Monday, June 15, 2020

Oxygen



Well, that was delightfully tense and as political as Doctor Who gets. I mean it isn't subtle politics - capitalism is bad - but it is a nice political fable. It is also, kind of, The Wheel in Space or The Moonbase but without the Cyberman. Except 'The Suits' are Cybermen but with an irrelevant organic occupant. They're also a little stupider than Cybermen, but not by much. Or you can think of it as another spin on Zombies - and I'm tired of Zombies if truth be told. The dead stumbling and bumbling around killing the living, but this time not for sustenance but for business.

Oxygen is that Doctor Who classic: the base under siege. And it is a good one too. Not spectacularly original but it ratchets up the tensions nicely adding risk upon risk. People die. People get injured. People live. 

Indeed, the pre-title sequence sets things up rather nicely. There's something bad going on out there in space. Then we slow it down and we're back with the Doctor who is talking about the risks of going into space to his students. Nardole is watching. The Doctor, Nardole says, is missing space and it worries Nardole a lot. Because The Doctor is going to do something stupid and leave the vault - and what is in the vault - unguarded.

And lo, that is what the Doctor does. Tut. Tut.

They follow a distress signal to a space station and a lot of unpleasantness follows. 

What I like in the early part of the story is that Bill Potts reacts like a normal human being when confronted by, let us say, a standing corpse in a spacesuit. She's freaked out by it. Sensibly she wants to get the hell out of there and go home. Nardole does too. The Doctor points out, in a nice little speech, that there are survivors and that they should be helped.

The writer, Jamie Mathieson, does a good job of reducing the Doctor's options. He cuts him off from the TARDIS, destroys the sonic screwdriver, and - after he does something brave/stupid to save Bill - blinds him. But it takes more than that to stop the Doctor bringing down a nasty capitalist conspiracy. 

Our main cast is all excellent, as usual. I love Capaldi's take on the Doctor a lot and he's at his most endearingly arrogant in this story. Matt Lucas as Nardole does his job, as a sort of Jiminy Cricket conscience for the Doctor, well. Lucas doesn't just get to do the funny stuff, which he's good at. But the straight stuff too. But today I am saving most of my praise for Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts. Damn, she's good. She's got such energy and she's got the acting chops, which makes Bill Potts a breath of fresh air. I think she's the companion Peter Capaldi's Doctor has been waiting for.

Charles Palmer's direction is pretty faultless too. He makes the best use of corridors, airlocks, and spacewalks that it is possible to make in a forty-five minutes Doctor Who story. We see a lot of corridors in Doctor Who. It is a running joke. But these ones look solid, claustrophobic, and lived in. Not white and over-lit. That all helps. Michael Pickwoad's production design is up to its usual standards. 

Also, I love that red light in the suit. Was that a nod to HAL from 2001 or am I, once again, reading too much into things.

There's a nice little touch with the Bill and Nardole's reaction to Danh-Ren (Peter Caulfield). Danh-Ren is blue. Bright blue. In view of current events though I wonder if it isn't all a tad glib. But they've only got forty-five minutes and they're hammering at capitalism in this story. You can't do all the revolutions at once. 

The other survivors - played by Kieran Bew (Ivan), Justin Salinger (Tasker), Mimi Ndiweni (Abby) - are all good solid performances. 

I have two quibbles. The first is that the Doctor drops Abby and Ivan off at their company's Head Office to 'make a complaint.' This is an organization that has just killed 38 people. Why are they all so confident that they won't be murdered quietly and everything hushed up? The second is incredibly petty. When, at the end, the 'suits' are giving their oxygen to the survivors Ellie (Katie Brayban) - who we've seen earlier in the story being killed - gives her oxygen to Ivan. But when Ellie died her oxygen had almost run out. So, how much does that help Ivan? I know it doesn't matter a lot. It might be enough to get them through until their inside the TARDIS. But for some reason, it quibbled me. 

So, entertaining, tense, and a wee bit of politics without being spectacularly original. That'll do for now. 


 

 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Horns of Nimon - The Drinking Game


If you follow me on Twitter (@Lokster71) you will know that on Monday May 4th at 19:00 (GMT) I will be doing a Horns of Nimon watch along. Now, I suspect it might end up just being me tweeting into the darkness but I don't mind as The Horns of Nimon is a thing of joy that I find regularly cheers me up. 

Thanks to the editors of the excellent The Terrible Zodin Fanzine I have the rules below for The Horns of Nimon drinking game, which might help you enjoy proceedings. 

So...

1) Every time the co-pilot says 'Weakling Scum' - Drink
2) Every time someone hides in plain sight - Drink
3) Every time Teka says to Seth, "You'll save us won't you" (or similar) - Drink
4) When the co-pilot's trousers split - Drink
5) When Soldeed says, 'You...you meddlesome hussy!' to Romana II - Drink
6) When Romana says, 'How many Nimon have you seen today?' - Drink
7) When Tom says, 'Well, I hope you get it in the right order' - Drink
8) Each time K9 fires his blaster - Drink
9) When Soldeed laughs maniacally - Drink

and finally

10) When Soldeed is dying you should drink for the length of time it takes him to actually stop laughing and die.

I hope you enjoy. And Remember to drink sensibly. 




Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Knock Knock


Who’s there?

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

SPOILERS BTW

Anyway, Knock Knock is the fourth story of Series Ten. It’s written by Mike Bartlett and is directed by Bill Anderson. It’s got David Suchet in it as The Landlord, which I was so tempted to assume was a renegade Time Lord with low ambitions. It’s a creepy house mystery. And it doesn’t quite do it for me. It’s not a bad story by any stretch of the imagination. It’s entertaining enough, but it never quite gets let off the scary lease enough to be a classic.

Indeed, it reminded me a little of ‘The Horror of Fang Rock’, which terrified me as a child. Perhaps forty years later – and we’re talking 1977 to 2017 here – there’s a six-year-old pretending they need to go to the loo in order to escape the scary telly they’re watching, but who isn’t scared enough not to still want to watch it through the crack in the door. To the amusement of their Mum and Dad who saw through this transparent tactic rather quickly. Perhaps that six-year-old will be reassured, like I was, by their Mum saying ‘it’s not real, it’s just a TV programme.’ So, judging the scariness levels of Doctor Who is probably not particularly objective.

I did feel that the young people in this story were portrayed as a bit dense, which I suppose is a horror trope when you think about it, and Bill was made a little less interesting. You know what would have been good? This as a Doctor lite story. A story where Bill gets to be the Doctor without making a Claraesque song and dance about it. Where – perhaps – she takes the loss of her mother and reaches out The Landlord through that shared loss? Everything has its time.

There are some nice things in this story though. The fact that the Landlord was just a small boy when all this began and that in the end, he crumbles back into that state. It’s a little heartbreaking. I love David Suchet’s performance in this. Yes, there are moments where he skates close to the line between nicely arch and ham, but he never steps over it entirely and the last scenes were – for me – genuinely upsetting. That poor little boy trying to avoid losing his Mum. Instead, he’s made her a prisoner. Mariah Gale* does a rather fine job of making Eliza more than just a monster of the week. There’s a real tenderness to the end of their story. Everything ends. And that’s sad.

But I don’t know I’ve got a lot more to say about this. I do like Capaldi – as usual. The insect things look great but are a bit obviously CGI for my liking. Sometimes – and again perhaps this is because I am an old man – I would like more practical effects. But, for a one-off episode of Doctor Who perhaps that is asking too much.

I sometimes wonder if when I review a Doctor Who story, I end up reviewing it based more on what I would like to have seen rather than the actual episode itself. That I’m not being fair because I’ve got an idea of what Doctor Who should be and that when the story doesn’t quite fit that it rubs against my critical faculties (which is less painful than it sounds.) I try not to do that, but I think that the paragraph above on ‘The Horror of Fang Rock’ is a bit of a giveaway. I wanted The Horror of Fang Rock. This isn’t it. But it is a reasonably effective, well-acted and well-directed tea-time horror story. And that’s not too bad, is it? Not every Doctor Who story can be a classic after all.

 *Mariah Gale was a rather fine Ophelia to David Tennant’s Hamlet. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Thin Ice




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Thin Ice is set on, under or about the River Thames in 1814. There is a Frost Fair taking place. These were an actual thing back when the Little Ice Age meant that British winters were a little more severe than they are now, so the Thames froze over solidly enough to allow a fair to set up on its surface.  
This being Doctor Who there is more to it than just weather. Things are going on. People are being swallowed. This we see illustrated when a Dickensian street urchin – is 1814 too early for Dickensian? It’s more Austen, isn’t it? Anyway, I ramble – steals the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. The chase ends with the recovery of the screwdriver, but the death of the street urchin. The Doctor’s apparent lack of remorse at this death leads to a rather well-acted and written confrontation with Bill who has realized that perhaps the person she is traveling with isn’t quite what he might appear to be. 

It’s one of the two best scenes in the story. It’s played superbly by Capaldi and Mackie. She’s in shock. She’s never seen anyone die before and her pain morphs to anger. She asks about numbers. How many people has the Doctor seen die? How many has he killed? And, of course, he doesn’t know. And even if he did, I suspect he wouldn’t tell her because he’s effectively a mass murderer. Even if those he kills deserve to die. And even that might be moot in some cases. The Doctor’s response is to say that if he didn’t get involved more people would die and that he doesn’t ‘have the luxury of outrage.’

Let’s skip for the moment that he has shown his outrage before. I immediately thought of the Fourth Doctor’s ‘But what’s it for!’ in ‘The Pirate Planet.’ However, the Doctor’s outrage – and anger – I think is a colder thing than most. It’s displayed by the way he will take apart the plans of the people that have driven him to outrage. Indeed, I might argue that outrage is often the Doctor’s motivating force. It’s just he doesn’t often need to express it out loud. For the Doctor outrage is action.
The moment is broken though and instead of this conversation being taken further we get back to investigating what’s going on. And this it will turn out is exploitative capitalism. Bill has flagged up earlier that slavery is still a thing in 1814 – which it is in the British Empire but not in Britain itself at this point. And it turns out that this is the story of slavery. Except instead of human slaves we have one big fish whose poo turns out to be a rather useful fuel for the factories of Lord Sutcliffe. The side effect of this is that the big fish needs to be fed. And it hasn’t eaten enough for a while. Hence the people disappearing.

Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) is both the ugly face of capitalism and a racist. His response to Bill is ugly in the extreme. And the Doctor punches him. Hard. I must admit that I cheered at that point on the original watch. A Doctor who punches racists is my kind of Doctor. I’m sure others feel it is yet another example of Doctor Who being overwhelmed by political correctness. The thing is the punch is followed by a short and rather lovely speech, which even Sutcliffe comments on revealing his utter lack of compassion. Yes, Sutcliffe is a bit of a two-dimensional baddie, but it is nice for the Doctor to come up against one of those every so often. You know that he’s irredeemable and is doomed to an unpleasant end from that moment. Nicholas Burns does a lovely job of making him feel like a sneer in human form.

Sutcliffe’s plan is to basically blow up a load of dynamite, shatter the ice and feed his incredible pooing fish a massive meal, which will keep him and his factories in fuel for the foreseeable future. It’s a novel if unsubtle, plan. It fails. Naturally.

There’s a moment, like that between the Doctor and Clara in ‘Kill the Moon’, where the Doctor asks Bill to make the decision on what they do next and I’m not sure this is something I like. He doesn’t do it all the time. It just seems to be something he does when writers feel the need to ratchet up the tension a bit. Either the Doctor serves at the pleasure of humanity all the time or he’s doing his own thing. Now, I admit in both these cases he’s had time to think before deciding but still, it just seems to go against the grain for me.

It’s a nice little story this. The setting is fun. There are some meaty scenes about big issues and Capaldi and Mackie are rather brilliant. Again. Honestly, what my re-watch has done is remind me how brilliant Pearl Mackie and Bill Potts is. After Donna I think she’s the best companion of the ‘new’ Doctor Who era. Pearl Mackie’s doing a great job too.

So, this I think is my favourite story of Series 10 so far. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Smile




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I might struggle to say much about Smile. That’s not because I didn’t enjoy it. I did. It just felt a little lacking in something. But I am a man who likes to look for the positive in all Doctor Who. If you want to find people who dislike Doctor Who episodes with a passion that I admire in a strange self-harming way, then the internet is your oyster. Here at Patient Centurion Towers, we like to enjoy the things we enjoy.

Let’s begin with the most obvious thing: Bill Potts is a wonderful addition to Doctor Who. She’s quick-witted, funny and good-hearted and she’s an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. She isn’t a mystery to be solved. There’s a lot of Bill Potts’s out there but alas not many Doctors to help them see the universe.

And isn’t that part of the appeal of Doctor Who? The thought that one day someone will appear and take us out of our mundane lives and take us out there to see the universe in all its glory. Except, as this episode demonstrates, the universe is a dangerous place and there’s an awful lot of running. I’d be dead in a week, especially as one of the first places I’d want the Doctor to take me would be Berlin in the 20s/30s. I’d love a trip to Weimar Germany. I’d be happy with exploring the nightlife and getting my hands on some fantastic art to take home with me. Or late 19th century/early 20th century Vienna where I could hang about in the caf├ęs and get myself some Schiele paintings. Or Mexico and meet Freida Kahlo in person. I suspect I’d be an art junkie or an event junkie. Persuading the Doctor to let me see Shakespeare plays or those opera first night’s where audiences booed and rioted. All that would be great. It would be the monsters that would be the problem.

But that was a whacking great digression. There is something wonderfully creepy about how this episode starts and that the villains aren’t really villains but nanobots taking their programming far too literally. In this story, the nanobots are called Vardy, which kept making me think of Jamie Vardy, which I suspect wasn’t the intention of Frank Cotterall-Boyce (or perhaps it was.)

How the Doctor sorts out of the problem, which involves making landlord-capitalism an actual victor, is fine. It’s just not the most exciting of adventures. That’s not quite what he did. He freed a set of slaves by re-booting them and effectively got their former slave masters to pay them reparations in the form of rent. Then he leaves. This is one of those Doctor Who stories where I wonder what the hell happens a couple of years after he’s gone and the rent increases start coming in. There is an interesting philosophical question here, which is how do you free someone who doesn’t know they’re a slave because they don’t have free will?

It’s nice to see The Doctor almost making a terrible mistake too. Occasionally The Doctor’s decisiveness is a problem and this was one of those situations. He rushes in where angels fear to tread. And then has to sort out his own mess before it is too late.

Once again Capaldi and Mackie (or the Doctor and Bill if you prefer) bounce off each other beautifully. Even after only two stories, I’m starting to think that Bill was the companion the Twelfth Doctor was waiting for.

This is also, another of those new Doctor Who stories that has well-known performers in tiny parts and that makes you think…oh, can’t we have a bit more of this person/these people? In this case Mina Anwar and Ralf Little.

‘New’ Doctor Who flirts occasionally – see ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ and ‘Sleep’ – with a future in which India (or Indo-Japan) has a large part to play in the space travelling future. I’d like to see more of this. It would be interesting to see that future. I was listening to David Tennant’s podcast interview with Whoopi Goldberg and there’s a discussion there about Uhuru in Star Trek. And Goldberg points out that Uhuru was the first time she’d seen a black person in the future. Until then the future was all white. And I’d never considered that. After all, I’m a white man. I’m always there in the future. Doing pretty much whatever it was white men were doing in the present. Imagine not being represented by a whole genre. Imagine not being expected to exist in the future. And not necessarily because the writers or creators of science-fiction were racists – even though some of them were* - but because they never gave it any thought. Because it didn’t matter.

I’m ranting away again and that’s because I don’t have much to say about this episode as an episode. It looks amazing though. Lawrence Gough directs well enough. The trip to Spain to film in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia pays off because it looks pretty ‘of the future.’
It’s an OK story that doesn’t necessarily have time to explore all the ideas that are bubbling away underneath it. I’d watch it again now though just for Bill and the Doctor though. I’m loving those two.

*I’m looking at you H.P. Lovecraft