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January 01, 2014
- Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor
Spoilers for The Time of the Doctor.
There is a question, we were told. The oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight. A question that must never, ever be answered. And now we know what it is.
Every time anything happens in The Time of the Doctor, ask 'why?' and silence will fall. Slightly fumbled Christmas specials are sort of par for the course (cf.: Moffat's previous half-cooked turkey, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe or Russell T Davies' own pickled egg, The Next Doctor), but The Time of the Doctor will forever be Matt Smith's last episode as the Doctor, and Peter Capaldi's first. Such an important moment is almost completely lost in a muddle of ideas, leftover plot threads and irrelevant characters, saved only by the performances of the principal cast.
The Silence has been following the Eleventh (Thirteenth?) Doctor now since 2010. It's been behind each and every one of the bad things that have happened to the Doctor and his chums since he started wearing bow ties, and The Time of the Doctor recapitulates (and relies on) each of these many convoluted key plot points from Series 5 - 7 ad nauseum, dutifully working its way through a checklist of details so meticulous that recent and casual viewers will have no idea what's going on.
For fans that have been following closely, there are answers, finally, but not much sense - we may have been given a piece of the puzzle that fits, but it certainly doesn't have the right bit of the picture on it. Clara even goes through the rules of regeneration, for all those viewers (i.e.: most of us) who've never seen The Deadly Assassin and don't know about the fact that the Doctor can only change his face 12 times. The Doctor canonises some previously dubious regenerations and lets us know that he's at the end of his life - if nothing else, the Doctor will have brought peace to several heated threads on fan forums this Christmas.
'The Question' is asked, and the Doctor vows never to answer for the sake of peace. But it's that other question - 'why?' - that really comes back to haunt us. Why did we have to deal with all of this in Matt Smith's final episode? We've waited three years for some of these plot threads, why clumsily solve them now and get in the way of Smith's farewell? The realisation that the Eleventh Doctor would be the last, the new lease of life from the Time Lords and the rise of Kovarian's splinter-church are all really interesting stories - why shove them into the bin with a few lines of dialogue?
There's actually a scene where everyone sits down and explains everything that's happened since 2010.
You also have to ask why this story is the one being told. The central plot of the episode involves a Mexican stand-off that sees the Doctor wait to die in a town called Christmas (why is it called Christmas, other than because it's Christmas?). But why tell that story? Why would that be interesting to watch - and what makes it significant as the last story for the Eleventh Doctor? And why burden Matt Smith with prosthetic make-up for his final performance as the progressively aging Doctor? Much of this episode involves characters running in and out of the Tardis as the Doctor sits around and waits - and when Clara's left behind for the second time and the Doctor is indisposed, Tasha Lem, High Priestess of Exposition, is drafted in to fly her back to the Doctor instead. When you start replacing characters with talking get-out clauses, you've probably written in too many problems.
There are, however, some brilliant ideas caught in the middle of it all - the wooden Cyberman, the ever-baffling Church, Handles the tragicomic Cyberhead and the children's drawings are all brilliant touches that recall the fairytale-like era of the Eleventh Doctor. The tone is generally spot-on (I didn't cringe once) and the cinematic direction and Murray Gold's score are both as beautiful as ever, the latter revisiting motifs used in previous regeneration episodes to emphasise the meaning of that change: it's always the same man, just ever so slightly different. But there are also several other moments that fall flat - the arbitrary Weeping Angels sequence, knowing jokes about Matt Smith's wig and, most notably, the entire nudity/holographic-clothes routine. Several revelations about the plot threads also only really work if you stand back, squint a bit and assume the Doctor never asks any questions. A few new clues are even sewn in to this episode (who wrote that poem?) but now we know how plot mysteries get resolved, it feels pointless to speculate about what they could mean. Too much "timey-wimey".
It's not a terrible episode, but it's such a shame for Smith in comparison to David Tennant's final outing, The End of Time. Whilst both of these regeneration stories bring unresolved plot arcs to a close in ways which one might cynically say were never planned from the outset, Russell T Davies gets away with it because his plots were always straightforward, bombastic affairs designed to get characters from A to B and show us how that made them feel. Davies is also - if nothing else - the undisputed master of teary goodbyes in Doctor Who, and so whilst Tennant's episodes wrap up the Time War, Master and Ood Prophesy threads, they do so in a way which focuses on the Tenth Doctor's personality, warts and all. Both are stories about aging and mortality - but whilst Tennant gets to reflect on what this means for his character in juxtaposition to the Master, Rassilon and Wilfred, Smith instead has a lonely hour which is largely filled with exposition, explanations and a massive explosion. As Ted B. Kissell in The Atlantic points out, this may be because the Eleventh Doctor never really had a character arc at all.
This is an overly harsh pictorial analysis.
This being said, when Smith does eventually regenerate, it's brilliant. Not the first step, mind - his speech atop the bell tower to the assembled alien hordes recalls his greatest moments, but the unleashing of his destructive regenerative powers seems at odds with the peace he spent several centuries protecting in Christmas. After the explosions are over, the second, final stage is far more moving. Perhaps sensing that he's not great at goodbyes, Moffat makes the final change a much more solemn and sudden affair. Smith, thankfully restored to youth, delivers a brilliant final speech in a strange staccato rhythm that really does sound like the words of a dying man. The small cameo from Karen Gillan as Amy Pond is also truly touching, a final dreamlike image from the fairytale era. And then, the regenerative energy spent, Smith snaps his head back and Peter Capaldi appears, doing the standard confused, post-regenerative routine - first impressions though are better than those I felt for both Smith and Tennant, and I'm truly excited to see how Capaldi's Doctor will develop.
Clara though, I could do without. Despite her mystery now being solved, she remains the Impossible Girl - unknowable and underdeveloped, a character lacking any real character. She's a bit too perfect - effortlessly becoming a secondary school teacher and fitting planning and marking in around jaunts in the Tardis - and her only defining personality trait is that she's a nice person, which is great, but not enough to make her a fully-formed character. Even the brief introduction of her family (apparently living in Rose Tyler's old flat) doesn't shine any light on who she is and why we should care about her. We're told that she's the Doctor's best friend, but he seems happy to abandon her and let her die, or at the least use her as bait in an elaborate and faintly misogynistic ploy to revive Tasha Lem's humanity. He even ignores Clara and focuses on a vision of Amy when his final moment arrives. Yet still, Clara never questions the Doctor. Jenna Coleman shines every week with the material she's given, but she could do so much more with the character. With Coleman staying and Capaldi arriving, my main hope for Series 8 is that the characters grow in a direction that fully utilises the talents of the cast.
The Time of the Doctor is a sad goodbye to the brilliant Matt Smith, but for all the wrong reasons. Here's to 2014, and to Sherlock!
November 10, 2013
Spoilers for The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor
The BBC today released not one but two Doctor Who - Day of the Doctor 50th Anniversary trailers. And besides causing general fan excitement and providing yet more reasons to most definitely #SaveTheDay for a screening - at home on your sofa or in a cinema worldwide - there were dozens of little details that hint at the direction the episode is taking. Apart from the general brilliance of seeing Tennant, Smith and Hurt together, Matt Smith hanging from the Tardis above the National Portrait Gallery, angry Zygons and the explodey deaths of several unfortunate Daleks on a war-torn Gallifrey, here are ten tiny fleeting moments that caught my attention across both trailers:
10 - The Sontarans
Bit of an obvious one to start with as there are a lot of shots of this. I've fiddled with the contrast and colour of this screenshot to get a clearer shot, but that definitely looks like a Sontaran ship to me on the left of the screen - although it might also be one of The Silence's Timeships if the decloaked version from The Lodger is anything to go by. Either is significant - if this battle is against the Daleks and is set in the Time War, the Sontarans were banned from fighting - which suggests that history has changed and the war reopened from its 'time lock'. If it's The Silence, then their relevance to the series might finally start to become clear...
EDIT: The general internet consensus is that these are some sort of Dalek variant - on closer inspection, they do resemble the more open casing of the Dalek Emperor from The Parting of the Ways.
9 - Clara's Vortex Manipulator
Another slightly obvious one - the signature lightning special effect and wristband suggests Clara is about to vanish into the time and space ether courtesy of a Vortex Manipulator - but who did it belong to first? River Song maybe? This might have something to do with the connection to Clara she was referring to in The Name of the Doctor. Personally, I'm holding out for an appearance from Captain Jack Harkness, another previous owner of a Vortex Manipulator - but with John Barrowman adamant that he's not appearing, it might be unlikely.
8 - UNIT and a base under siege...
It's just a quick moment, but I thought it might turn out to be important, hinting that UNIT - along with Kate Stewart and Ingrid Oliver's Tom-Baker-scarfed character - might play some other part in the story beyond getting the Doctor to the National Portrait Gallery. And whilst we're on the subject of UNIT...
7 - The Two Kates?
Look past the Two Doctors in this very short clip, and you can clearly see what also looks like two versions of Kate Stewart, the Brigadier's daughter, too - albeit with every-so-slightly different hair - suggesting some timey-wimey shenanigans in the UNIT base.
As an extra bonus point too, the gun behind David Tennant's head is a Dalek tommy gun made for their half-human army from the Series 3 two-parter Daleks in Manhatten/The Evolution of the Daleks. Besides being a lovely bit of set-dressing, does this mean that UNIT are expecting to fight the Daleks?
6 - Rassilon?
Last seen falling back into The Time War in The End of Time, is that Timelord President Rassilon leading up this platoon of marching Gallifreyans? It's difficult to tell, but the leader on the right cuts a very familiar silhouette.
5 - John Hurt's Tardis
It's a small detail I appreciate, but whilst the console that John Hurt's Doctor is piloting in the first trailer appears to be the same as the Ecclestone/Tennant era, it's actually a subtly re-dressed set: the central column and control panels are all lit white, the signature cabling is absent and there are pewter/white floor tiles in place of the metal grilles that appear in the more familiar console room. This could be another visual hint that Hurt is a Doctor positioned somewhere between the 8th and 9th versions we already knew about it. And whilst we're on the subject of Type 40 Time Travel Capsules...
4 - Tardis in a Tardis
Another very small moment, and maybe one that's not too enlightening, but it's something of a thrill to see a Tardis (in this case, The Eleventh Doctor's, complete with St John Ambulance logo) parked inside another (whilst it's quite blurry, you can make out the orange roundels and hanging cabling of the Tenannt era console room) - is this the first time we've seen this in a full episode since Logopolis?
3 - What's happened to Rose?
When it was anounced that Billie Piper and David Tennant would reprise their roles as Rose Tyler and the Tenth Doctor, I assumed that we'd see them together at an earlier point in their timelines when they were still travelling and, since images released since have only really featured the Doctors, I figured that Rose and Clara would be left behind by the Doctors to start their journey alone together (a phrase that actually works in this context). But I'm beginning to think from these two trailer that Rose might actually be far more important to the story than had previously been suggested. For a start - what's happened to her? In this shot, her costume appears torn and burnt, like she's just fought her way through a terrible battle. I don't think we've ever seen Rose dressed in this style of costume either, which suggests she's from a point much later in her timeline than her last chronological appearance in Series 4. And then of course, there's that moment with her glowing eyes...
2 - Bad Wolf...
Although you can't really see it as well in a still image, Rose's eyes glow a bright yellow in one short clip of the first trailer. It could be a reflection of something of course, but the artifical nature and Rose's expression are very reminiscent of her brief stint as a god-like entity possessed of all the power of the Time Vortex - the 'Bad Wolf' from Series 1's finale The Parting of the Ways. If this is true, it's a nice reference that loops the rebooted Doctor Who back to it's origins in 2005. It also suggests that Rose may yet use this power again, and there are also some other hints that she may be even more important still...
1- The Moment
In both trailers, there's a mention of something called 'The Moment' which, as we learnt in The End of Time, was something The Doctor used to end the Time War and destroy both his people and (almost) all of the Daleks in the universe. It's impossible to tell for certain at this point, but there's a strong visual implication that the object in question is this Gallifreyan-loking artefact above. If this is true, then it seems that the rumours of John Hurt being the Doctor to end the Time War seem very plausible. But it's interesting to note where this object is stored...
This stunning shot of John Hurt shows a barn or shed in the distance that matches the look of the room where The Moment is being stored. But where is this shed? Gallifrey would seem an obvious answer, but the building has a far more human look than the Citadel of the Timelords, and the sky is an Earthly blue rather than the burnt orange of Gallifrey. Is it possible that this is another trip to Utah, site of the Doctor's supposed 'death' in Series 6's The Impossible Astronaut? If so, perhaps the actions of The Silence may finally be explained. Whether The Silence are present or not, John Hurt still won't be alone in the shed...
I've adjusted the brightness in this shot slightly to make it clearer, but if you look to the right of the frame it seems that Rose is present with Hurt's Doctor at a time when he is about to do something with The Moment. There are a lot of other shots in both trailers too which show Hurt and Piper together or show Rose inside the same room. If this is true, it seems that Rose may meet Hurt's Doctor at a point after she is separated from the Tenth Doctor, and may even have been present at the end of the Time War. The fact that the Ninth Doctor doesn't recognise her when he meets her also suggests that he cannot remember exactly what he did in the war.
Letting nothing slip
Those are my top ten, but there are so many other moments of interest (if you'll excuse the pun) - I haven't even mentioned Joanna Page as Queen Elizabeth I. Well, I have now.
The dialogue in both trailers doesn't give too much away, but there are also a few small points that caught my attention. It's perhaps telling that Rose is the person to mention The Moment, and it's also interesting to note that John Hurt says he's looking for The Doctor and doesn't recognise Ten and Eleven - this would seem to confirm that he's a past incarnation of The Doctor rather than an echo of the future. It's also great to hear the Tenth Doctors's quip about not liking the Tardis redecoration - a line that's been used by The Second Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and even the Eleventh Doctor over the years. Finally, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors seem to have a row over where it is they're going - with Ten saying he'd like to know and Eleven assuring him he's best off not knowing. The Time War would seem an obvious choice, but is this all heading back towards Trenzalore...?
What do you think? Have I missed anything? Answers on an internet postcard - drop me a comment below!
August 04, 2013
So, television's greatest secret is out: Peter Capaldi is the next Doctor.
It's a move that I frankly couldn't be happier about - Peter Capaldi is an incredibly talented actor and frequently appears on my list of ideal actors to play the Timelord. But until the news actually broke tonight, I'd always assumed he'd forever belong to the fantasy football leagues of Doctor Who choices.
For a start, he was the tabloid and bookie's favourite, a guessing game which normally turns out to be hopelessly, completely wrong. Four years ago, the papers were telling us with absolute certainty that Paterson Joseph was going to be the 11th Doctor.
But mainly, it's Capaldi's filmography that made me assume that he could never be the next Doctor. Firstly, it's long and prestigious - and whilst few would doubt the formidable CVs of any of the recent Doctors, none of the last three were BAFTA winning household names before they took the part. Indeed, it's Capaldi's most well known role - Malcolm Tucker in In The Loop and The Thick Of It - that I assumed would lock him out of the Tardis. Capaldi's performance as the Machiavellian spin doctor is brilliant, exuding menace from a complicated anti-hero that always somehow inspired a certain level of pathos. But it's also a role notorious for exotic insults, put-downs and language so obscene a swearing consultant was employed for vulgarity verisimiliuide. As a show with cult status, the internet is full of videos, GIFs and even a Buzzfeed List [not safe for work] dedicated to the incredibly well-crafted venom of Malcolm Tucker. Surely there's got to be a few eyebrows raised at the choice of the same actor to appear in one of the most iconic family-friendly roles on television? Does he have too much baggage to take on the role of the Doctor?
I'm not crying moral outrage - not even whispering it - but there's surely a PR gamble here with the possibility of 8 year old children googling their new favourite actor and discovering a whole host of new vocabulary. My primary-school teaching other half is already scratching her head about the implications it'll have on her ideas of using Doctor Who in literacy sessions she was planning. In a year's time, Malcolm Tucker will be appearing on Blue Peter and peering out from lunchboxes nationwide.
Of course, there's a precedent for this sort of thing that suggests it's simply not a problem: Billie Piper's lead role in Secret Diary of a Call Girl has not debarred her return, and there was the brief parallel run of Doctor Who with its sullen, spotty, adolescent cousin, Torchwood (in which Capaldi himself played the conniving and murderous Frobisher in creepy alien child-abduction serial, Children of the Earth) that seemingly did no harm. And obviously, by sheer virtue of casting an older actor with such huge experience, it's inevitable that somewhere in their filmography there's going to be a GIF of a role in their career that you wouldn't show to your kids. That's just the internet, and time.
And I am incredibly, incredibly glad that an older actor will be playing the Doctor again. I'm even more thrilled it's Peter Capaldi. He looks like a wizard, a coiled spring with fierce presence and a huge range. For some reason, he reminds me of Jon Pertwee - but we'll have to wait and see what his own interpretation of the role will be like. For me, some of the most enjoyable relationships in the show have been the ones without the school-girl style crush; the Ninth Doctor and Rose; the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble; the Eleventh and Rory. I'm also hoping a slightly older actor will see a return to this sort of dynamic, although if River Song were ever to return, I think that Capaldi and Alex Kingston would work really well together.
It's a long wait til November. Now it's an even longer wait until Christmas. It'll be sad to see Matt Smith exit, but this regeneration promises to be truly exciting. Now, if they can only explain what he was up to in Pompeii with the cabbie from Sherlock...
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.