Archive for September, 2012

So… what did I think of The Power of Three?

Posted on September 24th, 2012 in Culture | No Comments »

Doctor Who is often at its best when it focuses on just one thing. There’s a Rutan in a lighthouse. Who created the Daleks? Don’t blink, blink and you’re dead. Trying to juggle too many different ideas, concepts, points of focus can easily lead to muddle, especially when you’re trying to deliver a movie-of-the-week in 45 minutes.

Sometimes an episode can suffer from being over-ambitious and yet the parts which work work so well that I’m prepared to forgive a bit of muddle. School Reunion never does anything interesting with its alien invasion plot beyond a bit of amusing undercover work from the Doctor in the first five minutes. But the return of Sarah Jane and K9 and the amazing meeting-of-companions past and present means that the underdeveloped melodrama never gets in the way of the relationship story which delivers handily.

Writer Chris Chibnall’s best script for Doctor Who is easily 42, which follows the principle of Keep It Simple Stupid. By contrast, the Silurian two-parter has barely enough material for 60 minutes, let alone 90. And Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is an obvious first-draft with no care or time taken to smooth over the bumps and properly bed-in the plot points (despite Moffat’s claims in Doctor Who Magazine that the script was “perfect” as delivered). How would The Power of Three measure-up given that it was trying to balance an alien invasion plot with a Ponds-eye view of The Doctor?

By and large, it worked very well indeed.

The sudden arrival on Earth of countless identical smooth black cubes is a delightful and arresting image, which works extremely well as a point of focus, providing The Doctor, Rory, Amy and not forgetting diligent Brian, with a deep mystery to explore, providing time for The Doctor’s impact on the Ponds’ lives to be examined. As well as including the traditional first-person narration by a shortly-departing companion, the story is full of incidental pleasures – The Doctor’s demented need to fill time by playing keepy-uppy, doing the hoovering and painting any available fences; an RTD-style series of celebrity cameos; the return of UNIT, now re-oriented (“science leads”) and led by daughter-of-the-Brig Kate Stewart played by bloody Jemma Redgrave; and the now apparently obligatory side-story, this time involving Zygons and Henry VIII.

All this time, we get only a couple of hints at the cubes’ necessarily malevolent nature and this too is a dangerous game. The longer you leave it, the more you spin out the suspense, the more jaw-droppingly amazing must the reveal be when it finally comes. Chibnall again plays it clever here by initially making the actions of the cubes when they come to life bewilderingly inconsistent, but when they do strike, it’s fierce and hard.

It’s really only in the last ten minutes that the careful balancing of timing and theme slips through the story’s grasp. While it’s an enormous pleasure to see Steven Berkoff snarling his way through the lines, Shakri’s plan and motivations were pretty standard-issue, and The Doctor’s solution seemed to amount to little more than a bit of sonic-ing. Here’s also where, in his zeal to build up the excitement and whack up the stakes, Chibnall hugely over-reaches himself. As soon as you announce that around a third of the Earth’s population has suffered fatal heart attacks, any half-awake viewer is going to recognise that a reset switch is about to be thrown. And while I’m grateful that a) we didn’t actually rewind time and b) the solution was properly bedded-in to the story and not grafted-on at the last minute, the timing is way, way off. Even given that the cubes, which are designed to find live, beating hearts and administer a fatal shock, can be reprogrammed with a flick of the sonic to instead find only those hearts which have already been stopped and administer a shock sufficient to get them going again, The Doctor still has only  something like two minutes to zap the victims before permanent brain damage is inflicted. Not the many minutes of Berkoffing which we actually got. And that’s generously drawing a veil over the fact that you can’t shock a non-beating heart back into life anyway, only correct the rhythm of a heart which is not beating properly. And while I enjoyed the sight of The Doctor struggling through with one heart out of action, I was frustrated at how quickly and easily this was resolved. Surely, if anyone is going to defibrillate The Doctor in a hospital, it should be medically-trained Rory?

So, if the climax was a bit skimpy, the Pond/Doctor story generally made up for it, with Brian’s final speech sending the Ponds back to the TARDIS I thought particularly effective. It’s an essentially unbreakable rule of scriptwriting physics that the more screen-time you give to your personal drama, the less you have available for your alien-invasion plot, and it’s to Chris Chibnall’s credit that he balanced both demands as well as he did for as long as he did.

Elsewhere, the production team is not tested to breaking point, but ably rises to the occasion. The make-up job on the two creepy orderlies is fine (if a bit reminiscent of The Empty Child), Douglas Mackinnon’s camera consistently frames the story in interesting ways and Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill prepare to send the Ponds off  to their final reward in fine style.

For the first half-hour, I honestly thought this was going to be my favourite of the season so far, earning four-and-a-half or even five stars until the last ten minutes, but that slightly limp resolution sees The Power of Three stuck on four, roughly even with Asylum and Mercy but still a tremendous improvement on the dreadfully clumsy Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

4 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of A Town Called Mercy?

Posted on September 16th, 2012 in Culture | No Comments »

For the 2012 Season, Mr Moffat has promised us a mini-movie every week, but so far neither has really lived up to the billing. Not only because of the presence of the archetypal returning foe, in the shape of the Daleks, but also because of the shenanigans involving Jenna Louise Coleman, and the ongoing Rory/Amy soap opera, Asylum of the Daleks, good as it was, felt much more like the latest episode in a continuing saga. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was much more self-contained, but it just felt too ordinary to earn the title of “mini-movie”. A Town Called Mercy might just qualify however.

It helps that we get to drop the Doctor and co into a fresh genre. Westerns have only been attempted rarely by the series, with the most notable version from 1966 carrying the reputation in some quarters as the worst Doctor Who story ever (this is probably unfair). Last year’s season-opener included some Western set-decoration but was concerned with other things entirely. This genuinely was a Western with all the swagger, morality-plays and suspense that implies. The Doctor’s arrival in Mercy was especially pleasing and accurate. Whereas last week, Chris Chibnall’s script doled out achingly familiar icons one-by-one as if they were astonishing innovations, this week Toby Whithouse dashes off Western clichés in a flurry, but with a knowing wink, and with efficiency bordering on haste. You want a Western? Okay good, here’s the border town, swinging saloon doors, piano that stops playing as soon as strangers enter town, just like you asked for. Now let’s do something more interesting.

And more interesting it certainly was. Instead of a simple good-vs-evil, we get a satisfyingly complicated mix of self-interest, tribalism, ends, means and justifications. Jex is arguably a war criminal, even though his actions ended a war which would no doubt have cost further lives. The Gunslinger is arguably bringing justice, but in his single-minded pursuit of Jex and his colleagues, he is bringing more suffering, not ending it. Now, none of this is especially innovative, and it maybe needed an extra twist in the final ten minutes, rather than having Jex simply solve everyone’s problems by obediently committing suicide at the first opportunity, but it’s refreshing to see Doctor Who attempting to tackle some of these issues, and the Old West setting and the Doctor’s uncharacteristic lapse into vengefulness I think means that the team pulled it off, assisted by lovely performances from Adrian Scarborough and especially Ben Browder – a neat bit of casting that made the character wrongly seem invulnerable, making it all the more shocking when the Gunslinger guns him down.

I do have niggles though. Very unusually, on Moffat’s watch, the rules aren’t especially clear. Will the Gunslinger risk collateral damage or not? The answer “sometimes” is rather unsatisfying. And the business with the town’s rocks-and-bits-of-wood border was very confusing. I initially assumed that the Gunslinger was incapable of crossing the barrier due to some bit of Kahler magic, rigged up at the same time as the lights and the heating. Yet, when the time comes, the Gunslinger simply marches over it, as if he and Jex had simply been playing a game up till then and the Gunslinger had now opted to change the rules. Oh, and Rory is rather poorly served. Remove him entirely and the plot is scarcely affected.

Hardly perfect then, but a huge improvement over last week and easily deserving of four stars, but it’s a bit frustrating, that especially after such a long wait, the script wasn’t given that final polish which it needed.

4 out of 5 stars

A few additional stray observations.

  • Having criticised the usual indefatigable design departments last week, I have to take them task again this week for the very derivative look of the Gunslinger, whose make-up was exactly half-and-half Borg from Star Trek The Next Generation and Tony from Total Recall.
  • Lots of good jokes this week too, especially the Doctor’s tea order and Susan the transgender horse.
  • As well as the Gunslinger’s willingness or not to injure others in the crossfire, the business with the squiggly tattoos confusing its targeting system was undercooked and far less relevant than you might think given the amount of attention it got on-screen.
  • Can we have a rule that you can’t do robot POV shots any more unless you think of something new to do with them? The Gunslinger was already in the habit of speaking commands aloud to himself. Did we have to see them on a heads-up display as well?

So… What did I think of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship?

Posted on September 9th, 2012 in Culture | No Comments »

When Russell T Davies brought Doctor Who back in 2005, his first concern was that it should be fun. This is very smart thinking. The possibilities of the series are, after all, endless. If you have the entire universe of time and space at your disposal, and where you are isn’t fun, then by all means find something more fun to do. We can do without a lot of tedious hand-wringing and hair-pulling. We need to get the mass audience back.

The casting of Christopher Eccleston slightly pulled the stories in another direction, and the two strands of tortured lonely god and devil-may-care galactic adventurer were not always perfectly braided together. Much more successful was David Tennant, who pulled off the joie-de-vivre with much more ease and comfort than his predecessor and so made the flashes of angst and pain more significant for being fewer and further between. And so a good series of Doctor Who can and should include heart-breaking episodes like Doomsday and Human Nature as well as those which are just a (horrible word) romp such as Partners in Crime or Tooth and Claw, but the Doctor is usually permitted one scene of headshaking moralising so it doesn’t all seem too glib.

This is what was so profoundly odd about Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. First of all, it’s a complete muddle. Silurians, Rory’s dad, Queen Nefertiti, big game hunters, a sinister trader, comedy robots, dinosaurs – and, of course, a spaceship – assembled virtually at random with no sense of purpose, focus or theme. And it contains a number of things which we haven’t seen before. The Doctor’s new habit of dropping off Mr and Mrs Pond at the end of each adventure and then scooping them up again at the beginning of the next is bothersome. There’s no particular reason for him not to do this, I suppose, but he’s never done it before and I don’t quite understand why he’s doing it now.

This is extended in tonight’s episode in which he also takes Queen Nefertiti from the end of a previous (unseen) adventure and Rupert Graves’ standard-issue great white hunter, not to mention Rory’s dad. “I’ve never had a gang before,” comments the Doctor, hanging a lantern on it. No, and there’s no particular reason to have one now. Except of course, because it might seem fun.

And for once, even the art department lets the side down, with the spaceship interior also a jumble of location work, exteriors (for no good reason) and then a very, very standard-issue spaceship set (possibly reused from an earlier story?). That’s this episode all over – nothing is consistent and yet all the individual pieces seem very familiar. The dinosaurs are faithfully duplicated from the Jurassic Park playbook, even including a big game hunter triangulated by two raptors (if Rupert Graves had said “clever girl” I might have given up altogether). Indira of the Indian Space Association is no different from the countless other stubborn military types we’ve seen before. David Bradley’s Solomon is a carbon copy of venal traders from other stories and Rory’s dad, while brightly played by Mark Williams, is exactly as we might have guessed he’d be.

This all might have played better if the stakes had seemed higher, but the drawback of the characters – especially the Doctor – treating the adventures which follow as a romp is that it becomes harder and harder for the viewer to take it at all seriously. If it’s all just larks, then what’s the point? And, then – right on cue – comes the Doctor’s moralising speech to Solomon.

By the end of the episode, everyone has been issued with their raison d’être – Nefertiti is a prize to be won, Riddell is necessary to fight off raptors, Indira’s missiles will destroy Solomon’s ship instead of the Silurian ark and, most limply of all, the flight controls require two pilots of the same gene… thing.. and that’s why Rory’s dad is there. So that’s why the Doctor suddenly felt the need to assemble a gang. This is dreadfully clunky writing with the basic pieces assembled, but no attempt made whatsoever to smooth over the joins or create any sense of organic growth. And, most unforgivably of all, even having hired two famous comedians to provide the voices, the two comedy robots never say anything even remotely funny.

Reading all this back, it sounds rather as if I didn’t like it, but as bumpy and as clumsy and as over-familiar as it was, much of it was very charming. Matt Smith was as winning as ever – I particularly liked his line-reading of the word “run”, faced with the dinosaurs for the first time. Karen Gillan, although rendered rather redundant by the plethora of other characters, gave good banter and the lovely shot of Mark Williams sipping his tea while looking out over the planet Earth was worth any number of unfunny comedy robots.

This is the trouble with “fun” episodes of Doctor Who. If you scoop up a pick-and-mix of characters and ideas that have worked before, fling them all at the page and keep everybody quipping back-and-forth then you might make a “fun” 45 minutes of television, but at the end of it – what’s the point? If it’s bracingly original, remarkably structured or features a truly astonishing turn from a major guest-star then it may not need to be high drama. But familiar components don’t get any less familiar when you mix-and-match them and clumsy plotting is still clumsy plotting even if you’re lucky enough to have Matt Smith reciting your exposition.

And this still sounds as if I didn’t like it, but it was perfectly entertaining while it was on, it’s just that – with the whole universe to explore, I’m frustrated at being given hand-me-downs. But, you know what, if this is as bad as this series gets, then this could be regarded as a classic year. What worries me is that this is the norm, and that when Chris Chibnall inevitably takes over as show-runner (please, no) we’ll get a lot more like this.

3 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Asylum of the Daleks?

Posted on September 1st, 2012 in Culture | No Comments »

What is Doctor Who about?

I don’t mean what are its themes, its preoccupations. The answer to that is simple – whatever it likes. I mean what is constructed out of? What do its various writers and, in the modern era, it’s “showrunner”, need enough of to make an episode?

Classic Doctor Who is about incidents (and, on a good day, dialogue), from the early 1960s to the late 1980s with very few exceptions, it’s just about setting up a situation and then stringing together enough incidents to get through the allotted number of episodes. The Daleks, the second-ever story, contrives to strand the TARDIS crew on the planet Skaro, introduces malevolent aliens and fills the remaining time with incidents until the Doctor and his companions can finally depart (or almost fills, at any rate). The need for radiation drugs, navigating a deep chasm by rope, the final attack on the Dalek city – incident follows incident with only enough character development to get to the next incident. There is a theme of some kind – pacifism can’t defeat totalitarianism – but it’s scarcely what viewers are tuning in for.

Survival, the last story of the classic run, works in exactly the same way. The Doctor and his companion are wrenched away from contemporary Earth and the safety of the TARDIS and transmitted to an alien world, complete with malevolent foes and the script now fills the remaining time with incidents until the Doctor and Ace are returned to the TARDIS (over-fills, if anything). Even the very best stories of the classic series, such as The Talons of Weng-Chiang or Inferno, conform to this model.

But the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who wasn’t made out of the same stuff. Sure, there still were exciting incidents – the astonishing motorway chase in the The Runaway Bride, the showdown with Mr Finch in School Reunion, the Ood going rogue in The Impossible Planet – but the episodes now existed to put the characters through the wringer emotionally, in a way much more akin to most narrative fiction from soap to Shakespeare. The point of Doomsday is not that the Cybermen and Daleks are banished to the void, the point of Doomsday is what it feels like to lose a loved one. The point of Midnight is not watching David Tennant and Lesley Sharp lip-sync, it’s how small groups of people can make very bad moral choices. Russell T Davies Doctor Who is about emotions.

But there’s another strand to this era of the programme, which began back in the early 1980s. Contemporary Doctor Who is also about moments. The point of Earthshock isn’t the death of Adric – insofar as that is dealt with at all, it’s handled in the following story. The point of Earthshock is the reveal of the Cybermen at the end of part one. The point of Rembrance of the Daleks is the Dalek going up the stairs, and Davros popping up at the end, and that spaceship landing in the school playground. And so, at least part of the point of Doomsday is actually the Cybermen fighting the Daleks, as they have in playground after playground since 1966. You only have to look at some of the episode titles to see this – The Doctor’s Daughter, Let’s Kill Hitler and so on.

Since taking over as showrunner, Moffat has embraced this wholeheartedly. But these moments, untethered from emotion, don’t always work. Rory, facing an army of Cybermen , asking “shall I repeat the question” as the entire Cyberfleet immolates behind him, is either punch-the-air glorious or hideously smug, depending completely on your mood as you watch it. And it’s a far bigger problem for Moffatt than it ever was for Rusty, since Moffat isn’t nearly as interested in emotions as he is in concepts. His model for Doctor Who isn’t the whirl and sacrifice of The Caves of Androzani (probably the nearest the classic series gets to the RTD style), it’s the wit and dash of City of Death, with its multiple time zones, endless copies of the Mona Lisa, constant quipping and preposterously high stakes.

This can let him down badly, as it did at the end of the last series, where dozens of complex ideas furiously orbited a hollow centre, and ultimately didn’t even make any narrative sense, let alone have any emotional resonance. Whether as part of a long-held plan, or in response to negative feedback on the last series, Moffat has promised to “throw the lever back the other way” this time and give us 14 stand-alone stories instead of attempting a single series arc. Asylum of the Daleks is the first of these movie-of-the-week episodes. Was it any good?

Well, actually, yes it was. Especially as a season-opener, it worked very, very well. It doesn’t have the scope or ambition of A Good Man Goes To War or Doomsday, but neither is it groaning under the weight of a year or more’s worth of ferociously complicated plot. The opening, complete with portentous voice-over and atmospherically shadowy figures, tells even the newest viewer everything they need to know about these tinplated gravel-voiced foes and then we’re plunged into the story proper, pausing only briefly to scoop up Rory and Amy along the way.

The three of them are then inserted into the titular Asylum on the flimsiest of pretexts, but the place looks gorgeous, from the amazing snowy exteriors to the gloomy caverns beneath. A bit of shame though that “every Dalek ever” have all been lit with the same orangey glow, rendering them all looking the same as the bronze 2005 model, which now apparently is the default. (Part of this of course, is to excuse the hideous redesign from last year, and pass it off as just another variation.)

One of the benefits of Moffat’s concept-first approach is that he is very, very thorough at mining each of those concepts for everything they’re worth. The Weeping Angels from Blink (still possibly the finest episode the new series has produced) seemed to fit the confines of that Swiss watch of a script perfectly, and yet when they reappear in The Time of Angels he wrings fresh nuances out of the same basic idea. Asylum of the Daleks is likewise full of ideas we’ve seen before, but each is given a lick of paint, a new angle or simply a placing in the narrative which manages to make them seem brand spanking new.

We’ve seen human-controlled Daleks before, from the second-ever Dalek story in fact, but we’ve never seen them presented quite so viscerally, with eyestalks and gunsticks protruding from their very flesh. And we’ve been confronted with the horror of being converted into a Dalek before – most shockingly in the form of Arthur Stengos in Revelation of the Daleks. But here, just when it seems as if Amy’s fate is to lose her humanity and turn on her friends, it transpires that the author (and the Doctor) had another agenda entirely. Thus we are (at least I was) totally unprepared for the horrible fate of the other guest artist of the week.

Okay, now hang on a minute. Wait one goddamn moment here.

Steven Moffat has been perfectly clear in interview after interview that these five episodes are his goodbye to the Ponds, and that we will meet Jenna-Louise Coleman playing “Clara” (probably) in the Christmas special. And yet I’m pretty sure, no I’m very sure, actually I’m positive, in fact there’s her name is in the credits – that’s bloody Jenna-Louise Coleman right there on my telly, right now, playing someone called “Oswin” and now she’s a Dalek and now she’s been blown up! Just what the hell is going on here? No doubt, in five episodes’ time, some monstrously convoluted timey-wimey backstory will explain, but for the moment her presence in this story was just confusing, and an unnecessary distraction from what was by, and large, a rather artful balancing of the demands of incident, emotion and concept.

Anyway, whoever she turns out to be, Coleman gave a very good account of herself, and the regular cast were also on very good form, with Matt Smith in particular finding a slightly firmer, stabler reading of the Doctor which I thought was very effective. Possibly the Asylum itself wasn’t quite as Dalek-y as it might have been, but that’s the inevitable problem with Doctor Who vs the Daleks – have him surrounded by swarms of them on a regular basis and their failure to pull the trigger becomes a bit awkward for everyone. In fact, various Dalek “puppets” had ample opportunity to swiftly and suddenly exterminate all three regulars, but they were generally too busy pretending to be human and/or dead – apparently only for our benefit. The set design was wonderfully Dalek-y, though and I did like the shot of Rory and Amy peering out through the mesh surrounding the prison in which they first find themselves, in exactly the manner that Dalek operators do to this day.

And while I like, I very much like, the notion that any memory of the Doctor has been erased from the collective Dalek consciousness, I am also acutely aware that this was exactly what all that screwing around faking his own death was supposed to have achieved at the end of the last series.

So, if not scaling the very heights of what the series can achieve, then this was certainly an effective relaunch of the show for 2012, thoroughly entertaining and exciting, more-or-less making sense most of the time and neatly avoiding the worst excesses of the previous series. I’m still not quite sure why the Doctor keeps feeling the need to return the Ponds to their suburban home at the end of each adventure though. Does he want them as travelling companions or not?

4 out of 5 stars