Archive for May, 2011

So… what did I think of The Rebel Flesh?

Posted on May 23rd, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

Another day, another first part of a two parter for me to be all indecisive about. Screw that. Here are some cold, hard opinions for you.

Firstly, although I did enjoy this episode, it’s not exactly original, is it? Here’s a short list of prior works which Matthew Graham could be said to be borrowing from: Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, Blade Runner (and pretty much all of Philip K Dick’s output), Moon, Mirror Mirror, AI (and therefore Supertoys Last All Summer Long), Odo from Deep Space Nine, Data and especially The Doctor from Next Generation and Voyager and from within Doctor Who itself Meglos, Inferno, Terror of the Autons, Journey’s End, and very recently The Waters of Mars which has not only basically the same set-up but also the same make-up job. It’s also a base-under-siege story so add three-quarters of the Patrick Troughton stories to this list.

Despite (or just maybe because) of this, it manages to feel surprisingly fresh and lively. Little hints dropped early on that the visit by the TARDIS crew to this island at this time might not be wholly coincidental, some witty dialogue and some splendid location work from director Julian Simpson all make the mix feel both playful and sinister in a way that’s very Doctor Who.

It isn’t perfect though. The opening fall-into-the-acid scene is painfully obviously just for our benefit. With all the emphasis that’s later placed on those suits and their scarcity (presumably the Flesh can’t copy them as well as ordinary overalls and bowties?) it’s inconceivable that they’d be horsing around like that and just shrug off the cost of the suit. Then there’s the slight awkwardness introduced by the fact that the narrative demands two separate crucibles of goo, one full of acid and one full of Flesh, which the design department has done little to differentiate. And speaking of differentiation, by far the biggest weakness of the script is how bland the workers are. Compare this bunch of Fleshfodder to the vibrant human beings, all with strong relationships to each other, who populated Bowie Base One. Raquel Cassidy as the leader stands out easily enough as does Sarah Smart, but the rest – which the script insists all dress identically – blur together. This is an especial problem when being presented with your double is supposed to be such a big deal. As far as I was concerned, they were all anonymous clones of each other anyway.

But in the fan community, whether or not you liked this episode seems to depend on whether or not you saw the cliffhanger coming. Many complain that it was “obvious” but that word implies “flowing naturally from events which had gone before” as well as “boringly predictable”. I didn’t see it coming and love the way that the debate about what it means to be alive suddenly seemed so much more startlingly immediate as a result. I’m not even going to comment on the possibility that the Doctor who seemingly met his death on the beach was this FleshDoctor. Moffat’s surely better than that.

Part of the problem with the cliffhanger is that the script is basically vamping from the discovery that the Gangers are sentient following the storm to the discovery that the FleshDoctor exists. Too much time to think, not enough incident and we start writing our own faster-moving version of the story. Some of the cliffhangers in the old series were a bit arbitrary and pointless but having to put the Doctor and/or his friends in a life-or-death situation every 20-25 minutes sometimes seems like a useful discipline.

So, what does that leave? Rory is well-serviced this week, with a strong plotline of his own and a more wilful characterisation than normal. The effects work is well up to snuff with some nifty body-morphing and the TARDIS caught up in a spectacular solar tsunami.

It all promises well for part two – with any luck a neat combination of run-for-your-life scares, some rumination on what it means to be alive and (let’s hope) a faster pace and a few extra twists and turns. For now, a generous four stars.

Oh, and I’ve done another one of these, if you feel like entering.

So… What did I think of The Doctor’s Wife?

Posted on May 21st, 2011 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Who’s this Neil Gaiman character then? First rising to fame when he remodelled obscure DC Comics superhero Sandman in his own shaggy-haired, heavy-lidded, pale skinned, dark clothed image as prince of dreams, he wrote all 75 issues over seven years. Dream and his various siblings including Destiny, Delirum and of course, cheeky apparently teenaged Death, struck a deep chord with emo comic fans everywhere, but spoke to a much wider audience as well, including riffs on Shakespeare, Dante, the Brothers Grimm, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and much else besides. Off the back of Sandman, he wrote novels, television plays, and recently has had several high profile movie adaptations including Coraline and Stardust. His lyrical, whimsical style is a perfect match for twenty-first century Doctor Who and he’s approached the task with daring, grace and a tremendous amount of wit and style.

If it isn’t obvious yet, I adored, The Doctor’s Wife, easily my favourite of the series so far. From the opening grimly exchanges between Auntie, Uncle and Idris to the final heartbreaking “hello” from the ghost out of the time machine, this was classy, elegant, exciting, thrilling stuff. Director Richard Clark’s location work is absolutely gorgeous, with amazing set dressing and wonderfully weird lighting and the central idea is nothing short of astonishing. After a first viewing, I wondered if the details of the plot all quite worked. I probably wouldn’t have minded if they haven’t. It’s the TARDIS, in the body of a woman (“did you wish really hard?”). That’s probably enough for me. But a second viewing proves that – although whipping past at a dizzying rate – all the requisite explanations are there. Every i has been dotted and every t crossed, it’s just that Gaiman didn’t want to labour the point. And quite right too.

But this isn’t just about a meeting between a thief and the box he stole, there’s proper jeopardy too as House heads off back to our universe to wreak havoc and may be find an entertaining way of bumping Amy and Rory off too if he gets sufficiently bored. So we get a proper exploration of the TARDIS, with proper corridor sets and everything (no CGI refit of the console room for one or two quick shots) for the first time since Time and the Rani. And these bewildering scenes are almost the best that the show has to offer, plunging our young couple into a weird nightmare world. As he is contractually required to do in, I assume, every story this season, Rory dies, but is brought back to life swiftly enough that it’s a mere bump in the road, scarcely enough to derail the narrative.

But the very best part of the episode is happening back on the planet, where in a dementedly brilliant scheme, the Doctor and his personified TARDIS manage to build a new TARDIS out of TARDIS scrap. As I’ve documented elsewhere, a potential problem with 45 minute self-contained stories is that 40 minutes is spent gleefully ratcheting up the tension and then the solution is crammed into a few minutes and feels insufficient, ill-thought-out or just unduly brief. Big, complicated problems require difficult and costly solutions. What’s brilliant about The Doctor’s Wife is that the solution is begun early and is just as much fun as the problem. Elsewhere, Gaiman is ruthlessly efficient. There are only seven characters in total, one basically mute and one only a voice. Two character simply drop down dead when they have fulfilled their narrative purpose. But this speed feels like energy not like hurry. And it’s useful when you’re daring to illuminate a character’s history, one who is much more interesting while still mysterious, to not be tempted to stop and smell the flowers, to give us a couple of quick glimpses and then to slam the door shut and lock it securely.

No account of The Doctor’s Wife would be complete without a run-down of some of the outstanding one-liners. Here are some of my favourites (from memory, so apologies for any paraphrasing).

  • “You’ve never been very reliable”
  • “I love biting. It’s like kissing only there’s a winner.”
  • “I’ve got mail!”
  • “Bunk beds”
  • “Actually I feel fine.”

And we must pause to doff a fez to the spectacular Matt Smith, whose cold “finish him”, 12 year old lip-quivering and universe-weary regathering, all in the space of about ninety seconds, is an acting masterclass of the highest order. Uniquely the Eleventh Doctor, while entirely Doctor Who, it was utterly unique, entirely novel, perfectly appropriate and basically unimprovable.

Was there anything I didn’t like? Apart from the nonsense of Rory’s repeated death and resurrection in story after story, I didn’t really understand why an Ood had been stuck in at random. Another mordantly witty servant of House in the style of Auntie and Uncle would have been fine. And I don’t like the title. Twenty-first century Doctor Who stories general have rather good and evocative titles – not something which the series had previously been known for. Sixties stories, once they got proper titles, tended to be boringly along the lines of “The Zygotrons”. Seventies stories go for pulp melodrama, with things like “The Curse of Evil”. In the eighties there was a weird tradition of one-word/two-word titles like “MatterPlanet”. But more recently we’ve had lovely titles like “Silence in the Library”, “The Parting of the Ways” and “Turn Left”.

I understand Steven Moffat’s desire to give Gaiman’s beautiful tale a “slutty title” four episodes in to the run, and I don’t particularly like the bland “House of Nothing” which was its working title for a while, but I understand that “Bigger on the Inside” was considered for a while, and that would have been far more fitting.

An absolute classic, then, which distracted me entirely from the Sudoku of the season plot, and which left me very, very happy indeed. Five stars.

So.. what did I think of The Curse of the Black Spot?

Posted on May 14th, 2011 in Culture | 1 Comment »

This review is late again, partly because I’ve been ill but partly because I just couldn’t get excited about this episode. It’s perfectly fine and entertaining stuff, it isn’t a horrible failure. But nor is it a cast-iron copper-bottomed classic. And that makes it hard to write about, especially because I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment when it was over, despite the fact that it hardly put a piratical boot wrong.

This, of course, is part of the problem with establishing a very strong season arc but (wisely) not committing to fully-serialised storytelling. The “non-arc” episodes automatically have less heft to them than the “arc” episode which means they have to be better than usual in order to compete. But even this really isn’t quite as new as perhaps it seems. Like any non-fully-serialised and long-running series, Doctor Who works because the premise generates any number of stories. Like a medical show in which life-and-death stories can walk in the door every week, the TARDIS can deliver the TARDIS crew to literally any situation imaginable. We don’t need The Death of the Doctor, The Return of the Time Lords, or The Secret of the Eye of Harmony every fucking week. We just want a good story.

But episode two left so many plot threads so ostentatiously dangling that to basically ignore all of them – certainly to develop none of them – and have the Doctor, Amy and Rory seemingly lose all interest is jarring to say the least. It’s rather like watching Jack Bauer surrounded by terrorists armed with automatic weapons, claymores and rabid dogs at 4:59 and then tuning back in for 5:01 to watch them all cheerfully playing softball together. For an hour.

So, maybe the problem – if there really is one – is just in the running order. Black Spot might have played much more strongly if it had come first in the season. We’d have seen the new TARDIS crew functioning as a unit for the first time, without any time-travelling archaeologists obscuring the chemistry. We would be perfectly happy for a carefree pseudo-historical romp, with no strong expectations that the half-remembered plot threads from the end of the last series were going to be urgently addressed. Then you chuck in River Song at the end to set up the arc and you’re off and running. It’s what Davies would have done, I suspect.

Anyway. Taken on its own terms this is basically fine. Some good jokes, especially the captain-on-captain banter between Matt Smith and a very sturdy Hugh Bonneville. Decent pirates – hey look it’s Lee Ross off of Press Gang. A pretty strong central mystery / threat, with the repeated motif of the Doctor proclaiming “ignore all my previous theories” a nice way of keeping the tension up. Some of the details are a little foggy. I think I understand why even moppety Toby can wander the spaceship, free of tubes and wires but will drop dead as soon as he leaves it, but I’m not sure I’d want to explain it to a nine year old. Also, protecting Rory from the “demon” seems to be simply a matter of holding him back (even spindly Amy can do it) so it’s a little peculiar that none of the pirates even try to save their shipmates. And the whole business of her jumping out of reflections is just magic as far as I can tell. Still, so’s the TARDIS being bigger on this inside.

Okay, proper complaints. I have two. Firstly, a series which is really committing to the idea that we have seen the Doctor die, actually die, for realz, Matt Smith is the last incarnation, and he’s only got 200 years to live, a series like that really, really, really needs to stop killing and resurrecting Rory who is rapidly becoming the Kenny of Doctor Who. Following non-fatal terminations in Amy’s Choice, Cold BloodThe Big Bang (sort of) and Day of the Moon (in other words, last week’s episode!) to have him seemingly snuff it only to pop back up again like a novelty birthday candle is a little ridiculous. And, it’s been a while since I did my St John’s Ambulance but Amy’s CPR looked all-sorts-of-wrong to me.

Secondly, I’ve moaned before that Moffat doesn’t write proper villains, so it’s particularly disappointing here that the striking Lily Cole turns out not be a vicious alien beast in urgent need of termination, but yet another automatic system gone awry. Since the series returned in 2005, this has been the solution to the central mystery in a total of four stories – The Empty Child (nanogenes), The Girl in the Fireplace (clockwork androids), Silence in the Library (CAL computer) and The Lodger (emergency holographic program). Depending on your definition of “automatic” and “system” you could also add Fear Her, Smith and Jones, The Eleventh Hour and even Amy’s Choice, although at least there the psycho-pollen was given a charismatically malevolent face by Toby Jones. Examples from the previous 26 seasons are vanishingly rare – The Edge of Destruction, Ghost Light (sort-of), um, er…

Why should this be? Well, firstly, not because no-one had ever thought of it before. It had been a staple of Star Trek for years. Not just implacable computerised killers like The Doomsday Machine, VGER and its TV predecessor Nomad but also in its revelation that horrible monsters have feelings too – the Farpoint creature in the Next Gen pilot, and its original series predecessor the Horta. The appeal of this kind of ending is twofold. Firstly, if your series is identified by its championing of rationality, understanding and humanity instead of featuring heroes who solve problems with fists, guns and explosives, then an heroic epiphany which transforms the threat into an empathetic character is a neat variation from the normal kill-or-be-killed approach. But it’s only a neat variation if you don’t do it all the bloody time.

Secondly, it’s faster. If you have to determine your foe’s weakness, devise a plan, put that plan into action and then confirm it succeeded, then you’d better not be too close to the end of the story when you start that process. On the other hand, it hardly takes any time to at all to say “Wait! It’s just a robot / protecting its young / nanogenes – let’s not kill it.” In the old days, after forty minutes of running-around-being-captured-escaping-and-running-around-again during episodes two and three, it was quite a relief when the plan to kill the bad guy or wipe out the monsters reared its head fairly early in part four. Often, the murdering was all done with five minutes to go and we had plenty of time for smiles, handshakes, goodbyes, tag-lines and “But Doctor, there’s just one thing I still don’t understand”. Nowadays, we can’t hang around. We’ve got 45 minutes and that’s it, including titles, throw-forward and incongruous “arc” moments, to tell a complete non-arc story. We can’t hang about.

But it’s just less satisfying for the solution to be “I know! Let’s do nothing! Everything is in fact okay, despite seeming disastrous mere moments before,” rather than “I’ve got you now” (or even “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”) followed by “I’ll get you for this, Doctor, I’ll… aaarrrghhh!” Where would The Seeds of Doom be without Harrison Chase, or The Invasion without Tobias Vaughan? Even Voyage of the Damned, flawed in all sorts of ways, sputters into demented life whenever Max Capricorn is on-screen. He may not be the best and most layered antagonist the Doctor has ever faced, but when so much else seems so out-of-kilter, it’s reassuring to be in the presence of a genuinely pop-eyed megalomaniac in a funny wheelchair, hurling hubristic insults at the Doctor – before being dumped into nuclear storm drive. By Kylie Minogue. Driving a fork-lift.

Three stars.

So… what did I think of Day of the Moon?

Posted on May 7th, 2011 in Culture | 3 Comments »

Last week I wrote that it’s hard to judge a two parter on the basis of the first episode, and so I declined to give it a score. This week, I’m feeling as if it’s hard to judge a whole series on the basis of the first story, such is Steven Moffat’s new-found commitment to serialised TV.

But before we get on to that, let’s look at the story itself. I find myself pulled in two different directions almost throughout. The nitpicky adult in me sees flaw after flaw, but the wide-eyed child is so enraptured by the dash and wit and spectacle of it all that the adult feels curmudgeonly even existing. Declining at first to properly resolve its main cliffhanger (we finally get an answer in a throw-away line deep into the episode), the story springs giddily months into the future and through a series of improbable events reunites the TARDIS crew for some important exposition.

The adult me is rather suspicious of these elaborate charades during which characters decline to share information with other characters who might benefit from knowing it simply in order to surprise the audience. I adore Star Trek II but not all of the plotting stands up to repeated viewings. In particular, when Kirk et al are apparently trapped forever in the Genesis Cave, how does it help anyone for Kirk to continue to let them imagine that they are going to slowly and horribly starve to death when he has already arranged secretly with Spock for them to be rescued?

Likewise, why does Canton produce a bodybag to shit Amy up when his only goal is to reunite her with The Doctor? As lovely a reveal as it is when the even-more-than-usually-raggedy Doctor slouches against the cloaked TARDIS, it’s all for our benefit as viewers. In a story which begins with the supposed death of your main character, this is a dangerous, dangerous game to play.

And so it continues with the resolution of the main threat. The recording of the Silent signing its own death-warrant is a mite convenient, but inserting the footage into the Apollo moon landing footage is a brilliant device and along the way we get some marvellous set-pieces, notably the superbly-handled haunted house with veteran character actor Kerry Shale giving it everything he’s got as twitchy Dr Renfrew. Amy’s kidnap provides a nice moment of tension between Rory and the Doctor too, and the final showdown is spectacular without being gratuitous.

So far so good. But, on reflection, some niggles start to appear. Okay, in gun-toting America despatching a Silent is fairly easy (and most of the Silents are in America), but just what will happen when residents of Calcutta or Nairobi or Copenhagen hear these instructions and see a Silent? Will they get Joy-splattered? How many human death warrants has the Doctor just signed? And even if the Silents are pretty easy to kill, what happens to all the bodies? Surely some people are going to get as Silent-aware as the Doctor and his friends? And just how did they manage that anyway? Are we sure that the Silents deserve this kind of treatment? Apart from killing Joy in that bathroom, we’ve never seen them doing anything malevolent. And if they’ve been guiding human technological development since the invention of the wheel (side-by-side with the Jagaroth I assume) then isn’t humanity better off with them than without them? In fact, if they’ve made this planet and this species what it is then doesn’t that give them any kind of rights?

But the episode is basically far too enjoyable to spend too much time on these kind of musings. The counter to all these whines is basically – the Doctor says this will work and the Doctor says they’re bad and we should take the Doctor’s word for it, because he’s the Doctor (only a fool argues with his Doctor). Apart from anything else if they were really so fucking benevolent, why go to all that trouble to make sure nobody knows they’re there? And besides, they have weird shaped faces and wear dark suits so that proves they’re up to no good and therefore can be slaughtered on sight without the least hint of moral twinge.

But this episode also makes it very plain that Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who is more serialised than ever before. This is not a new trend in TV. Back in the eighties, mainstream American shows like LA Law would frequently include season-long arcs which ran alongside various one-off case-of-the week storylines. In the nineties, shows like Murder One and Babylon 5 put most of their emphasis on season-long stories, or in the case of Babylon 5 series-long stories. For its first two years, Babylon 5 included a mere handful of “arc-episodes” per year which drove the series-long story, while most episodes were self-contained narratives. In its third and fourth years, the need to accelerate the storytelling lead to every episode simply driving the main plot. Creator J. Michael Straczynski described it as a television novel.

This approach was picked up by some sit-coms, notably Friends, which for a while became almost a soap opera with a laugh track as many episodes included almost no new story elements, simply picking up threads from the previous instalment and leaving them still dangling waiting for the next one. Now it’s a mark of prestige. Shows like The SopranosLost and The Wire get the critical acclaim that they do precisely because they tell complex stories over tens of hours, rather than simple yarns in forty minutes. The advantage of this approach is that regular viewers can’t wait for the next new show. The drawback is that it’s hard to join the party late, so new viewers may be left stranded.

But it’s almost impossible now to imagine a long-running series which doesn’t do this to some extent, and so when retooling Doctor Who for the twenty-first century, Russell T Davies, while still basically thinking of ten discrete stories told over 13 episodes, nevertheless included a little device which could crop up in more than one story early in the run and which would pay off only in the season finale. Bad Wolf in 2005 was followed by Torchwood in 2006 and then by Mister Saxon in 2007. But in all these cases, the emphasis was still on stand-alone stories. Remove or ignore the “arc” material and you lose nothing.

But that’s not the game that Moffat is playing. A lot of the material we’ve seen so far is almost meaningless except in the context of a storyline that has yet to fully reveal itself, which leads to a slightly “bumpy” viewing experience. In this one episode, all the material about the Silents harks back to the beginning of last year, and we still don’t know the meaning of “Silence will fall” (or is it “Silents will fall”?). The plotline about the Doctor’s death in 200 years is still unresolved at the end of this episode and we are still no wiser about who the little girl is and why she’s in that space suit. What we do know is that she has the ability to regenerate and all this presumably has something to do with Amy’s Shroedinger’s foetus, but it’s impossible to say what at this stage. Then there’s the startling appearance of Frances Barber with what looks like a cyber eyepatch popping up from a later episode and all this is without mentioning River Song, the mystery of whose identity was first posed in 2008’s Silence (Silents?) in the Library. It’s a bit much for the casual viewer, isn’t it? And even for the devoted fan, is it asking too much to include material only when it’s actually relevant, instead of making much of the episode feel like those “next week on Doctor Who” throw-forwards?

So, finally let’s talk about River Song. As anyone will know who’s read or seen any of his work before, Steven Moffat loves language and loves exploiting ambiguity in language. The utter absurdity of the rebooting-the-universe plotline (“just turn it off and on again”) from the end of last year was redeemed for me in its entirety by the sheer breathtaking brilliance and heartstopping power of the TARDIS being described as “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. He’s been teasing us for four years with who River Song might be. Let’s look at some of the evidence.

  • She whispers the Doctor’s real name to him, and he says that there’s only one person to whom he ever could or would reveal that.
  • She calls him “sweetie”
  • She refers to him (or at least to someone) as her “old fella” who she says wouldn’t like her gunplay
  • She has a deep affection and regard for him
  • She can fly the TARDIS (better than him)
  • A little girl is walking around planet Earth in the late 1960s who has the Time Lord power to regenerate
  • A forthcoming episode is called The Doctor’s Wife (a title once used by producer John Nathan-Turner as a ruse to discover if there was a mole in the Doctor Who office)

So, it seems almost inevitable that she is just that – The Doctor’s Wife. But after four years of waiting and teasing, the answer has to be less obvious than that doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?

Anyway, it seems as if tonight – to try and lure back the casual viewer – the Doctor will uncharacteristically disregard his usually insatiable curiosity and simply go on a random adventure instead. Good. I think…

Four stars for the two-parter, but I reserve the right to reassess at the end of the series in July. Or November.

PS: Welcome friend of the blog Henry Dyer, whose own blog is here.