Saturday, May 31, 2014

The God Complex

The God Complex is an odd one. When I watched it the first time around I really enjoyed it. An interesting script by Toby Whithouse and directed with panache by Nick Hurran. Even if there's an obvious debt to The Shining. This time around though I wasn't so sure.

It's certainly atmospheric. The idea that there's a place out there where each room is filled with the things that we are most terrified by, including the saddest looking clown I have ever seen, is a fascinating one. It is no wonder the Doctor gets the wrong idea about what the solution to the problem is. He probably makes things worse.

If anything this story is designed to bring home to the Doctor the dangers he is putting Rory and Amy through. Although he seems slightly more worried about Amy than Rory. Amy seems to need the Doctor in a way that Rory doesn't. Rory's brief conversation about victories is rather lovely, even if it only takes a couple of lines.

However, the one after another deaths of Joe (Daniel Pirrie), Howie (Dimitri Leonidas) and Rita (Amara Kahn) and another narrow escape for Amy hammers home to the Doctor the risks of his lifestyle for other people. Particularly Rita's death. The Doctor takes a shine to Rita from the off because she's bright. She's even offered the possibility of traveling in the TARDIS. But she's doomed. As Rory says, "Every time the Doctor gets pally with someone, I have this overwhelming urge to notify their next of kin."

Indeed this story might purely have been designed to make the Doctor feel bad. Rita accuses him of having a God complex, he has to pop Amy's faith in him (a scene with echoes of The Seventh Doctor's conversation with Ace in The Curse of Fenric. The Seventh Doctor used brute, cold emotional force whilst The Eleventh is much more sweet and gentle) and then the dying - but nameless creature - hammers home the point. It's no wonder at the end of this Doctor feels the need to drop Amy and Rory back on Earth again to save them. I've never felt more sorry for the Doctor than at the end of this story, which I'm pretty sure is the point. After all, we know the Doctor knows he's going to die and The Creature's comments remind us of this.

There's a lot of good stuff here in terms of performances from both regulars and guest actors. Special kudos to Amara Kahn's Rita, whose pre-death chat with the Doctor is particularly brilliant. I should also add that David Walliams does a nice job as Gibbis, whose rodent-like race specializes in being invaded and oppressed without being butchered. There's a nice scene between him and the Doctor where the Doctor is rather scathing of Gibbis's cowardice, calling it sly.

A bonus point to Toby Whithouse for a mention of the Nimon. How many Nimon have you seen today? 

So after all that what did I think of the story. The atmosphere, direction, and performances are all rather good but I feel bizarrely less impressed than I was the first time around. Perhaps I'm tired. Perhaps I'm not in the right frame of mind. There's nothing I can put into coherent words, which probably makes this blog a bit pointless so I apologize for that. I'll try and do better next time.

I would say though that I think this is the sort of story that might benefit from re-watching. There are layers here and things that I suspect I've missed. And perhaps, one day, we will discover what the Doctor saw in his room. One day.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Girl Who Waited

There was a point whilst I was watching The Girl Who Waited when I began to think, 'Hang on Amy. Rory waited 2,000 years for you. And you've become bitter and twisted in 36. This doesn't seem fair." But then you realize that Rory didn't get old during that time and effectively it all got re-written so maybe he didn't really wait 2,000 years after all but then I remembered that Rory had died for Amy. Several times. But then they weren't really deaths. Then I realized that all this chasing my own mental tail was doing no one any good and I should just buckle down and get on with watching the bloody thing.

I love writer Tom MacRae's central ideas: the two-time streams, the kindness at the heart of it all and the McGuffin plague designed to keep the Doctor tramped in the TARDIS whilst Rory and Amy get to be the heart of the story.

I suppose though this story stands and falls by how much you care about Amy and Rory. I'm not a big fan of this 'love that can cross time stuff' and I consider myself something of a sucker when it comes to things romantic. I think Amy and Rory are lovely but the Universe's great love affair? Oh call me a cynic and send me off to La Ville de Cynic.

Having said that I did shed a little tear during the final scenes. Rory's Choice, as this story might have been called, was heartbreaking and brilliantly played by both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, although allowing Amy 1 (or is it Amy 2) to make the decision herself felt a tiny bit like a cop-out.

Normally I praise Arthur Darvill and am less effusive about Karen Gillan's acting. Not because I don't think she can act but because Arthur Darvill is so good. And he's good in this too but this story is so dependent on the excellence of Karen Gillan's performance(s) that she deserves much praise. She's brilliant. In particular, the lovely scene, which must be bloody hard to do, where the two Amy's talk is pitch-perfect. And, of course, the final moments of the episode.

The Doctor gets a bit of an emotional battering here. Lots of rudeness from both Rory and Amy plus the moment when Rory says (if I can get the words right), "You're trying to make me into you." That line - and an earlier one from Amy about 'romps' -  points out the darkness at the heart of the Doctor's adventures. The Doctor constantly has to make these tough decisions and we now know, because the Doctor told us himself, that the Doctor lies. And he lies here. And then when Rory asks him a direct question he avoids answering it. The price the Doctor pays for his 'romps' is made pretty obvious here.

And credit to Matt Smith for some fantastic work too. In fact, considering there are only three main actors in this there isn't a duff performance out of the lot. Indeed if there had been the story would have died on its arse. Great ideas though it has at its core none of that would have mattered if Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill hadn't been so good.

So despite all my doubts and cynicism, all my quibbling I have to admit that it is actually pretty bloody good. It's amazing how writing all this down can focus the mind.

Worth a watch.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Night Terrors

After the high and story arc heavy drama of A Good Man Goes To War and Let's Kill Hitler we have something much more domestic here in Night Terrors. A scared child and his struggling parents. Home on Earth. In a block of flats. All very Series One.

And yet, despite this being a story about a scared child, no one seems fit to mention Amy, Rory and Melody Pond. She is not quite the elephant in the room but that's a pretty large quadruped in the building if you ask me. But this is Doctor Who. People move on.

I quite liked this at the time as the small scale domestic creepiness of the whole thing was rather effective. I still think that. This is an old school Doctor Who in many respects. Oddly reminiscent of how I used to imagine The Celestial Toymaker would feel like. To me, dolls have always been bloody creepy. These ones are spectacularly so.

They are so creepy that someone was dressed up as one at the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who convention at Excel last year and each time I passed 'her' in the corridors - which I did once or twice - I felt mildly freaked out.

To me though this story, even though it has monsters and aliens in it, is all about the fear of not being wanted. It is George's fear of being taken away because his parents - Alex and Claire - can't cope. He's become terrified of everything and (almost) everyone but he's most afraid of being taken away. Being Doctor Who, of course, there's more to it than that in terms of how his fear manifests itself but this is a story where love - of a father for his child in this case - beats fear. And we forget sometimes how frightening grown-ups are when you're a child. How big and loud they can be.

It's rather nice if a little New Who twee. But then perhaps I'm just a cynical old Whovian. No, there's no perhaps about that. I AM a cynical old Whovian. In New Who, as Wet Wet Wet once said, "Love is all around." That love isn't always the romantic kind, although that's here in droves: Amy and Rory or The Doctor and River.* But what I've noticed with the Moff is that his era has a lot to say about parental love and its redeeming features. How much of that is the Moff himself and how much are his writers' personal proclivities I don't know. After all Night Terrors is a Mark Gatiss story (and I think my favorite Gatiss so far). I may come on to talk about this another time or I may abandon it as the fruitless theorizing of a man with too much time on his hands. Who knows. Who. Knows.**

It has a small cast this one and once again the regular's do a fine job. The Amy, Rory and Doctor menage a TARDIS has actually grown on me as the series goes along. There is never a feeling that the TARDIS is too crowded or that one of them has too much or too little to do. It's got a certain domestic - there I am using that word again - charm about it. It's a sideways step or two from being a sitcom.

Matt Smith gets my favorite bit though. His little speech to Alex (Daniel Mays) in the kitchen about George's cry for help crossing the Universe and the fact that monsters are real. Whilst I'm mentioning Daniel Mays credit to him for doing a lovely understated job as Alex. I used to put Daniel Mays in the same box as Danny Dyer but having seen him in this and Mojo I've decided that this is an unfair comparison. There's a nice vulnerability to Mays, which I've never really noticed in Dyer. It makes him ideal casting here. There's not much I can say about Emma Cunliffe as Claire as she doesn't get much to do but what she does do she does rather well.

A little shout out (and I will never use that phrase again) for Leila Hoffman as Mrs Rossiter. A small part but nicely done.

A nice change of pace and style from the last couple of stories, which makes it a breath of fresh air and almost old school Who in its vibe I quite enjoy this.

*I actually find The Doctor and River's romance much more convincing than The Doctor and Rose. How's that for a hand grenade discussion point thrown away as a footnote.

**I've used that The Day of the Doctor line twice now. I'll try not to use it again. But I do like it so.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Let's Kill Hitler

I deliberately write these blogs immediately after I've watched the episodes. They're not meant to be detailed reviews. They're more stream of consciousness rambles. I pick up on the stuff that sets the bees buzzing in my bonnet. Occasionally that means I watch a story and I find myself not quite sure what I think of it. Let's Kill Hitler is one of those stories.

I watched it the first time completed drunk - for reasons that escape me now - and I really liked it. This time around I'm not so sure what I think.

Firstly the glib use of Hitler and Nazi Germany as a setting. The Nazis in this are basically Indiana Jones Nazis. I'd say Doctor Who isn't the sort of programme where realistic Nazi's can take a part. This isn't Rome, Open City or Schindler's List, this is Doctor Who. Also, Doctor Who has already done the Nazis. Often. They're the Daleks. So what can the real Nazis add except some nice uniforms and be a bit of a short-cut 'obvious bad guys'. It mostly doesn't matter where this story was set because the main crux of it is the River-Doctor tango, not the frippery going on around them. Except the Moff needs to introduce the Teselecta so he needs to demonstrate what its purpose is and if you're a gang of time-traveling handers out of justice where better to pop up than Nazi Germany. So having gone round in circles and twisted my own brain inside out I come to the conclusion that whilst I think Hitler - especially Hitler - and the Nazis are pretty much here as glib shorthand they're no better or worse than the Nazis in Indiana Jones who are there for the same reason really. No one minds people killing Nazis. There's enough documentaries and books about the real Nazis if you want to know what they were really like and if your idiotic enough to get your history from a forty-five-minute episode of Doctor Who then you possibly deserve a smack about the head with a hardback copy of Hubris, Volume One of Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler.

I think that paragraph had a point. I fear it got lost somewhere.

Secondly Mels. God, she's irritating. Once again I'm inclined not to blame Nina Toussaint-White but Mels is just a bit too much but she's designed to slightly skate over the awkward fact that Amy and Rory aren't going to get Melody Pond aka River Song back and the loss of a child is - again - a bit too much of a dark topic to explore in Doctor Who. It's easy to forget that Amy and Rory have lost their child sometimes in all the excitement. They seem to be dealing with it surprisingly well considering, partly because I think they've got faith in the Doctor but they've lost their daughter and this episode basically makes it clear that she isn't coming back. Until she comes back. There's also the slightly forgotten fact that Amy and Rory's first child was affected by the vortex and TARDIS but no one wants to talk about the possibility that it might happen again.

But look that's two chunky paragraphs of me taking a forty-five-minute episode of Doctor Who far too seriously.

There are some brilliant bits in this: the Doctor and River's dance around Hitler's office as one tries to kill the other is a bit of a favorite of mine, even if it is a tad arch but it isn't much different to some of the highly choreographed nonsense you'd have seen in, say, Mr and Mrs Smith.

However the best thing in this episode for me are the performances of the main cast. All of them. It makes the episode sparkle but kudos goes most to Matt Smith for me. The highlight being the way he says - to the crew of the Teselecta - "I'd ask who you thought your were" (if I've remembered the line correctly). I know that's an odd highlight but for me it's the way Smith manages to convey the power and anger of the Doctor without ever having to raise his voice. I love that about Smith. And, for me, it is the way the Doctor should be. Power through quietness. Fab.

Both Smith and Alex Kingston sell the death of the Doctor and the birth of River Song scene with some lovely work. Ably backed up by Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. I love Rory. Have I said this before? Perhaps I have. But I do. Each episode that goes by nudges Rory to the top of my 'New Doctor Who' companions list. Battling with Catherine Tate for the title.

So having got all of that off of my chest what do I now think of that episode? I think I liked it. More so than I thought when I started writing this blog but probably less so than I did when I drunkenly watched it the first time around. It's a key episode though. For this is the story of River Song's 'birth'. It's the beginning of a story that began back in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. 

That's what I call timey-wimey.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Good Man Goes To War

A Good Man Goes To War is the final episode of the first half of Series Six and it begins the tying up the process of a number of story threads the Moff has sown throughout, although it'll still take until The Time of the Doctor to tie them all up.

Amy has given birth to Melody Pond but the Doctor's enemies have both Amy and Melody. The Doctor's enemies seem to be an alliance of the weird religious cult called 'The Headless Monks', the future Anglican Church who have gone all military (as we saw in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone) and headed up by the eye-patch lady, Madam Kovarian (Frances Barber), who we've seen popping in and out of various episodes of Series 6. Their motivation seems to be to grab Melody Pond and turn her into a weapon in order to fight the Doctor.

There's a speech given by River Song at the end of this episode which explains all this. It's a lovely speech explaining that the Doctor has terrified people. He's no longer seen as the hero but as the kind of man 'that can turn an army around at the sound of his name.' Melody Pond, having been conceived aboard the TARDIS, seems to have certain Time Lord qualities. It's these that the 'Alliance Against The Doctor' wants to control. A Time Lord against a Time Lord: mutually assured destruction.

Anyway, the Doctor calls in a few favors in order to get his allies together: Captain Avery, space Spitfires, Silurians, Dorium Maldovar (a very blue Simon Fisher-Becker) and the first appearance of what will become the Paternoster gang: Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and Commander Strax (Dan Starkey). River Song gets an invite but can't accept it because she already knows what's happening and when she's supposed to appear.

It all flows together quite well. The Doctor gets to be quite impressive by taking over his enemies base in three minutes and forty-two seconds. Unfortunately, it's all a bit easy.

In some ways, this story isn't about the action at all. It's all about setting up the reveal of who River Song is and teaching the Doctor a lesson. It feels like it is going to be a tone changer for the series. Although whether Doctor Who is the kind of series that can realistically carry the darkness of a couple whose child has been stolen and then turns out to be...[Spoilers] a moot point. It's all very timey-wimey. Very Moff.

Pretty much everyone puts in a stonking performance here from Arthur Darvill's 'Rory the Roman' face-off with the Cybermen, through Karen Gillan's Amy having a pistol pointing confrontation with River Song and most especially Matt Smith as he shows us that 'good men don't need rules'. Once more the potential darkness at the heart of the Doctor is hinted at. This is not a man to get on the wrong side of. It's one of Matt Smith's finest performances.

Dan Starkey's Strax is a wonderful change to Sontaran expectations, being forced to be a nurse in penance for some unspecified acts of Sontaran nastiness. The problem with Strax is whether this is how Sontarans will be portrayed going forward: less nasty, more comedy. We shall see.

I have to admit to a love of Madam Vastra and Jenny. What's not to love about a Victorian inter-species lesbian crime-fighting duo armed with samurai swords? So let's be less sniffy about the whole thing, shall we? Neve McIntosh adds Madam Vastra to her list of Silurians. She's the Doctor's conscience a little here before River Song turns up to give his conscience the full kicking.

So by the end of this, we know who River Song is. I have to admit it was the least surprising of the possible surprises but there you go. Alex Kingston does her usual excellent job, although sometimes she does sound a little stilted. A bit like she's lecturing the Doctor as opposed to actually speaking to him but then perhaps that's the point.

Frances Barber - whose got a voice I could listen to all day - is suitably nasty as Madam Kovarian, especially good at a bit of gloating towards the end. You get the sneaky suspicion it isn't going to end well for Madam Kovarian. No one likes a smart arse. Particularly a child-thieving smart arse.

I'm not sure about 'The Headless Monks'. That seems to be one of those ideas that sounds fab in theory but you end up thinking too much about how it all works and then it starts to seem rather silly instead of creepy.

The other character I should mention is Lorna Bucket (Christina Chong) whose in the Anglican Army because she wants to meet the Doctor. Again. He helped save her on when she was a child and she hasn't been able to forget him. She seems to be here for three reasons: to point out how special Amy is (after all the Doctor came back for Amy but not for Lorna), to give us the McGuffin that tells us who River Song is and to die bravely fighting for the Doctor so that we can be reminded of the price people pay for following the Doctor: "They're always brave." I like Christina Chong's performance. She makes Lorna enough of a real person in a few short scenes that I was genuinely upset when she was killed.

A pivotal moment in Series 6 with revelations a-go-go A Good Man Goes To War is a rather entertaining story where the action is much less important that the character development. Helped by a series of great performances from the regular cast and non-regular cast.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Rebel Flesh - The Almost People

The Rebel Flesh/The Also People is an interesting little story with a fantastic cliffhanger leading into the next episode A Good Man Goes To War. You might almost argue that this is another new series 3 part story like Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords

The TARDIS gets buffeted by a solar storm and The Doctor, Amy, and Rory land on a monastery which isn't a monastery. It's an acid mine. Apparently, that's a thing. In the future. Anyway there operation is carried out by 'Gangers', which are duplicates of their human operators. They are made of 'flesh', which humanity seems to think is just a glorified programmable material. It turns out that there might be a bit more to it than that.

The solar storm hits, fuses blow, systems crash and it turns out the last set of 'Gangers' have been freed. They're alive. They have the memories of their human operators but they aren't human. Or are they? The humans are uncomfortable with their duplicates. The Doctor tries to help. Unfortunately Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy) ends up killing one of them. (Which reminded me of how Ambrose's killing of Alaya in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood put the kibosh of the Doctor's attempts to prevent a war between Silurians and humanity) And shenanigans break loose.

It's us or them as both sides say. The rest of the story is part a chase through corridors and part a meditation of what it means to be human, including a rather twee set of scenes revolving around Jimmy's (Mark Bonnar) son's birthday. As the story goes on humans and gangers die and the difference between the two becomes less and less obvious. There's a thematic similarity to Bladerunner (and a lot of other Philip K Dick material actually): how do we know we are human? What makes us human? Is memory and experience what makes us us? Of course, there's no time to examine these questions in real depth, after all, there are corridors to run down and explosions to prevent.

All of these themes though are emphasized by the fact there's a 'Ganger' Doctor, who Amy doesn't entirely trust. The two Doctors work together - in some lovely little scenes - and then separate. Although no one really trusts the ganger Doctor, particularly Amy. But there are things afoot.

There's a lot of manipulation in this story. The Doctor's very Troughton in Tomb of the Cybermen* in this story. He's up to something. Several somethings possibly and not even his companions can know what that is.

Then there is the manipulation of Rory's good nature. Arthur Darvill's brilliant in this story, as he has been in pretty much every story he's appeared in so far. He's got fantastic comic timing but the ability to handle the more serious stuff too. He's rapidly becoming my favorite new series companion, although it'll probably only take a few seconds of watching Catherine Tate again to knock him off of that perch if I'm honest.

And whilst I'm on the subject of performances I do love Matt Smith here, especially after the two Doctors appear and the final scene - no spoilers here - he manages to convey the alien depth of the Doctor without any kind of ham. It reminded me of David Tennant's 'rage of the Doctor' moment at the end of The Family of Blood. A tale of the Doctor's concern for his companions and the cautiousness of his approach against an unknown enemy. It's rather brilliant, although it does raise some interesting questions, which I may return to later.

I should also add that Karen Gillan does a fine job as Amy throughout the story when she's required to go through a lot. And the final scene requires her, Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith to be up to snuff in order to have the impact that it does. I remember watching this at the time and being genuinely gobsmacked even though seeds had been sown throughout the season. We knew something odd was going on but we weren't quite sure what it was. Well, at the end of this story we know a little more. We just don't know everything.

Actually whilst I'm on a paragraph by paragraph actor review I should say that both Sarah Smart (Jennifer) and Raquel Cassidy (Cleaves) do stonking jobs with their characters. Smart in particular, mainly because her character(s) has more things to respond and react to. Mark Bonnar (Jimmy) is the only one of the male characters that get a decent amount to do because it is his son around which a lot of the discussion of humanity revolves. Being a Dad is apparently a very human thing. Or perhaps it is just that love is what makes us human. Who knows? Who. Knows?

It's not the most brilliant of stories but it does a fine job of being entertaining and reasonably thought-provoking without ever being dull and manages to push the Series 6 arc along pretty effectively. I enjoyed it but I can't imagine I'll rush to watch it again, unlike say The Doctor's Wife.

*I'd say there's an odd Tomb of the Cyberman vibe about the whole thing but maybe that's just me.