Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Doctor's Wife

Before I go wanking on I think I should come out and say that The Doctor's Wife is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who. I understand, like all Doctor Who, that there are people out there that don't like it. Well, you're entitled to your incorrect opinion, as I am to mine.

The reason this episode works so well isn't just Neil Gaiman's script, which is something of a game-changer in Doctor Who terms. At least until The Moff...sorry...I'm getting ahead of myself here. Instead of the Doctor is just an aimless wanderer in time and space The Doctor's Wife basically puts into words what a lot of us had ultimately expected: "No, but I always took you where you needed to go."

After all the Doctor's always dropping into the middle of trouble and why wouldn't it be because the TARDIS is deliberately taking him to the places where he can be of most help. Yes, it is a risky proposition but it's fun. And it was the TARDIS as much as the Doctor who wanted to get out there and see the universe.

Putting the TARDIS's 'matrix' into a real human (?) body gives the Doctor a chance to properly interact with her - and her it must be for this - for the first time. The fact that Idris comes in the form of the rather fetching Suranne Jones is just a bonus. Or as Amy says when The Doctor introduces them: "Did you wish really hard?" Their chance to talk doesn't last long and I'm not afraid to admit that the last scene between them does make me a little teary. Idris's speech about being alive and the little goodbye/hello bait and switch is well-written and heart-breakingly performed.

I'll stick my neck out a bit here and say that this episode stands (or might have fallen) on Suranne Jones's performance as Idris. Too much and it would have been terrible, too little and it wouldn't have packed the emotional punch it did. How do you play an 11 dimensional folded matrix scattered across all space and time in human form? Where do you even begin? Wherever it was Suranne Jones nailed it. Costumed like an escapee from a Tim Burton movie she's brilliant from start to finish. The eccentricity and the seriousness. I love the scene when Idris and the Doctor survey the wreckage of hundreds of TARDISes. It's moving, clever and a rather lovely tribute to the Doctor and Doctor Who without being unsubtle.

Actually, there isn't a dud performance in this, even though the cast is so small. Adrian Schiller (as Uncle) and Elizabeth Berrington (as Aunty) give minor parts a pathos they might not deserve. There's no real explanation as to who they were or are (or what Idris was before she was occupied by the TARDIS - the truly horrific bit of this story).

Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan do sterling work as Rory and Amy, especially when they're stranded in the House occupied TARDIS and House starts playing little tricks with their minds. They're certainly having their relationship tested those two. They've become a sort of twisted version of that expression, "Whatever doesn't (or in this case does) kill you, only makes you stronger."

On the subject of House, Michael Sheen gives a great vocal performance. The combination of intelligence, darkness, and arrogance gives House a creepiness above his actual presence, which is the visual equivalent of throwaway.

But best of all is Matt Smith. This is a real display of his talents as the Doctor. I think this was the story that pushed me to put Matt Smith above Tom Baker as my favorite Doctor - at least for a short while. It's filled with great scenes for him: his excitement when the message arrives in the TARDIS, his anger and sadness when he sees all the little boxes, the scene surveying the TARDIS graveyard and everything that happens in the TARDIS after everyone is back together. But most of all every scene where he's interacting with Suranne Jones. The two of them are great together as this old-married couple. I could watch their scenes together over and over again.

Having said all that I go back to my original Suranne Jones comment. This story stands up so well because she is so brilliant. Without her strong performance, it would have been unbalanced. This story is so good because she's as strong as Matt Smith.

We come back here to the classic conundrum. Is the acting as good as it is because the script is good? I'd say in this case yes. It's a fine piece of writing. It's both a good stand-alone story and a lovely tribute to Doctor Who as a programme. Now I'm not a Gaiman fanboy - as you'll find out when we get to Nightmare in Silver* - but this is a brilliant piece of work.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - probably ad infinitum - it is harder to write a blog when you love a story. Taking a terrible story to pieces is easy. Perhaps that says something about me. Or humanity in general. If one can arrogantly extrapolate the behavioral problems of an entire species from the writing quirks of one individual. Which you probably can't.

So to cut this short. I loved it.

I hope you do too.

*Spoilers. Sweetie.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Curse of the Black Spot

There's no getting away from it, The Curse of the Black Spot is not very good. It has Pirates. Always a good thing. Well, almost always. It has Hugh Bonneville. Also always a good thing.

Apart from that though it is disjointed and rather inconsequential.

It is one of the few episodes of New Doctor Who when you wonder if anyone was actually paying attention in the edit. Of particular note is the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Lee Ross's character - who is credited as 'The Boatswain'. One minute he's there. One minute he's gone. No one explains why. No one appears to care, which isn't a good sign.

I like Pirates. I've still got a soft spot for Treasure Island, which is the book I would read to any child of mine (should I have any) as they were growing up. I like the way that Captain Avery is a casual throwback to The Smugglers's just pretty empty.

There's too much piffle, not enough action. The threat - even if this story is written by Steven Thompson - is the classic Moff era 'non-threat'. It's all another misunderstanding. And the Doctor is particularly useless in this. Constantly making wrong guesses about what the threat is and then making a drastic leap of faith right near the end which leads them to a solution. Or at least to the final act.

The threat - the Siren - is played by Lily Cole. She's a lovely, strange-looking woman Lily Cole and that helps with some added CGI to make her look suitably ethereal and alien but that's about it. The demon-fire stuff is good but in the end, it is all a bit of a nothing.

And that more than anything else is the criticism of this story. It's a place-filler. An idea - let's do a Pirate story - that doesn't really live up to whatever the expectations were when it was originally mooted.

There are bits of good stuff scattered in there among the nothing: the ship looks great; the costumes are fine; the scene where Amy comes to rescue the Doctor is rather good; Hugh Bonneville does a fine job as Captain's just frustrating. Inside this is a story that might have been something. If it had been darker, slower and less flash. There's no point having fab special effects if the story around it has no real power. It's like sticking lights on a stick (to make a slightly less rude analogy than the traditional one about polishing turds. Which I've now mentioned. So what was the point. [Shrugs])

In truth I'm trying to draw this review out for the sake of not just writing: "Curse of the Black Spot. It's rubbish." I know people don't set out to make bad episodes. In my opinion, most bad stories have inside them a good idea. Or even a great idea. It's often lost in the process of taking that idea and turning it into the televised episode. In new Doctor Who I think a lot of the problems come from hacking the story down to fit the forty-five-minute slot. Would The Curse of the Black Spot be better if it was two episodes long? Possibly not. But another ten minutes might have helped. Or a different edit. Or something.

And with that, I think I'm done.

Not the worst ever Doctor Who episode. Not even the worst ever episode of New Who. But a rather lackluster, untidy damp squib of a thing lifted from total disaster by Hugh Bonneville really.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Impossible Astronaut - Day of the Moon


I really enjoyed that.

This is the first time I've re-watched them since the first broadcast and I found them more enjoyable on the second watch - with perhaps a couple of quibbles that I shall come to later if I can remember what they are.

I had to stop myself from pulling into this story what I already know from further down the line even though that's impossible really. I did try though. However, I do have one question, which I shall raise in a later review when it is less of a spoiler.

This has all the timey-wimey-show-stopping-smart-arsery that irritates people about The Moff. A shocking moment down at the Lake, a twist in time and a set of mysteries for us to contemplate, some of which have only just been answered in the final moments of Matt Smith's Doctor. There's a lot going on here. Seeds being sown and threads being picked up from previous stories (including Silence in the Library-Forest of the Dead and The Lodger).

River Song is here and I like her more with each appearance. I should first admit to a soft spot for Alex Kingston, which may make me a little biased, but I think she's great in this story. Some people complain that River Song undermines the Doctor but Romana did too in a similar way and no one really whinged about that. You think I'm wrong? Look at the scene in The Horns of Nimon when Romana shows the Doctor her sonic screwdriver, which is so much better than the Doctor's he tries to nick it. Now make Romana River Song and The Doctor. See. I'm right. Indeed for a while, I thought River Song might turn out to be Romana. I think River and the Doctor work well together.

Yes, I'm as uncomfortable as the next old-school fanboy with the Doctor snogging anyone but you know I'm more convinced he'd fall in love with River Song than I am that he would do so with Rose as an example. Yes, sometimes the flirting is a little too much but at least it is witty. Most of the time. Plus Alex Kingston and Matt Smith have a certain chemistry that one would be churlish to deny.

Anyway, the story itself includes some genuinely creepy moments and at points has a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe about it. Particularly in the abandoned children's home with its dazed and crazed staff member, Dr. Renfrew (Kerry Shale) - which is surely a Dracula reference. I love Shale's performance here and that whole sequence brings home rather nicely how spooky a set of villains the Silence are: a sort of Men in Black meets The Scream. I'm don't entirely buy the 'they've been here since the dawn of mankind' bit as I'm sure The Doctor might have noticed before now but I like them.

The problem with blogging these two episodes is there is so much going on here: the mysterious little girl and her ability to regenerate; the Doctor's 'death'; the Silence; the mysterious eye-patch lady; Canton Everett Delaware III (a rather brilliantly gruff Mark Sheppard adding another science-fiction/cult television franchise to his CV); President Nixon played not as an out and out villain - I love the 'hippy' - 'archaeologist' exchange btw; Amy's pregnancy/non-pregnancy; the mysterious invitations and so on. It's packed full of stuff but none of that seems to slow it down. In fact - well, not fact but anyway - they fly by. I like the way that not all of these things are solved at the end of this episode, although I'm not entirely convinced the Doctor would shrug it all off so casually at the end as he does.

I particularly love the end of the Impossible Astronaut and the way it flips into the beginning of Day of the Moon six months later with the Doctor a prisoner and all his companions dead. Or not.

I think this is the story where I actually really began to like Karen Gillan's performance as Amy. I always liked Arthur Darvill's Rory but now Gillan seems to raise her game and the two of them together are something rather good. I didn't think this at the time but it is nice to have a proper relationship inside the TARDIS after all this time. This is Ian and Barbara for the 21st-century television viewer. Or how I'd have liked Ian and Barbara's relationship to pan out.*

And Matt Smith is simply magnificent. After one season he seems to have established himself in the part. Once again - is this a Doctor actor thing - he's at his best in the quite moments. This isn't a Doctor who needs to raise his voice to be authoritative. He's so good I keep forgetting that the lucky bugger's younger than I am. Matt Smith definitely conveys the air of a man older than his apparent years who is carrying the weight of the world - or Universe - upon his shoulders. It's Matt Smith's brilliance that holds all this stuff together. I remember feeling that here was a Doctor that might rival Tom Baker in my affections. If the scripts were good enough.

Questions: How does the Silence's forgetting effect work via hologram? Was it really necessary to kill that poor woman in the White House toilet? How did the Silence's time-machine thingy end up in The Lodger? Should we be quite so comfortable with the Doctor's apparent comfort with River Song killing people? Is all this timey-wimey stuff actually cheating, even if it is all rather clever? What has happened to the Laws of Time? Did anyone not ask what the men in the White House were shooting at? And so on.

In the end this is rather good fun, which is what I ask for from a Doctor Who story. There's lots of questions to be answered and let's be honest this is a bloody fantastic way to kick off a new Doctor Who season. With a bang. Not a whimper.

*Oh come on surely I'm not the only one who thinks Ian and Barbara got it together when they got back home. After all it's pretty obvious they'd been getting it on in The Romans.