Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Dark Water & Death in Heaven


So, the first Capaldi season comes to an end. We get to find out who Missy is, which didn't turn out to be a huge surprise. We get an explanation for all the little scenes Missy has with the dead. We get to discover that Missy put the Doctor and Clara together but I'm not entirely sure why. We get to see the Cybermen's role twist from the ultimate survivors to electronic Zombies. It's the Walking Dead with circuits.

O, and the whole soldier thing comes to an end with the fate of Danny Pink and the Doctor's salute. Death in Heaven was broadcast on Remembrance Weekend in the UK and I did wonder whether the soldier theme of this series was built in because Steven Moffat knew that, which might be giving him too much credit. But if not it seems like a nice coincidence. Danny is a living illustration of the truth expressed a long time ago by the Earl of Leicester in The Crusade that: '...when you men of eloquence have stunned each other with your words, we, we the soldiers, have to face out. On some half-started morning, while you speakers lie abed, armies settle everything, giving sweat, sinewed bodies, aye, and life itself.'

Leicester was wrong about the Doctor then and Danny is wrong about the Doctor now. Quite why Steven Moffat feels the need to break down the Doctor's character quite so much I don't know. It obviously seems to be part of Missy's plan, which is to present the Doctor with an army with which he can take over the Universe in the name of good but this seems to be the classic Christmas present purchasing mistake of Dads the world over: buying something for your child that is really for you. I mean why would the Doctor want an army? As soon as he took control of it he would no longer be the Doctor anymore. Missy, on the other hand, would love an army. She's missed the point. Whatever kind of friendship they once had they can never have again. Or perhaps they can but it would need Missy to change not the Doctor. And that's not going to happen, is it?

Anyway, let me rewind a bit.

This story begins with [SPOILERS] the death of Danny Pink. It is followed up with Clara's grief-stricken reaction to Danny's death. She goes off the rails, frankly. It becomes all about her and her grief. But then perhaps that is what grief does to people. She tries to force the Doctor into finding Danny 'wherever he is'. There's a lot of emotion in this. The Doctor though refuses to be blackmailed (and/or sees through Clara's plot*). He does, however, agree to help her despite her actions. That little speech that ends with 'Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?' is bloody fantastic.

The next thing we know we're inside an odd looking building with skeletons sitting in chairs, Missy popping up to snog the Doctor and drop hints about who she is and Dr Chang (Andrew Leung). Meanwhile, Danny is being introduced to the afterlife by Seb (a rather delightful Chris Addison). The stories run in parallel building towards the revelation of a) Cybermen and b) who Missy is. It's all done reasonably well, although I was slightly surprised that they got away with the cremation stuff, even allowing for the warnings etc.

And then we're into the hour-long final episode Death in Heaven, which frankly I can't stand.

Yes, we get to see UNIT again, which is nice. But really this is an exercise in giving the Doctor and Clara a good emotional kicking - and us - for the sake of one small speech about being an idiot. Missy being barking mad seems to be the excuse for all of this death and destruction. The theory is she's somehow been taking the 'souls' of human beings since forever and tucking them away in a piece of Time Lord technology so that she can drop the - emotionally cleansed - 'souls' in Cyber bodies to build an army. And that no one noticed.

But let's not dwell on that. Missy has a history of insane plans that fall apart at the end, although here she comes close to winning.

However, love saves the day again as CyberDanny refuses to be a Cyberman, gives a lovely speech about the promise of a soldier and then kills himself and all the other Cybermen to bring an end to the Cyber rain. Love. Love will tear us apart.

[SPOILER]

O, and then the CyberBrigadier turns up. Now, nothing makes me happier than seeing a character we fondly remember played by an actor who had fairly recently died made into a zombie. Even if that zombie can hold off its Cyber conditioning and do the right thing. Hey, the salute is nice. But hey, let's not.

I don't know why entirely but Death in Heaven really pisses me off. It's bleak. No one seriously believes Missy is dead at the end. No one seriously believes anyone is dead as Steven Moffat proves himself unable to kill anyone. So it makes a story predicated on grief seem lacking in emotional heft. It's a lesson I think he learned and which I will talk about again later.

The end of this story - before Nick Frost appears - is genuinely bleak. I don't think Doctor Who should be this bleak. I don't think the Doctor should be hammered into the ground like that. Doctor Who is one of the few sources of optimism and positivity on television. I've said before that I liked the idea of 'dark Doctor Who' but the truth is 'dark Doctor Who' wouldn't be Doctor Who. The Doctor saves people. She doesn't save everyone and sometimes he doesn't save the best people.**

I'm not saying there shouldn't be loss and death in the Doctor Who universe. Death is everywhere in it: explicit and implicit but the Doctor is there to remind us that, as Gandhi said, that however bleak it looks and however strong the bad guys look they always lose. That 'You must not lose faith in Humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.' That's what the Doctor should stand for.

Perhaps, once again, I am taking this too seriously. Perhaps I have missed the point.

Whatever, I just don't like it. That isn't to say there aren't some good things in here. Capaldi is superb. Again. So is Jenna Coleman. Michelle Gomez does a fine job as Missy giving her a nice touch of both the Simm insanity and the Delgado wit. She's one of the highlights of the programme. It's nice to see Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart and Ingrid Oliver as Osgood. They've both settled into their parts.

But overall I really didn't like this. Dark Water was fine but Death in Heaven really didn't do it for me at all.

Next up: Last Christmas.


*Which also seems to fall down on the fact that the Doctor can open the TARDIS door with a click of his fingers these days. He doesn't NEED a key.

**And don't get me started on this recent thing that the Doctor only takes the best people into the TARDIS, which is a way of making everyone feel better about being a Doctor Who fan. The Doctor doesn't take the best people. He takes ordinary people and lets them find their best.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In The Forest of the Night


I suspect how you feel about Frank Cottrell-Boyce's In The Forest of the Night will be similar to your feelings about Kill The Moon. Because this is not a science-fiction story, for all its talk of solar flares. This is a fairy tale.

The Doctor's TARDIS almost functions as the witches house tucked in the middle of the forest. Except the Doctor is a good witch - or a good Dalek - not a wicked one. There are children. Many, many children. Some of whom, I'm afraid, set off my dislike of child actors. The ones who seem to have walked straight out of some horrific stage school and straight on to my screen. The ones with all the subtlety of a concrete block.

However, I found Abigail Eames, who plays Maebh Arden, is reasonably good most of the time. And there, in her name, is a clue to what this story is riffing off: Queen Mab and the Forest of Arden. The role of forests in literature - especially Shakespeare - as a place of magic and fairies. The forests of As You Like It or A Midsummer Night's Dream. The forest perhaps of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood too. The forest of myth not the forests of the real world.

Also, there's a famous speech by Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet about Queen Mab - and Maebh/Mab are probably the same names just twisted by time and place - which begins:

"O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you
She is the fairies midwife..."

Which, at a stretch, is a fair description of Maebh's role in the proceedings. 

Or perhaps I'm trying too hard. 

However, I'm sticking with the fairy tale thing because it is just so damned obvious. There's Maebh's 'Red Riding Hood' pursued by wolves, Maebh lays a trail for others to follow etc. 

Analysing this a science-fiction is a mistake but even allowing for that and the long argument that could be had about how much of a science-fiction series Doctor Who actually is this pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable in Doctor Who. I think the problem I had was hammering the fairy tale into the real world and suggesting trees have saved us before. Or if not the trees then some kind of mysterious life force that flitters about like a firefly. It's wishful thinking. 

And this is a story full of wishful thinking. Maebh isn't ill, she's listening to a different conversation, which is sweet but seems to suggest that not taking your medication is the way to set you free. The trees will save us almost seems to be a prayer about climate change. If humanity won't save itself - which it looks determined not to because it might be a bit hard - then maybe the planet will do it for us. Me, I'm more of a pessimist. I think the planet might have had enough of us. But that's a blog for an entirely different time and place. The wishful thinking that a message on every phone in the world from an unknown little girl would somehow stop humanity being stupid. It's a nice thought. I'd suggest the history of the world suggests it wouldn't work.

If this story had taken place in the distant past or on an alt-Earth or something then it might not feel so...wrong.

I'm loathed to say anything is 'not really Doctor Who' because that's usually a phrase used by people to write off whole chunks of Doctor Who they don't like, e.g. New Doctor Who. But this teeters on the brink of 'not really Doctor Who' for me. And I hate* myself for even writing that phrase.

Having said all of that the main reason I didn't particularly like this story was that the Doctor is so stupid in it. It takes him far, far too long to work out what's going on. He starts from the worst case scenario - an alien invasion - and never really gets himself back on track until right at the end. By which time it might as well have been spelt out in huge letters in the sky.

We also get a lot of Danny Pink and Clara relationship stuff, which is fine because I think Samuel Anderson is great but there's something uncomfortable about Clara's dishonesty, Danny's desire to be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right for Clara and the Doctor's (almost) voyeuristic role. Maybe it is just me. 

And that's about all I have to say about this story. I'm out of energy and (almost) out of words. I don't hate it enough to wish to write raging prose demanding this be burned from the national consciousness. I don't like it much either. It is, I think, my least favourite story of the season - so far - just because I couldn't quite get on its wavelength, which is odd because I normally have a great love for Doctor Who's stranger children. 

I suspect I'll have forgotten pretty much this whole story by tomorrow evening. 





*I don't hate myself really. At least not for that. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Flatline



Flatline is very good. It is probably one of the scarier Doctor Who stories of the New Doctor Who era. Not just that it manages to be fun and continue the thread of Clara's relationship with Danny, her dishonesty and her increasing 'addiction' to the Doctor's universe. In this story, she even gets to play at being The Doctor. To the Doctor's own chagrin.

There's even a companion for Clara, Rigsy. He's a graffiti artist who might actually be an artist. [Pause here for discussion about graffiti and art before getting into the depths about what is art and who gets to decide.] Rigsy is played by Jovian Wade, who does a fine job being a companion. He also gets to (almost) die a courageous death but is gazumped by Clara's hairband.

Even the pre-credit sequence is quite dark and it tips us - the viewer - off to the problem we might be facing, but that it takes the Doctor and Clara a little more time to realise. The scene with PC Forrest (Jessica Hayles) is pretty damn disturbing. It becomes even more so when we realise that the 'Boneless' have 'graffitied' her nervous system all over the wall.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is trapped in the ever-shrinking TARDIS - its external dimensions at least - and trying to work out that problem. Of course, the two are linked. Unusually in this story, we're ahead of the Doctor and Clara as we've seen what happens to people already. They haven't. It's only when the Community punishment team are attacked right in front of Clara that we realise what's happening.

The Doctor is Doctor enough to at least try and work out whether the 'Boneless' understand what they are doing (and are therefore not very nice) or if they're just trying to communicate. Unaware that their two-dimensional universe is pretty fatal for us three-dimensional beings. They've been trying to communicate but now are they trying to invade? It's a quandary that lasts a short time as the 'Boneless' kill another member Community punishment team - poor number 22 aka George. That's the point at which the Doctor decides he needs to take things into his own hands I suspect but he's a bit stumped by the ever-shrinking TARDIS, especially when it is dropped onto the railway line following a brief argument between Clara and the grumpy Fenton (a magnificent Christopher Fairbank.)

We get one of the Doctor's big speeches about who he is. Once again I think this is aimed less at the aliens and more at the audience at home. It's an 'I am the Doctor' writ large and in firey capital letters. I like Capaldi's delivery of the speech, I'm just not at home with the Doctor being turned into this legend. A legend who, periodically, needs to either remind people of his own legendary status via speeches (or get other people to do it on his behalf.) I know they can be fun. I know they can be endlessly quotable but they just don't seem very Doctor-ish. It's his enemies that make grand 'people's of the universe please attend' style speeches. It gloriously illustrates their pompousness (and often their lack of humour) so I'm always a bit uncomfortable when the Doctor does it.

The solution Clara comes up with is clever and ridiculous. But it works. The TARDIS, which by this point had been reduced to a large block had lost its Police Box exterior and is in 'lockdown'. We get to see this process reversed and victory is Clara's (and the Doctor's). There's a nice farewell scene for the survivors, which includes the unpleasant git Fenton. And git is the only word that really fits that one can use in a family blog.

However, we get to see the Doctor and Clara discussing Clara's 'Day As The Doctor'. Clara seems to want to be graded like it is homework but the Doctor is less comforting. I'm not sure if the Doctor is worried about Clara's behaviour or still fretting about whether he's a 'good man' or not. Possibly a bit of both but he doesn't applaud Clara's work the way she expects. And we all now know that Clara's lying to Danny. The Doctor calls her out on it but we never have it properly discussed. That's a thread to pull at on another day.

So, to conclude Flatline is an excellent story. I haven't commented on the weird jerkiness of the 'Boneless' once they start to get their heads around three-dimensions. Were they working towards perfect replicas? Whatever. They're a creepy addition to the Doctor Who universe, although whether they've got much comebackability [Yes, I'm making up words again.] is moot. It's fantastically well-written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Douglas McKinnon. It might be my favourite story of the Series 8 - so far.

Next up - In The Forest of the Night, which I think I'm expected not to like if its reception on the first broadcast is anything to go by but as I'm the sort of fan that loves The Web PlanetThe GunfightersThe Horns of Nimon and The Happiness Patrol we shall see. I have a high tolerance for whimsy, as you should have already realised.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Mummy on the Orient Express


After a bit of a two-story blip we arrive at a rather fine little story in Mummy on the Orient Express. Clara is still - unfairly - upset at the Doctor after the events of Kill The Moon and this trip is supposed to be a final hurrah for their relationship. although I was never entirely convinced that this is what was going to happen.

They arrive, both dressed rather beautifully, on the Orient Express...IN SPACE. Clara looks amazing in what looks to me - a fashion expert obviously - an art deco influenced 1920s dress. Meanwhile, the Doctor seems to have dug his suit out from The Gunfighters. They look great together and separately. Initially, this story looked like it might get a bit hung up on the relationship stuff but it shook that off pretty darn quickly when a killer Mummy - known as the Foretold - pops up and starts murdering people in a very time specific 66 seconds.

There's a mystery to solve and friendship issues or not the Doctor is going to solve it. Capaldi is majestic in this: sweet, arrogant, sad, angry and clever. Often at the same time. His focus on solving this mystery to the extent that he is trying to get information out of people as they are dying annoys Clara. Again.

She almost loses her temper with the Doctor when he seems to make her an accomplice to the impending death of the rather confused and upset Maisie (Daisy Beaumont) but the Doctor has a plan. Of course. The thing is, with Capaldi's Doctor, his focus on saving people is broader than trying to save everyone. The Twelfth Doctor knows he needs information to stop the Foretold and that information is only going to come as and when the Foretold pops up to kill another person. What he's trying to do is make sure that the number of people that have to die before he has the answers is minimal. It's a terrible thing to have to do but it is the only way to win. As the Doctor himself says, 'Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to make a choice.' The Twelfth Doctor isn't heartless but he can be ruthless.

There's a lot of fine actors in this story in small parts: David Bamber as Captain Quell who gets a small character arc of his own; Christopher Villiers as Professor Morehouse; John Sessions as the voice of Gus and it is nice to see Janet Henfrey make a New Doctor Who appearance (even if it is a short one) after her appearance in The Curse of Fenric. Oh, I forgot that Villiers made an appearance in Classic Doctor Who himself in The King's Demons

I think my favourite performance though is Frank Skinner as Perkins, the Chief Engineer. Skinner is, I have discovered something of a massive Doctor Who geek. I was a bit concerned because I wasn't sure Skinner could act but he does an excellent job with Perkins who is cool, calm and collected most of the time. Indeed, the Doctor likes him enough to offer him a role about the TARDIS, which Perkins turns down. Perkins has seen enough, from this one story, of how the Doctor's lifestyle can 'change a man.' But I'd be happy to see more of Perkins at some future point.

There's some fine writing here from Jamie Mathieson, but I think the almost final scene of the story when the Doctor and Clara talk about why she is asleep on a beach is brilliant. It pokes at the issues Clara's been having with the Doctor and the Doctor refuses to make it easy for her. It's well-played by both Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi. As is the final scene in the TARDIS where Clara seems to have decided that she was just suffering from a 'wobble'.

The discussion about whether what the Doctor does - making life or death decisions - is an addiction is lovely writing. Then Clara's call with Danny and her decision to 'stay' with the Doctor is done beautifully. I can't be the only one that thinks Clara's 'I love you' to Danny is actually aimed at the Doctor. Or perhaps I am.

Oh, and I applaud Capaldi's conversation with himself (as the Fourth Doctor) and the jelly babies in the cigarette holder. Both of which were nice little nods without being unnecessary fanwank.

So, all in all, this was a rather lovely story. And as a result, I'm struggling to find something interesting to say. It is so much easier to write about stuff you didn't like because you can get your teeth into the bits that irritated you and shake them about. But when it is good stuff it is much harder, especially consistently good stuff.

I mean what more can I say about the chemistry between Capaldi and Coleman or the brilliance of their acting when so much can be conveyed in a smile or a look - such as the joyful grin The Doctor gives when he realises Clara's serious about getting back out there in amongst the universe. It's a joy to watch.

I had a bad night last night. A night of self-doubt and - I suppose - fear. It wasn't good but it is amazing the effect some good Doctor Who can have on my spirits. Perhaps I shouldn't be so emotional dependant on a television series for which I am no longer the target market. Perhaps I should be just a little bit more grown-up. But sometimes being a grown-up is hard work. Sometimes it is lonely and difficult. Sometimes you don't want to be grown-up for a little bit. You just want to put all your fears and worries to the back of your tired brain and have some fun. That was how I felt after I'd watched Mummy on the Orient Express and you can't ask much more than that from forty-five minutes of television.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Kill The Moon


Before I start let me say that this blog contains spoilers because, frankly, I haven't got the energy to hide them. They start from the next paragraph so if you haven't watched Kill The Moon before you should go and do so now. I'll wait.

Good.

Ah, Kill The Moon with its Moon as an egg thing. Not just an egg. An egg that will hatch and automatically lay an exact replica of itself immediately afterwards. An egg from which some kind of gigantic baby soup dragon creature will emerge and fly off into deep space. The Moon is an egg. Now, from this paragraph, you might think that I didn't like this story, but you'd be almost wrong. On my first watch, I will admit to finding the whole scenario heffelumping ridiculous. And it is.

But then you start to think. Is it any more ridiculous than a blue box that travels through space and time? A box that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Whose pilot is an alien aristocrat with a penchant for saving the universe and the ability to change from one body to another through a process known as regeneration? Well, yes. Yes, it is. But that choice is only my own. I have drawn a line in the sand where perfectly sensible storytelling begins and utter nonsense takes over.

Now. mine wasn't even the Moon is an egg. That was close to the line, but not over it. No. It was the identical new egg that replaced it so that the Earth didn't come to a wobbly end that crossed the line. THAT was ridiculous. Not the egg itself.

At that point, I just decided that I should ignore the whole thing and just enjoy the rest of the story. About which there is much to be positive. The acting is superb. Hermione Norris as Lundvik is another fantastic actor in a long New Doctor Who line who plays a small part that just demonstrates that she's worthy of so much more. It's lovely to see Tony Osoba as Duke again. Last seen as Kracauer in the Seventh Doctor story Dragonfire he's a familiar and consistently good television face. So, obviously, he's going to die. Plus Ellis George does Courtney again and manages to avoid irritating me for the second story running, which is some achievement based on my low tolerance for child actors.

But the real glory in this story is Capaldi/Coleman. There's some genuinely brilliant stuff from both of them but Clara's genuine rage at the Doctor after he leaves her, Courtney and Lundvik to decide whether to kill the creature inside the egg or let it hatch. (And here can I pause for a moment to applaud the ridiculousness within the egg ridiculousness of broadcasting a message to the whole world from the Moon and getting people to pay attention.) The Doctor's intentions seem good but bizarre. The Doctor's never worried about making decisions on behalf of humanity before so why the sudden desire to leave everything up to us now?

Sorry, I've digressed. That Clara/Doctor seen where she rages at him and he tries to understand why she's angry but can't seem to grasp it. It feels like a piece of genuine emotion. Two fine actors giving it their best. It's astonishingly good. And it makes up for a lot.

It's easy to read this story as being about abortion (and depending on your point of view) a story you can like or dislike accordingly. On this reading, Peter Harness was making an anti-abortion point but Harness has said that didn't even cross his mind. I don't think it is about abortion. I think it is about trust and growing up. I think it is about friendship and lines that we cross or don't cross. I think it is about the Moon being an egg and what fun you can have with that idea.

Did I like Kill The Moon? Mostly. To do so I had to ignore the bit of my brain that found this story to be so packed with ridiculousness that it might as well be Donald Trump. Then that ridiculousness isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are ridiculous stories dotted throughout Doctor Who. I like most of them. So, I liked it. And didn't.

What it is worth watching for isn't the plot though. It's worth watching for the performances. It's worth watching for that final scene, although once more Clara threatens the Doctor with violence. And even though it is a good scene you do find yourself thinking that Clara is being utterly unfair to the Doctor. Perhaps because she's got Danny's words in her head from The Caretaker she resents being pushed too far, too soon but she's angry because she's been asked to do what she expects the Doctor to do ALL THE BLOODY TIME. She's angry because the Doctor won't make a life or death decision for once. For whatever reason. And that seems unfair and childish.

Even if it is played superbly by both actors.

So, yeah that was Kill The Moon that was.Make of it what you will.


The Caretaker



I have to say The Caretaker was - with a couple of exceptions - not a story I particularly enjoyed. If not quite a placeholder it certainly wasn't more than a blink and you'll miss it adventure with killer robots. But then I suspect the point of this story wasn't the adventure it was the Clara and Danny relationship episode.

The problem for me was there was far too much snark and not enough fun. The balance between adventure and non-adventure was unbalanced. There were too many scenes featuring people arguing and not enough scenes of the Doctor and Clara saving the world. Obviously part of this is the Twelfth Doctor's convenient dislike of soldiers just at the moment that Clara starts going out with a soldier. That's an excuse for some not very witty banter about a soldier only being capable of teaching PE.

At the time this went out I think some people felt that the Doctor's attitude to Danny had the whiff of racism about it but I don't think that's the case but you do find yourself thinking that the Doctor is being unnecessarily unpleasant to a man he barely knows. Yes, I'm aware that the lack of tact is going to be a key trait in the Twelfth Doctor but in The Caretaker it feels a little too much.

As does Danny's tirade against The Doctor as 'an officer'. That scene in the TARDIS is genuinely uncomfortable but if the Doctor hadn't ostentatiously referred to himself as a Time Lord would Danny have been able to guess that he was an aristocrat. And when did Time Lord's become aristocrats in the first place? I always saw them more as a kind of priestly cast in a scientific theocracy...which I suppose would make them aristocrats of sorts. Whatever. Danny's tirade just doesn't seem to fit the Doctor's behaviour. However, it seems to be a theme of sorts because Robin said similar things in Robot of Sherwood but with less hostility (perhaps because he too was an aristocratic hero slumming it in the name of his principles.)

Perhaps this is a purely personal dislike because I don't want to think of the Doctor as an aristocrat because I don't like aristocrats in general. It's the same discomfort I feel when reminded that the Doctor can be viewed as a sort of great, white hero coming to the rescue of whichever poor alien species can't save themselves. It's purely personal, which I think contributes to my dislike of this story.

I can't blame the actors. I think Capaldi, Coleman and Samuel Anderson are excellent. They deal with the comedy and drama equally well. Even Ellis George as Courtney Woods didn't annoy me and I have a low tolerance for child actors (and I've still not got over the two awful children from Nightmare in Silver.)

I don't blame the director, Paul Murphy. I think he does a good job with what he's given. I blame the script, which doesn't quite do it for me. It's not terrible. This isn't one of those Doctor Who episodes that I'm going to mock mercilessly for bad lines or huge plot holes. I think this is purely personal inability to get on with what the writers - Steven Moffat and Gareth Roberts - are trying to do in this story. So, actually, I don't blame the writers. I blame myself.

Sometimes a Doctor Who story is just not your bag and that's not the fault of anything or anyone involved in making it, although sometimes when writing reviews we have a tendency to make a purely personal dislike seem like it is structural. In the case of The Caretaker it just doesn't do it for me. And that's fine. The danger, of course, comes when we take our personal opinion of one story and make it a massive tirade about how Doctor Who, in general, is rubbish or that the showrunner is the personification of an evil attempt to destroy your childhood.

So, I didn't enjoy The Caretaker much but there's another Doctor Who story coming soon. And then another. And there's always all those stories from 1963 onwards that I can go and dip into if I'm feeling particularly in need of a shot of Doctor Who I like.



Thursday, October 19, 2017

Time Heist


I liked Time Heist.

You know what it reminded me of? The Gunfighters. 

Stick with me with this. I'm not entirely mad.

Half the enjoyment in The Gunfighters - which a lot of people who like things serious seem to miss - is the fact it is as much a parody of western television stories and films as it is a Doctor Who story and Time Heist is as much as a stylistic parody of television series like Hustle as it is a Doctor Who story. Douglas Mackinnon's direction - cuts, lens flares and slow motion etc - reflects that. And Mackinnon's direction is rather lovely. And it was in Listen too.

This is the first story of the season where The Doctor leads and Clara gets to play a more traditional Doctor Who assistant role. This is a Capaldi episode through-and-through and he's rather fantastic. He gets good lines, delivers them with style and is rapidly setting a high standard that rises above whatever material he's given.

I'm not sure it's the most original script in Doctor Who history. Perhaps that's the point but I think there's a danger of over-analyzing these stories. Original ideas are hard to come by and the heist genre has its rules, which is fair enough.

But there's a certain pattern emerging in this season, which is starting to irritate me mildly. It's the lack of proper villains. I'm all for shades of grey. I'm all for villains who don't think that their plan is evil but for heaven's sake does every story have to be like this? It's like a reverse Season 8 problem: instead of the villain being the Master every week, now we've got no real villains. It's not a terminal problem but it's just getting a bit samey, particularly when the ending of this story feels so much like that of Hide.

There's a lot of talk about plot holes from people that criticise Steven Moffat's style of writing (even though this is credited to Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat) and I've argued before that you'd struggle to find any Doctor Who stories free of plot holes. It's just a question of what we're prepared to accept. Normally I don't really care about them unless there's an absolute gaping hole so big you could drive a tank through it. But there's one moment in this story that I found myself going...er...hang on. [SPOILER FOLLOWS]

And that's when Psi and Saibara turn up to save the Doctor and Clara disguised as guards in Ms Delphox's office. When The Teller is there. This is a creature that we've been told can detect guilt but doesn't notice Psi and Saibara...but maybe there's so much distortion going on as the - very - guilty Doctor and Clara are standing in the room. Perhaps I've been unkind. Perhaps not. Maybe it matters. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe I'm just looking for reasons to pick holes in something that I quite enjoyed. Who knows. Who. Knows.

Psi and Saibara were interesting additions to the team and make a change from the Paternoster Gang. Neither character is spectacularly original: the half-man, half-computer and the shapeshifter but they're played well enough by Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner. Whether we'll see them in Doctor Who again is moot but there's another Big Finish spin-off waiting to happen if they need one.

I mentioned it above but this is the least Clara episode of the season so far. She's under-used - which some of the Clara haters might have enjoyed - but I kind of think it is a waste of a good actress.

Kudos should also go to Keeley Hawes, who is brilliant as Ms Delphox. I'm not sure how they decided on her look and who had input but I think someone in the production team - going back a while - has a thing for women in glasses and suits. Or eye-patches and suits. Or women in suits full stop. But Hawes is fab. It's another example of an actor doing a small-ish part in Doctor Who that makes you wish they'd been given something meatier.

The Teller looks great too. Surprisingly realistic and alive, which brings a certain charm along with it. The exterior shots of the bank also look fab and then it is nice to see we find ourselves inside a lot of Doctor Who corridors. In that sense - again - it feels very Classic Doctor Who. As does the fact that when in the final shots we see the Teller walking away it does look awkwardly 'person in a costume'. I almost expected them to walk off into the sunset Morecambe and Wise stylee singing 'Bring Me Sunshine' as they go. But perhaps I am just a foolish old man.

Re-reading what I've written I've been more nit-picky than the story deserves. It's good fun, which is always the most important thing in a Doctor Who story. It wasn't as much of a romp as Robot of Sherwood but fun enough.  It wasn't hugely original but that's not necessarily the worst of crimes (despite what some people seem to think.)

As I've said before the fundamental rule of Doctor Who for me is that it should be fun. Sometimes it's so fun that it over-rides all my standard adult analysis but sometimes it's just about fun enough. And that's how I feel about this story.

But still: Capaldi. Brilliant.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Listen


Listen is one of those Doctor Who stories that I feel I need to watch again. There might actually be nothing going on here except the Doctor trying to sort out his own issues but then again there might be an entirely new race of creepy creatures to be added to the canon. There might not be a villain here at all, except possibly the Doctor himself in a strange way.

I think I liked it. But less so that the first time around, which is the first of the stories in this Capaldi re-watch that I have felt like that.

It intertwines the Doctor's desire to get to the bottom of a dream he's had with Clara and Danny Pink's date. It's a mixture of the extraordinary and ordinary. It's about fear and how we deal with fear.

There are some genuinely creepy moments. We get no actual answer either to what - if anything - the creature was. If it was even a thing. Was the thing in the bed a monster or was it one of Danny's friends playing a trick on him? Was there a monster outside the airlock or was nothing out there? I like that there are loose ends. We don't need answers to everything, although being Steven Moffat this episode might end up being key to the whole story arc. The less that happens in a Steven Moffat story, the more I'm wondering what I'm not supposed to see. I think I might have to call this paramoffatnoia, except that's a terrible word.

But does it matter that we don't see the thing? If there is a thing at all. Probably not.*

The young Danny scene is about getting an insight into Danny's character. People say that Clara's involved in every aspect of the creation of the Doctor, particularly after the final moments of this episode on Gallifrey, but she's also creating Danny Pink too. Here she takes Rupert and makes him Danny. It might not be intentional but that's what she does. But once more we have soldiers and soldiering in an episode to mull over.

Yes, I'm was a bit uncomfortable about Clara having to be intertwined with the Doctor's whole history because it removes his own agency but it doesn't mean Clara's THE only reason the Doctor becomes the Doctor. Perhaps she gives him the boost he needed to be less afraid but there's a plenty of time for the Doctor to become the Doctor between the barn and the First Doctor's flight from Gallifrey with Susan.

Also, Clara's involvement with the Doctor seems to have had little in the way of consequences for her so far. Perhaps her interference into Danny Pink's life might have a different effect. After all, Doctor Who can't kill off Doctor Who but it might be able to bump off Danny Pink. But perhaps I'm over-analyzing. It's easily done. [This paragraph is from the blog I wrong on the first watch before the season ended. I leave it to show that I'm not always wrong with my predictions.]  However, who is Orson Pink and what does his existence mean? There are hints that he knows who she is. Perhaps we'll find out. Perhaps we won't.

My quibbles aside I think Jenna Coleman's doing a stonking job as Clara this season. Now she doesn't have to just be the 'Impossible Girl' she's developing into a character, although some of the banter between her and the Doctor about her appearance borders on the uncomfortable. Now that might be because there's a British piss-taking friendship thing going on - certainly, at one point Clara's reaction is an amused smirk - but occasionally it seems played too seriously. Maybe I'm just being ultra-touchy about it.

I'm really enjoying the Capaldi Doctor though. He feels properly Doctor Who. Capaldi's Doctor Who isn't human. And it shows. It's a nice change from Tennant and Smith, although it has a certain resonance with Eccleston who often gets forgotten in these discussions. But we're only four episodes into the season so things have a long way to go yet.

The other thing to note is the sound design on this is incredible. In some ways, it would be a brilliant Big Finish story. Perhaps 'Listen' can be seen as a massive advert for audio Doctor Who. But the scenes inside Orson Pink's ship are atmospheric as hell as much due to the sound design as the performances.

So after all that I can say I enjoyed it but not as much as I did on the initial watch. I don't know why but I found the Danny and Clara date sequences far less entertaining than on the first watch, which isn't anything to do with either actor. It just seemed too long. I wanted more SF creepiness and less real-life awkwardness. Even though I think those scenes do an important job of contrasting the ordinary and extraordinary. I just thought there were too many of them.

It wasn't as much fun as Robot of Sherwood but it has a certain creepy charm of its own. There are unanswered questions and seeds sown for the future of Series 8 but I bet there are kids up and down the country hiding in beds tonight in an attempt to scare their friends and family.

*I assume I wasn't the only person thinking about the Silence though throughout the first part of this episode.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Robot of Sherwood



Here's the first thing I should say and get it out there straight away. I loved Robot of Sherwood. Adored it. And do you know why? Because it was fun. There. I've said it. It was fun. And it won't matter a jot that tomorrow I'll probably start finding the plots holes or the bits and bobs that I can pick at like the fan that I am. At this point, I'm feeling nothing but joy.

And you know in the end what more can you ask for from an episode of Doctor Who than joy. All the analysis that follows and the picking apart of every single moment and the reassessments that will follow the season's end is just frippery really.

The key thing is - and should always be - was watching that Doctor Who episode fun. Did I enjoy it? And I did.

Why though?

Partly because it wasn't weighed down with much in the way of an overall story arc, even if there was one reference. There's no Missy. Partly because it was clearly meant to be fun. This isn't dark. This is what Robin Prince of Thieves would have been like if everyone decided to have as much fun with their parts as Alan Rickman did.

And Capaldi is bloody brilliant. His utter denial - both of Robin Hood's actual existence and his role as hero and legend - is key to this story. Plus his refusal to play second fiddle to Robin Hood who in turn refuses to play second fiddle - or should that be lute - to The Doctor. This is two alpha males with a lot in common. Robin says it himself at the end. These are two aristocrats come into the world determined to do good. It's another piece in the Doctor's own post-regeneration puzzle about whether he's a good man or not.

But in a way, this is as much Clara's story as it is the Doctor and Robin's. She's more in control and less involved in trying to prove herself top dog than either of them. It is Clara that gets to the heart of the Sheriff's plan. It is Clara who looks and sounds like the sensible one. She chooses not to go into denial and swallows up the whole Robin Hood and his Merry Men thing in one fell swoop. Jenna Coleman's having so much fun.

By the way, I'm with the Doctor on banter. It should stop.

And I love the Robin v Doctor sword v spoon fight. I bet there are people out there whinging about it being silly. About this whole episode being silly but you can't be deadly serious every time and I adore silliness in Doctor Who. My favourite season is Season 17. My fandom was born from silliness. Smart silliness I accept but silliness nonetheless. Or whimsy. Or whatever you want to call it. Give me more of it I say. More than the tedious dragged out season long portentous story arcs. Give me fun.

I mentioned Robin Prince of Thieves early. Everyone except the Sheriff of Nottingham is played with a Rickmanesque touch. Ben Miller's Sheriff is actually rather serious. He doesn't get much in the way of laughs and his ruthless streak is demonstrated very early on. I can't have been the only person thinking how Ainley he looked. Indeed in Classic Who, the Sheriff of Nottingham would probably have turned out to be The Master in one of his disguises and strange choices of accent. Miller's good.

The other thing it reminded me of was The Gunfighters in both tone and with the fact that it almost - but not quite - got its own Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon courtesy of  Alan-a-Dale. I'm a big fan of The Gunfighters as the regular reader of this blog will probably know so obviously that also inclines me to look upon this favourably.

I love Tom Riley's Robin. There's a touch of seriousness under all the banter and laughter, which he manages to bring out rather well. The hint that Robin's acting the part is made clear in his final scene with the Doctor. But he's what you'd want Robin Hood to be like if he really existed. You want the legend, not the likely historical truth.*

Indeed, Gatiss is obviously making a parallel between the importance of the 'story' of Robin Hood and the 'story' of The Doctor. That perhaps it doesn't matter if they were or are real if what they do is inspire people to do good things in their name. If we've ever needed a Robin Hood now might be that time. But then we've always needed a Robin Hood because there have always been tyrants and there have always been taxes.

New Doctor Who likes celebrity historicals and Robot of Sherwood is one of those but with a historical figure that probably didn't exist. Alas. However, as Robin says perhaps it is better to be a story that will inspire others than be burdened by history.

Oh and hurrah for the database Robin Hood bit with the Troughton Robin Hood picture. And the little throwaway references to Classic Doctor Who that add a little frisson of fun for the Classic Who fan like me without over-loading the story with baggage.

So well done Mark Gatiss. Thank you for putting the fun back on the Doctor Who menu again.

This feeling I have at the moment is why I love Doctor Who so much. It's a kind of giddy joy. I'm almost tempted to go and watch it again. Perhaps I will on the way home. I've been watching these episodes on my commute into work and it definitely makes the journey in a lot more fun than usual.

Next up: Listen


*I studied Robin Hood as a historical figure at University. I won't bore you with the details. It's an interesting thing to study. Feel free. I recommend J.C. Holt's 'Robin Hood'. If it is still in print. [Goes off to look at Amazon.]

Monday, October 16, 2017

Into The Dalek



I found Into The Dalek rather entertaining.

I know you could pull it to death by focusing on all the stuff it borrowed from elsewhere. From Dalek*, from The Invisible Enemy, from Fantastic Voyage and so on but equally I'm gob-smackingly surprised it hasn't been done before. Surely this is the idea that everyone must have had. And yet it took until 2014 for someone to actually get around to doing it.

I fear 'originality' is a stick to beat many a Doctor Who writer or showrunner to death with. It's as if Doctor Who was entirely original from 1963-1989 and never borrowed from other sources. Or from itself.  I mean Terry Nation wrote virtually the same Dalek story time and again, although I'm not sure ripping off yourself is entirely unfair. If you have a good idea why not hammer at it again and again. After all, Robert Holmes wrote The Caves of Androzani twice. It's just the first version was called The Power of Kroll. Doctor Who has always been a magpie television series and without undertaking a proper scientific review I'd wager that genuinely original stories are few and far between. Mostly Doctor Who picks up something and metamorphoses it into something distinctly Doctor Who. So I'm not quite sure lack of originality is as bad as all that.

It's a tale of morality. The Doctor's morality, which is to be a thread in this season as we deal with a Doctor who is a lot less comfortable than we're perhaps used to. Is the Doctor a good man?

It's a big question. I think we like to find a Doctor that fits our own image and the Doctors of new Doctor Who have certainly been less ruthless than the Classic Doctor could be. Or at least has always made more of a big deal out of his morality, which makes the scene here where he uses a soldier's impending death to find an escape route ice-cold shocking. No 'I'm so sorry's' etc. Just 'this man is going to die but I'm going to save everyone else.' It really does feel different this time.

He's still finding his way this new Doctor. He's clearly not the man he was. There's a ruthless streak of logic, sharp snark and a lack of neediness about this new Doctor. He doesn't have the time to care about whether people like him or not. He is just going to do his thing.

I love Capaldi's take on the part so far. He's such a brilliant actor. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that he's the best actor to play the part since Troughton. Not necessarily my favourite Doctor. Yet.

Then there's Jenna Coleman's Clara. She's developing a character, which is nice. Now she's not a puzzle for the Doctor to be solved. The Moff gets a lot of criticism for the way he writes women characters in Doctor Who and the Doctor makes one or two unnecessarily snide comments about Clara's appearance that veer dangerously too close to 'banter' for my liking (although I was reminded of the Fourth Doctor's digs at Sarah Jane in The Ark in Space whilst they were crawling through the ducts). Anyway, I thought Clara / Coleman was great in this.

One caveat: I didn't like the slap. It was too serious. And physical violence as a form of communication is not something I want to see Doctor Who normalising. Would we have found the slap acceptable if it had been from the Doctor to Clara? No. So, let's not have it be acceptable at all.

I also liked Clara's initial scenes with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). The Clara-Danny thing is endearingly awkward, which I like. I get the impression that Steven Moffat would quite happily write a sit-com revolving around those two. Danny Pink is another teacher at Cole Hill School. He's an ex-soldier with a secret. He's also got one of the best and brightest smiles I've ever seen. It seems the Clara-Danny thing is going to be a 'thing' for the whole season so it is early days for judgment, although when has that ever stopped me

The soldier thing is going to be another thread in a season of threads I think. Along with Missy, who makes another appearance here. Ah, Missy. The face that launched a thousand theories. When I watched this on the first broadcast I had many theories about who Missy would turn out to be. I think I was wrong about my initial guesses but I can't actually remember at this distance. It does seem that Steven Moffat is confident that the Missy pay-off is worth her regular appearances, although it does have a touch of the Madam Kovarians about it.

[There's me ignoring my own earlier paragraph about the dangers of whinging about originality. I'm such a hypocrite.]

Where was I. Ah, the soldier thing? Yes, the Doctor dismisses Journey Blue (Zawa Ashton) at the end when she asks to come along with him by saying he doesn't like soldiers. I'm assuming that's just this Doctor because the Eleventh Doctor was quite upset when he found out that his soldier friend Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart had died. But it's a new Doctor. I suspect his judgmental approach will come and bite him on the arse before the season is out.

Oh and Danny Pink and Journey Blue. Is this colour thing also going to be a 'thing.'** How many 'things' can Steven Moffat get into a single season and still tie them all up neatly? How many of them will be - and forgive me - red herrings. Doctor Who fans - always finding patterns in things that aren't there.

The other thing I want to mention - apart from Michael Smiley's appearance as Colonel Morgan Blue - is Ben Wheatley's fab direction. He manages to make the Daleks look menacing.  I particularly like the shot of all their blue eye-stalk lights coming out of the darkness

And Rusty the Dalek gets a fine line in snark, which is unexpected in a Dalek so this might be a good time to hand out some well-deserved praise for Nick Briggs whose Dalek voice work reaches pretty impressive heights in this story. The slight change in emphasis between the 'good' Rusty and his return to Dalekness is rather brilliant and subtle.

Next up Robots of Sherwood which looks whimsical. And there's not a lot of love for whimsy in the Doctor Who fan world. Me, I'm a big fan of whimsy. Lord Peter included.




*I listened to Big Finish's The Genocide Machine today too and that's got similarities with this story thematically too in terms of what happens when a Dalek changes.

**I'm pretending that I don't know how this all pans out. Assume I've never watched the rest of the series at all.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Deep Breath



If you're new to this blog then I should explain that what follows isn't a review in the traditional sense. That would involve critical faculties. It is a collection of immediate reactions, thoughts, ideas and bees in bonnets that pop up in the immediate aftermath of watching the episode. This blog will also contain spoilers so if you've not seen the episode then go and watch it and then come back. You have been warned. This blog, in particular, is based on the blog I sketched out on original broadcast combined with some additional thoughts from tonight's re-watch.

Deep Breath launches the Capaldi era of Doctor Who and it seems that the story was designed to do a couple of things. Most importantly it is to introduce us to a new and older Doctor and the New Doctor Who audience's first experience of an older actor in the part. Even if Christopher Eccleston wasn't that much younger than Capaldi when he first took the role.

Hence a lot of the conversations Clara gets involved in with either the Doctor or Vastra are aimed at us, which makes her decision to leave the TARDIS before being reassured by the Eleventh Doctor's phone call an plea to the audience not to leave because this is still Doctor Who. As a consequence, it is different to a lot of new Doctor's first stories, which just assume we'll pick up with the new Doctor and run with him/her.

The call at the end in particular, emotional though it is, seems unnecessary. No other Doctor has required the previous incarnation to beg for his acceptance.And in a way, it's insulting to both us and Capaldi but perhaps I'm being harsh.

It's almost as if Steven Moffat doubts his own choice of Doctor.

Also, Half-Face Man's 're-building' of himself is an obvious reflection of regeneration. It shows how weird regeneration actually is. The Half-Face Man is regenerating the slow way around. Piece by piece. So, the Doctor's broom analogy is applicable to himself as much as to the Half-Face Man.

There's also a mild dig at us the audience. The whole 'I'm not your boyfriend/You might as well flirt with a mountain/He wanted you to like him' stuff seems to be a criticism of our apparent need for a younger more fanciable Doctor. Even though it was Steven Moffat that chose Matt Smith and even though Capaldi has his fans too.

Then we have to re-boot Clara for her post-Impossible Girl future. She now needs to be a character not just an enigma and this story is designed to be a regeneration story for her too. It's just not as drastic. I'm not sure I've seen enough 'control freak' in Clara so far to justify the Doctor's accusations that she is one though.

Jenna Coleman's clearly a good actress so it would be nice to see her given more scenes like her confrontation with the Half-Face Man. In that scene, she gets to do the whole Sarah Jane Smith brave and scared at the same time trick. Indeed I can't praise Jenna Coleman enough. This story - if we hadn't realised it already - shows what a fine actress she is. She wonderful in this. And seems to hit it off with Capaldi immediately. There's a real electricity between them.

As she's seen all the previous Doctors though you do wonder why she's so shocked that he's old but then perhaps she just assumed that they all started young and then got old. After all, what's the point in renewing yourself if you renew yourself older? It's counterintuitive.

Which brings us to another thread in Deep Breath: where does the Doctor get his faces from? Or any Time Lord for that matter. Is there a database of faces? A Facebook perhaps. [I'll get my coat.] The Doctor's face thing - like the Doctor's name - seems to be a Steven Moffat bee in the bonnet as a result of casting Capaldi but I do think some of the best lines came as a result of this. I especially liked "Who frowned this face" and "It's like I'm trying to tell myself something." The face is going to be a thing. Let's see where it goes. If it goes anywhere.

Then there is Missy. Who is she and what's she up to? This being New Doctor Who we need a big season-long arc, don't we? Sigh. Do we though? Do we? Perhaps we do. Modern television series - or at least SF and fantasy ones - seem to have become moulded to the arc & the big season finale pattern. In the 21st century, a more radical television programme might just have a run of adventures that are simply fun without the need for us to see how clever the writers are? Or actually am I again being harsh? Perhaps the arc/finale structure rewards the loyal viewer so we can make up our own theories as we go along, searching for clues in each episode and trying to tie everything together?

In the end, we should judge the arc on its quality. If it turns out to be good then great. If it turns out to be bad then boo. Arcs themselves are not the problem. It's the quality of the arc (and I suppose the quality of the emotional journey we and the characters are taken on.) 

Quick diversion: title sequence and theme tune. Loved the new title sequence. Hate the theme tune, which sounds like it was played on a weird combination of elastic bands, bells and kazoo. The new series has never cracked the theme tune in my opinion but perhaps one day they will. 

What of Capaldi himself? I think he's fantastic. He has an edge that Tennant and Smith didn't have. It's not darkness. It's just an acidity. A lack of botherdness about how people see him, which I like. He's able to do both the comedy and the darker stuff. I like the fact that we're left to decide for ourselves whether the Doctor threw the Half-Face Man to his doom or whether it was self-destruction. The last scenes give us a vulnerability to this new Doctor underneath his crusty exterior. So yes, I'm happy with Capaldi.

Oh, and do we really need all the hilarious Scottish stuff. The Doctor's been Scottish before and didn't seem to think it was a big deal. But then the showrunner then wasn't Scottish. RTDs gay agenda* has been replaced with a Scottish agenda.** Damn that McMoffat chap.

I'm less happy with what's happening with Vastra, Jenny and Strax. All three are brilliantly performed but Strax has become only comic relief. I'd like him to have a bit more edge. I also wish Steven Moffat would have had the courage to give Vastra and Jenny a proper kiss without having to give them a 'breath' excuse. The Paternoster Gang are great when used properly but not when they're just there to provide some exotic sexual background and dumb comedy. Use them better Mr Moffat. Use them better.

So after all that rambling, I should say that I really enjoyed it. It's lifted by the brilliance of Capaldi and it's excellent design. Doctor Who looks great these days, although Strax's disappearing bucket seemed to skip someone's attention in the edit.***


* There was no gay agenda.
**There isn't a Scottish agenda either
***Or it'll turn out to be a key thing in the forthcoming story arc. The Bucket of Rassilon. Or something. [It won't.]

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Invasion of the Bane


So, the last time we saw Sarah Jane Smith have her own spin-off was K9 & Company. That was back in 1981. Yet here we are in 2007 and Sarah Jane is back. This time with only a small appearance from K9. It says something about the character and Lis Sladen herself that a character who first appeared back in 1973 was able to kick off a series of her own decades later. How many TV characters can you say that about?

And Invasion of the Bane shows Torchwood how to spin-off properly. Perhaps because Torchwood got sucked into this 'adult theme' nonsense it struggled to find itself a tone that worked but The Sarah Jane Adventures hit the ground running.

This feels like Doctor Who, perhaps because it is aimed at children.* But there is more actual tension in this episode than in either Torchwood episode I've watched so far. Plus Samantha Bond's Mrs Wormwood is far more memorable and fun as a villain. Bond manages to avoid crossing the line into ham acting whilst still being a little larger than life. She's part of why the story works so damn well. And I love the confrontation between her and Sarah Jane as they do some polite but icey verbal fencing.

Also, The Sarah Jane Adventures feels 'real' in a way that Torchwood (so far) hasn't felt. It also feels very Russell T Davies. The first character we met is Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) a young girl moving into a new house after her parents split up. It's through her that we get to see Sarah Jane for the first time and get introduced to her life.

The whole story feels very Third Doctor. The Bane Mother isn't a million miles away from the Target book illustration of the Nestene in Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion. Aliens are trying to take over the world through a fizzy drink. What's more Doctor Who than that?

Indeed, what The Sarah Jane Adventures shows is that it is possible to have a female Doctor without scaring the pigeons.** Sarah's very Doctor-ish throughout this story. She's got her Sonic Lipstick, she warns the Bane that if they don't leave Earth she'll stop them and she thinks there should be another way. A way that doesn't involve going in 'all guns blazing'. The children - Maria, Kelsey (Porsha Lawrence Mavour) and Luke (Tommy Knight) - get to be the companions to Sarah Jane's Doctor.

Perhaps that's why it works? It is both new and comfortably familiar. And by Jove it is fun. Something that - so far - Torchwood hasn't been.

It isn't perfect. For example, Maria's mother, played by Juliet Cowan, is just a little too conveniently rude and thoughtless which just feels a bit wrong to me. But any criticism is just minor quibbling really.

There's a great set of scenes when after Luke, Kelsey and Maria have found Sarah Jane's ridiculously sized upstairs room we get a potted history of how Sarah Jane's come to be where she is and it is done both by the actors and by the camera scanning over pictures and drawings. We see a Dalek, the Brigadier and Harry. Sarah Jane's wistfulness about her time with the Doctor has an emotional heft that really hits home. It's brilliant work by Lis Sladen and the director Colin Teague.

But this is how to do a 'pilot' if that's what it was. It shakes Sarah Jane out of her 'I work alone' mentality, introduces us to the main characters and rolls along at a delightful pace.

I could waffle on for longer but this is a genuine joy.



*That's one for Professor Parry.
**I'm not sure that's the phrase but it's my blog and I'm sticking to it.

Torchwood: Day One


Ah, Torchwood. A chance to explore more adult themes in the Doctor Who Universe and, of course, we get an alien high on orgasmic energy. Because sex is SO adult innit.

So, on Gwen's first day she screws up badly, releases an alien gas creature, which turns out to thrive on the energy of the male orgasm. Not the female orgasm. O no. There's no good reason for this that I can tell but I suppose I'd be foolish to ask for one. This is, after all, Torchwood.

I mean it always struck me that the male orgasm is a slightly less impressive thing than the female one but perhaps I'm looking at it from the wrong end so to speak. (Cough) Of course, to find out that the male orgasm is key we have to have a massive lesbian snogging scene between Gwen and the infected/occupied Carys, which goes on long enough for the Owen, Tosh and Captain Jack to have a bit of a perv.

This is pretty awful with exceptions. The key one being Sara Lloyd Gregory who does a stonking job as poor Carys who becomes the host for our Orgasmaterian - as I'm going to call it from this point forward, although Torchwood does a spectacular job of failing to keep her in captivity considering that neither she nor the Orgasmaterian is particularly a fighting creatures. Indeed, surely it is the very definition of a lover, not a fighter.

Indeed there's a spectacularly bad moment when - for no obvious reason - Carys grabs the severed hand* and Captain Jack immediately makes it obvious that this is an object he cares about deeply thus giving her all the leverage she needs to escape. It isn't The Barrowman's finest hour.

The other good thing in this story is Eve Myles even though Gwen does a lot of stupid things. There's some fine eye acting from her early in the episode when her error hits home. The rest of the team are still bedding in, although Owen (Burn Gorman) is clearly something of an unlikeable twat. Who thinks 'I'd shag you' is acceptable office banter as opposed to sexual harassment. But hey, it's Torchwood. Tosh (Naoko Mori) hasn't really had much to do so far but she's done what needs to be done as well as can be expected. She does a fine line is awkward, which I like.

Captain Jack is Captain Jack. The Barrowman is The Barrowman. I think, at this point, he's struggling to make the jump from Doctor Who sidekick to the lead on his own show but perhaps that will come as we move on.

Is there much else I can say about this?

No.

It's not great and two episodes in you have to say that Torchwood is struggling to be something more than an adolescent male wet dream of what adult telly would be like.

Still. It could be worse.




*For those not in the Doctor Who loop this severed hand belongs to the Tenth Doctor. He had it cut off in The Christmas Invasion. You all knew that though.






Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Torchwood: Everything Changes


Ah, Torchwood. It seems a long time since the heady days of October 2006 when I sat down to watch this with Doctor Carrie Dunn. There we were looking forward to seeing The Barrowman in action.

I'm not going to dwell on how Torchwood came to be. This was the red heat of the return of Doctor Who when RTD could do no wrong and a spin-off series starring John Barrowman as Captain Jack, a character introduced in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, seemed like a no brainer. Captain Jack was sexy, cheeky and maybe they could pursue more adult themes in Torchwood than they could in Doctor Who.

However, particularly in Series One, they were to make the same mistake that the Virgin New Adventures did in the nineties: swearing and sex do not adult themes make. Especially if you have a very poor grasp on consent and turn your series into something that might, just, be a bit rapey. But, I'm leaping ahead of myself. At least a little bit.

We're in Cardiff. Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is a PC in the Welsh Police. She's at the scene of a murder when a gang turns up from an organisation called Torchwood. They proceed to mess about a bit on the murder scene, then disappear. This leaves Gwen all a bit curious. From here on in we get the story of Gwen's discovery of Torchwood, who they are and what they do, which is hunt aliens. In Cardiff. Because, it turns out, Cardiff is built on a ruddy great rift in the space-time continuum and as a result, a lot of intergalactic, timey-wimey flotsam and jetsam turns up to cause trouble and/or be cannibalised by Torchwood to protect the world. After all, as Captain Jack says: "The Twenty-First Century' is when it all happens. You've got to be ready."

Gwen's been involved in investigating a serial killer in Cardiff, who it will turn out has links to Torchwood. And we'll end up with a stand-off, two shots and a resurrection before the end. Gwen is our intro to Torchwood as a fairly ordinary person. She's our companion figure. At least in this episode. She asks lots of questions.

We meet the rest of the team: Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), Suzie Costello (Indira Varma) and last, but not least Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). None of them is really given much character at this point because our story focuses on Gwen and Jack.

I like Eve Myles as Gwen. I think Myles is a great actor. She's particularly good here when terrified. The Barrowman is The Barrowman. I'll probably talk more about that as the series goes on. Gwen's coming aboard the good ship Torchwood, although how she'll explain that to her husband, Rhys (Kai Owen - who is brilliant btw) may become an issue.

Hopefully, the next few episodes will broaden out the characters a bit and drop the unnecessarily creepy sexual stuff. There is definitely an unnecessary light-hearted approach to sexual consent in this episode that seems to say that using alien pheromones to get two people to sleep with you isn't rapey at all. O, no. It's just a wee bit of high-jinks using office equipment. Like borrowing a piece of tech that allows you to read a book pretty much instantaneously. As I said all this stuff is a misunderstanding of what 'adult' means. It's a problem I remember Torchwood suffers with.

That and the spectacularly stupid idea of a top secret organisation that drives around in bloody obvious vehicles and is known to half of Cardiff's police force and orders pizzas to its top secret headquarters under the name of Torchwood. I think Torchwood could be creepier. There's hints at it when Tosh talks about the porter who died in the hospital and whose body they dispose of. This is an organisation with frightening powers, which no one ever really talks about. Except Gwen.

So, it's not a bad introduction. It's entertaining enough. But there's problems in the initial episode that might be fatal if not dealt with at some point. I mean who wants a heroic team of rapists?

K9 & Company



I am sure there are people out there that love K9 & Company but I'm afraid it is almost entirely terrible. From one of the worst title sequences ever & a theme tune so horrible and inappropriate that you wonder what the hell everyone was thinking who was making this. It's like JNT's brief to the director was 'let's start the programme in such a way as no one will ever want to watch it.'

It's easy to blame Ian Levine. who co-created the theme tune, with Fiachra Trench but that's not entirely fair. They might have written it. The producer didn't have to use it.

The story itself, written by Terence Dudley, involves Sarah Jane (Lis Sladen, of course) coming to her Aunt Lavinia's (Mary Wimbush) house to do some writing. Or something. I never quite got why she was going to live with her Aunt. She is also joined by Brendan (Ian Richards) who is Aunt Lavinia's 'ward'. You only seem to come across 'wards' in television series. I'm sure there are some out there in the real world but the only two I've ever heard of are Robin, in the 1960s Batman series, and Brendan in K9 & Company.

Anyway, Aunt Lavinia has left mysteriously early and Sarah starts to fret. Meanwhile, a big box that's been sitting around Aunt Lavinia's house in Croydon turns out to contain K9, Mark III. A gift from the Doctor. K9 is voiced in his usual fine way by John Leeson.

There is talk of witchcraft. Then there is an attempted kidnapping. Then an actual kidnapping, when Brendan is snatched by Peter Tracey (Sean Chapman) to be used for sacrifice. By this time we've met an assortment of the villagers. There's Lily, the Post Mistress and Bill Pollock, who is Aunt Lavinia's farm manager and played with gurgling grumpiness by Bill Fraser. Colin Jeavons crops up as George Tracey. There's Juno (Linda Polan) and Howard (Neville Barber) Baker who seem to throw parties and invite Sarah Jane for drinks and dinner. We're obviously meant to suspect these two are part of the coven, especially as Howard keeps popping out mysteriously and Juno makes sinister looking phone calls.

Turns out that rural England is still home to a witches coven. Worshipping Hecate. At this point, I started to feel like I was watching Hot Fuzz. And this is the main problem I have with this story. It's all played too damn straight. It either needs a splash more camp and comedy - although George Tracey's reaction to K9 is hilarious not necessarily for the right reasons - or it needs to be a lot darker. It needs to have the atmosphere of a Philip Hinchcliffe production. It all feels a little amateurish, which is perhaps the point.

Most of the acting is fine. After all, there are some good actors here but some clunking performances too. The only thing stopping it from being an utter catastrophe is Lis Sladen. You can see, even in the rubble of this disaster, that there could have been a Lis Sladen spin-off that would work. It didn't really need K9, although that helps. One day we'll get one and people will the character and the actor justice. One day.

The other problem with K9 & Company is that in 1981 the technology didn't exist to make K9 anything but a clunky box on wheels. K9 was never the most mobile of creations and the site of Sarah Jane lifting him out of the car amuses me.

I'm almost certainly being too harsh on something that was created to fill a Christmas slot but it never really works for me at all. I found myself reminded of Hot Fuzz or Mindhorn (oddly) because this feels more like a pastiche than a programme in its own right.

You also find yourself wondering where they would have taken the series if they'd made one. Brendan's role in this story is to be Sarah Jane to Sarah Jane. He's the character that gets kidnapped and almost sacrificed. Sarah Jane herself is more the Doctor. Would this have carried on? Would Brendan be kidnapped, hypnotised etc each week to be rescued by K9 zapping away whilst Sarah Jane does some very mild martial arts on a collection of fine British character actors? Would they have stayed in the countryside? Would Aunt Lavinia have come back and had more of a role to play? Who knows. Who cares.

In the end, this is a mild curiosity that doesn't quite work hamstrung by awful titles and music but you can see potential in Sarah Jane.

So, if you do like K9 & Company let me know why. I'm intrigued.



*Yes, I know the titles and theme tune are an easy target but that's because they might as well be painted with a series of coloured rings ending with a small red bullseye.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Inferno


Inferno is the final story of Season 7. It's another seven part story, but never really drags. There's a real tension throughout, especially as we get to see the Doctor fail and the world destroyed thanks to the miracle of alternative universes. It's a strong story, which ends a strong season. Possibly one of Doctor Who's strongest seasons full stop.

We find ourselves at a drilling project, which is led by Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley). Its objective is to crack through the Earth's crust. This will turn out to be a bad idea but you already knew that didn't you? Stahlman will turn out to be a double-Doctor Who trope: the scientist to whom the ends justify the means & a leader who is too highly strung for his own good. HR in the Doctor Who universe is clearly a discipline lacking in expertise, especially in the military and scientific community.

We discover why this is bad when engineer Slocum (Walter Randall) encounters some green slime leaking from one of the pipes. He makes the mistake of touching it and from that point onwards it is all downhill to the transformation of Slocum from human to Primord.

PRIMORD DIVERSION

Alas, the Primords are the classic poorly rendered Doctor Who monster. They look like slightly too cuddly Wolfmen. Or shaggy dogs. Depending on your point of view. We mostly don't see their transformation, which is probably a good thing as the transformation of Platoon Under-Leader Benton (John Levene) is a little silent movie for a 20th-century television series. Personally, I find these things easy to ignore. The sense of tension that surrounds them drives home their danger but they are the sort of thing that some people find distracting.

PRIMORD DIVERSION OVER

UNIT are providing the security for the project so the Doctor has taken the opportunity to tap its nuclear power source to work on the TARDIS console. The Doctor and Stahlman clearly do not get on. During one of his experiments with the console, the Doctor finds himself torn out of his reality and into an alternative universe.

This is one of the strongest parts of the programme. All our heroes - apart from the Doctor himself - are now part of a fascist Republic. The Brigadier is now Brigade-Leader complete with eye-patch. In this universe, the Brigade-Leader has none of the Brigadier's twinkle and isn't far off just being a bully. It's a fine performance from Courtney but the same applies to Caroline John whose alt-Liz Shaw is brilliant. And John Levene turns Benton into a thug. They are all different people but another character, Greg Sutton (Derek Newark), isn't too different to his normal Earth character. He's a drilling expert in both brought in, much to Stahlman's disappointment and annoyance.

In the alternative universe, the drilling is ahead of ours. So, despite the best attempts of the Doctor penetration of the Earth's crust takes place and the world comes to a terrible end but in that ending, we get to see our favourite characters, even in alt-form, die (or about to die.) This is the Doctor failing. It's something he'll carry with him going forward, especially as he escapes. Thanks to help from Liz, Greg, Petra Williams (Sheila Dunn) and - for more selfish reasons - the Brigade-Leader the Doctor finds himself back in our Universe.

By this point, Stahlman has started his transformation into a Primord but remains determined to finish his project. He tries to stop Sir Keith Gold (Christopher Benjamin) from reporting the problems to the authorities by having him killed. Something he achieves in the alt-world. The Doctor's return though puts a spanner in the works. He's seen the world's destruction and won't let it happen again. This is the Doctor at his most ruthless and Pertwee really sells it. He's going to save the world even if the world doesn't want to be saved.

Stahlman has turned into a full Primord by this point but the Doctor and Greg take him down with fire extinguishers*and stop the drilling. Sir Keith promises to have the shaft filled in. And things all end happily. If you forget the total destruction of an Earth. Probably.

Inferno is such a strong story. It's packed full of excellent performances from Pertwee downwards. It manages to keep its coherence even though health issues affected Douglas Camfield and he ended up in the hospital. Barry Letts finished the filming and actually I think he does a fantastic job of showing the end of the world via heat. It takes advantage of the alt-universe to allow us to see what would happen if the Doctor fails, which adds tension to the final episode in the 'normal' Earth.

The regulars get a chance to play a darker version of their existing characters and demonstrate their acting chops accordingly. John Levene, in particular, seems to revel in being Platoon Under-Leader Benton. But the rest of the cast do a fine job too, including Newark and Dunn as the nearest thing to a romantic subplot Season Seven has had. Olaf Pooley does twisted scientific bully well. Christopher Benjamin is his usual excellent self in a not particularly over-written part.

This will turn out to be Liz Shaw's last story and Caroline John gets to be superb in it. But Liz Shaw has been a little wasted as a companion, but that's not John's fault. It is the fault of writers that didn't know how to use her properly.

Pertwee finishes his first season on a massive high. He's settled into the role of The Doctor immediately and Inferno gives him a chance to be the Doctor in defeat**. Plus there's a moment in this story when the Doctor shouts: 'Listen to that. That's the sound of this planet screaming out its rage" That line, the way Pertwee delivers it has made me use it a number of times when terrible things are happening to the environment. Or in politics.

Basically, if you haven't seen Inferno then you should. Indeed, if you haven't seen Season 7, then you should. It's almost entirely brilliant if occasionally a story turns out to be a tad too long.




*There is a reason for this
**Not the Doctor in Distress, which is a terrible record. Google it. No. Don't Google it. It is horrible.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Thirteenth Doctor


So, I thought I'd finally add my tuppence worth to the whole Thirteenth Doctor announcement response.

First of all I should explain that I'm delighted. Jodi Whittaker is a fine actor. I think she'll be a fine Doctor but a lot will depend on the quality of the scripts she gets. I wrote - a while back - that casting a woman or a person of colour might require the telling of different stories and I'll be fascinated to see in what direction Chris Chibnall takes the programme in.

Steven Moffat has done fine work in sowing the seeds for this but fundamentally there was never any reason given in the television series as to why The Doctor had to be a man. The only thing that made it so was convention. It had always been a man. Therefore it must always be a man. The gender fluidity of Time Lords is now and always will be a thing.

There's been a hostile reaction from some people, which I find baffling. All this nonsense about having your childhood ruined I find frankly pathetic. My childhood went a long time ago. Somewhere around 1986/87. Nothing that happens in the present will ruin it (or improve it.) It's gone. Sometimes when the world is complicated and stressful I miss it. I think that's one of the reasons Doctor Who always cheers me up. It reminds me of a less complicated time. And if I want to revisit my childhood then I have shelves full of Doctor Who DVDs and CDs that allow me to do that. The casting of a female Doctor hasn't deleted all the past Doctor Who stories. The BBC isn't going to come around and take it all away from you. It's all still out there.

I'm a 46 year old man. Doctor Who isn't made for me anymore.

I still happen to like it quite a lot but I'm not the person who the BBC wants to make this stuff for and that's perfectly right. If they were making Doctor Who just for me we'd have Zarbi and Nimon. Doctor Who has survived so long because it always brings a new generation of fans who bring a new generation of fans. It will die if it just appeals to the hardcore amongst us. It needs to change to survive. It's why New Doctor Who was radically different to Classic Doctor Who. And since 1966 change has been in the programmes DNA. Or even earlier when Susan left and was replaced by Vicki. Companions come and go. Writers change. Showrunners change. And Doctors change. Accept it. Embrace it.

But the best thing about the announcement has been the joy with which it has been received by young girls. There are a couple of video reactions out there and it seems that was echoed elsewhere. We should be pleased for them rather than disappointed for ourselves. They're the new audience. The new fandom. They know the Doctor can be a man or a woman now. They're not anchored to the past. And that's the way it should be. Doctor Who needs to be a living show not a television museum. I've also had female friends - one of whom never even watched Doctor Who - who are interested in watching to see how it pans out.*

So let's all welcome the new Doctor, Jodi Whittaker. Let's hope she gets the stories that make everyone forget that this is something different. And we'll just settle down to watch Doctor Who once again.

Welcome aboard Jodi.

Enjoy.





*And - on a side note - we shouldn't be gatekeeping these people. I want everyone to love Doctor Who. I don't want them to be forced to justify their interest to some quasi-inquisition by fanboys on the internet. However you come to Doctor Who enjoy it. Obviously, I'd like you to dip into all of it. If you like New Who try some Classic. Or vice versa. There's something for everyone in Doctor Who. So, let's be nice to those coming on board. Doctor Who isn't just for me. It's for everyone.