the world and this book does a fine job of demonstrating that.

It also goes to demonstrate that actually watching Doctor Who is a social thing. It features that Tom Baker quote about Doctor Who being watched on different levels by different people in each household and that just reinforces my belief that I have the most fun as a Doctor Who fan when watching episodes with other people, even people who know diddly squat about the programme and end up asking loads of basic questions. And no one is better at taking the piss out of Doctor Who stories than Doctor Who fans.

I said at the beginning of this review that my first reaction to Adventures With The Wife in Space was jealousy. There's still some jealousy there now, but for different reasons. So I recommend this book whole-heartedly: it's funny, it's smart, it's about Doctor Who but most of all it's about love & affection.

Read it. You'll like it.

PS Appendix 1: Glossary is very funny