Archive for October, 2014

So… what did I think of In The Forest Of The Night.

Posted on October 26th, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

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Oh dear, what went wrong?

It’s a pretty good test I think of any narrative work of art to ask yourself – what would happen if the lead character was not present? The answer here is: absolutely nothing. The Doctor and Clara are stripped of all agency and just left to spectate as the plot sorts itself out. It’s a dramatically inert climax to a tedious and impoverished episode which brings the recent strong run of stories to a grinding halt. I may not have liked Vincent and the Doctor – another script from a celebrity writer attempting to do something different with the format – but I recognised that that was a matter of taste and I could appreciate the craft in Richard Curtis’s script. This is insultingly poor as a piece of writing and the production creaks under the weight of the visuals that the script requires, just as reality creaks under the weight of those which are omitted.

To be fair, the central idea of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script is a cracker. Overnight a dense forest has sprung up and covered the entire Earth (including the oceans it seems, judging by the shots of the planet from space). To be equally fair, however, the veteran writer seems to have been so pleased with this that he’s knocked off early and gone down the pub.

Nothing about this works on any level. An idea as striking, as simple, as bizarre as this needs to be grounded thoroughly in reality for it to work as a piece of television airing in 2014. But right from the beginning, everything is a little “off” – and by the way, saying “fairy tale” with a hopeful expression doesn’t turn a badly thought through and poorly executed concept into a gem. First of all, school sleepovers in museums. Is that a thing? I don’t remember it ever happening to me. What’s the point of it exactly? Other than to surround the Doctor with yet another troupe of adorable moppets?

Once the first shoe begins to drop, we really start to confront the two different problems which this story has to contend with. The first is that neither on the script, nor the production level, is anyone really trying to make me believe this. What very few people we see react with mild puzzlement, or keep their focus on what’s right in front of them – or not, as in the case of Maebh’s mum. Surely, if this were to happen for real, there would be panic, outrage, pandemonium. At the very least, in the middle of central London there would be people. But the casting money having all been splurged on moppets this week, we are denied even token extras, and the dialogue doesn’t even try and hide this fact. All poor director Sheree Folkson can do is plonk some road signs down on location and keep doing lens flares and hope for the best.

Just on the basic level of individual incidents, nothing really works. It’s bad enough that between emerging from the museum and watching the plot sort itself out from orbit, the Doctor, Clara, Danny and the moppets just sort of aimlessly traipse from the TARDIS to the forest, back to the TARDIS, back out in to the forest again and so on. This kind of narrative vamping is fair enough in episode four of a 1970s six-parter, but in a 44 minute episode it’s just appalling.

But even when the story stumbles across a good idea, like having all the animals from London Zoo released and roaming the woods, the production can’t really make it work, and the script can’t be bothered to think it through. Once Danny has shone a light in a tiger’s eyes, we’ll never ever be troubled by any of those animals again. Yeah, and Guy Crayford has never looked under his eyepatch before today either.

The resolution when it comes makes no sense and is very easy to see coming. Both of these statements require caveats. I let Kill The Moon off the hook (controversially in some quarters) for its nonsensical science for two reasons: firstly, the rest of the episode was gangbusters and secondly, it did make sense on its own terms, just about. But the idea that a bunch of magic trees will protect Earth from a gigantic solar flare just like an air bag makes no sense at all on any level. It doesn’t make sense when I say it, and it doesn’t make sense visually. An air bag absorbs a force, because the air is in a, well, a bag. Bagless air doesn’t work nearly so well. That’s why cars don’t come equipped with safety air. But unburnable trees will just sit there as the fire rages around them. Just how will they prevent the local air temperature from shooting up. By creating excess oxygen? Like when you blow on the embers of a fire you mean? It doesn’t sound like it’s going to work and it doesn’t look like it’s going to work. And it’s very far from clear from whence the trees came – moppety voices? Tinkerbell sparkles? Homework doodles? Um, did I miss something?

And I saw it coming, which might just be luck. Any good plot twist needs to be hidden in plain sight or what’s the fun of it, and if you hide something in plain sight, a few people will be lucky (or unlucky) enough to see it coming purely by chance. But I can’t be the only one who noticed that with an enormous solar flare on the way and magic trees suddenly appearing, we seemed to be playing a game of Double Mumbo Jumbo. Isn’t it rather more likely that one of these things is the solution to the other? I got there about twenty minutes in.

And, as noted, the Doctor has nothing to do in the climax. Yes, he issues some sort of dementedly childish warning to the people of Earth to let the trees alone, which would have had a great deal more impact had it not been comprehensively shown how indestructible they were mere minutes earlier. Then he and Clara just sit back and enjoy the show – rather more than I did, it seems.

Of course, if a planet-killing solar flare were on the way, astronomers would have noticed and the world would already be in crisis mode. This is hinted at, but never properly explored when Clara says she knew but didn’t tell the kids. So – the end of the world is coming, and you aren’t going to prepare in any way, or discuss it ever, or mention it to your space alien wizard friend, you’re just going to carry on doing your job because… I don’t know how to finish that sentence, I’m sorry.

Clara’s “trick” of packing the Doctor away to life and freedom when it becomes clear that the end is nigh (because of the flare or the trees, or the sparkly forest fairies, or magic Maebh, or some other damn thing, I was past caring by this point) falls utterly flat as drama, because I just didn’t buy a single moment of it, having checked out from the reality of the programme some time earlier.

And then finally, just when this impoverished production of a tissue-thin story looked like it couldn’t get any worse, we get the final kick in the nuts. The utterly unearned, unbelievable, treacly, reappearance of missing sister Annabel. This moment is meaningless because I was absolutely not invested in that loss, and false because that’s not what happens when family members go missing, and it certainly isn’t what would happen if they were to suddenly and shockingly reappear. The brilliant French drama The Returned worked incredibly hard to show us what would really happen if a daughter or a sister, long thought dead, turned up out of the blue. To “season” an already over-sweet story with this extra dollop of syrup is utterly misjudged and pointless.

I really am struggling to find any redeeming features, but this is easily the worst of the season so far. Capaldi does what he can with the limited material (stripped not only of agency but good jokes – even the naive and sloppy Bobbins of Sherwood gave him a couple of decent one-liners), and Jenna Coleman continues to do good work, but the relationship story with Danny is starting to feel unnecessarily drawn-out now, and Samuel Anderson is hitting the same notes over and over again. Missing the sweet spot of grounded drama with a hint of fairy tale magic by absolutely miles, this was a story which Doctor Who’s budget could never have made work, which doesn’t entirely excuse all concerned from trying so little in its execution. Certainly the poorest effort since Journey to the Nadir of the TARDIS and maybe poorer than anything in the Moffat reign to date. One star. Bugger.

So… What did I think of Flatline?

Posted on October 23rd, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

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Another monster-of-the-week story, another Jamie Mathieson script, a further exploration of the Doctor/Clara relationship and – I have to say – another triumph for all concerned.

It seems as if the reduced episode count hasn’t resulted in the obviation of a Doctor Lite episode, and this was it, with Capaldi filming just one day on location and one day on the TARDIS set. But the rationale is amazing and created some of the episode’s best moments, from the enormous sledgehammer Clara pulls out of her handbag, to the delightful Addams Family routine on the train tracks. Only in a couple of shots of the Doctor’s face peering out of the tiny TARDIS did the effects fall in any way short. Ironically for an episode so devoted to the difference between 2D and 3D, I suspect this is because 2D shots of Capaldi were inserted into existing footage of the TARDIS prop, instead of having the actor actually shove his face through a set of tiny doors, but other than that, the effects are lovely.

And scary too. The various scenes of Clara and Rigsy menaced by drawings are properly exciting, and if the budget can’t quite stretch to the hanging chair crashing through the window, the pace of the editing and Murray Gold’s music just about manages to bridge the gap.

Of course, this episode can’t help but call to mind the lamentable Fear Her, a feeble cough of an episode which dragged down the average of an otherwise pretty solid season. In both cases, animated drawings come to murderous life, but Flatline has atmosphere, jokes, and a cast of supporting characters to spare where Fear Her just lies there, begging for euthanasia.

In fact, the supporting cast put me more in mind of Midnight, one of my favourite Tennant episodes, wherein we see how petty, short-sighted and selfish people can be if you put them under enough pressure. That nasty side of human nature is here represented by Christopher Fairbank as the odious Fenton – who naturally has to survive, while bright, good-hearted folk like PC Forrest get slaughtered by The Boneless.

Clara’s audition as The Doctor is an interesting twist and with the revelation that the she has been lying to Danny about her “break-up” with her Timelord chum, it now becomes possibly to see the run of stories from The Caretaker to this as a very clear and logical progression of the relationship.

Niggles? Yeah. A few. As well the iffy Doctor/TARDIS shots, the train whizzing through the tunnel looked very digital to me, and I didn’t quite buy Rigsy’s Noble Act Of Self-Sacrifice (although I was amused to see him substituted with a scrunchie). Clara’s use of Rigsy’s artistic talents to Road Runner The Boneless into regenerating the TARDIS was a great twist, but it was a shame that when the Doctor emerged, all he had to do was Sonic them away.

A bit like its immediate predecessor then, Flatline gets high marks from me, not because it dared to do something extraordinary, but because it did what Doctor Who is supposed to do and did it to a very, very high standard. Funny, scary, weird, arresting, original and exciting, it’s Saturday family viewing at its best. Four-and-a-half stars, and we are really on a roll now.

So… what did I think about Mummy on the Orient Express?

Posted on October 13th, 2014 in Culture | 1 Comment »

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Doctor Who eras are defined as much by their titles as anything else. In the Hartnell years (mostly), individual episodes had names whereas whole stories weren’t given any identification on-screen. Thus, the story we know as The Aztecs was broadcast as four episodes titled The Temple of Evil, The Warriors of Death, The Bride of Sacrifice and The Day of Darkness. This has caused a great deal of confusion and controversy about the “correct” titles, which we need not go into now.

Once Troughton took over, simple descriptive titles became the order of the day. It’s about the Ice Warriors? Call it The Ice Warriors then. Set on a Moonbase is it? Wait a tick. The Moonbase will do. Pirates but they’re in space? How about The Space Pirates.

Once Pertwee settles in, the story titles get a bit more dramatic. Alien ambassadors? Nah, let’s go for The Ambassadors of Death. And the trend continued throughout the Tom Baker era. The Deadly Assassin. But aren’t all assassins deadly by definition? Shut up, it sounds great. Once John Nathan-Turner takes over, the story titles become a little more restrained – Full Circle, Black Orchid – or incomprehensible – Kinda, Castrovalva. One word titles become commonplace, especially one-word-two-word titles – Time-Flight, Snakedance, Earthshock.

Under RTD, the titles were far less predictable. Some hysterical – The End of the World – some evasive – The Empty Child. We had “The Doctor” in the titles for the first time and, with Smith and Jones, the letter J. But under Steven Moffat, and especially from Series 7 onwards, there has been an explicit desire on the part of the show-runner to make the title part of the marketing of the episode. What’s tonight’s Doctor Who about? Dinosaurs on a Spaceship! Who could not want to watch that? (Answer, anyone who has watched it once already.)

There’s nothing terribly wrong with that I suppose, but I find it very hard to forgive our illustrious show-runner for not transmitting Neil Gaiman’s brilliant, brilliant story under its correct title Bigger on the Inside.

So, I’m not a huge fan of Mummy on the Orient Express, as a title. It’s a poor gag in the vein of Rubbish of Sherwood, a weird mash-up of two ideas related only by being vaguely contemporary (Howard Carter’s expedition was 1922, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934) and sounds rather like a penny dreadful. I was full of foreboding that the cataclysmic show-down between Clara and the Doctor would be ignored and I was jumpy at the prospect of Frank Skinner in a guest part.

The pre-credit sequence is perfectly fine, if rather wasteful of the great Janet Henfrey. A horrible and inexplicable death in the first five minutes is very traditional for Doctor Who, but when Clara and Capaldi emerge from the TARDIS bantering happily, my heart sank. However, this was merely a feint by the production team, since this is intended to be a final trip. Okay, fair enough.

An excellent guest cast fills out the remaining roles – David Bamber, Daisy Beaumont, Christopher Villiers, John Sessions and someone who apparently would like to be called “Foxes”. Plus, seeing Jenna Coleman in that plunging mini dress and then in those silky jamas made me feel a bit funny. Of course, this is the Orient Express IN SPACE!! I’m not quite sure why it has to be IN SPACE!! Except for the fact that not having to show trees rushing by saves on the budget as does not having anyone climbing around the outside, as is generally required of adventure stories set on trains.

The threat is a neatly insoluable puzzle and the Doctor’s approach to tackling it is very interesting. “Mystery shopper” is a cute way to undercut the power of the psychic paper. I’m not sure what suddenly stripping away the holographic set dressing adds to the drama – it did make the mise-en-scene a bit less interesting from that point on.

So, enter Frank Skinner. Far from the catastrophes of stunt casting past (Beryl Reid, Ken Dodd etc), Skinner underplays nicely, with a little twinkle giving away that there is far more to this innocuous engineer than at first glance. Alas, I spotted very early that his only dialogue is with the Doctor, and in a story where the main threat can only be perceived by the person about to die, it was a little too obvious that “Engineer Perkins” was actually a hologram whom only the Doctor could see.

Alright, actually that didn’t happen, but right up till the moment Clara turns to watch him leave the TARDIS, I was convinced it was going to. Watch the episode again – I swear, nobody apart from Capaldi ever acknowledges his presence. David Bamber says “shut that man up” at one point, but even that is ambiguous. Part of the problem is that we quickly get down to half-a-dozen non-speaking extras (if they have even one line of dialogue, you have to pay them more money) but still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a clear set-up for a payoff that never arrives before in my life.

Overall then, this is strong stuff. Yet another penetrating look at this darkest of all Doctors, his clear-eyed morality dramatically juxtaposed with his clodhopping bedside manner. An exciting, fast-moving adventure with a neat solution which manages to be tense and fun, all at the same time. An engaging group of supporting characters whom I actually missed when they fell foul of the Foretold and smart, pacey direction that holds the whole thing together.

What takes the shine off a little is Clara’s change of heart at the end. I am tremendously relieved that the events of Kill the Moon have had an impact on the episode(s) which followed, and I don’t object in theory to sending Clara on an adventure which causes her to do a complete volte-face and jump back on board the TARDIS, but I’m not sure this was that adventure.

Anyway, 4½ stars for what is shaping up to be a very strong run of episodes.

Taking a bit of time out and setting up 12 consecutive episodes as well as the remarkable coup of landing Peter Capaldi in the leading part really seems to have re-energised the production team from Moffat on down. Finally, he seems to be finding the balance between a really good story-of-the-week (and they have all pretty much been good-to-great, with the exception of Bobbins of Sherwood), and an engaging season-arc-mystery, while providing genuine character development between the two leads week-to-week.

It may have taken four and a half years and four seasons, but I think Steven Moffat might finally be getting the hang of this show-runner job. I can hardly believe we only have four episodes to go.

So… what did I think of Kill the Moon?

Posted on October 10th, 2014 in Culture | 6 Comments »

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Newcomer Peter Harness begins his script in about the least promising way possible. The TARDIS – as well as not housing any hanky-panky – also ought not to be home to moppets. Moppets practically undid a Neil Gaiman script quite recently and I remain stubbornly uninterested on whatever tiresome journey of self-discovery Courtney Woods pleases to be on.

The arrival on the moon is visually stunning however. Really amazing. I’ve said before that the production values of modern Doctor Who are rarely an issue but this is another level. The location filming in Lanzarote, combined with some incredibly elegant pixel-shuffling from Milk, creates an incredible evocation of walking on our satellite. And I would have forgiven them for just ignoring the one-sixth gravity, but actually, the weight of the TARDIS crew turns out to be a plot point.

We then meet the Space Shuttle crew – Captain NotNamedOnScreen and her cohorts Lt FirstToDie and Cpl DontKnowDontCare – who are here with loads of nukes because – blowing up the moon is their last resort. The next twenty minutes is pretty standard run, jump and hide stuff. Some good jokes. Some good scares. Murray Gold, giving it some welly. And then, rather earlier than I expected, the truth is revealed. The moon is an egg. And it’s hatching.

Big problem with this episode #1: Pretty much all of the forgoing is utter bullshit from a scientific point of view.

But… c’mon #1: Basically, all the science in Doctor Who is bullshit. As an anthology show, Doctor Who can and does work in a lot of different genres, but “hard SF” is one it visits very rarely. Even if you give the essentially magical powers of the TARDIS and regeneration a pass, that doesn’t make past plotlines any more plausible. Just so we’re clear – you can’t power travel suits with static electricity, use mirrors to travel through time, maintain a corporeal body with the power of your will, alter the structure of the universe with maths, reassemble a shattered spaceship by gravity, grab a young American botanist with one of your branches if you’ve been turned into a tree, or expect a code-cracking computer to translate ancient languages either. No grand tradition of hard SF concepts has been traduced here, and the notion of the moon as an egg is beguiling, poetic, dramatic and visual. That’s good enough for me.

Building an entire episode around a moral dilemma is bold enough. Having the Doctor abandon Clara, Captain Cold Feet and Moppet to their own devices is incredible. Steven Moffat has talked about finding a Capaldi moment in each episode. Looking the Half Faced Man in the eye while pointing out that one of them is bound to kill the other springs to mind, so does he lack of concern with the fate of Ross in Into the Dalek. “Kill the little girl first,” is chilling enough – but his attitude to the humans here is nothing short of astonishing. Only the Fourth Doctor refusing to assist in the amputation of Winlett’s infected arm in Seeds of Doom even comes close.

Big problem with this episode #2: It’s an anti-abortion parable.

But… c’mon #2: No it isn’t.

Not enough for you? Okay, look of course, abortion flitted through my mind watching this episode, but I dismissed it almost as quickly. The debate here is about whether to murder an innocent creature which is already unequivocally alive. The fact that it is currently inside an egg-shell does not make this action an abortion. The abortion debate hinges on firstly the rights of the mother vs the rights of a zygote (there is no mother here) and secondly the difference between an undifferentiated ball of cells and a unique, viable life, capable of existing outside of its mother (evidently the moon-lizard-bat-thing has reached this point).

In the end, Clara flies in the face of the will of the people of Earth and pushes the big red do-the-right-thing button. We get an appropriately heart-string-tugging ending and –

Big problem with this episode #3: A newly-hatched creature immediately laying a new egg that’s bigger than it is…

But… c’mon #3: See #1.

And then Clara rips the Doctor a new arsehole.

Jesus Christ!

Possibly the rawest scene of the Moffat era, maybe in the show’s entire history, this isn’t the Doctor being a bit moody, this isn’t a companion having a grump, this is a full on, balls-out, emotionally scarring show-down. No companion – no character – has ever called the Doctor on his antics like this, and no incarnation of the Doctor has ever deserved it more. Finally, after a couple of very engaging false starts, the contemporary incarnation of Clara eventually gets something resembling a personality and Jenna Coleman finally gets a scene worthy of her talents.

The whole story is quite an achievement and I can feel my fingers nudging towards the five star key. It isn’t perfect, alas, and the biggest failing is the supporting characters. Hermione Norris grasps at a few flimsy clues in the thin dialogue and manages to carve out something resembling a human. Phil Nice and Tony Osoba do good work, but the script is far too eager to bump them off and so they never get a chance to register. Ellis George grates a little less this time round, but I’m still not absolutely convinced of the need for her to be here.

And I’m assuming the production team will remember that all this has happened and that life on board the Orient Express in Space (why?) on Saturday will in some way reflect this and not show the Doctor and Clara as pals again (I note no Coleman in the trailer). So, on that basis – and aware that the episode has Divided Fandom (no bad thing), I am all-in on Kill the Moon. Five stars. My first since The Girl Who Waited I believe.

So… what did I think of Listen/Time Heist/The Caretaker

Posted on October 2nd, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

Terrible dereliction of duty around here lately, sorry about that. I think partly because none of these three episodes provoked terribly strong feelings in me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Tat Wood acutely points out in the About Time series, the production team fatally forgot how to churn out good, solid, workaday episodes in the mid-eighties and it nearly ended the programme for good. That’s what these three are – good, solid, workaday episodes in their different ways.

So, for a start I’m not a Listen hater, nor do I think it really deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Blink. It’s great to see Moffat sit down and write a non-special, non-arc episode and it’s generally good stuff. I don’t subscribe to the notion put forwarded by some bloggers that having Clara give the proto-Doctor nightmares is an enormous ego trip for the writer (“Isn’t my character special? Isn’t my character the most significantest ever?”) but I do think that having already been threaded through the Doctor’s timeline, she isn’t the best choice for this role.

I didn’t mind the Danny Pink soap opera stuff, but I was put out by the fact that an enormous amount of plot hinges on Clara wilfully withholding vital information from the Doctor out of utterly uncharacteristic embarrassment (as noted the part is horribly underwritten, but Jenna Coleman plays her with a forthright vigour which is completely at odds with this narrative choice). And I don’t mind that the whole story is a closed loop, accomplishing nothing by its end, because some of the individual moments are so arresting – notably The Thing Under The Bed Covers – but I desperately care that we were never told what the The Thing Under The Bed Covers was, and I can’t quite escape the suspicion that that question will be answered in a future episode.

Three and a half stars seems miserly for an episode that was so formally daring and so much fun to watch, but four seems over generous given its various flaws. Tell you what, because Young Danny was so brilliantly cast, I’ll bump it up to four.

I’ve had the same conversation with several people regarding the extraordinary find of two Patrick Troughton stories long thought lost (one episode still eludes us). Do you prefer the amazing ambition and individuality of Enemy of the World or do you find more to admire in the way that The Web of Fear is just like every other Patrick Troughton base-under-siege story but so much better? I’m in the latter camp – I can’t overlook the way Enemy trips itself up when the execution isn’t up to the ideas. So I’m perfectly happy with Time Heist being a pretty unambitious by-the-numbers script. It’s chief problem is that it isn’t quite as novel or original as perhaps it thinks it is. There’s actually precious little here we haven’t seen before and most of the twists are pretty easy to see coming. But it clips along very pleasingly, nothing is wasted, nothing is flubbed and it is novel to see the Oceans Eleven genre grafted on to Doctor Who. Four stars seems about right here too.

Finally, The Caretaker. All three of Gareth Roberts’ The-Doctor-Blends-In-With-Earth-Humans scripts have had some basic problems of plot credibility. It rarely actually seems necessary for the Doctor to have to blend in with Earth humans in order to solve the ostensible problem. Of the three, The Lodger is easily the best and Closing Time with its vile love-conquers-all-ending is handily the worst. The Caretaker sits in the middle. Again, it seems utterly unnecessary for the Doctor to either bother to dress up as a caretaker at all, or to be so brazen about it. Clara and Danny’s romance which was tolerable in Listen is really rather irritating idea and the Scovox Blitzer is a remarkably generic and unthreatening creation which seems to have been designed by Kroagnon The Great Architect and which would have been much more at home in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Whereas Time Heist was a romp with a bit of vinegar to balance it out, this is just larks and that’s hard to take over 45 minutes unless the level of invention and humour is absolutely top notch, and here it isn’t. The Doctor continually referring to Danny as a PE teacher is very funny, but the subplot with Courtney the cocky school kid is dull and goes nowhere. Danny Pink’s soldiering which had been a distant bell sounding every so often to punctuate the relationship now becomes a great clanging gong, drowning out everything else about him and the whole thing seems a little short on story for the running time. When it works, however, it works, and I have to give it props for Danny rejecting Clara’s absurd lies about rehearsing for the school play. Three stars seems about right.