Contains spoilers for episodes aired to date.
With “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, Doctor Who returns to one of its less-familiar genres. It’s a global techno-thriller in which the end of the world is nigh, only nobody knows exactly which one of several dozen apocalyptic scenarios is actually in play. The only group that does are the mysterious Monks introduced in last week’s episode, but who this week step out of the shadows and emerge in the glaring light of day to offer to save humanity – if we ask them to. And for an ill-defined price in return. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers for aired episodes
The clue to this episode of Doctor Who is in the title: “Extremis” is expressly designed to push the series’ format to its limits. It’s outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat allowing himself once last burst of unrestrained fun, one final valedictory outing for the writer who has scrambled our brains time and again since he took over the show in 2010. As he says himself in the most recent edition of Doctor Who Magazine, “It was my last chance to bend this show to see how far you can go before it breaks. Forgive the indulgence.”
Whether you will forgive said indulgence or not depends on how much of a fan you are of the classic ‘timey-wimey’ Moffat style of writing. This is an episode that takes great delight in confounding and confusing the audience, just as Moffat regularly used to do in the likes of “The Impossible Astronaut”. You’ll be intrigued and irritated in turn, excited and exasperated almost at the same instant. Love it or hate it, the one thing you can’t be is indifferent.
I’ll certainly confess to being baffled by most of the episode, in which very little seems to be following any kind of logical narrative structure. Nor does Moffat exactly play fair with us, because even if you’re paying full attention it’s still absolutely impossible to work out what’s going on – at least not until the moment when Nardole (Matt Lucas) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) stumble across the portal hub, and Nardole discovers a certain lack of substance to his existence. After that things fall pretty quickly into place – fortunately, as there’s only about five minutes left to run at this point – and after all the teasing baffling build-up it has to be said that my reaction to the big reveal was: “Oh. Is that it?” Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for aired episodes
Given that I tipped my hand last week and declared myself a fan of the scarier side of Doctor Who, you’d probably expect me to wax lyrical over the latest episode “Oxygen” and say how utterly brilliant and fantastic it was. And just to defuse any potential anxiety in the minds of readers of this article, I’ll cut to the chase and admit that yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
In terms of the spectrum of scariness, last week’s “Knock Knock” was a familiar, cosy haunted house story with a happy ending; but “Oxygen” is a desperately chilling story in which everything we thought we could rely on is systematically taken away or turned against us. It is unsettling from the very beginning, and only gets worse as the story goes on. The demise of the sonic screwdriver is painful enough, even before the killer punch in the final scene that we simply don’t see coming and which has big implications for the rest of season 10.
Having brought us a “Mummy on the Orient Express” in his first contribution to the show in 2014, writer Jamie Mathieson this time offers up zombies on a space station. At least, that’s the ‘high concept’ pitch for the episode suggested by the publicity stills. In fact, there are no zombies here – the 36 terminated workers on the Chasm Forge (a brilliant name for an asteroid mining station) aren’t supernaturally reanimated, but are just literally dead weight strapped into their still-operating smart space suits. The question is: what happened to them, and why? Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the episode
Over the years, Doctor Who has been many things and dabbled in dozens of genres. But while its adaptability and flexibility is undoubtedly the show’s core strength, for me at least it is never better than when it’s scary in a good old “watch while hiding from behind the sofa” fashion. Think of the show’s golden period when it borrowed liberally from horror stories such as Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde during Tom Baker’s early years; or the memories of the giant maggots and equally oversize spiders faced by Jon Pertwee; or even the eerie dead forest and the ghostly abandoned futuristic city of “The Daleks” in 1963. Or more recently, the remarkable success of the spectacularly creepy “Blink”, still regarded by many as the singe best Who story of all time. As it happens, the location for this week’s story was next door to the house used for “Blink” in 2008; it’s a small universe after all.
It’s why I had such high hopes for this week’s episode which promised flat-out old-fashioned horror movie chills. If “Knock Knock” had only managed to deliver on that level, I would have been a very happy camper.
The thing is – it did deliver. And I was happy. And then it continued. In the end, it so far exceeded my initial already ridiculously over-optimistic expectations that ‘happy’ falls absurdly short of capturing my current mood. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the episode
Judging from the online reaction to “Thin Ice”, the third episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, it’s been a huge hit with both professional and fan critics who evidently believe it to be the best episode of the show in years. And I’m very happy to see that sort of positive reaction, even if it does make me feel I’m on the outside looking in on this occasion – able to see the enthusiasm from a distance but unable to join in, like the designated driver at a particularly exuberant house party.
It’s not that I thought “Thin Ice” wasn’t very good – far from it, it’s got some great moments and overall is really quite admirable. But I didn’t love it, not in the same way that everyone else seems to have done. Instead, it left me oddly cool – which is perhaps appropriate given the title and the setting of a 1814 Frost Fair on the frozen surface of the River Thames, a far cry from last week’s futuristic utopia. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the episode
It must take a huge sense of self-confidence and belief to be the show-runner of a huge international series like Doctor Who, to the point of hubris and arrogance. That’s not a criticism – I just don’t see how anyone could do the job otherwise. Part of that mindset must include never fully accepting when you’ve made a mistake – or at least, not one that you can’t rectify down the line.
Back in season 8, Steven Moffat picked children’s novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce (of London 2012 opening ceremony fame) to write an episode for Doctor Who. The end result – “In the Forest of the Night” – sharply divided both fans and critics, and was the least popular story of that run. Personally I liked the episode somewhat better than most people seemed to and found its change of pace refreshing, but even so I can’t say I was clamouring for more of the same anytime soon.
But Moffat sticks to his guns, and Cottrell-Boyce gets a second bite of the Who apple with this week’s episode “Smile”. This sophomore effort shows that the writer has worked hard to address the criticisms of his maiden outing and in some areas is much improved, while other aspects show much the same hallmarks of Cottrell-Boyce’s work – for both good and ill. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the episode
It wasn’t until the opening credits rolled on Saturday’s brand new series of Doctor Who that it was fully brought home to me just how long it’s been since we’ve had a proper first-run episode to savour, Christmas specials notwithstanding. It’s been more than 16 months since the end of series nine – already the travels of the Doctor and Clara seem like they belong to a completely different era of the show.
Clara’s extended tenancy in the Tardis also means that it’s been four and a half years since we last had the pleasure of being introduced to a new companion. In that time we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of the show, seen one Doctor bow out and another take over who himself is already about to move on. Fond as I was of Jenna Coleman, that’s probably too long a period than is entirely good for the show: while the Doctor might regenerate from time to time he’s still the same character, and these days it’s the companion who offers the best opportunity for the production team to refresh the show from the ground up with new blood.
Given that series star Peter Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat are both moving on after the current run, they would have been forgiven if they’d simply opted to just coast to the finish line on auto-pilot, before handing things over to Chris Chibnall who will do his own thing in 2018. But that’s not their way; revitalised by the lengthy interval between seasons, Moffat throws himself into this latest reinvention with the enthusiasm of a three-day-old puppy playing with a new favourite toy rather than the jaded 55-year-old who’s been grinding away at this every day for almost eight years now. It’s not the first time he’s reimagined the show: he transformed it into a charming fairy tale with Matt Smith’s first season, before going for a more hard-edged science fiction approach with convoluted time travel plots that continually tested the audience’s ability to keep up. He reinvented the show once more when Capaldi took over the role by daring to be darker, and played with the format again with more two-parters in 2015 than ever before. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been exactly a year since Doctor Who‘s most recent new adventure, and so the anticipation ahead of the 2016 Christmas special was sky high. When “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” finally arrived on Christmas Day, it quickly turned out that – not for the first time – the show has wrong-footed us and that it isn’t the episode we might have thought that we had been expecting and in some cases dreading: Doctor Who has moved on. And that’s a good thing.
In the past, showrunner Steven Moffat has delivered some of the most Christmassy of Christmas specials imaginable, from 2010’s “A Christmas Carol” to 2011’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”, 2012’s “The Snowmen” and 2014’s “Last Christmas”. By comparison, last year’s “The Husbands of River Song” was somewhat light on the Christmas trappings, and this year’s story goes even further with only a brief prologue at the start being set on Christmas Eve. Even then it’s only so that eight-year-old Grant Gordon (Logan Huffman) can understandably mistake the ‘old guy’ hanging upside down outside his New York apartment block window 60 floors up in the air for Santa Claus. After that however you’ll look in vain for any festive feels. Read the rest of this entry »
I confess that I had a bad feeling about this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special as soon as I heard that noted comedians Matt Lucas and Greg Davies were among the main guest stars, and that one of the characters was King Hydroflax. This had all the hallmarks of the show lurching firmly into ‘silly’ territory, the kind of thing that I don’t take to at all well. My only hope was that the promised return of the divine Alex Kingston as the inimitable River Song would counter the potential downsides.
Even with that hope in mind, my first viewing of “The Husbands of River Song” did not go well. It really was very, very silly indeed to the point of being a wacky cartoon caper (there’s even a comedy ‘whoosh’ sound effect when River throws a head-in-a-bag to the Doctor at one point), and just to make matters worse there’s a heavy added layer of Douglas Adams humour to the whole thing – the kind of surreal shenanigans that only Adams himself could ever really pull off and that everyone else is best advised to stay well away from.
The resulting confection managed to hit all the wrong buttons for me, and in entirely the wrong order. To make matters worse, I even dozed off in the middle – although admittedly, this was at least as much to do with sinking into a food coma after Christmas dinner as it was a justified critical verdict on the show. Read the rest of this entry »
After enjoying the 25th anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera a couple of months back, I was lured into wanting to watch the equivalent birthday celebrations of another long-running hit musical, Les Misérables. Unlike Phantom – which I’ve been a fan of since it opened – I’ve remained stubbornly resistant to the charms of Les Miz and never seen or listened to it, despite some obvious overlaps with Phantom (both set in 19th century Paris, adapted from works by French authors, both shows being produced by Cameron Macintosh, starting in London just a year and a day apart in 1985/6 and still running today.)
Those overlaps prove rather superficial and the two shows really are very different, starting with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score and Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s lyrics. This is a far more raw and raucous musical, a world away from the precision-crafted polished melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, more akin to the sung-thru style of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd than to Phantom. Famously Les Miz was about the biggest hit show never to have spawned a hit single, but that changed when Susan Boyle sent jaws dropping to the floor with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. That said, many of the key numbers in Les Miz felt familiar to me: either the show’s score is more widely covered than I’d realised, or it relies cleverly on well known authentic melodies and anthems of the place and period to give it a timeless feel that bestows a sense on these songs being old friends you simply hadn’t met before but take no more than a minute to become comfortable companions – which is a genuine high achievement.
Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is a particular self-confessed influence on the show, as is clear in the style of the ensemble songs for the destitute French underclass including “At the End of the Day”. It even has direct equivalents of Fagin (Thénardier) and the Artful Dodger (Gavroche). However, where Oliver! has an underlying sense of hope and gaiety to it, Les Miz is never far from the biting edge of abject poverty and angry despair that led to first night critics dubbing the whole venture “The Glums.” But just like the original Dickens books, Victor Hugo’s source novel is a huge, sprawling affair bursting with vibrant characters and storylines to the point where condensing it down into a three hour show is a feat in itself. Even so, much of the first act struggles with a stop-start episodic broken-up feel to it as we career through a range of situations, locations and characters who arrive in one scene and depart in the next. It’s all necessary backstory, but it’s still a relief when we get to 1830s Paris and a more conventional narrative asserts itself after what feels like a Cliffs Notes highlights package on fast-forward.
The linking thread is ex-convict Jean Valjean breaking parole and his flight from intractable policeman Inspector Javert, and the two men’s face-to-face confrontations are the dramatic highlights of the show. However Valjean is promptly missing from a lengthy section at the start which concentrates instead on the descent into depravity of factory girl Fantime, but her time in the spotlight is shortlived. There’s also the story of Valjean’s love for his adopted daughter, Cosette; how she falls in love with a young student called Marius; and Marius’ involvement with student revolutionaries leading to the 1832 Paris Uprising that dominates much of the end of Act 1 and most of Act 2. As a result some stories get squeezed rather too tightly in the crush – the Cosette/Marius romance is malnourished and doesn’t have anything like the emotional tug that a nominally secondary plot strand – Éponine’s doomed unrequited love for Marius going unnoticed – heartbreakingly manages alongside it. In the end the show tries valiantly to reconcile its two main themes of Valjean’s quest for personal redemption with the revolutionary call to arms to build a better world for all: it doesn’t entirely succeed but it’s a worthy attempt, and in its ambition and complexity it makes Phantom’s streamlined clean-and-simple plot seem rather threadbare by comparison.
This 25th anniversary production is similar in format to the one staged for Phantom a year later, but clearly Cameron Macintosh learned a lot about what did and didn’t work here. This Les Miz is a concert staging, meaning that while there’s some set dressing, props and costumes, the performers sing to a bank of microphones at the front of the stage and there’s consequently little scope for physical performances. For the most part this isn’t too much of a problem and the show is carried on the emotional intensity of the outstanding individual performances, but some key plot points (such as the fate of several characters) are lost without the proper staging. Not a problem for devoted fans of the musical who know it all backwards, though – or anyone with access to a plot synopsis online, in my case.
The performers are mainly drawn from Les Miz casts down the years, with some additional stars brought in for the occasion. No one will begrudge the renowned tenor Alfie Boe delivering a fine performance in the central role as Valjean, and US reality show finalist Samantha Barks is also rather excellent as young student Éponine. Perhaps the most obvious-seeming piece of “stunt casting” is the inclusion of Little Britain’s Matt Lucas as Thénardier, but he has a surprisingly good voice and is certainly accomplished at producing effective comedy grotesque characters on the stage, so it’s actually an excellent fit and works well: his first song “Master of the House” is a glorious show-stopper.
More troublesome is the casting of US teen heartthrob Nick Jonas as Marius. His voice is noticeably very thin and nasal compared with the accomplished stage performers around him, and he sounds just like what he is – a modern day pop star, which will be very jarring for Les Miz aficionados used to the booming tones of Michael Ball who created the role in the original London run. But this may be a deliberate creative choice by the production, to differentiate Marius from those around him, adding some variation to the vocal line-up and making him an appreciably younger and less confident character in keeping with the story. It’s noticeable that when Jonas comes to Marius’ ‘coming-of-age’ song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” – perhaps my favourite song of the whole show – he is assuming a much stronger, deeper voice to show his growing maturity.
It doesn’t help Jonas that he plays many of his early scenes against Enjolras, the charismatic leader of the student revolutionaries, and played here with such a magnetic presence that the performer threatens to steal the show outright from under everyone’s noses despite limited stage time. That was even before I recognised the voice and realised that it was none other than Ramin Karimloo, so superb in the 25th anniversary Phantom and who is currently on stage in the West End production of Les Miz – now in the lead role. Another member of the student rebels is played by Hadley Fraser, Raoul in the Phantom 25th show and currently also on stage in the West End playing Javert to Karimloo’s Valjean. This strange, small, porous world between the two musicals is underlined by the appearance post-show of the lauded original Valjean Colm Wilkinson and one of his most popular successors in the role, John Owen-Jones – both of whom are also in the Phantom 25th post-show reprising their other shared role as the Phantom himself.
As for the Blu-ray, it is a fine presentation – colourful and detailed for the most part although some shots requiring long-distance extreme close-ups (because of the sheer size of the O2 Arena in which it was held, stadium-style) appear flattened and soft as a result of the technical limitations, and the lighting is sometimes not optimal for filming. The soundtrack is nicely loud and rousing, with a good stereo feel to it and all the singing and instruments crisp and clear. Sadly the only extra is a brief 5 minute trailer/puff piece for the 25th anniversary performance with flashes of the history and international success of the show.
This disc isn’t quite up there with its Phantom sibling and the concert staging means it’s not as good a surrogate as seeing the show itself, but it is certainly good enough to convert me from my stubborn former resistance to heeding the rousing call to arms of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, and it made me a genuine fan of the production. It might be 26 years after first night, but better late than never – and who’s counting anyway? At least I’m on now board in plenty of time for the 50th anniversary celebrations!