What with DC superhero series The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl currently airing on successive nights on Sky One, together with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter on other channels and Daredevil and Jessica Jones on streaming services, not to mention Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders in development, the word that unequivocally comes to mind about the macro situation of such comic book series on television is ‘overcrowded’.
The same word also comes to mind on the micro level when talking about DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, the latest addition to the Sky One line-up. While the Avengers feature films teams up all of Marvel’s A-List cinematic properties, the small screen DC version is put together from a bunch of characters introduced elsewhere on television and now seemingly collected at random in the hope that they will make some sort of coherent team. Unfortunately they don’t, and in this case the whole proves to be somewhat less than its constituent parts. Read the rest of this entry »
The biggest surprise at the conclusion of the first series of Broadchurch had been the appearance of the caption after the end titles boldly declaring that “Broadchurch will return”. Why such a surprise? The eight-part story surrounding the death of young Danny Latimer in a small south west coastal resort town had been such a perfect gem of a production that you couldn’t help but wonder just what on earth they could possibly do to extend the show that wouldn’t also end up wrecking the reputaion of the original in the process.
It was with this trepidation in mind that eighteen months later I sat down to watch the first episode of the second season – and happily, any fears or concerns that I had about whether Broadchurch could possibly return as strong as it went out were pretty much swept aside in the first ten minutes. In a ghostly echo of the way that the first series had kicked off, it opened with an overview of our sprawling main cast of characters as they started to converge on one particular destination in town. But there were no cheery nods and waved greetings this time; it was a far more sombre affair as they all headed to the local court to see the murderer of Danny Latimer formally enter his plea. Once this was done then everyone would be able to start to move on, recover and heal from the vicious wounds inflicted on the community by the original killing and the investigation that had followed.
The way the moment was built up, you just knew there was a sting coming. It wasn’t very hard to see what it had to be, either. But even so, the moment when it actually came was still enough to make you gasp and it actually felt like you’d been slapped round the face without warning. Any show that can achieve something of that impact before the first commercial break clearly knows what it’s doing, and there was no question that the showrunner and series creator Chris Chibnall was in assured form as he set about following the implications as they rippled through the community. Read the rest of this entry »
Alright, I admit it. I’ve been putting off writing this particular review for quite some time now. I even wrote it, put it to one side, hesitated on publishing it, and then came back to it a week later to re-write. By which you can surmise, all is not well for me with the final episode of the five-part season 7 mini-series.
A small part of the reason for my procrastination is the simple unwillingness to accept that the Doctor’s long-time travelling companions Amy and Rory are now gone for good. But that’s jumping ahead to the end – which is where for me the problems of this episode lie – rather than starting at the beginning where we should.
How fantastic were those opening moments shot in location in New York which set up the shift into a glorious film noir/pulp fiction pastiche? It was the perfect riposte for any of those penny-pinchers who quibble about the Doctor Who production team going overseas, because the episode would have been infinitely the poorer without those moments. Just as “A Town Called Mercy” would have been laughable if they’d tried to shoot a western in the Welsh countryside rather than in an authentic (Spaghetti) western film location in Spain, so “The Angels Take Manhattan” wouldn’t have been a tenth as successful as it was if it wasn’t so firmly rooted at the start with genuine US locations filmed in Central Park.
Those scenes gave the story an authenticity that it otherwise wouldn’t have had;it also allowed the Gothic architecture of New York City to play a part and become a potent character in the story as it gave a new dimension to the Weeping Angels, who were otherwise rather sidelined in a supporting role in this story despite the title. The laughing, scampering cherubs were new and deeply unsettling; the Statue of Liberty could also have been an effective addition to the Angels’ lore but unfortunately the idea that Miss Liberty had strolled in from the harbour without being locked into place by the eyes of millions of New Yorkers rather overstretched the suspension of disbelief available. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers for the two aired shows.
Doctor Who has been back on TV for nearly two weeks now, and I’m a little tardy in getting around to writing any reviews of the latest episodes. Does this mean I’ve fallen out of love with it? No, not at all; but the first episode of the new series aired on a particularly busy weekend for me, and while I watched it I was aware that I was preoccupied and distracted by real life events. The second episode was better timed, but was very much aimed at the younger audience demographic and I was wary about wading in too critically on an instalment not aimed at someone of my advanced years in the first place.
But finally it seems that a few words on the first two episodes are overdue, and I should prevaricate no longer. Be warned, there lie spoilers ahead…
Read the rest of this entry »
I like to think of myself as a fan of detective/crime fiction, and of classic crime fiction in particular, so I was rather startled and a little irked to find out about early 20th century character Max Carrados. He appeared in The Strand magazine alongside Sherlock Holmes and indeed at the time outranked the inhabitant of Baker Street in terms of popularity, but I’d never heard of him before. Clearly, I had to correct this oversight in advance of a new run of radio adaptations.
The character, created by Ernest Bramah in a number of short stories from 1914 onwards, has the particular unique selling point of being blind, which one would think would prove to be quite a problem in the art of detection; and it is the stories’ main focus to demonstrate how Carrados overcomes any problems and indeed develops his other senses to compensate (somewhat like the Marvel Comics superhero Daredevil – no radar superpower, though.)
Carrados’ (and Bramah’s) fame hasn’t endured like that of Sherlock Holmes (and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and to be honest it’s not hard to see why. Bramah’s writing is perfectly fine, but has none of the richness of Doyle’s work. Where Doyle brought even minor supporting characters vividly to life, Bramah seems to have no such interest in anyone outside Carrados himself. Similarly, where Bramah is fascinated by the ways that Carrados might overcome his disability with various techniques and describes his investigations in detail, he seems to have little comparable interest in the story’s main instigating mystery. In “The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem”, for example, the central question of what caused a train crash is ultimately never explicitly explained, although much is implied and generally sketched in as we follow Carrados’ enquiries, leaving irritating gaps for anyone not au fait with early 20th century train signalling equipment. Nor is there much of a ‘whodunnit’ element – the villain is generally summoned up at the end because of Carrado’s pre-existing knowledge of the criminal underworld and not shared with us in advance.
Still, it’s pointless criticising work for something that it makes no claims to be or to do, and on its own terms Bramah’s tales are perfectly engrossing in its stories and descriptions of Carrados’ investigations – especially when benefiting from a quality radio adaptation such as this, which is by the same team that produced the recent “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” HP Lovecraft adaptations that have also aired on BBC Radio 4 Extra.
Once again it’s an abridged reading that feels so effortless and uncut that it makes you think that the abridger (Paul Kent) has had an easy time of it with a compliant original story leaving him little to do. It’s only when comparing against the source text that you realise just how much has needed to be done to seamlessly reduce the text down to fit. I even spotted one rare actual change to the source material, where a mention of a ‘developer’ in the Bramah text is substituted by the possibly slightly anachronistic ‘weights machine’ in the adaptation, but it’s with good cause as the original word means nothing (or worse, something wholly different) to modern audiences than it used to.
I was interested in whether or not the team could produce the same effective ‘soundscape’ that it managed with the earlier Lovecraft adaptations: conjuring an unnerving, sinister background for a horror story is one thing, but what can you do with the story of a detective who spends most of his time sitting in pleasant rooms chatting with people? Not a problem for producer Neil Gardner and for composer Jon Nicholls, who create an unobtrusive but effective soundtrack that manages to blend a general level of intellectual playfulness appropriate for the character that also allows subtle transitions where needed into a more tense, dangerous or even action-driven feel when needed. Rather like the abridgement, it’s so skilfully realised that you barely even notice how important and effective it is to the whole.
The one difference between this production and the earlier Lovecraft tales is in the selection of narrator, which here is actor Arthur Darvill better known as Rory Williams-Pond from Doctor Who. Where Richard Coyle was the perfect fit for dark horror tales, Darvill is a better choice for this lighter series of stories, and he certainly has a good range of voices played with conviction that soon overcome the dreaded “flat reading from a book” feeling that too many other productions can be saddled with.
Darvill may actually have been a little too over-ambitious with the vocal performance at points, however. He doesn’t use his ‘regular’ voice (i.e. the one we know from his playing of Rory) at all, even for the non-character narration which instead is pitched as a more cut-glass English accent. That is admittedly more accurate for the 1910s, and yet its over-clear, crystal-cut enunciation don’t give us the ‘rest’ we need between character voices and can be distracting; it may also contribute to some of the character voices themselves wavering and being a little less than perfectly consistent, and sometimes running one into another in an occasionally confusing manner.
Then there is the vocalisation of Max Carrados. Presumably this is driven by descriptions in the Bramah source text, but the end result is of a light, superior, rather fey voice that is certainly distinctive and evocative of a particular character, but not necessarily a likeable one. It’s hard to shake the unfair feeling that this is a smug, supercilious personality who is not easy to love, and it left me with an indelible mental picture of Carrados looking as well as sounding like Mark Gatiss in one of his more grotesque League of Gentleman or Crooked House roles.
Actually, come to think of it, if the BBC are inspired by the success of this radio adaptation and want to move to a TV version, they should get Gatiss on speed dial right away. After all, he’s not doing much these days, just that 21st century updating of another vintage detective, Carrados-wannabe Sherlock …
Ernest Bramah’s “The Tales of Max Carrados” is a BBC Radio 4 Extra première of five episodes. It is available to purchase from the SpokenWorld Audio store.
Some spoilers for the unwary
“The Wedding of River Song” turned out to be a fun, entertaining episode to round out the sixth season of Doctor Who. But strangely, what it wasn’t was a resounding season finale spectacular, or a sufficiently satisfying pay-off to a complex and at times maddeningly twisty multi-season story arc.
Perhaps the problem is that the episode brings in so many characters and storylines from the past that it had the overall feeling of being ‘a little bit of admin’, there mainly to wrap up the loose ends. It feels like the end of the mystery novel, the chapter just after the murderer has been unmasked and then taken care of in an exciting fight/chase sequence: the one where everyone sits down in the drawing room sipping a cup of tea, and someone asks the main character “So, just how did you figure it all out?” and there then follows ten pages of exposition. Read the rest of this entry »
I find myself at a loss to say anything original about the latest episode of Doctor Who, – for this was another brilliant, striking, daring, surreal episode of the series, with great playing (once again) by the regular cast, an effective guest cast including the instantly appealing Rita – the companion who never was – and the cowardly Gibbis played with nuance and subtly by David Walliams, and some lovely imaginative direction that resulted in the best-looking hour you’ll see on television this week.
It was as good as “The Doctor’s Wife” and “The Girl Who Waited”. In many ways it was even better than last week’s superlative episode, because Toby Whithouse’s story was so much more richly textured, daring and deep than last week. Where the strength of Tom MacRae’s script for “The Girl Who Waited” was that it took a potentially complex, abstract and difficult story and actually made it a very simple but emotionally compelling and even devastating experience, Whithouse’s work this week revels in the surrealism and complexity.
As a fan, I loved it. This is everything that Doctor Who can and should be – challenging and original, unlike anything else you’ll see on TV. The more you thought about it and turned it over in your mind, the better it became: the way that the Minotaur/hotel/framed photos became parallels for the Doctor/Tardis/roll call of companions was psychologically valid, real – and devastating in its way.
But for all that I loved it as a fan, I am also acutely aware that this is exactly the sort of demanding episode that doesn’t play well to a mainstream audience, for whom it may have been confusing, disjointed and unsatisfying – a story of a man in a (well-realised) monster suit charging up and down hotel corridors, looking for all the world like a live-action version of Scooby-Doo. How many adults, I wondered, had started to watch this only to give up on the silly kids stuff and turn instead to whatever X-pap was on the other channel? I think that it’s no coincidence that this episode had strong echoes of “Ghost Light”, the very last regular Classic Who story to go before the cameras before the series was axed in 1989 because it had lost the connection to a mass audience.
That’s a worry, for the show needs to retain its mainstream audience and high ratings that gives it the budget and the artistic freedom that it’s enjoyed up to know thanks to the credibility bedrock that Russell T Davies gave it over the first four years.
And there’s another problem. When the show started I saw a number of people online dismissing it as “just a bottle show” or “filler” – because it seemed like a standalone story unconnected to the series arc begun by the banks of Lake Silencio in “The Impossible Astronaut”. In fact the “filler” accusation proved to be factually incorrect – the ending really did have a major impact on the series arc after all – but it worried me that viewers are now so quick to dismiss any and all standalone shows as “mere filler”. When I levelled that description at “The Curse of the Black Spot” I meant it from the perspective of it being a waste of space in and of itself, rather than merely on the grounds that it was a standalone episode.
Once upon a time, every single story was standalone save for some basic aspects of series continuity. Even in a themed season like “The Key to Time” the constituent serials were broadly self-contained; and this persisted right into the RTD years where despite little hints about “Bad Wolf” or “Vote for Saxon”, the stories were very much their own thing. But in seasons 5 and 6 it seems that such standalone efforts are now seen as throwaway fillers between “the important stuff.”
This is hugely wrong. It’s completely the wrong way of looking at the series. The Silencio arc might be a nice embellishment of the show, but it should never become the be-all and end-all of what Doctor Who is – otherwise it squelches the opportunity to do new, interesting, daring and innovative work that thrives mainly in the single-story/episode format. An arc necessarily becomes more complex as it goes on and builds on the last – and more familiar, and hence more constraining. It limits, where single episode stories liberate. It’s no coincidence that the episodes I think have been by far the best of this season have all been stand-alone ones, while the arc episodes have become increasingly problematic and flawed for all Steven Moffat’s writing wizardry managing to make them fly regardless.
But really, we’ve got to a point where this needs attending to and correcting: the show needs a reset to allow “filler” episodes to return to the fore and once again demonstrate the true strength and diversity of the series. In other words, we need more episodes like “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex” and “The Doctor’s Wife”.
And we need it very soon, please.
Contains spoilers, sweetie
I’ve been, if I’m honest, a bit of a critical friend of Doctor Who in recent times. There’s been something bugging me about the current direction of the series that I’ve tried to explain piece-meal in various reviews and articles.
The only 2011 episode up to now that I can say that I loved without reservation was Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife.” This was a clever, incredibly well-written piece that managed to include a number of fascinating and inventive science-fiction ideas while never losing sight of the characters and the real emotions at the core of the story; a story that made wonderful use of Doctor Who’s unique format; a ‘bottle’ episode that was also timelessly connected to the show’s fundamental nature and history, yet which could only have been told here and now, with this collection of characters and performers. It was superb.
Now: cut and paste that paragraph, replace ‘Neil Gaiman’ with ‘Tom MacRae’, “The Doctor’s Wife” with “The Girl Who Waited”, and my work here is done.
In fact, in many ways, this episode’s achievement is even greater than Gaiman’s earlier episode, because it succeeds despite some quite daunting limitations – some self-imposed, but others required by the nature of TV series production. For one thing, I suspect this was probably one of the most “budget limited’ episodes of the year. Not that you would know it from what you see on the screen, however: it’s beautifully designed, and so stylishly and kinetically directed by Nick Hurran that it genuinely looks a million bucks. (And way better than last week’s ghost tale where the nature of the story required a more flat, old-fashioned look to it than this week’s sci-fi story allowed. Consequently “Night Terrors” tended to look a bit budget-challenged and cheap in exactly the way that “The Girl Who Waited” triumphantly transcends any such financial constraints.)
But then this episode goes further and decided to limit itself to just the three regular cast (plus a couple of speaking computer interfaces and some stunning-looking handbots). Yes, just the three regu… Oh, wait, no. Let’s make it even harder shall we? Let’s also schedule this story so that it’s the one where the Doctor can only be in it briefly because the actor is shooting another episode back-to-back at the same time, shall we? Less three regulars, more like 2.25 once you factor that in. Pretty much fatally compromises the show, you’d think, right?
Actually this is the episode that makes you think that ‘Doctor-lite’ episodes not only can work – brilliantly – but that the show would actually be better off if they were more the norm than ‘Doctor-heavy’ ones. Despite only being in the story for a short time, Matt Smith is a knock-out in every frame and the presence of the Doctor looms large throughout; when he’s not there it’s simply because he’s not needed and you never have the sense that he’s been written out for any other reason than that the story itself requires it.
The real advantage of backgrounding the Doctor is that it throws all the focus onto the remaining crew, Amy and Rory. Regular readers of Taking the Short View will know that I’m a huge fan of Rory as a character and of the actor who plays him, Arthur Darvill, and he’s brilliant here (yes, again, sorry) in some quite wonderfully underplayed but spot-on ways.
I’ve not normally been so gushing about Karen Gillan as Amy in the past – she’s fine, but never quite as good or stand-out as I’d perhaps hoped. But in this episode, she was … Stunning. Truly superb, in a way that I never would have expected or dared hope. She’s got a tough gig in this story, playing an Amy 36 years older than her regular self and one who has had to survive all that time in isolation escaping the merciless intentions of the merciful handbots.
It’s incredibly hard to convincingly act ‘aged up’. Even more so when one of the key scenes requires you to directly act opposite your younger self and make both incarnations believable and yet very different. But Gillan does it, so beautifully that I admit I teared up during that scene (and there’s another wonderful moment with Old Amy and Rory at the end) and totally sells the Old Amy role in a myriad of small but vital ways. It helps that the ageing prosthetic make-up is one of the best such pieces I’ve seen, even if they cheat a little by making her look one of the most glamorous and well-preserved 60-year-olds of all time so as not to push it into too many layers of rubber face mask.
Yes, you can nit-pick this episode if you want to. Once again the villains are kindly (medical-ish) droids rather like those we’ve seen in “The Curse of the Black Spot” or “The Doctor Dances” or “Let’s Kill Hitler”. Yes, once again a regular sort-of dies for a while (they get better, though, after a fashion.) Yes, this could be made to stand as a “Rory’s Choice” bookend to last season’s “Amy’s Choice”.
But you know what, such criticisms would be churlish and uncalled for. This was just a terrific piece of drama – one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen in a long time, not just one of the best Doctor Who episodes. It was all kinds of awesome, and any negative comments are simply not to be allowed this week.
Contains spoilers, sweetie.
So everyone’s favourite Time Lord is back for the second leg of his sixth season, with the audaciously titled “Let’s Kill Hitler” that had many of us laughing out loud and spitting out our drinks when it first popped up at the end of the previous episode back in June.
Allow me to say upfront that there was some brilliant stuff here, from the opening verve of the corn field sequence, the montage introducing young Rory/Amy/Mels with its sublime transition shot from a discarded toy Tardis to the real thing flying through the air, to the brilliant notion and execution of the Tesselecta, to the fabulous mental battle of wills between the newly arrived River and the Doctor over firearms and bananas, and even the way it used the Nazi Germany setting, sidestepping any awkward ethical questions of whether or not to kill Hitler in 1938 but bravely not ducking out completely either, with River’s shot about being “on my way to this gay gypsy Bar-Mitzvah for the disabled” being beautifully barbed.
Matt Smith gets better with every episode, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill got some good fun stuff to do (Rory the action hero, putting Hitler in the cupboard) and as for Alex Kingston … Well, she’s quite magnificent, in perhaps the most interesting, fun, complex iteration of the role of River Song that she’s had to date. I can’t help but think that this must be the must fun and challenging role of her career to date – so much better than the weekly drudge through “ER” she had to put up with – and I wonder whether she had any idea of quite what was in store for her when she cheerfully agreed to a quick two-parter with “Silence in the Library” opposite David Tennant all those years ago.
And yet as good as parts of this opening episode were … Why the rush? I don’t just mean the usual breakneck speed of the thing which left even the most ardent fans asking “Hang on, so why couldn’t he just regenerate, again … ?”, but also the way some great concepts (like the Tesselecta, or the Nazi setting, or the new audio interface for the Tardis) were tossed in, given a couple of minutes and then passed over. It was like watching a spoilt kid opening dozens of brilliant presents on Christmas morning and not having time to really stop and play with or appreciate any of them.
There was also a deluge of information about River Song: having been withheld from us for four years, suddenly the show couldn’t wait to blurt it out as fast as possible. How come? And – did it really all make complete sense or was there some very fancy footwork to disguise the fact that this intricately constructed tale actually didn’t come together when it had to be explained? The sudden deus ex machina of River’s regeneration power saving the Doctor (how?) seemed to be just a plot device to explain the oversight of why, then, she ends up without this ability and therefore unable to save herself at the end of “Forest of the Dead”.
But the biggest oversight is Mels, Amy’s oldest, closest, bestest friend after whom she even names her baby daughter. And who we’ve never heard mention of even once before. Sorry, but “I don’t do weddings” doesn’t get around that sort of oversight. It’s a staggering “Jump the Shark”potential moment for the writing, so audacious that it’s hard to believe writer Steven Moffat could make such an appalling mistake (even a line of ADR on “A Good Man Goes To War” could have prefigured this development.)
Unless of course it’s not a gaffe at all. Remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer suddenly conjuring up a younger sister for Buffy mid-run and how bad that seemed at first – only to be revealed as a quite brilliantly conceived storyline that drive the whole of the rest of that season. Let’s hope there’s a backstory to Mels that does likewise, because otherwise the sudden appearance (and equally sudden disappearance minutes later) of the character is an extraordinarily disingenuous cheat.
A couple of weeks ago we had the Great Day of Whovian Crisis, when an article in the June 10 edition of the satirical Private Eye magazine said that Doctor Who was about to be forced into its second year-long hiatus in just over three years in 2012 because of a series of behind-the-scenes problems, which had already led to two producers being dismissed and executive producer Piers Wenger quitting to go to Film4. The reported decision by BBC Wales had apparently “horrified” the BBC chiefs back in London who rely on the show for its Saturday evening scheduling.
The Private Eye article’s credibility was somewhat undermined by its insistence that the split-structure of season 6 was down to “poor budget control and scheduling”: considering how far in advance this split was announced and how much the structure of season 6’s writing depended on this mid-point cliffhanger there’s no way that the split suddenly appeared because of production problems. Hopefully that means the article’s concerns about the second batch of season 6 being ready before Christmas are equally far off the mark.
But the BBC did little to help the situation on that day – Tuesday June 7, a day that will live in Who infamy. Considering they are one of the biggest media corporations in the world, it’s amazing how poor the BBC can be at communications at times: everyone was apparently at meetings or (literally) out to lunch and not available for comment while the story roared around the Internet that day. Initially the BBC even said it wasn’t about to make any announcement about it at all, but finally they were bounced into conceding – via Twitter of all things – that “#DoctorWho is returning. Fourteen new episodes have been commissioned with Matt Smith as The Doctor.”
Hurrah, crisis over, we all thought. Except that instead of getting clearer over the intervening time, the situation seems to have actually been getting mirkier. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some oblique spoilers, sweetie.
And so the first half of this year’s “double mini-series” season 6 of Doctor Who has come to an end, allowing us time to pause and reflect about the season overall. But before that – what about the final episode?
I skipped over reviewing the last episode, “The Almost People”, as it was the second half of a story about which I felt I’d already said pretty much everything I wanted to in my previous “The Rebel Flesh” review: the two-parter finished solidly and just as the first part would have had you expect. A very safe pair of hands and an enjoyable story overall.
And then came that final cliffhanger in the Tardis with not-Amy. Certainly didn’t see that one coming, and yet doesn’t it make sense about the Doctor’s whole insistence on trying to prove to her that The Flesh avatars are not monsters and are real people too. He was trying to prepare her for what was to come.
That shock ending led directly into “A Good Man Goes To War”, and we’re expecting greatness of epic proportions. For the first 20 minutes it royally delivers: the scale of the Doctor’s preparations of assembling an army and tracking down Amy are truly astonishing, with the Tardis and Rory (the Lone Centurion) acting in the Doctor’s place and the man himself appearing only briefly in (unconvincing) silhouette as befits a legend and a myth.
By this point we’re prepared for something absolutely sensational: the Doctor’s (uncharacteristically) casual destruction of a entire Cyber battle fleet to make a rhetorical point leads us to believe that this is the Time Lord Victorious pushed over the edge, driven to darker deeds by an incomparable fury. Except that neither the Doctor nor head writer Steven Moffat are ever that obvious or predictable. Instead, when the Doctor finally does pop up, he looks very much as normal and he outwits the army arrayed against him with typical light-hearted cunning (brilliantly plotted). The battle is defused, and while there is a subsequent trap to be sprung by Madame Kovarian this proves to be an even lower-key plot beat with just half a dozen or so on either side, and the action essentially taking place off-screen. (Judging how stodgy the pirate battle antics ended up looking in “The Curse of the Black Spot”, it may be just as well.)
It’s Moffat’s greatest strength that he confounds and defies our every expectation; but it can also be his greatest weakness. Having promised us that “the Doctor will climb higher than ever before”, the way the episode unfurls simply doesn’t deliver on this promise. The structure of the episode is oddly inverted, starting with epic and sweeping but then getting smaller and smaller until finally it comes down to a rather talky final scene between the regulars. It leaves an oddly awkward, unfulfilled feeling to it: having opened a Christmas present in huge extravagant wrappings, the end result is the perfectly fine but still rather-expected Doctor Who annual.
How you feel about the climax depends on how big a shock the final reveal about River Song’s true identity is. I confess, I’ve thought that she is who she turned out to be ever since episode 1 of this season, when she and Rory were investigating underground and had a rather interesting conversation that only has genuine emotional resonance if River Song is one particular person. The line of dialogue in “The Doctor’s Wife” that ‘the only water in the forest is the river’ sealed it for me, so this week’s reveal was not in the end a big surprise, although Moffat certainly played around in the episode with a few red herrings to make it pleasingly in doubt until the very final moments.
A small genius of Moffat’s writing is that despite having finally revealed River Song’s true identity, it turns out that the answer gives rise to far more questions than the answer ever addressed – the perfect sort of plotting. Instead of being an end to River’s story, if anything it just throws up even more avenues that need exploring which are far more interesting. How exactly does River’s story now intersect with the Impossible Astronaut, the little girl regenerating, and River’s own ultimate fate seen back in “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”? What’s this going to mean to Rory and Amy? Where has the Doctor gone after learning this piece of information – how does it give him the location of the baby? Will the baby be lost to them for years, stuck in a Silents-infested orphanage for years to come? What’s with the astronaut suit, anyway? And why doesn’t River know?
Overall, the episode was extremely well done and great fun – just not the episode to end all episodes that we’d been led to hope for. It felt like a reprise of “The Pandorica Opens” in that it’s all a trap to snare the Doctor and features alliances of various old foes; the difference being is that here the Doctor builds his own alliance to fight back. In the end, this felt more like Russell T Davies’ era of the show (in particular his biggest shows, “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”) than anything Moffat himself has previously done: only that instead of gathering together a feel-good line-up of his old friends, allies and companions to help him as RTD gave us, here the Doctor seeks out more unlikely line-up of Silurians, Judoon and Sontarans who owe him.
And what delights there were in that alliance. For all the praise Moffat gets for his intricate plotting, it’s easy to forget that his real strength is in giving us the most brilliant characters the show has ever seen: not just Amy, but Rory who has developed into one of the true stars of the show; then there’s River Song, without whom it’s almost impossible to think of modern Doctor Who, such a fabulous and vibrant part of the team she’s become. And let’s not forget that Moffat also gave us Captain Jack Harkness, the first character to sustain a successful Doctor Who spin-off series of his own.
This week, add to this line up the brilliant characters of Madame Vastra and her companion Jenny: is there any fan out there not dying to see a Victorian Era-set spin off featuring these two? Such a shame that blue-marketeer Dorium and Commander/Nurse Strax are also not available for future stories: Robert Holmes must be beaming down from on high with delight that someone has finally grasped his Sontaran creations and made them into richly textured, fully-rounded and even humorous personalities without betraying the underlying principle of the cloned warrior race. Even the odd minor character of Lorna Bucket with her memory of 30 seconds running through a forest with the Doctor (who doesn’t know her) feels like someone with far more tale left to tell. Even if she is dead for now.
In the end, the episode is less of a season climax and a major cliffhanger than the episode that preceded it: instead it feels more like the end of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back – everything has been thrown up in the air, the pieces are in play, and suddenly it all looks less like a happy fairytale than it did, and more like a dark and dangerous time. And like that brilliant film it leaves us sitting on the edge of our seats counting down the hours to part two of series six in the Autumn.
Just as long as Moffat doesn’t try and add any sodding Ewoks to the Silurian/Judoon/Sontaran alliance, we should be in for a treat as the story continues to unfold.
Note: contains some spoilers, although I’ve tried to conceal them for the most part!
Due to other commitments this week, this is a rather late review; but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my lack of a timely review for this weeks episode should be in any way construed as a lack of enthusiasm for it.
Far from it. In terms of atmosphere, interesting premise, excellent cast and overall great script, this was as good as anything Doctor Who has done of late. It’s also utterly different from anything Doctor Who has done of late: after the massively complex, deeply layered and intricately constructed opening two parter, together with the fun pirate romp (your mileage may vary on the ‘fun’ part) and the magical Neil Gaiman entry, this couldn’t possibly have been more different.
For one thing: it was slow. Now, that could be taken as an insult or a criticism, so let me assure you that I mean anything but an insult. It’s just that as I was watching, I was aware that not all that much had happened; and that was giving me time to absorb the story, and to think through some of the serious points being made (both important plot points, and equally important sociological points for the real world.) How nice to have a chance to watch a piece of TV that gives me time to absorb it and contemplate, rather than something that pummels you with its cleverness (no matter how much we might like that!) or tries to hide its script problems with raw pace (a few RTD scripts come to mind there.)
The slowness also allows the story to build a fantastically creepy atmosphere of claustrophobic dread, aided immeasurably by the decision to film much of it on location at various castles and monasteries that gave it such a unique feeling. But if this is to happen – if “slow” is to lead to “effective, creepy atmosphere” – then it can only happen with a good script and moreover a highly effective direction. Fortunately this episode had both in Matthew Graham and Julian Simpson respectively.
There’s an interesting comparison to be made between this two-parter and the season five episodes “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood”, which was also deliberately slow-paced, and also shot in some some potentially very effective locations (caves, in that case.) Unfortunately, after a decent and fairly effective first part, that episode petered out into a story that felt like watching a particularly turgid council meeting and wasted almost every opportunity to create something special – one example of how “slow” really can end up being a pejorative.
I’m trusting this two-parter not to end up fumbling the second part – I have no reason to believe it will, it seems in very assured hands. There’s criticisms you can make of it, such as:
- it’s not exactly original and is very much showing its roots (The Thing and Name of the Rose are acknowledged by the writer) – but then, some of the best Doctor Who stories of all time during the Tom Baker era came from this sort of Who-reimagining of classic stories like Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde;
- some of the guest characters are chronically underwritten or given some really clichéd broad strokes to work with (such as Jimmy’s memories of his son) – but it succeeds by some clever casting of the likes of Raquel Cassidy, Mark Bonnar, Marshall Lancaster and Sarah Smart who immediately and very effectively bring something of their previous screen personas to the part;
- Rory’s sudden spark of independence instead of trotting after Amy all the time is out of character – but how good to see it, and lovely to see Arthur Darvill have some more meaty material work with at last rather than just as comedy relief. Plus, he didn’t die for once!
- And really, it was always going to end with that cliffhanger from the moment that the Doctor poked and prodded the pool of milk. Consequently so much of what preceded it felt like treading water waiting for the big reveal to happen. But when it did … Boy, was it worth it.
When I watched “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon”, I thought to myself that this is what a Doctor Who feature film would look like. Then along came “The Doctor’s Wife” and that was so gorgeously directed and photographed that it put many a Hollywood film to shame. But now I’m convinced that this is the perfect paradigm for a Doctor Who film – it felt like a motion picture from the get-go, and any doubts were dispelled by the “Next Time” trailer which was the best they’ve ever done. You could put that on as a trailer in a movie theatre and have them lining up around the block to see the film next week in no time.
We only have to remember to switch on our TV sets. Although sadly Americans and Canadians will have to restrain themselves for an extra week before getting to see it. Don’t worry, we’ll tease you mercilessly about it in the meantime.
Note: contains some spoilers, although I’ve tried to conceal them for the most part!
After all the build-up, hype, anticipation and expectation of having one of the world’s foremost science fiction and fantasy writers, Neil Gaiman, supply a script to Doctor Who it was inevitable that the final result couldn’t possibly live up to it all.
Inevitable, perhaps. But – as it turns out – utterly incorrect.
I’m not even a particular Neil Gaiman fan (or more accurately, I’m not a huge fantasy genre fan) and so approached this episode with a degree of caution that it wouldn’t be “my sort of thing”. I had been fortunate to miss any spoilers about the episode – I understand there have been many online and even in mainstream press, to which I can only say “Shame on you.”
I very quickly cottoned on to who Idris was going to be, and the concept was initially interesting but only in an eye-brow raising “Oh, they’re trying that are they?”
It’s one of those ideas that seems so obvious, even as it is revealed, that you (a) can’t believe no one has ever done it before, and (b) still feel won’t be all that special after all. And yet within minutes it pulled together so many strands that the show burst through its series format confines and became, for the next 40 minutes, bigger on the inside than it ever previously appeared before.
It was a show packed with brilliant lines, from the Doctor’s chilling “Fear me, I killed all of them” to his aching for forgiveness, to Amy’s arch “Did you wish really hard?” when she finds out Idris’ real identity, to the way the Doctor said he’d stolen her and she responds that in fact it was the other way around. But surely the best of them was something we have always known deep down but never had confirmed before: when the Doctor accuses Idris of being unreliable and never taking him where he wanted, her reply was brilliant: “I’ve always taken you where you’ve needed to be.”
Even the traditional weekly Rory death scene was forgiveable, seeing how well it was done (quick, snappy, nightmarish – the graffiti on the Tardis walls was chilling and Rory’s rebuke citing his 2,000 years of waiting packed a huge emotional punch). Rory and Amy both got some great moments again in this episode, in a show packed with brilliant and astounding performances from Matt Smith (surely never better in the role?) to Suranne Jones as Idris, and the creepy, deep tones of Michael Sheen as House.
Despite the fact that this was probably the most satisfying stand-alone episode for even casual viewers to watch, it packed in more love notes for Doctor Who geeks than anything even Russell T Davies managed in his tenure, right down to finding the Tardis setting down in…a junkyard, just where it all started. It’s clear just how much Neil Gaiman is a massive Doctor Who geek himself, as the companion behind-the-scenes Confidential show followed him going totally fanboi as he stood on the console room of the Tardis reading aloud the script that he’d written. And what magnificent prose that script sounded in its own right, too – surely it will get published? Just the sight of Amy and Rory arriving at a certain old console room deep in the heart of the Tardis was enough to spark geekgasms up and down the country. Bravo to Mr Gaiman for envisaging that – I might just have to start reading your books now after all, sir.
Confidential showed just how much the core concept of this episode had been seeded through the 32 previous seasons of the show, and clips of Rose and Sarah Jane Smith (awww, Lis …) comparing notes on how the Doctor cooed and stroked and talked to the Tardis seemed like some crazy script editors had been feverishly at work laying out the series arc even then, going back decades.
As you’ll recall, last week’s pirates caper felt to me like disappointing “filler”, treading water despite all those series arc continuity references it packed in. Ironically, this episode was structurally far more of a classic “bottle show” in that it lacked any continuity references to the episodes or series immediately around it. It could be parachuted in to any season (indeed, it was famously ‘bumped’ from series 5 where it had been originally scheduled.) And yet the episode was such that far from being lightweight, disposable fluff, detached and unnecessary to the series, it instead managed to be profoundly connected to an entire 48 years’ worth of the show’s history.
In a way that I’m not sure we the audience or even they the production crew quite understand or expect, this episode can’t help but change the way we see so much of the series and the character of the Doctor. For one thing, it brings home to us why the Doctor can and will never be in love with his companions (and doesn’t it show his time with Rose as a rather shallow distraction?): because there can only ever be one true romance in his life. She’s the one companion who has been there throughout; even before Susan, Ian and Barbara, she was the first, and she’s still with the Doctor and with us. She’s the most important character in the show, along with the Doctor himself.
Shows like Doctor Who can, at their very, very best, produce genuine magic. In previous years it has been Steven Moffat who had provided exactly those highs, with ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ and ‘Blink’. It’s taken someone of Neil Gaiman’s calibre to top all of them: with this episode, the show has cast perhaps its most magnificent spell over its viewers yet in its entire history.
“Hello, sexy,” indeed.
Note: contains some spoilers
Well, this is embarrassing. I finished off my last review (of The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon two parter) by saying that my brain was broken and that all I wanted was a nice, simple straight-forward adventure to give my head a bit of a break, and that’s duly what this episode gives us. And … how unsatisfying does it feel? It’s as though, having feasted on full steak dinners for two weeks, we turn up this week to get a sub-sub-McDonalds burger at a motorway café.
In truth this episode was always up against it as far as I was concerned because of the subject matter. I’m just not a big pirates fan: the only film/TV show featuring pirates that’s ever worked for me to any degree was the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie (and not even, you’ll notice, the sequels) to which this week’s episode will always be inevitably (very unfairly) compared. That film succeeded because it really went for it and was as outrageous as Johnny Depp’s inspired creation of Jack Sparrow; but where Pirates was full-blooded, The Curse of the Black Spot was half-fat and semi-skimmed by comparison.
The fight sequences never had a chance of being motion picture quality of course, but even so they were peculiarly flat and sluggishly shot here. The tone of the show as a whole was also very uneven, with some of the pirate crew doing full-on pirate cliché performances while others looked like they hadn’t got the memo – and then there was Hugh Bonneville giving a serious, intelligent performance of dignity and gravitas that belonged in a far more high-minded production altogether. And considering the production team went to the trouble of decamping to Cornwall to shoot on an actual tall ship, it’s amazing how studio-bound this episode felt, with the on-deck sequences against a featureless black background feeling as artificial as the 1983 Classic Who serial Enlightenment: there’s no sense of genuine place or atmosphere, of the claustrophobia of such a ship.
There were some definite pluses to the episode: I thought the performances of the three leads delightful, with Matt Smith never embracing the weirdness and the fun of the Doctor as much as he did here in scene after scene, and in particular his moments captain-to-captain with Bonneville were a genuine delight (although his sudden cry of “urgh, alien bogies!” was very ill-advised and made him sound like the Play School version of the character); Rory continues to steal the show, not so much with dialogue or plot in this episode but with little moments of physical comedy improvisation from Arthur Darvill such as his little wave at the pirates before the titles crash in; and Karen Gillan got some lovely moments, from her fight scene to her interplay with Rory over his falling for the siren. Oh, and said siren was tremendously effectively realised – well acted (perhaps surprisingly) by Lily Cole and by turns beautiful, creepy and scary, a lovely bit of CGI work that was exactly the sort of FX that had previously looked so poor and cheap in season five but here looks the proverbial million dollars (note to media critics of the BBC: not actually spent a million dollars. Oh, no, definitely not. Heaven forbid.)
Lots of good ideas (seeing into another world through the mirror – very Lewis Carroll) and moments, then, but the whole thing just didn’t really gel together and felt very uneven. Where the script and direction needed to be light and playful, instead we could hear the gears crunching as it tried to move from one set-up to another, particularly when young Toby was introduced to impose an unnecessary and clichéd pathos onto Captain Avery’s character and then later (more understandably) as the show tried to abruptly transition from pirates, folklore and horror to science fiction on another dimension’s ship rather too late in the day to make it work, feeling tacked-on instead.
Most of all – a surprisingly large number of plot lapses to be found here, of ideas not fully worked through and a script that hasn’t been finessed nearly enough. Was Steven Moffat too wrapped up writing his own scripts to run full due diligence here? To name a few: how did Toby stay undiscovered on board such a small ship for so long? Why is the Doctor so quick to call time and abandon ship on his beloved Tardis? Why on earth should breaking a mirror destroy the possibility of reflections – arguably it just makes a thousand more reflective pieces (c.f. the aforementioned Enlightenment?) What happened to the Boatswain who apparently just disappears from the Armoury? Why are all of the pirate crew left on the space ship when at least a few of them suffered from nothing more serious than a paper cut? Toby we can understand, and an ending that saw Avery choose to stay behind with just his son would have had more impact that a group shot of pirates gathering around with nothing else to do other than look at the stars and tie up a loose end. It can’t be that once transported, everyone – no matter how serious the original injury – is unable to leave or else the Doctor and Amy would be similarly dependent on the place forever more, let alone Rory.
Talking of which, I really can’t work out exactly what the logic was behind Rory’s condition. If the alien medical technology had cleared the water from his lungs and resuscitated his heart and respiration, why should be suddenly go back to a drowned state once removed? It’s pretty useless medical technology in that case, and the alien creators of it should be ashamed of themselves for their lack of foresight. No wonder they were all wiped out by the common cold (and – a space faring race wiped out by earthly bugs? Not exactly well prepared, were they!) It would be petty of me to say that I was disappointed that the siren/Lily Cole didn’t get to have a holographic moment with a line like “Please state the nature of your medical emergency,” but I could have sworn that the alien sick bay stole a couple of sound FX cues from the original Star Trek.
Oh, and please – can they stop killing Rory (or some series regular) seemingly every week? Have we really got to the point where we can’t believe that it’s a high-stakes adventure unless and until one of the main cast are apparently offed? I’ve lost count now of how many death scenes Rory in particular has had. If ever he is written out this way, no one in the country is going to realise/get it/care until several weeks later after all these cry wolf moments.
Sadly, all the plot threads from the opening two-parter were thoroughly parked, despite some heavy-handed attempts to reference them to make sure people didn’t forget and to establish a “through-story/season arc” feel to things. But rather than advancing the story in any way, all of these (Rory and Amy discussing the Doctor’s first episode death and how they couldn’t tell him; the Doctor re-running Amy’s pregnancy test and still not getting a clear answer; the re-appearance of Eyepatch Woman peering at Amy through a shutter) were literal restagings of what we saw in the first two episodes and consequently add nothing, except to either confuse or frustrate depending upon your personal mood.
All in all it felt like a filler episode, which in a season as short as this one is inexcusable. Or perhaps, in view of the pirate subject matter, we should just say that this episode was merely “treading water”; presumably having just walked the plank.
NOTE: packed full of spoilers, and possibly traces of nuts.
Oh boy. Remember how, in my review of episode 1 of the new series of Doctor Who, I suggested that we might have a better chance of understanding what was going on in the season opener after we’d seen the second of the two parts? How sweetly naive and utterly wrong that hope turned out to be.
To put it simply: at some point during the 42 minutes of “Day of the Moon”, my brain broke. Not only did the episode totally and wilfully avoid answering any of the questions that part 1 threw up, it then plunged on and upped the ante with a series of further shock twists and revelations that left you questioning just about everything you were seeing.
Was the first episode shock of the Doctor’s shooting picked up and resolved? No. It wasn’t even mentioned once this time around. Do we learn who the little girl is? No. But we do find that she has a photograph of her with Amy, upping the likelihood that she’s Amy’s daughter after Amy blurted out that she was pregnant at the end of episode 1 … except that in an oddly belated off-hand follow-up, Amy says she’s not pregnant after all and it was just a side-effect of the Silents’ mind control leaving her with nausea (something we saw affect River as well, so it’s possible.) But then why is the Doctor running a pregnancy scan on her? And why is that scan oscillating between pregnant/not pregnant? Is that just what it does while calibrating and is teasing us by withholding the actual answer from us, or is it possible that she’s genuinely both in some way? Or is this just all too obvious for someone as fiendish as Steven Moffat?
The one thing the episode did do was wrap up the immediate story about the invasion (or rather, ongoing occupation) of the Earth by the Silents, through a very neat (if hard to keep up with) twist of broadcasting the aliens’ own commands over the most watched single piece of TV footage in history, hence enabling the population of Earth to be able to see and thus fight the Silents. Some people might grumble that this was a piece of technobabble deus ex machina sleight-of-hand, but in which case they need to watch again: all the pieces are so carefully and fastidiously put in place beforehand that it’s practically a text book example of how to write this sort of thing and not cheat the audience. But while it provides an immediate end to the current story, it does nothing to answer the bigger questions. The Silents, we learn, are parasites who have been steering human history in order to get us to build things they want – such as instigating the space race in order to get spacesuits. But why do they need the suits? Why put a little girl into one? What’s the overall plan? And what’s that leftover ship from “The Lodger” doing? (And yes, it was confirmed that it was the same sort of ship by the Doctor, who comments “I’ve seen one of these before, abandoned.”)
Some of the flaws in episode 1 were addressed and improved upon by the second part. The period feel I felt missing last week was handsomely delivered this time around. And the Silents were much more effective: for long stretches of the episode we don’t see them at all, but their presence is registered by flashing implanted voice mail indicators and by pen marks the characters draw on their arms and faces to mark a “sighting”; and it’s utterly chilling and jarring, when with no warning at all these indicators suddenly appear and we don’t know why, because … Well, we’ve forgotten, too. Suddenly the power and the threat and the sheer terror of the Silents is brought right home to us in a way it never was as a CGI alien in a suit.
Those voice mail capsules were a brilliant addition to proceedings, enabling Amy to speak to the Doctor and Rory after she’s abducted. Rory’s unswerving devotion to her – insisting on talking to her despite it being receive-only – is hugely affecting, and when he starts to believe that she’s declaring her love for the Doctor over the broadcast it’s also utterly heartbreaking, because Rory is such an appealing, rounded and sympathetic character. Far more so these days than Amy, who even after she returns and assures Rory that she was talking about him all the time, you still feel that she’s pulling a fast one somewhere along the line. With the Doctor eternally unknowable, and Amy not entirely trustworthy, Rory’s importance as our main point of audience identification is crucial and shows how vastly more than the “tin dog” add-on he is to the current triumvirate.
Alex Kingston as Dr River Song was magnificent again, from showing superb gun skills through to diving off the Empire State Building … and into the Tardis’ swimming pool (a 5s scene that managed to make me laugh while being simultaneously a riff off the start of “The Time of Angels” and a throwback to the start of “The Eleventh Hour”.) Her shooting down of the Silents may raise eyebrows from fans raised on the Russell T Davies era of the Doctor for whom guns were anathema, but looking at the wider history of the character you’ll see that’s a very 21st century affectation. And besides, River cheekily comments that she hoped her “old fella” didn’t see any of that … Is that one question answered at least – confirmation that River is indeed the Doctor’s wife? Possibly. There’s a lovely coda back at River’s prison where she suddenly locks lips with the Doctor and Matt Smith performs some inspired writhing as he tries to find someway out of this latest diabolical clinch … but the comedy then quickly turns to tragedy as the scene closes out on River commenting that this is “the last time” for them.
There are still flaws: the Nixon character completely collapsed from any credibility or closeness to the real person, although he did make for a funny “running joke” as he was wheeled out of the Tardis all over the place to establish the Doctor’s bone fides at key moments (what, the psychic notepaper no longer doing the trick?). And his final scene with Canton Delaware, in which Canton’s choice of life partner was revealed, was a wonderfully light touch scene that shows how to be both outrageously politically correct and in service of the story.
But really it was the sheer ferocious pace of everything coming at you that left you gasping and reeling. The pre-titles sequence this time had the Doctor a prisoner in Area 51 and all the companions chased down and killed by a seemingly turncoat Canton, the time having moved on three months since the cliffhanger at the end of episode 1 which was never really picked up again. At least there was no timey-wimey bumpy-wumpy timeline jumping this time around, but Moffat was instead having a grand old time playing around with linear story structure and it had a similar implosion effect on the average human mind. At times, all you wanted was a nice quite moment, a bit of exposition and explanation, a few questions answered. A nice scene in the Tardis with everyone on the couch drinking tea for 5 minutes to catch their breath, is it too much to ask for?
Instead what we got was a haunted orphanage that was straight out of gothic horror (they should just have called it Arkham Asylum; the only remaining person there was a Doctor Renfrew which is surely a knowing wink to the insane Renfield in Dracula) – scenes that were so impressively designed and shot, and so brilliant and scary, that you wished they’d make an entire episode about this one location rather than career in and out of it in ten minutes flat.
And then there was the end. Back to the little girl. If anyone had still laughably believed that they were just about clinging on to the narrative, then surely this final scene would have broken their resolve too, because surely no one saw this coming. What does it mean? How could it be? Who could it be?
What … the **** … is going ON?!
I’m hoping for some very light-hearted, no ties, question-free swashbuckling pirating action next week, I really am.