matt smith

Doctor Who: “The Snowmen”

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Contains spoilers, although I’ll try and be as gentle as I can…

SnowmenI really should know better by know than to allow myself to get too excited about Doctor Who specials. After all, they’ve had a pretty patchy history, with last year’s “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” the worst of the bunch. On top of that you’ll recall that I was less than happy with the way that the so-called ‘Series 7A’ ended with “The Angels Take Manhattan” so it’s not like I was feeling particularly in sync with the series at the end of 2012. But all the advance word of mouth about this year’s Christmas special was so positive, and all the preview clips released were so good, that I lowered my guard and allowed my expectations to rise rather too unrealistically – to the point where it would have needed “The Snowmen” to be one of the best Who outings in years just to meet let alone exceed them.

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Doctor Who S7: The Angels Take Manhattan

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Contains spoilers

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 »

Doctor Who S7: A Town Called Mercy/The Power of Three

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Contains spoilers for the two aired shows.

Here’s the second of the ‘two-up’ reviews of the latest Doctor Who season, ahead of the final instalment of the short five-part mini/half season we’re getting in 2012.

While I don’t go out of my way to intentionally give spoilers, it’s sometimes impossible to steer away from revealing some plot details here and there in a review so please avert your eyes if you haven’t seen the episodes yet and want to remain completely unspoiled. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S7: Asylum of the Daleks/Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

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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…
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Doctor Who: “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe”/”A Christmas Carol”

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Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View
Also: does contain spoiler details of the 2010 and 2011 Christmas episodes.

It seems that the Doctor Who special is a peculiarly difficult beast to produce successfully, with perhaps the sole exception of David Tennant’s début episode “The Christmas Invasion.” Either one ends up essentially ignoring the festive season altogether (such as “The End of Time” two-parter or “The Runaway Bride”) or else the holiday occasion seems to overbalance the whole thing and make the episode a weak or mediocre entry into the Doctor Who canon (such as “Voyage of the Damned” and “The Next Doctor”.)

This year’s entry, “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe”, certainly doesn’t stint on the Christmassy aspects; which means by axiom that it will therefore be a weak episode of Doctor Who. And sadly, this does indeed appear to be the case.

The episode is roughly speaking a game of four parts. The first is a very extended prologue and introduction, starting with joining the Doctor in mid-adventure aboard an exploding starship that concludes with the Doctor improbably (and inexplicably) surviving a trip into vacuum, re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere without burning up, and a 100,000km freefall onto solid ground without too much trouble. There then follows some slapstick Keaton/Chaplin-esque physical comedy before a switch to a country estate and the Doctor acting as a seriously madcap caretaker (perhaps he was brain damaged in that freefall after all!) welcoming a mother and her two children to a large, empty country house in World War 2. It’s all very well written, and Matt Smith is as ever utterly pitch-perfect in his performance, but this is an awful lot of frivolous and non-sensical capering about and I confess that I was starting to lose the will to live. Or at least, to watch.

Finally we get to the second part, and the plot kicks in: a trans-dimensional portal is revealed within a prematurely-opened Christmas present and everyone slips into a frozen snowscape world. Yes, it’s entirely ripped off from CS Lewis and the first discovery of Narnia through the back of the wardrobe – but given the episode title, what did you expect? Writer Steven Moffat is being entirely upfront. And the sequence is very well done, with striking sets and locations beautifully photographed and some lovely innovative touches of its own – such as the Christmas trees that decorate themselves with baubles, which turn out to be eggs that develop into impressively-realised tree people. There’s also a fun scene in which the seemingly helpless mother turns the tables on a crew of armed loggers from Androzani Major (the planet name being a lovely grace note for long time fans of the show.)

So now it’s all looking well set up for a thrilling remainder of the hour, right? Err .. Well, no. Instead it sort of all disappears in a puff of smoke in part three, with the loggers introduced in part 2 disappearing and the Doctor reduced to observing and commentating from the sidelines while the mother essentially saves the day through some not-very-well-explained or even particularly interesting technomagic. Everyone lives happy ever after, the end. Very strangely for a Steven Moffat show, there’s no tension because how everything turns out is so obvious and telegraphed well in advance, leaving no surprises or sense of achievement. All the boxes have been ticked, but without enthusiasm; it’s as if they ran out of time and just had to go with an early draft of the script. The final part is a short epilogue, and although the contents of it were a strictly guarded secret I’d been expecting an appearance along those lines well in advance, so again it seemed rather obvious. (That said, the moment that the Doctor unexpectedly sheds a happy tear for the first time in 900 years is a terrific moment, entirely sold by a brilliant touch of acting from Smith.)

In all, my immediate reaction would be that this Doctor Who outing was very much on the ‘disappointing’ side of the scale; but on the other hand, my experience with the previous Moffat-penned outing from 2010 suggests that I should reserve judgement for a while yet.

That’s because in advance of this year’s Christmas special, I decided to rewatch last year’s for the first time in almost 12 months. Another very Christmas-heavy episode (drawing extensively on a different literary Yuletide classic, this time Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”), I’d summed it up at the time as a disappointment on the grounds that it was “frankly just a little too clever and cute for its own good, and adds on strand after twist after turn to the point where really it’s just to tiring to keep up” and was consequently uninvolving and uninspiring.

Watching it again, however, I was amazed by how much my thoughts on it had changed. This time around I was utterly entranced and totally hooked on its magical lyricism. Not only do the “Christmas Carol” themes come through loud and clear and work far more effectively than I originally gave them credit for, but there’s also whole tale of love and loss, a life of grief, of dreams and the bitter disappointment of failing to fulfil them, of becoming what you fear and dread the most; and how even this can be overcome. Unlike the 2011 special, there’s no “happy ever after” resolution after, but a bitter-sweet and very poignant outcome instead. By the time young Kazran (a quite awesomely talented and natural 12-year-old Laurence Belcher) is confronted with the disappointment of his bitter older self (a magnificent Michael Gambon) and Katherine Jenkins (a decent actress in this part and not stunt casting after all – who knew?) sings the sublime “Silence Is All You Know”, all topped by Matt Smith on outstanding form as the biggest, most easily distracted kid in the room, then there really should be a tear in every eye in the house.

The whole thing becomes a quite extraordinary achievement, a brilliant work not merely of television or even of literature but of genuine art. It’s one of the most beautiful and smart pieces of television of the year – sheer poetry – and I’m embarrassed that I felt so poorly disposed toward it at the time; whatever was I thinking? It just shows the power of expectations and how badly we can take it when they’re not met, even if it’s merely because they’re massively exceeded in different ways than we had thought that we wanted.

So is “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” headed for a wholesale reappraisal in 12 months time? It’s entirely possible. I somehow have my doubts – my complaint on the 2010 instalment was that it was too clever, and now I’ve caught up and appreciate it; whereas my issue with the 2011 equivalent is that it’s forgotten some vital ingredients, like plot and interest, unless they’re hiding away in very subtle corners of the sprawling forest. But if nothing else, I’ve learned not to underestimate The Grand Moff again quite so soon.

The Sarah Jane Adventures S5 E1/2 – “Sky”

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The Sarah Jane Adventures is back this week on the Children’s BBC channel, and is well worth catching up with on the BBC iPlayer if you’re not around for the 5.15pm airing on Monday and Tuesday evenings.

Although unashamedly – indeed, proudly – a programme for children, there’s few made-for-kids drama series around these days with the style, verve and sheer class of this Doctor Who spin-off, and plenty for adults to love as well.

The fact that it’s primarily for the kids actually makes this show the truer heir and keeper of the faith to the original series of Doctor Who: Nu-Who is all grown up now, with proper emotions and drama and timey-wimey complex epics; Torchwood on the other hand always wanted to be different and grown up, then went high concept and all mini-series on us as it decamped to the States.

The Sarah Jane Adventures on the other hand is just a perfect little bubble containing the spirit of 26 years of the original show, allowing it to live on through the character of Sarah Jane Smith. It’s no coincidence, I can’t help but think, that this season-opener is partly set in a nuclear power station, which is where her final story as a regular companion to Tom Baker was set back in 1976: it’s just one of those knowing, touching nods the series gives to older fans without doing anything to interrupt the fun of things for the primary audience of children. Its lack of ‘side’ or ‘edge’ or guile is what makes this show such a pure pleasure.

In previous years we’ve seen the Doctor guest star in both his David Tennant and Matt Smith guises, and featured guest turns from the Brigadier and Jo Grant (or Jo Jones as she now is) all of which have been a pure delight for long time nostalgic fans of its parent show in both modern and classic forms.

Unfortunately this will be the last (truncated) series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, following the tragically untimely demise of the series star, the irreplaceable Elisabeth Sladen, in February this year. It’s very bitter sweet to watch her in this, knowing now that she was very ill and close to passing away as happened.

You’d never know it from what’s on the screen: she is as wonderful, energetic and full of life as ever, effortlessly holding the show together with her presence and personality not to mention her acting talent which shines through. She’s running around with her teenage co-stars just the way she always did – just the way we’ll always remember her. It makes it easy to forget that Elisabeth Sladen is no longer with us; and then, when you do remember, it hits hard all over again and it’s impossible not to have the tears well up just as they did when the shocking news broke earlier this year.

But the good news is that she got to leave us this show – the five seasons of Sarah Jane Smith that put her in a category of her own, the only Classic companion to get her own successful spin-off show and become a star in her own right. And most deservedly so. That the show continues to be just as good and strong to the very end is so very important, too.

Enjoy these last few episodes; and then if you haven’t seen the preceding ones, go out and get the box set, and raise a glass to the memory of the wonderful Sarah Jane and the lovely Lis Sladen, without whom all our lives would have been so much the poorer.

Dr Who S6 E13 – “The Wedding of River Song”

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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 »

Dr Who S6 E12 – “Closing Time”

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Some spoilers ahoy!

I have to be entirely upfront about this: I’m not a fan of Dr Who: The Sitcom. I wasn’t last year when it gave us “The Lodger”, and I’m even less so this year with “Closing Time”. I appreciate this is entirely my problem and that there are doubtless legions of people out there who will have loved this episode after several weeks of feeling overwhelmed and disenchanted by too-clever oddness; it’s just that I’m not one of them. Sorry.

That’s not to say that I can’t appreciate some sharp lines and cracking dialogue in the episode: “They gave me a name badge. In case I forget. Which actually does happen”; “I have an app for that”; and for some reason the Doctor being able to “speak Baby” never gets old like it should. Matt Smith and guest star James Corden are clearly having a whale of a time: we already know Smith is a gifted comedy performer, and I for one have never had any problem with with Corden and think he’s especially good when called upon to play an essentially straight dramatic role, as he is here. There’s a nice part for Lynda Baron (who first appeared in Dr Who in voice at least back in 1966!), a really touching cameo for two former companions, and some lovely pathos added by the reminders that this is the last day for the Doctor before he dies – for good – at Lake Silencio. Most importantly, the story never strays across the line into poking fun at the show but always properly draws its humour from it.

I could carp on about some incidental flaws (such as: just why is the Doctor now so inept at living normally on Earth in the first place? He had four years of getting by just fine in the UNIT era), but really the biggest issue with the episode is the hole where the plot should be. Even the children’s TV companion show The Sarah Jane Adventures would take one look at this and demand that it must have more heft to it than this insubstantial piece of candy floss has. And that’s before the climax, which channels the very worst of US TV science fiction from the 1960s – you know, those moments where Captain Kirk would use his illogical human emotions to overwhelm the evil, all-powerful supercomputer into short-circuiting and blowing itself up. Yikes, have we really regressed back 45 years to that?! At least writer Gareth Roberts has the good grace to acknowledge how crap this case of parental-love-conquering-all is, and accordingly pokes some fun at it in the dialogue.

Roberts also delivers a nice ending to the show – the Doctor receiving the hat we knows he wears to Lake Silencio; how he caresses the Tardis before exhorting her to one last adventure. Unfortunately this sweet moment is then ambushed by a coda which crashes in from quite literally an entirely different episode. The series arc has arrived to show the preceding piece of fluff how things should be done, and in doing so kicks the legs out from under the previous 40 minutes in a quite brutal fashion. It’s like watching an annoying but sweet and harmless Labrador puppy get roughed up by a full-grown feral Doberman. The coda is a scene needed to put some pieces in place for the season finale, but I’m not sure it doesn’t tell fans anything that they hadn’t already figured out anyway and it might have been better done as an online prologue-teaser for the finale – because here the net result is like someone driving at 100mph suddenly trashing the car by throwing the gears straight into reverse. It’s that destructively jarring.

Yet for all the faults I’ve outlined here and my basic problem with Dr Who: The Sitcom that I freely acknowledge colours the rest of my reactions to it, I’ll still take “Closing Time” over a piece of leaden mediocrity like “The Curse of the Black Spot” any day of the week. At least this episode is trying to do something new and innovative, is trying to push the boundaries a little – if ultimately not successfully. And it does so with a light skip in its step and a cheerful, playful gleam in its eye that’s hard not to respond to at least a little.

Dr Who S6 E11 – “The God Complex”

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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.

Dr Who S6 E10 – “The Girl Who Waited”

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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.

Doctor Who S6 E9: “Night Terrors”

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A brief review of this week’s latest Doctor Who story.

I had high hopes of this Mark Gatiss-penned episode, which promised to allow Gatiss to return to the creepy, ghostly sort of stories that he has done so well in the past, from the first season’s “The Unquiet Dead” to this own three-part Christmas ghost drama Crooked House.

Maybe my hopes were simply too high and expectations too unrealistic. As a result, it didn’t quite deliver for me, the first half being a little too slow and relying on some too-familiar ghostly tropes to be really effective on a grown-up grizzled old cynic like myself; the supporting characters rather thrown-in and underdeveloped; and then the latter part suddenly rushing to a conclusion in a rather unseemly haste and too-neat solution.

But I’m the first to concede, this is probably as scary as all-hell to young children who were doubtless cowering petrified behind the sofa during the early sequences that I was finding rather dull. The quite brilliant and totally disturbing imagery of the half-finished doll creatures will doubtless sear themselves into young imaginations and stay with them for decades much as the sight of Sea Devils did with me when I was five. So as far as the main demographic goes, this is probably as spot-on and successful as it’s possible to get.

For myself, however, I was reminded of another show from the past and ended up feeling oddly nostalgic and wondering: why on earth can’t someone revive Sapphire and Steel and do it properly for the 21st Century?

Doctor Who S6 E8: “Let’s Kill Hitler”

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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.

Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Timing

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doctorwho-mattsmith-creditsA 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 »

Doctor Who – What, and Where Next?

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doctorwho-mattsmith-creditsWe’ve come to the end of the first half of Doctor Who season six, which makes it a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the Whovian nation.

As someone who has loved and admired Steven Moffat’s work ever since the early days of the superb The Press Gang, this should be a no-brainer question and a short blog post declaring everything is just brilliant and wonderful. Should be … But I’m afraid it isn’t. There’s something nagging away at me, something making me uneasy about the future of the show we love so much.

This is the battle of demon’s run, the Doctor’s darkest hour, he’ll rise higher than ever before, and then fall so much further.

It’s hard not to agree that the Doctor has truly risen higher than he ever has before right now, at least as far as Doctor Who fans are concerned: we have the writer/producer we admire more than any other, who is at the top of his game and producing the most fabulous scripts, season arcs and characters. Matt Smith has made a genuinely brilliant Doctor; the threesome combination of the Tardis crew has given us something genuinely different and new after too many years of the Doctor/female companion formula – even before we add the fantastic recurring character of River Song who we just yearn to join full-time. The production team also seem to have managed to get over the funding squeeze that compromised key moments in season 5 with below-par CGI, because season 6 has all looked fabulous (well, save for one Flesh Jen monster CGI too far…) – even before the impressive jaunt to America that added to the sense of sheer scale and substance.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this almighty high does indeed potentially come before the biggest fall and darkest hour, and that there are signs and portents that should worry all Who fans at least a little.

Some of these are external matters: the tabloids loved reporting that viewing figures for the early episodes were sharply down, and while this was not entirely accurate (the iPlayer/view on demand figures pretty much reversed that situation so it’s more a sign of an error in the scheduling of the show at 6pm or so on warm, sunny May and June evenings that’s a mistake of the network programmers rather than the show itself) it did lead the papers to gripe about how it’s no longer a family show, that it’s too dark, too scary, too bloody complicated for children now.

Actually the children are fine by all accounts, and follow it perfectly – as least as much as they need to. It’s the adults who are feeling lost, puzzled, worried or horrified. But that’s still a problem for the show, because this is the BBC’s family tent-pole offering, and if the adults are scratching their heads and shrugging before going off to do something else – or deciding it’s not suitable for the little’uns – then it’s undermining a major element of the show’s success and profile, both of which are vital to keeping the show mainstream and properly funded.

When Russell T Davies took on the tast of regenerating the show in 2005, he was commendably open about how this was the most commercial, market-tested, focus-grouped project he’d ever done. Every last bit of it had to be hand-crafted to make sure it hit the market properly, delivered the whole-family audience, spun off the merchandising and won the awards. It had to, if this wasn’t to be a one-season flop. Artistic integrity be blowed: to make any expensive TV show, first you have to make the show a proven success to earn your right to experiment. It might sound cynical, but it’s survival in the modern broadcast arena and RTD knew it better than anyone. I’m sure a little piece of him died everytime he had to subjugate his artistic inclinations in favour of ensuring the commercial success, but he pulled it off: he took a revival that no one gave much of a chance of really working and delivered to the BBC’s their biggest international blockbuster property.

As a result, Steven Moffat doesn’t have the same pressures: the show is a hit right now and he doesn’t have to permanently look over his shoulder fearing cancellation. That security has given the show an undoubted confidence and swagger; and in any case, Moffat is not the kind of person to ever allow anything to override his artistic integrity. He will do the show his way no matter what, believing it’s the best for the show: focus groups and market testing be damned.

It’s admirable, and arguably is giving us a better, higher calibre show than we’ve ever seen before as least as far as hard-core fans are concerned. But it’s also markedly different from the show that was reborn under RTD that we grew to know and love in its own right. Davies might have had his problems as head writer (and not really seeming to grasp what a science fiction story really was, and continually relying on cheap deus ex machina get-outs were definitely among them) but every episode was suffused with a sense of love of the show and with a huge feeling of fun that made it accessible and enjoyable by everyone of any age or level of interest.

You don’t get that with Moffat’s seasons. I have no doubt that he loves the show every bit as much as RTD or you and I do, but he never allows that passion to override his story judgement – or to show through in the episodes themselves. Instead they’re far more coolly cerebral, intricate and complex, always eschewing the obvious even when it might end up frustrating the viewer. He is not writing for the casual fan who may dip in and out, miss a week or read a paper at the same time: this is a show for people who watch. And rewatch. And sit and think and talk about it for a week afterwards. And even if you do all that, it’s still likely to have scrambled your brain and leave you with a headache (as the end of “Day of the Moon” did for me, I confessed at the time.)

It’s asking a lot of viewers to submit themselves to this mental overload; casual fans will depart, and even die hard fans have been struggling to sustain the level of absolute concentration the show now demands. Instead of the fun, easy, family viewing under RTD, the show just got worryingly difficult, fan-ish and closed-up by comparison.

For those fans who push through and keep watching, it’s worth every minute. It comes together like the most wonderful puzzle box, and not only can you appreciate how perfectly it all comes together but you can also see how all the clues were left in plain sight all along and it only seemed complicated but actually you really did understand it all along after all, giving a lovely frisson of feeling like you’ve cracked it and are worthy of being one of the Whovian nation – and that your brain isn’t as broken as you thought after all.

But then we hit another snag: where does the show go from here? After being raised to such eye-popping heights, what’s next?

It’s hard to imagine the show going back to the nice, fun “adventure of the week” format. Indeed it tried that with “The Curse of the Black Spot” and how poor that episode felt, even though in previous RTD seasons that would have been a perfectly fine albeit average episode (no offence intended to RTD.) Not every episode can be a Silents/Flesh/Gaiman/Demons Run blockbuster every single week, but these episodes have raised the bar so high in season 6 that a merely ordinary episode is now a deep disappointment. You pity anyone who is tasked to take over from Moffat, because no one can reach the sort of heights he’s been delivering this season – and anything less is doing to be the Doctor’s darkest hour and his furthest fall (and potentially at worst, his latest cancelation.)

This problem is echoed in a development in the Doctor’s character in the show itself: he’s become so big, so epic, so unbeatable that the loveable old eccentric “mad man in a box” has never seemed so far away. These days he can wipe out entire Cyber battle fleets as a rhetorical flourish in a pre-credits teaser, or reboot the universe, or send aliens running away in fright just by reading them his CV. This started back in RTD/David Tennant’s era with “The Christmas Invasion”, was echoed in “The Eleventh Hour” at the start of the Moffat/Matt Smith era, but has now becoming a recurring problem with both “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes to War” both essentially focusing on it.

Quite simply, there is no one left who is more powerful than the Doctor. He is a God. Even the Daleks – who were revamped so successfully in season 1 as the ultimate nemesis of the Time Lords and the only race able to defeat them in the Time War – are now so “reliably beatable” that Moffat himself has concluded that they have no credibility left and have to be rested from the show. But if not the Daleks – who can threaten the Doctor anymore? It’s rather like the ‘scope creep’ that infected the character of Superman, in which a character who could initially simply jump high and run fast suddenly became invincible and as a result lost both empathy with the readership and also potential plots. How could Superman bear to spend his time dealing with muggings with all his powers?

So to it is with the Doctor. He’s now so powerful that nothing really seems to threaten him anymore. Some lovely dialogue in “A Good Man Goes To War” stressed how he is now more myth than regular person: how “Doctor” is becoming a galaxy-wide synonym for “great man of learning” or “warrior” depending on your point of view (apparently an idea Moffat had in 1995 according to some links on the Internet pointing to ‘proof’, but we’ll take these with a pinch of salt for now.) Did you spot the sublime way that Rory is made to realise this is happening to him, too: as he consoled Commander Strax, he realised he was talking to a warrior who had become a nurse, while he himself was a nurse who was now a centurion warrior? An uncomfortable realisation for both.

The stakes have been raised too high too many times: the show has seemingly killed off the Doctor, Amy or Rory too often as a result just so that we feel something bad really did/could happen, but it’s backfired and now they’ve all died and restored in too many ways that so we just role our eyes, say “oh, not again” and wait for the plot to unravel and restore everyone to life.

Moffat seems acutely aware of this “Godhood” problem with the Doctor now, and it’s why the trope has been returned to in “A Good Man Goes To War” with dialogue specifically riffing this (which in turn is an echo of dialogue that RTD’s Davros used on Tennant’s Doctor in “Journey’s End”.) I suspect Moffat’s overall intentions for the current convoluted plot arc are to do something about this “all-powerful” Doctor and restore him back to something like his old original self, the eccentric traveller.

The trouble is that the genie is out of the box, and we can’t go home again: would we be remotely satisfied with a show of a group of friends amiably poking around investigating a deserted city or scrapping with some cavemen?

Steven Moffat’s a sharp guy with far greater writing and creative skills than I possess – maybe he’s figured all this out and has an answer for us, and that’s what we’re heading to. We should certainly hope so, for the sake of the future survival of the show hinges upon it. Far more than the side questions of identity of River Song or whether the Doctor will retrieve Rory and Amy’s baby, this is the most important and pressing question facing the Whovian Nation this morning as we head into the summer recess.

Dr Who S6 Ep7 – A Good Man Goes To War

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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.