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December 27, 2012
- Doctor Who: Christmas Special 2012
Best Doctor Who Christmas special ever? Certainly. Best episode of Doctor Who since about 2010? Almost definitely. Like a huge plateful of Christmas dinner, it's hard to know where to start. Normally, I'd begin by tossing out the sprouts but thankfully Steven Moffat decided to serve none. Honestly, there's nothing I can fault The Snowmen on. Like the gravy (and my analogy, I appreciate) the plot here is a little thin, but in an episode of change and big ideas, I think that's probably a wise move.
Critics have said that 2012's festive outing in the Tardis feels much less Christmassy than normal - personally, I don't agree. Nothing says Christmas in Doctor Who like untimely demise and, in particular, women falling to their death in slow-motion. The eponymous snowmen, made of living snow, are credible villains: camp enough for Christmas, but never straying into pantomime. Richard E Grant puts in a fantastically restrained performance as Simeon, their lord and master, and it's a real shame that he's left apparently dead at the end of the hour. His story - a sad little boy, manipulated by his own loneliness into a monstrous Victorian overlord - is a dark tale, and largely bereft of Christmas spirit, but it parallels the Doctor's apathy and fits in with the Victorian melancholy.
Nothing more festive than an ice-zombie of a drowned-governess...
Despite the downbeat plot, the episode is perfectly balanced thanks to the returning crime-fighting trio of Strax, Jenny and Madame Vastra. Surely the most well-loved bit-part characters of the new era, it's great to see them back in action (and in Strax's case, back from the dead). I'd love to see more of them - I'm not certain they'd be able to survive their own spin-off without the Doctor, but they'd make a great alternative to The Brigadier as recurring characters. The direct references to Sherlock are also difficult not to smile at, although you do have to wonder if Steven Moffat's mind is slowly melting into the shape of a pipe.
Of course, the most anticipated return of the episode was new companion Clara (previously Oswin). Jenna-Louise Coleman puts in a great performance, and her relentless charm and optimism is the perfect antidote to Matt Smith's broken Doctor. It's great to see some proper character development with the Doctor for the first time in a long while, and Coleman's character is the best mystery of the series to date. I was relieved that the Doctor made the connection between her and souffle girl before the end, as too much dramatic irony slowly sours into frustration. Despite disappointment in the past with long plot arcs, I'm genuinely optimistic about Clara and can't wait to see how she turns out.
The unsung heroes of the episode have to be the designers. From the Victorian streets to Simeon's steampunk lab and Vastra's Silurian hide-out, it's a beautiful looking piece of television. And of course, there's a whole new look to the Tardis - bruised and battered on the outside, cold and alien on the inside - like a cross between a submarine and a cathedral. I love the new look - I was never very keen on the last console room, as it just didn't look dangerous enough. It looks like the general structure of the room has been carried over to the new set, but the stark colours and closer walls lend the new design a claustrophobic feel. The only downside for me was what I think was a fairly prominent use of CGI on the set. I know that modern television relies on CGI for even simple shots - adding location backgrounds, etc - and that this is normally so seamless that you don't even notice. But the joy of the last two Tardis sets is that you could feasibly walk onto either. Just as with the wooden box itself, they had a 'realness' to them that made them somehow tangible. With the new set, I'm not sure how much is just green cloth, but certainly the spinning rings and ceiling detail must be. This is a shame because it's a feature we'll see every time the Tardis travels - although the central column does have a subtle, 'real' movement of its own. A small moan I know. I'd love to know if anyone's seen any production photos of the actual set, but I'm almost certain that the rings are CGI: the spotlights on them don't affect the shadows on the floor of the set.
Slightly-less 'bigger on the inside'...
The new Tardis design is also a clear nod to the history of the show, reflecting the Davidson and McGann era consoles. This is part of a whole pattern of brilliant homages to the history of the programme - the revamped title sequence, theme tune and the Doctor's costume all borrow elements from previous incarnations of the show. Richard E Grant has also previously played two 'unofficial' incarnations of The Doctor, and the Doctor's self-imposed exile lends the episode a Pertwee era feel. As a special treat for the nerdiest of fans, the Doctor's memory of 'The Great Intelligence' controlling the evil snow is most likely from two Second Doctor adventures, The Abominable Snowman and The Web of Fear, both featuring the same snowman-controlling entity. The latter episode is also set largely in the London Underground, and was broadcast in 1968 - The Eleventh Doctor in this episode gives the Great Intelligence a map of the Underground from 1967 - essentially, The Snowmen could be seen as a prequel. What's slightly worrying is that this is not your common or garden Doctor Who trivia; only one of the six episodes of The Web of Fear even survives. It's clear that the series is gearing up for its 50th Anniversary celebrations, and that's brilliant - as long as the series doesn't start to lose itself in referencing its back catalogue.
For me, this is easily the best episode of Doctor Who since The Eleventh Hour. With the Tardis sitting high above the clouds, it's a return to the dreamlike, fairytale quality that's been largely missing since the Doctor 'died', and it's great to have the Doctor on a mission again - there were many times during the last two series where it felt like he was sort of ignoring everything that happened around him. It also leaves us with so many questions for the new year. Who brought Strax back to life? How has Clara survived? Why did she choose 'Pond' as her only word to reach the Doctor and why does she know so much about him?
Is it Easter yet?
October 26, 2012
- Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 5
A month ago we said farewell to Amy and Rory, killed by the Weeping Angels. The Angels Take Manhattan was a dark, beautiful looking episode that took the Angels back to their Blinkroots - scary, clever villains (the statue of Liberty angel is just brilliant) with a unique time travel twist. But the plotting of the past in a pulp novella was much clumsier than Sally Sparrow's notes from the Angels' first outing, and did feel a bit repetitive.
The plot was also nowhere near as tight as Blink, and the holes bothered me greatly - as did a few tonally off-key moments, like River breaking her own wrist and the moribund couple's suicide pact that was more than a little troubling.
It was these holes that got me thinking though: I'm really not sure that this is the very last that we've seen of Amy and Rory. Regardless of the fact that I don't buy into the Doctor being unable to rescue the couple from some point in time (or at the very least, pop in for tea) we know that River will send her book to Amy to be published, and surely that means they could possibly meet again? We also know that River has unfinished business with the Doctor; she still doesn't know his name, and we know that's coming at The Fields of Trenzalore and The Fall of the Eleventh (I'm hoping that's going to be the episode title). With River still clearly having a part to play, it's not too much of a leap of imagination to think that her parents might have a brief cameo before her time - and the Eleventh Doctor's - comes to an end.
In fairness, this is probably just be wishful thinking. I can't say the Ponds' goodbye packed the same weight as Rose's departure, or the last two regenerations. Rory escapes a truly horrible fate but is instantly, dismissively offed - and that's just not fair really, considering how much practice he'd put into dying. Amy's goodbye is a little more poignant, but still feels hurried. It's only really the Doctor's dash back to Central Park to pick up the last chapter of his book that carries any punch - Moffat might make darker Who than Russell T Davies, but he's just not as good at sad endings.
In the end, there are just too many loose ends; if anything, the additional, un-filmed scene makes things even more muddled. Brian's lovely and everything, but what about Amy's parents? Are they dead or just forgotten? And why doesn't River get in touch with her grandfather?
Perhaps I'm nitpicking. At the very least though, we can be certain that we'll see the Angels again. The Doctor just left one wandering around New York...
September 18, 2012
- Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 3
A Town Called Mercy is a return to form, and everyone's gone trigger-happy - not least Chekhov.
I'm a big fan of Chekhov's Gun (steady now). It's an old-fashioned, solid mantra for making drama with a good, logical and (mostly) satisyfing plot:
If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.
- Anton Chekhov
Too often in Doctor Who, the gun is left hanging on the wall - or worse still, the wooden clogs in the corner magically come to life and shoot a Judoon in the knee (actually if that really did happen I'd probably love that episode). So A Town Called Mercy is a welcome break. Within 15 minutes of the Doctor, Amy and Rory walking into the Old Western frontier town of Mercy, the writing is on the wall for stranded alien Kahler Jex and his Cyborg nightmare 'The Gunslinger'. When Jex mentions how he used to be a surgeon and is 'sort-of' a father, we know that the monster that hunts him is a Frankenstein of his own making. And when the Doctor discovers his hidden spaceship, we know that the self-destruct sequence will come back to haunt one of the characters. It's the massive, used-to-be-an-arm, gun on the wall.
Either that gun is really massive, or this episode should've been 'Honey, I Shrunk The Doctor'
In that respect, the episode is slightly (and I really mean only slightly) disappointing. The plot is solid but predictable and there's no surprises in this little morality play - and no new ground for the Doctor to tread. As the characters struggle with what to do with Jex, equal parts the hero and the war criminal, we once again glimpse the Doctor's own guilt at his previous actions and see his principles questioned and tested. But there's nothing here that's not been done before - in Dalek, Boom Town, The Doctor's Daughter...actually, practically any episode with the Tenth Doctor. It's true that none of these episodes possess the same eloquence and subtlety in dialogue, character and performance (Adrian Scarborough is particularly enjoyable as the mercurial Jex) - but in terms of emotional kick, and how much we're made to care about the Doctor, they still come up trumps over A Town Called Mercy.
It's still a great episode of Doctor Who though, and the outcome is immensely satisfying. Elements of Frankenstein, Terminator, Red Dwarf and obviously numerous Westerns are threaded organically into the plot, and whereas other 'genre-takes-on-genre' episodes of Who feel cold and laboured (once again, Curse of the Black Spot, I'm not naming any names...) this feels like a loving homage from the Final Frontier to the Old Frontier. The Doctor's attitude to guns is the only inevitable clash, but Toby Whithouse manages to find a way to make the Doctor a cowboy who never fires a single bullet - unlike Amy, whose trigger-happy moment brings one of several moments of well-fitting humour to the episode.
Making Doctor Who funny is just as important to the identity of the series as scaring children witless. Whithouse gets this spot on too: the unseen screams and clinical euphemisms from Jex's experiment records recall the equally unpleasant Cybermen conversions in Rise of the Cybermen and will likely leave it's mark on many a nightmare. Whithouse manages and balances the the tone so carefully that the episode never feels too saccharine, even when the largely-forgettable bit-part townspeople die-or-survive over-earnestly; and unbelievably, even when the impressively monstrous steel and flesh creature suddenly goes all cuddly at the end.
'Sorry...who are you?'
It is a shame that this episode is so Doctor-centric that Amy and Rory don't get an awful lot to do; but this looks set to change in the next episode, The Power of Three, that focuses on their life between saving the universe. I'm massively excited about this domestic invasion story (not least because it features Steven Berkoff, and is rumoured to include a frankly long-overdue appearance of Prof Brian Cox) - as good as the Blockbuster idea is, you can't beat the Doctor making a house call.
September 02, 2012
- Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 1
In 1975, Mary Whitehouse's National Viewer's and Listener's Association were up in arms over Doctor Who serial Genesis of the Daleks, branding the story 'teatime brutality for tots'.
And she said that like it was a bad thing.
Even the most defensive fanboy can't really deny that, in recent years, the Daleks have lacked the menace that drove children behind sofas in the 60s. In fact, at times they've even been a bit laughable (Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, I'm looking at you guys). After admitting that the Daleks have been significantly over-used in the series, it's clear that Steven Moffat is taking the opportunity to make Daleks scary again: Asylum of the Daleks is a truly great reinvention for the space-Nazi-pepperpots. But was it a triumphant return for Doctor Who?
It's certainly different. Once again, Moffat has used the series-opener to draw the shadows in a little closer around the series. This is the darkest episode of the series to date; like Genesis of the Daleks, it's a violent, ponderous and exciting installment. Whilst in 1975 it was the Time Lords with a mission for the Doctor, Asylum makes history in the series by having the Daleks order the Doctor to do their dirty work. And whilst Genesis gave us an origin story for the vaguely-conical n'er-do-wells, Asylum practically reboots them, wiping the slate clean for the Doctor and his most famous of foes.
But whilst both of these Dalek episodes are rich, strong stories, they also both suffer from pacing issues - whilst Genesis felt like it struggled at times to fill its 6 episodes (honestly, how many times can Sarah Jane get captured and then escape?), Asylum feels like it's a two-parter squeezed and hacked down to fit a single 50 minute slot. The result is a jarring and internally inconsistent episode that never quite delivers what it promises.
As opening scenes go, you can't really ask for more than a huge, decaying dalek statue looming on the Skaro skyline. It's taken the series almost 24 years to return to the Dalek's home planet, and it's a massively satisfying geek-moment. What's more, we're very quickly introduced to a creepy new form of Dalek threat - the converted 'puppets', walking dead humans with Dalek eyestalks and weapons. When we later learn that these puppets can be formed from even the long dead, Doctor Who adds the most horrific zombie grunts seen so far to its ever-expanding bestiary.
TripAdvisor reviews generally don't recommend Skaro.
These daleks-in-disguise capture the Doctor, Amy and Rory and present them to the (admittedly stunning) Parliament of the Daleks. This is where the pacing gets irritating. A lot of exposition is covered in a short amount of time, and it feels unnecessary. The conceit that the Daleks find pure hatred beautiful and cannot bring themselves to destroy the most deranged of their kind - nor indeed their arch nemesis - is charming in its novelty, but as they deploy the 'Predator' and his companions to the surface of the Asylum, you do wonder why it was even necessary to have these scenes at all.
After all, the reason for bringing the Doctor to the Asylum is just so that Daleks have an excuse to be scary again. Steven Moffat has a genuine flair for understanding what makes children scared, and I honestly think he's cracked it with the Daleks. The Daleks aren't scary in huge numbers, blowing stuff up and swarming through the sky. They're at their best when they're in small, dark corridors. When they're old and slow and impossible to predict. And, as it turns out, when they've gone Chicken Oriental. This is what made 2005's Dalek (arguably the last decent outing for the murderous dustbins) so effective, and why they made total sense as the baddies of choice in low-budget, mid 20th Century science fiction series. The only problem is that the Asylum is so good that the Parliament and all the pre-amble feels like it's tacked on - the remains of something larger and more interesting that ended up cut for expediency.
Despite the pacing, the series is as visually striking as ever. It all goes a bit Twin Peaks at one point - will these hallucinations turn out to be important somehow?
The tone too, begins to jar in the Asylum. Rory and Amy's divorce was a bit of a shocker on its own, but it's the reason why their marriage disintegrated that left me feeling a little cold. The revelation that the interventions of Madame Kovarian and the Silence left Amy infertile at Demon's Run is horrifying, and whilst Steven Moffat's script handle's the trauma articulately and empathetically, it casts an extra unpleasant tone on the events of last season and the flippancy of the Doctor. River is now the only child this couple will ever have, and still the Doctor insits they leave her behind and, worse still, lets her go to jail for a crime she didn't commit. It's brilliant that Amy and Rory are finally behaving like real people in the face of the terrible things that have happened to them, but it feels like it comes too late and doesn't feel like the maturity of the rest of the series is ready to match the new level of drama introduced. For instance, next week's episode is called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. The oscillations of the series between wannabe serious drama and business-as-usual-gurning is almost a little nauseating.
Nowhere is this more clear in poor Oswin, the best kept secret in science fiction. I was genuinely surprised when Jenna-Louise Coleman made her first appearance significantly earlier than expected, as I should imagine nearly everyone else watching was too. Oswin was likeable, clever, confident - and a Dalek, unfortunately for her. As the Doctor breaks the news to her that she is living in a waking dream, her mind protecting her from her horrific Dalek metamorphosis, she breaks down and almost succumbs to her Dalek personality. But in this truly mind-wobbling and endearing moment (who knew a Dalek crying would sound so sad?), the mood is almost undermined by a trackback to an earlier comedy Rory moment, as Oswin stumbles through the word 'eggs-term-inate'. It's positively weird.
Despite being a Dalek, Oswin's not exactly doing much to break the Companion stereotype. We'll see.
Ultimately, Oswin retains her humanity and ensures the destruction of the Dalek Asylum. But her greatest impact on the Doctor must surely be the deletion of all references to him from the Dalek collective consciousness. This is a huge deal: it not only helps the Doctor perpetuate the myth that he is dead, but adds to the number of people asking that all-important question: Doctor Who? Furthermore, it's the closest thing to forgiveness that the Doctor will probably ever get for his actions in the Time War. Matt's Smith's increasingly troubled Doctor is absolved, and the character - and the series - will probably never be the same again. It's just a shame that the episode ends so quickly that we don't get time to dwell on these repercussions. We don't even get a cliffhanger or teaser as to what might happen to Oswin. It's all over so quickly that the Tardis doesn't even have time to dematerialise properly - look how insanely-quickly it fades away on the Parliament ship, and again outside the Ponds. These shots were clearly trimmed to within an inch of their life to fit the episode length. If these new 'blockbuster' single episodes are all going to be as deep and dramatic as the first, wouldn't it have been better to give them a full hour?
All this being said, these are minor gripes. A little patchy in tone and pacing as it may be, Asylum of the Daleks is a genuinely great and exciting episode, a return to form for the Daleks and a new chapter in Doctor Who with another huge question mark left hanging over the series. Who is Oswin Oswald, and who will Clara Oswin be?
September 06, 2011
I just rewatched Let's Kill Hitler after feeling that maybe I was being too harsh on it. I still don't think it's a great episode, but as I said before there are some real shining moments that I think on first viewing I completely overlooked.
As annoying as I find River Song, Alex Kingston's performance as a young woman in an older body is actually really brilliant. But it's Matt Smith who has the best moments - his frailty and guilt in the Tardis as the poison sets in is really moving, as is his last stand. It's also another glimpse at the much older man beneath the surface, and the feeling that the Doctor doesn't have a plan is a little unnerving.
The dialogue is just as funny as ever and there are some beautiful looking shots - the Teselecta is a work of art and the whole dining room scene is brilliantly put together. Ultimately I really want to like this episode becuse it has so many redeeming features - but I do stand by my earlier criticisms. The plot arc feels a bit tired now. Hoping for some big twists before the series is out to reinvigorate it now. Was there anything significant about the Doctor mentioning 'the flesh' at the end of Night Terrors...?
September 05, 2011
- Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 8
I’m a big fan of Mark Gatiss, but I have to say that his episodes of Doctor Who aren't always my favourites. He’s never written a bad one, but they’re not often the most memorable. For instance, The Idiot’s Lantern is a nice little episode in Series 2, but it’s not a stand-out moment. On the other hand, 2005's The Unquiet Dead set the standard of horror in the newly-returned series of Doctor Who. Night Terrors, thankfully, follows in this vein and is a (relieving) return to form for the series.
For a start, the return to a domestic setting was really refreshing. The episode feels much smaller in scale and slower in pace, and it’s a welcome break from running around after River Song. A lot of criticism got fired towards Russell T Davies for keeping stories so close to Earth during his tenure, but personally I quite enjoy it when the Doctor makes a house call. As Gatiss proves, even the mundane can be terrifying, especially for children. From the perspective of a scared little boy, a block of flats becomes an imposing grimy tower washed out in nauseous, greenish hues and pitted with shadows from failed lights. It’s a beautiful looking episode, and that’s before we get inside a doll’s house.
Eight-year-old George lives in constant fear of pretty much everything around him, and locks all the bad things away, ritualistically, in his bedroom cupboard. The strength of his fear sends a call for help to the Doctor, who arrives to help George get to sleep. It’s a clean, simple premise that needs so little exposition that for the first time in a long while there’s some room for character development. George’s home situation, including his parents’ battle to understand him is interesting in itself, especially when the Doctor arrives to play the part of social services. The Landlord too is a nice creation, if only because we understand the pressures that the family is under - and that there are some problems that The Doctor will never understand and can never help with. George's Dad, Alex, is his real, everyday protector and he'll be fighting battles for him long after the Tardis has left. It’s not going to win a Gritty BAFTA, but it’s enjoyable to have more of a domestic subtext in an episode for a change.
In a hard-hitting alternate series, the Doctor plays a time travelling loan-shark with a penchant for throttling.
In terms of horror, there’s plenty to scare children here. All the things that terrify George will undoubtedly have made the smallies in the audience feel a bit nervous too. The doll’s house in George’s cupboard that holds all of his worst fears begins to swallow up the people that scare him too; including Rory and Amy who spend most of the episode dodging giant freakish wooden peg-dolls that speak with a collective, creepy child’s voice. The Doctor’s two companions are undoubtedly swept under the carpet a little here, but that’s necessary for the Doctor to be left alone so that he can bring out his paternal side and get to the bottom of George’s nightmares.
Karen Gillan is terrified of corners.
If the dolls scare the children, it’s George himself who provide the scares for the adults. There’s something of The Omen about the quiet little boy, and when the Doctor breaks through his clever perception filter and reveals to Alex that he simply cannot be George’s father, I have to admit my stomach turned. It’s a horrible realisation that somehow touches something fundamental about family and trust. It’s by far one of the best plot-twists Doctor Who has ever had: George is an alien ‘cuckoo in the nest’.
Ultimately, George learns he can control his fears (a nice bedtime metaphor for children across the land) and Alex realises that his origins don’t really matter: he’s still a son to him and George doesn’t realise he could be anything else. It’s a nicely warm conclusion, but it’s also the weakest part of the episode. For one thing, the climax happens too quickly and too easily to be truly satisfying. For another, the familial bond between Alex and George only serves to underline the fact that Rory and Amy are completely unphased by Melody’s disappearance into time and eventual metamorphosis into River Song, who they just left in a hospital somewhere. It's not really Gatiss's fault here as Night Terrors was originally scheduled for the first part of the series, but it still doesn't feel right: as with last series, the introduction of huge plot arcs makes stand-alone stories stick out like a Dalek with massive sore thumbs (where would they go? By the plunger? On the top?).
Besides an unnerving similarity to 2006's Fear Her (child with alien aspect locks things they fear in alternate dimensions rendered by their imagination), the ending’s really the only downfall of the episode. Everyone’s on top form, especially Matt Smith who gets the chance to explore more of the Doctor’s character. He gets a knock to his ego as, for the first time in a while, just introducing himself as ‘the Doctor’ doesn’t get him anywhere (in fact at one point he gets a door slammed in his face). As a result, he’s at his most earnest, oldest and uncertain: rethinking plans and reflecting on his past. Alex is also brilliantly drawn and Daniel Mays puts in a great performance, although he is sort of Craig Mk II. Amy and Rory don’t get a lot in this week, but their chase through the doll’s house provides most of the levity - not least Rory’s dismay at having potentially died again. On the other hand though, when a writer includes a series in-joke about killing Rory in a script, it's probably time to stop killing Rory. Let's hope no-one buys him a red shirt for Christmas.
Ultimately, Night-Terrors is a really enjoyable standalone episode. It's just that standalone episodes don't really work in the series anymore. And that's a sad thing.
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August 29, 2011
- Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 8
Hello again! How're you? I've had a hair cut and discovered green tea with lemon. It's AMAZING. It's been almost three months - not as long a gap as I'd been expecting, and entirely bearable. I was, infact, coming round to the split series structure. But if anything, Let's Kill Hitler has put me right off.
The clue's in the title of this episode really. The weird mini-gap means that actually the BBC publicity machine hasn't had time to garner interest in the second part of the series. Doctor Who needed something shocking and potentially controversial in order to reel in audiences. Who better than Hitler?
Except the thing is, once Hitler's involved, it seems that no one knows quite what to do with him. Except lock him in a cupboard, which is precisely what happens. I don't blame the BBC for this - there's little else they could do. Whilst the series is a great place for presenting moral dilemmas in accessible format and prompting tea-time discussions, it's too dangerous with Hitler. You can't defend Hitler or argue any case for not stopping his rise to power. You can get away with Pompeii as a fixed point in time; but not the Holocaust. Even as it is, by clumsily ignoring the horrors of the Second World War, we're left with the uncomfortable and frankly offensive assertion that River Song's attempt on the Doctor's life somehow makes her more evil than a man who sanctioned the murder of over 11 million people.
Hitler aside (because he really is completely periphery to events) there are a surprising number of really shining moments in this episode. I really did enjoy the little exploration of Amy's childhood with Rory and Mels, and the crop circle was a really great opening sequence. Rory escapes this episode as still my favourite companion character, and gets the lion's share of both heroics and comedy moments (punching Hitler in the face is admittedly quite funny). The shape shifting, time-travelling Teselecta robot full of miniaturised policemen from the future is a really great idea, but it never really gets off the ground. The focus of the episode is, after all, River Song and her mission to kill the Doctor by being nauseously irritating.
River does that classic pretend-gun-with-a-banana joke all the time until everyone dies.
Mels (River's previous regeneration) is a truly annoying character, and her sudden appearance and regerenation into River so soon in the second part of the series feels rushed when compared to how slowly the rest of her character history has been drip fed into the series since 2008. River's first appearance is by turns both too manic (let's face it, that post-regeneration fever is always quite annoying) yet also not enough. There's too much of her personality present to explain her killer streak. The 'programming' she's received doesn't seem to really inform who she is other than a callous urge to polish off the Timelord, and she questions herself all too quickly at the end. When she does break her programming, she neatly does away with all of her regenerative potential to save the Doctor and follow the timeline we know is ahead of her. In an obvious bit of retcon, this better helps explain why the Doctor couldn't tell she was a Time Lady (ish) back in Series 4, and gives another reason why she couldn't regenerate in The Library.
Of course, it's not the only bit of continuity shoe-horned into the episode. We get the appearance of former companions in the Tardis as holograms, all disappointingly rendered from publicity stills of the lead actresses. River gets her diary, learns how to fly the Tardis, and get's the Doctor's name whispered to her. She even gives a reason for why she appears older in later episodes. There's even another Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference and a Moffat-trademark banana. But it's all too much and only helps bury any plot. Nothing feels resolved, although amusingly this does mean that Hitler's still in the cupboard at the end of the episode.
Overall, there was just too much going on (which I realise is now becoming my most frequent critcism) and none of the characters manage to behave like normal people amongst the muddle. Amy and Rory are confused throughout and don't seem to have grasped the fact that they have forever lost a child to time. There's no reason why any of the characters would leave River alone at the end of the episode, and no reason why River shouldn't feel hurt by the fact that they do.
The convoluted story-arc feels like it has almost strangulated itself (am I the only one who thinks that River's timeline still doesn't quite make sense?), but the religious order of The Silence and Madame Kovarian still feel mysterious enough to keep me interested in the rest of the series. Next week does look like a return to form. Just please, no more River Song for a while.
June 05, 2011
- Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 7
This might be unpopular opinion time: I didn't really enjoy watching A Good Man Goes to War as much as I'd hoped.
I think it's this new series structure. Whilst it's nice to have less of a wait between one chunk of Who and the next, it does create the need to bring the series-arc to a climax much more quickly than before, whilst not revealing all of the plot mysteries so that there's still something to unravel when the series returns in Autumn. The result, however, is this odd little mini-finale in the middle of the run. And whilst it's pretty good fun, it's never really engaging
Following the revelation last week that Amy had been replaced by several litres of animated cream and the final, decidedly dark image of Madame Kovarian peering into Amy's prison, A Good Man Goes to War shows the Doctor and Rory amassing troops to fight the strange Anglican army last seen in Flesh and Stone. Ultimately though it feels like a bit of an excuse just to get in some big name villains to push the episode's spectacle towards finale level, which is sort of what happened in The Pandorica Opens. This being said, I'm really glad that Rory finally reaches his heroic, Cyberman-bullying zenith this episode without having to die even once. There really is no reason for him to be dressed as The Last Centurion though, other than to make Amy's misleading description of Melody's father finally fit together.
Whilst some of the new characters that Moffat introduces this episode are really interesting, most of them feel quite underdeveloped in the short time they have on screen. Fat One and Thin One, in particular, were a bit pointless, especially since one of them dies to no fanfare. Cameos of previous bit-part characters, especially the space pirates and the space pilots, also felt shallow and unnecessary. The major losses however were the enjoyably not-very-Sontaran Commander Strax and poor Lorna Bucket, the latter only really serving to show (again) how the Doctor can impact upon people's lives. I just hope that the only surviving newbies, Madame Vastra and her partner Jenny, make a reappearance later on in their own episode - Victoriana sci-fi's just too good an opportunity to miss.
But it's not just with the new characters where the emotion in the episode runs a bit thin - barring a few nice moments between Amy, Rory and baby Melody, it's tough to empathise with anyone during the Battle of Demon's Run. The new characterisation of the Doctor as some sort of weird intergalactic Godfather figure who calls in old debts and strikes fear into the hearts of all is also difficult to get behind, not least because the 'war' he wages is both short-lived and fairly non-violent. His burst of anger is also not as uncharacteristic as all the characters seem to make out - Matt Smith's done the shouty acting before in episodes like The Beast Below, and Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant did a lot of angry stomping about during their tenure. Whereas the darker side of the Doctor has lead him as far as genocide in the past, here he gives a man a nasty nickname. Whoa there, Oncoming Storm.
Madame Kovarian and the Headless Monks weren't particularly intimidating either. The battle cry of the monks left something to be desired - but then, without a head, I suppose you'd have to have a small Yamaha keyboard with which to chant. At least the sets were dark and menacing. From the streets of Victorian London to the huge military warehouses populated with whole armies of extras, the episode certainly looked spectacular. And the attention to detail is really brilliant:
I want this on a t-shirt.
Ultimately, Madame Kovarian pulls a last-minute flesh-copy piece of trickery and makes off with baby Melody anyway - and we're still really none the wiser as to what beef she's got with the Timelord, nor why the Anglican army has allied themselves with her.
What we do learn, of course, is why Melody is so important (I get the feeling lots of parents will have been fielding questions about where babies come from this weekend, and whether there's any chance that they've also got a 'Timehead'). The idea that Timelord DNA can be gifted by exposure to the time vortex feels a little bit far-fetched and artificial, but criticisms about realism in a programme about an alien who travels through space in a wooden box are definitely unfair. We also finally get the revelation about River Song's true identity as Amy and Rory's daughter. I think quite a lot of us had already guessed that she was actually an older version of Melody. It's certainly an interesting development but if anything the actual reveal was a little bit disappointing. It also causes something of a headache: River must've found it very difficult to be around her parents in their youth and yet it never shows (until this episode). We're also lead to believe that Melody is the child in the spacesuit who can regenerate - if this is the case, then how come River doesn't recognise her own voice and the events of Utah in the 60s? Has she forgotten? Or is she just playing along?
Unfortunately we're going to have to wait until Autumn now for any answers. This isn't the sort of episode that's left me on tenterhooks, but the wait will still be no less unbearable.
May 30, 2011
- Doctor Who: Series 6, Episodes 5 & 6
Apologies for my lack of activity on this blog in the last week. I'd like to say it's because I've been up a mountain teaching leeches to wear breeches, but in actuality it's because I've been hiding under a rock writing, reading and otherwise working on my degree like an academic crab. A crabademic, if you will.
However, it does make quite good sense to review The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People together, as they work exceptionally well for a two-parter. These two episodes are my favourites of series 6, and that's got a lot to do with the pacing and structure of the plotline. The two parts are well balanced and there's no awkward schism around an awkwardly engineered cliffhanger in the middle; instead there's a new complication that appears wholly organic (pun fully intended).
It's fair to say that the appearance of a flesh 'ganger' Doctor at the end of The Rebel Flesh isn't a huge surprise, but writer Matthew Graham is doing well to create new and interesting ideas with the whole array of science fiction cloning tropes he's juggling in this story. So whilst the 'flesh' is a teatime comment on the nature of identity, humanity, the value of life and the ethics of bioengineering, it's also about corporate exploitation, trauma and forgiveness.
After two slightly jollier episodes, Graham's two-parter is simultaenously a return to the darker themes and aesthetics promised in the series opener and a definite departure from his own not-so-popular 2006 episode Fear Her (although I quite liked it when no one was singing or talking about hope and love). The claustrophobic acid factory feels both industrial and gothic, and although the Doctor's definitely run down some corridors before, these are really good corridors. The gangers themselves are an exercise in pure body horror. As well as the fantastic, semi-opaque makeup, the sequences of gangers coughing up lumps of gelatinous flesh, twisting their heads around, dissolving in acid and, of course, being 'born' are turly horrific. The CGI in the episode is pretty standard for Doctor Who, but the best special effects (including the sudden shifting from flesh to human appearance) are just exercises in good editing.
I normally end up forgiving good Doctor Who episodes for small plot holes (or blaming bad episodes on being perforated completely), but there wasn't a single moment in the episode that didn't make sense. Even Rory's sudden attachment to Jennifer, which has been criticised elsewhere, felt quite natural: a misjudged act of heroism from a man still trying to justify his presence on the Tardis. But whilst the story was certainly neatly contained, it didn't stop Graham from making connections with the rest of the series. It was fun to see life on board the Tardis in the first few minutes of The Rebel Flesh (knew the Doctor would be a Muse fan...) and great to see the two Doctors interacting with each other and referencing their predecessors: a line from William Hartnell, a catchphrase from Pertwee and both Tom Baker and David Tennant making a verbal appearance. And of course, there's yet another shock ending:
Rory's actually a BALLOON! And next week, he tragically BURSTS!
Amy, assumedly since the beginning of the series, has been replaced by a flesh duplicate. This is a huge twist, asking a great many new questions - but I'll save any conjecture for another post. At the very least it gives us a few answers. We now know why Amy was seeing visions of the lady with the eye patch, why she thought she was pregnant at one point (a fact neither the Doctor nor the Tardis could verify) and why the Doctor needed to visit the factory to study the flesh. It neatly tidies up a lot of the Doctor's more philosophical musings in the episode and contextualises the story within the series plot arc. Besides the shock, it's a grisly and unpleasant ending as the Doctor 'decomissions' Amy's very own flesh ganger; his duplicate's earlier, willing sacrifice coupled with the apparent non-sentience of later-developed flesh technology make the liquification of Amy a little less morally difficult, but the Doctor admits he will make it 'as humane as possible' which implies it's still not very pleasant. Whilst all the cast do a great job this episode, Matt Smith's sudden shift into a darker, somehow older Doctor is an unsettling highlight. The episode's uncomfortable final moments reveal the real, heavily pregnant Amy, imprisoned in some sort of futuristic, metal birthing chamber, being watched over by the eye-patch lady as she enters labour. All of this will clearly have terrified children.
May 19, 2011
I enjoyed The Doctor's Wife a lot. As a standalone episode of Doctor Who it delivered a satisfying, neat story that also managed to connect with the series lore. It's not often that an episode like that comes along. In fact, I think you'd probably have to go back as far as Dalek (2005) to find something similar.
But the episode certainly wasn't without its faults. Amy and Rory's corridor torture in particular felt a bit weak and I'm not certain the episode was all that accessible to more recent followers of the series.
So whilst it's definitely fair to praise Neil Gaiman for his episode, the general reaction across the internet seems to raise him up to the level of visionary saviour. He certainly presented a fresh angle (no mean feat for a series approaching its 50s) but was the episode really the very best you've ever seen?
Here's a roundup (spoilers) of all the big-name reviews across the internet from Kasterborous.com. Do you feel the episode warrants the amount of attention it's been given? Is it really award-worthy? Am I just being too harsh?
PS: I read Coraline. Didn't like it. Had a nice cover though. Sorry.