Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Frowny Face

Doctor Who
Deep Breath
Series Eight, Episode One


It's finally here!  The first episode of Peter Capaldi – er, I mean Doctor Who: Series Eight.  They've been hyping it like mad, World Tour and everything.  So, does Deep Breath meet the hype?

Yes and no.  Yes, Peter Capaldi is fantastic.  No, it's not an exceptional episode.  I've been frowning for days.  I think I like it.

So, new titles.  The clock stuff is cool.  The TARDIS looks wibbly.
Shame about the new theme, a.k.a. The Violin's Death Rattle.
You may have been expecting something like The Eleventh Hour, so naturally Steven Moffat anticipated that and decided not to bother.  Rather than dazzling the audience with a brand new everything (ala Hour), the only really new thing here is the Doctor.  Okay, that's one way to do it.  In the Tom Baker opener Robot, characters and situations reeked of the previous era, which provided a contrast for the shiny new Doctor.  We then charged off into unknown territory the following week.  Fair enough.  Just one tiny problem: Robot isn't very good.

The Eleventh Hour is brilliant because it just gets on with what's new.  No naps, no amnesia, no old characters and none of the usual post-regenerative gubbins.  With that approach proving a barnstorming success, it's a tad disappointing to throw the lever the other way.  One can only assume it's to ease us in, and assuage any fears about the (much older) guy they've picked to replace Matt Smith.  Certainly the phone-call from Matt (filmed before he left) bluntly pleads with us to Give Pete A Chance.  But as the rapturous World Tour attests, there's rarely been an actor more universally accepted in this role than Peter Capaldi, so why not let him do the talking?  As much as I loved seeing Matt again, doesn't it detract from them both?

Most of the "old stuff" surrounding Peter is exactly what I was dying to get away from.  It can be very silly; the episode opens with an abnormally large T-Rex barfing up the TARDIS.  Despite being perfectly capable of delivering a funny line, and there are plenty of those, Peter Capaldi still has to do some very broad physical comedy, like getting a literal "bonk!" on the head, noisily serenading a dinosaur or talking to a horse.  This stuff was rubbish when Matt Smith had to do it, and that's why I rather hoped we'd seen the back of it.  Hands up who was quite happy with new stuff instead?  I'm guessing, everybody?

Which brings us to the Paternoster Gang, who are as one-note as ever.  What's the point bringing them back if they're going to be exactly the same every time?  Certainly in a New Doctor Story, when we're all desperate to see what the new guy is like, it seems absolutely insane to devote precious minutes to Strax calling Clara a boy, or Jenny pointing out that she's married to Vastra, or Vastra making some clumsy Sherlock Holmes reference again and again and again.  (I see Steven Moffat's still labouring under the delusion that his man-eating comedy lizard could have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Of course that's pompous, but also nowhere near justified.  I'm no detective, and even I figured out that a newspaper ad saying "Meet you on the other side" is probably referring to the other side of the paper.  Duh!)

Next Week: Madam Vastra and the Case of the Slightly
Troubling Crossword!
At 75 minutes Deep Breath has time to kill, and there are lingering scenes of Strax Funny Business and Vastra Being Clever.  If you're like me and you don't like these guys, it's a bit like being raked over hot coals, especially when they're trying to be clever.  But the slower pace is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can mean longer shots, more focus on the dialogue, less frantic sonic-screwdriver-waving to resolve the plot.  There's a patience and an elegance to some scenes, particularly as we watch Capaldi's Doctor percolate, and the pace makes that possible.  If the show's much-suggested "new direction" is about taking your time, hooray for that.  They just haven't got the hang of it yet, as they keep counterbalancing those patient scenes with padding and Strax jokes.  There's a stunning bit where the unconscious Doctor "translates" the dinosaur, but in reality, he's discussing himself.  It's quiet, restrained, and then BOOM!  Strax joke!  (Fortunately, this imbalance is mostly done away with in the second, much better half of the episode.)

There's noticeably very little plot here, which feels even more scarce for being scraped to feature length.  When a T-Rex spontaneously combusts (how's that for an inciting incident?), it leads the new Doctor to a gang of robots harvesting human organs.  The robots are something else we've seen before, cue Girl In The Fireplace references.  They're seriously creepy, and they provide a sinister parallel for the Doctor's regeneration, although they are as disappointingly stupid as the Fireplace ones, if not worse.  (They're fooled by holding your breath?  Seriously?)  The lead robot is compellingly understated, a refined turn from Peter Ferdinando.  Underplaying it is a smart move, particularly when we're focussing all our attention on the Doctor.  The plot works well enough, really; I just wish there was more of it and that it didn't take so long.  (There's a bit where the Doctor realises "This isn't a man turning himself into a robot, this is a robot turning himself into a man," but by then I'd already figured that out.  I'm no rocket scientist – it feels wrong to be a step ahead of so-called "genius" characters.)

Obviously this isn't meant to be a "plot" episode.  (Which isn't to say you can't do those with a new Doctor, because The Eleventh Hour did it, but okay, I know, let it go already.)  We're here for the new Doctor, and for the change in the Doctor/companion relationship that must come from that.  This can only improve Clara's character, who – no disrespect to Jenna Coleman – has been a tangle of timey-wimey portents and no actual personality from the start.

Clara is struggling to accept that the Doctor has changed, even asking how they can change him back.  That's an understandable reaction for most, see Rose, but it's an unfortunate fit for Clara, who has actually met all twelve Doctors and is aware of how regeneration works.  Um...?  Vastra makes a big deal of putting Clara in her place, and there's a very showy scene about how the Doctor's face is a veil to gain acceptance (and this new one means he trusts her), but the whole thing's built on Clara acting against what little we know about her.  Besides her uneasiness with the Doctor, her personality is then drily summed up in lists, and that's even worse.  Apparently she doesn't fancy young men, she's a big fan of Marcus Aurelius, she could "flirt with a mountain range" and blah blah blah.  Why not show us?  Oh, and she's "an egomaniac needy game-player".  What the hell's that based on?

This is pretty much how I feel about Clara.
Her previous relationship with the Doctor is also summed up, and I'm not convinced by that either, possibly because it never worked in the first place.  The Eleventh Doctor was hardly sexless, particularly with the right people (River, Tasha), but I don't think it's fair to label him a "boyfriend" when it comes to Clara.  Okay, he looked young, he pretended to be her boyfriend last Christmas, and he once made a (hideously out-of-nowhere) reference to her bottom.  But are we forgetting what he was actually like?  All that "I don't understand humans" stuff?  Clara drops hints at how much she (insert L word)s Matt's Doctor, but I've never seen much solid evidence of that either, besides the odd eyebrow-raisingly random reference.  This is someone who was quite happy to go home between TARDIS adventures, until the previous episode when she suddenly wasn't.  Their whole "relationship" never convinced, so it seems weird to pivot so much around it now.

Anywho, Jenna does a great job with the material, with Capaldi, and when it comes to facing down the bad-guy.  Right or wrong, now all that character bumf is out of the way there's promise for the series ahead.  And okay, speaking of promise... what's the Doctor like?

In one of his umpty-squillion interviews, Peter Capaldi said he doesn't want to find one way to play his Doctor and repeat it.  I absolutely get and respect that.  Too often David Tennant and Matt Smith were boxed in by scripts trying to anticipate them, and inadvertently squeezing the life out of them.  And there are plenty of Scottish jokes and eyebrow jokes in here that hint at that, but you'd still be hard pressed to squeeze his portrayal into a few adjectives.  Besides, this is a post-regen story complete with a blob of amnesia; it's not The Full Capaldi.  Nonetheless he imbues it with great flavour.  He's funny, vulnerable, rude, sympathetic, savage, childlike; there are shades of all your favourite Doctors if you look for them.  Best of all, he's unexpected, at one point abandoning Clara to her doom – though as a friend of mine pointed out, even that's not unlike the calculating Sylvester McCoy, or the initially cowardly Colin Baker.  But of course, he comes back.  He's still the Doctor.  We just don't know him very well yet.

Oh good, an arc plot.  Care to guess?  (DON'T DO IT!)
When the villain showdown comes around, all those post-regen wobbles have gone, and we're treated to a serious, seriously dark Doctor.  Now, that's an overused word, so I'll be clear: his behaviour at the end (when he may or may not have pushed a bad guy to his doom) could be interpreted as a scary new direction for the Doctor.  Personally, I don't see anything new here.  The Doctor has always been capable of vanquishing a villain, or convincing them to do the honourable thing.  But this one seems like he'll be less of a hypocrite about it.  There's a caustic honesty to him, which could be a defining trait.  That's an interesting development, and it fits what we know about the Doctor.  He's certainly got my attention.

Capaldi, as if there was ever any doubt, nails it.  He even looks like the Doctor.  I am very, very excited for where the series will take him, and us, and even Clara.  But I cannot honestly say this episode is the best showcase for his talents, or for a longer run-time.  The script totters around in much the same daze as a new Doctor, although in the end it gets itself together just the same.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Are We There Yet?

Doctor Who
The End Of Time Parts One and Two
2009 Christmas Special and 2010 New Year Special


It's the end.  For real this time.  Tissues at the ready.

Okay, to some extent we've been here and done this.  Journey's End took great pains to out-finale all the previous finales, inflating the sense of scale until it encompassed literally everything, and sending smoochy kisses to everyone and everything in Russell T Davies's Doctor Who universe.  After two giddy hours of "Well done us!", there was nothing left to celebrate.  Thankfully, The End Of Time goes in another direction altogether: it focusses on how sad we are (or should be) that it's all over.  It's a melancholy, brooding, low-key sort of episode... which also inflates the sense of scale until it encompasses literally everything, because you know how it is with old habits.

Sod Daleks.  Let's have more chats with Bernard Cribbins.
There's some very good stuff in here, generally to do with the Doctor, which is a blessed relief as it's David Tennant's last hoorah.  Fresh from going slightly mad in The Waters Of Mars, he's taken time out to enjoy himself before answering Ood Sigma's call.  This is a tad disappointing, as it's not the brave new Doctor I thought I was seeing at the end of Waters, but – after a more or less pointless visit to the Ood-Sphere – he quickly drops the veil of silliness and starts being interesting.  He knows the end is approaching, and he knows he's partly to blame.  Until then he spends most of his time with Wilf, and the two of them share some of the best scenes, not just in this story, but in Doctor Who up to now.

Together, they examine what it means for the Doctor to die, and how regeneration feels like dying as well.  David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins are amazing here, and for once the writing matches them.  It's a dark, but totally legitimate way to re-examine regeneration, albeit not one I'd want to visit every time; Tennant's bitterness as he describes "some new man sauntering away" is a hammer-blow to Doctor Who as we know it.  On a softer note, there's Wilf realising the sheer age-difference between a human and a Time Lord, and (what I take to be) the Doctor's admiration of just living one life.  "We must look like insects to you."  "I think you look like giants."  That really is some of Russell's best Who writing, poignant and understated, all the more powerful.

In some ways, Wilf is the heart of the story.  There are plenty of "old soldier" references which parallel him with the Doctor (given what the Doctor has to do this week), and he's a walking advert for the upside and downside of being a companion.  He takes the Doctor to a cafĂ© where he can see Donna, who is still amnesiac and occasionally puzzled, but is sort-of happy with her lot.  He's thrilled to know the Doctor despite the Doctor failing to "fix" Donna, and he's genuinely grateful to travel with him.  Bless Wilf.

In the main though, Wilf is the reason the Tenth Doctor dies, putting Ten's more human-centric philosophy right in the foreground.  This is when The End Of Time really earns its place in the show's history.  The Doctor's realisation that he must die to save Wilf is a total showstopper of writing, directing and acting.  His face when he realises, his rage ("I could do so much more!"), his ultimate acceptance and heroism – it's a total win for David Tennant.  Of course Bernard Cribbins plays his part, pleading heart-rendingly for the Doctor not to do it.  The whole sequence is up there with the best Doctorly exits.  Even Murray's music nails it.  You'll weep buckets.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  The Doctor doesn't just turn up and sacrifice himself for Wilf.  There's got to be a plot to get us there.  And you know how I said there was some very good stuff in here?  Well, there's some other stuff as well.

Who is the mysterious woman?  There's an answer in The Writer's Tale,
but if it's not in the episode, what good is it?
It's a finale, which means a Big Bad blowing stuff up.  But it's our fifth trip down that road, so there's an inevitable feeling of scraping the barrel.  What's left for Russell T Davies to blow up?  Who's left to do it?  Possibly the only trick left up anybody's sleeve is bringing back the Time Lords, but that's difficult to do as they obviously can't stick around afterwards.  Lucky for us, this involves bringing back the Master as well.

If you thought Last Of The Time Lords buggered up his character beyond all recognition, brace yourself: the Master's resurrection could quite possibly be the worst individual piece of Doctor Who Russell has written.  I might as well let the highlights speak for themselves: "I'm afraid the previous governor met with something... of an accident.  Which took quite some time to arrange!"  "As it was written, in the Secret Books Of Saxon, these are the Potions Of Life!"  "We give ourselves, that Saxon might live!"  "Did the widow's kiss bring me back to life?"

All of which is fist-chokingly ghastly, but it's equally horrible watching the plot make itself up on the spot.  Here's Lucy Saxon's "plan" to stop the Master, quoted verbatim: "I knew you'd come back.  And all this time your disciples prepared... but so have we!  The Secret Books Of Saxon spoke of the Potions Of Life... and I was never that bright... but my family had contacts.  People who were clever enough to calculate the opposite.  Till death... do us part!"  Yeesh.  First draft, much?

We have a bollocks magic ceremony to resurrect the Master, a bollocks magic potion to muck it all up, and suddenly the Master is a bleach-blonde, hoodie-wearing, occasionally-visible-from-the-inside special effects monster who can fly, shoot lasers, and eat people.  I do believe there's a chance – a tiny, weeny, whiny one – that there was nowhere left for the Master's character to go.  So, we've opted for the random and the ridiculous.  Once again, he can fly and shoot lasers now.  "WTF" doesn't begin to cover it.

Is it a good performance from John Simm?  In places, sure.  There are a few quiet moments where he and Tennant can bounce off each other, rather than smash relentlessly.  Elsewhere the script demands he go even further over the top than before.  Screeching, shouting, dipping in and out of special effects, obsessing over food, eating as messily and Gollum-ey as possible... it's difficult to watch.  And then the plot decides that his Master Plan (oomf!) is to transplant himself onto every person on Earth.  Okay then.  So, that's six billion over-the-top John Simms.  Merry Christmas.  I hope you're completely obsessed with hearing John Simm laugh, because there is an awful lot of it.  (There are also many, many inserts of him laughing this one time, which gives you a lingering look up his nose.  Several whole minutes of this episode feel like John Simm Nostril Time.)

Just because you can make it look like everyone is John Simm...
The plot leading up to six billion Masters is thin gruel even for a Russell finale.  A billionaire and his daughter (both presumably evil?) have an alien device, The Immortality Gate, which they want the Master to repair for them so (only) the daughter can live forever.  They expect the Master to try and use it for his own ends, and in a totally unprecedented turn of events, he does.  (It turns out the machine is an Empty Child-esque whatsit that repairs whole species to look like one guy.)  This all has something to do with the drums only he can hear, which in turn is something to do with the Time Lords.  Cue Timothy Dalton's narration, aka a load of portentous guff about the end of the world and everybody having bad dreams.  On the plus side: Timothy Dalton!  Clearly, your go-to guy for selling us Bargain Bin Shakespeare.

If only it worked with the plot.  The Time Lords are Time Locked and nothing can get through, at least until they send a diamond through it.  But... er... how did they...?  This reminded me of Army Of Ghosts, when the Cybermen had to send some Cybermen in order to get the other Cybermen from one dimension in another.  Here be bollocks!

Anyway, Time Lords.  They're renowned as a boring bunch, which is no doubt why Russell got rid of them in the first place.  No room for dull meetings and technobabble here – these Time Lords are in the final days of their war with the Daleks, so they're absolutely potty.  This is mostly their leader's fault (Dalton snarls his way through the bad guy role), but there can be no doubt that at this point, they are not the cavalry.  The Doctor doesn't want them to come back.

This is somewhat of a reversal.  In Utopia he seemed keen to see the Time Lords again, it just "depends which one".  Now he's written off the whole bunch because they were angling for a Final Solution that would doom the whole universe.  It does sort of fit with his attitude over the years, but it's got I Just Thought Of This written all over it.  I'm never sure if I like the idea.

It's mostly done so that a) we can bin the Time Lords immediately after bringing them back, cue brand new showrunner, and b) the Doctor can make an impossible choice.  It's disappointing having to do the former, though it does give David Tennant loads to work with.  As to the latter, Impossible Choices are easier said than done.  This one comes down to the Doctor pointing a gun at Dalton's bad guy, Rassilon, who wants to destroy time itself, and at the Master, whose death will also make the problem go away.  Which will it be?  The solution: he shoots a box full of wires which handily breaks the connection.  Hey!  That's magicking up an extra option, meaning there was a never a need for the difficult choice in the first place!  God damnit.

Not pictured: the Nightmare Child.
Or the Whimsypoo King and his Army Of Diddle-Dee-Dums.
This whole sequence should be iconic, like the Doctor's "death" and the Four Knocks.  (You may or may not guess these in advance, but I'll bet it still works.)  However, the writing is scatterbrained.  It ruins a moral dilemma by burping out Harmless Option C at the last moment.  It once-and-for-all bollockses up the Master by saying it's the Time Lords' fault he's crazy (so there is nothing left to say about him) and then making him bro-mantically rescue the Doctor.  And it falls over itself articulating what's even at stake.

At first it's the Time Lords we're worried about, as they've gone evil and have grim designs for the universe.  Okay.  Then the Doctor says "They're not just bringing back the species.  It's Gallifrey!"  So, oh noes, they're going to knock Earth out of orbit as well?  Small potatoes when you consider what they're planning, but okay.  And then we throw in the kitchen sink as well.  "If the Time Lock's broken then everything's coming through, not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been-King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres.  The war turned into hell.  And that's what you opened, right above the Earth!"  Good grief, Doc, make up your mind!  The thing rewrites itself before your very eyes.  (As for Russell's cavalcade of whimsical-sounding menaces, your mileage may vary.  I giggle every time I hear it.)

So, bollocks plot, mostly-bollocks bad guys, frequently bollocks script, and yet somehow in the middle of it, moments of sublime perfection.  I'm never sure where the final twenty (!) minutes slot into all that, as the Doctor delays his regeneration so he can visit all his companions.  This is a clang!-obvious final goodbye to the denizens of the Russellverse, but we already had one of those in Journey's End.  Nothing new here, besides randomly marrying Martha to Mickey, which could be a happy ending if there were ever any suggestion that they wanted to do that.  (They've met once.  Martha was engaged at the time.)  I suppose it's nice to send Donna comfortably into the sunset, and kudos for not backtracking on her amnesia.  It's annoying that we must see Rose again, but there's a pleasing symmetry to ending this version of the show more or less where it started in 2005.  Overall I much prefer the quick, bittersweet goodbye to Christopher Eccleston, but then that was a better episode all round.

His friends all met and suitably frowned at, the Doctor toddles off to the TARDIS to regenerate.  But not before a final kick while he's down.  "I don't want to go."

Pictured: Arriving With A Bang.
I hated this at the time.  It seemed like a self-absorbed dig at the next Doctor, and at the next production team, as if to say "This is the greatest tragedy in all of Doctor Who!  Team David 4EVA!"  Years later, and after much thought, I think it makes sense in the context of who this Doctor is.  He didn't want to regenerate in Journey's End.  His human (but ultimately quite similar) self didn't want to go in Human Nature.  This is recognisably him, and it was bound to happen sooner or later.  David Tennant gives his all, no doubt mixing in some of his own sadness at leaving the role; as ever with regens, it's the most unforgettable scene.  His last performance, overall, is replete with dazzling moments, particularly the understated ones.  That's always been where David Tennant shone.  He may not be my favourite, but he is – and was – always entertaining.

And then we meet Matt Smith, who (despite being written by Steven Moffat) runs through much the same "new body-parts" scene as fresh-faced David Tennant.  But he arrives with a distinctly Doctorly bang, and ensures that when you repeatedly rewatch his 20 seconds – and you will – you'll not be disappointed.

So.  The End Of Time.  Probably not the send-off many would hope for, and not (I hope) to be taken as a representation of the Russell T Davies era as a whole – i.e. mostly dross, with some moments that knock you off your feet.  But if there's a feeling of retreading old ground and running out of places to go, well, to borrow a phrase from the Doctor, maybe this iteration of the show lived too long.  There are only so many times you can blow up the universe, and you will eventually run out of Daleks.  Thankfully, even with the kitchen sink thrown in there's room for a beautiful moment, a game-changing shift in perspective and an amazing performance or two.  In that way, it's a fitting end for a not-too-shabby era.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Space Under Siege

Doctor Who
The Waters Of Mars
2009 Winter Special


And now for something slightly different.

On the face of it, The Waters Of Mars is business as usual.  A base under siege?  Most of us Doctor Who fans (and sci-fi fans in general) bought that T-shirt many times over.  Russell T Davies and Phil Ford shake it up a bit, making it a fixed point in time so the Doctor cannot intercede.  But we've seen that before too, in The Fires Of Pompeii.  This time, however, the Doctor's not going to let it happen.  He's the last Time Lord, so why not?  What's the worst that can happen?  The Waters Of Mars is at its most interesting when it's asking these questions.

"You could have shot Andy Stone, but you didn't.  I loved you for that."
What, for endangering everyone's lives?  Pacifism is super, but it's not
that simple if you know you'll have to "deal with them" later anyway.
Which he does.
Mind you, there's a lot of business (as usual) to get through first – after all, you can't turn it upside down unless it's right-side-up to begin with.  Please find enclosed 1 x Base, 1 x Alien Menace, 1 x Group Of Survivors Picked Off One By One and 1 x Doctor.  There's a lot of running back and forth, and making jokes about running back and forth, and locking doors to keep the monsters out, and making jokes about how that doesn't seem to work, and then doing it some more anyway.  "Routine" is a fair description; you just wait for them to get on with it.  As for what the monsters want, take a wild guess.  (It rhymes with "Blinvade Flanet Mirth".)  All in all, The Impossible Planet pushed this setup further in 2006.

But if we must do it all again, at least they've come up with a decent monster.  A water-borne virus is turning the pioneers of Mars's Bowie Base One into something new.  Think 28 Days Later zombies with water pouring out of their mouths and hands.  It's a simple idea, oh-dear-god disturbing to look at.  The obvious suggestion of insanity gives them an extra (arguably excessive) scare-factor, particularly the one that doesn't come with reassuringly alien contact lenses.  (No reason given: she's just "closer to human" than the rest of them, because terrifying.)  Water makes a suitably ambiguous and ever-present threat, and as it's set on Mars, it allows for a bit of name-dropping for the Ice Warriors.  Which this fanboy was more than happy with.

As soon as the Doctor arrives, we learn that Adelaide Brooke and the rest of her team will die in the next 24 hours.  And let's just get this out of the way: we learn all of this in due course, seeded in dialogue and in the Doctor's attitude, which is beautifully understated but still makes it clear.  It's very well done, but there's a lot of blunt flashbacks and computer-screens full of information to help us along as well.  This stuff is completely unnecessary.  Accompanied by ridiculous "Crash, boom!" sound effects, it's literally the clunkiest exposition I've ever seen.  Thanks, guys, but I was already paying attention to the dialogue and the acting.  I wish it were possible to remove these steaming info-dumps and let the story make its own way.  We're not idiots.

Right, back to it: their deaths will propel the human race into a realm of space exploration, so the Doctor must let it happen.  It's a neat idea to put a fixed point in the future, as the audience is automatically more ambiguous about changing it.  Does it really matter?  I never really liked the whole "our deaths = incentive for our descendants" idea, but they do set it up with Adelaide's history.  She went into space because of a personal tragedy, and the same happens to her granddaughter.  Fair enough, they need to go.  (Although, about that: a Dalek spared Adelaide's life because it knew her death was a fixed point.  So it must have also known the Dalek plan would fall on its arse.  "Uh, guys...")

The Doctor's conflicting emotions make sense.  Without a Donna, a Martha or a Rose, he's got no one to argue that he must help no matter what, so he could just get on with letting it happen – but he knows what they would say, and he's tired of letting this sort of thing happen.  David Tennant is fantastic, wrestling with this the whole way through, and it's absolutely captivating to watch – one of his top performances.  (And on that note, how bloomin' amazing is Lindsay Duncan?  Just goes to show you don't need to drum up a "companion" in these Specials – you can just pit the Doctor against another brilliant character.)  I can believe that after losing everything again and again, the Doctor's ready to snap.

Which he certainly does.  When the Doctor finally comes around and decides to hell with it, he'll rescue them anyway, all his usual manic energy is amped up to complete madness.  This juxtaposition, as he does what would be entirely normal if there wasn't a fixed point, i.e. rescuing people, is amazingly jarring.  Coupled with the monsters succeeding way more than usual (breezing into the base and killing nearly everybody), this makes for an intensely horrifying and unforgettable second-to-last-act.  It's powerful stuff.  (Also, I like that he uses a little robot to zoom across Mars with the TARDIS key.  Fixed-point-wrongness aside, it's really cool.)

Wait – does the robot trundle through the water?  The infected water?
It sure looks like it.  But the Doctor drops that sucker on Earth!
Better hope nobody touches it...
Dropping off the three survivors, the Doctor then has a rant about how powerful he is, and how "little" almost everyone else is, much to the horror of Adelaide – and us.  It's a new dimension for the Doctor, like that bit in The Armageddon Factor where he pretends he's gone nuts, only for real this time.  Is it believable?  Well, yes and no.  These are extreme circumstances.  He's going directly against what it means to be a Time Lord, and he pays for it.  Ood Sigma appears (more or less) to signal that he's gone too far and this is it, regeneration soon.  He knows at once that it was wrong to behave like this, and that in all likelihood, this is how bad Time Lords get started.  His urge to do good and to survive are not innately destructive things, but The Waters Of Mars pushes them to extremes.  It's bold.  Though inevitably, divisive.

Because on the other hand, that crack about "little people" goes beyond nervous breakdown and into Acting Like Someone Else Entirely.  The Doctor loves everybody.  It's who he is.  I can believe that he'd do all this in a moment of madness, and that power corrupts, but sneering at the humans he's going out of his way to save is a nearly impossible sell.  Wasn't the moment loaded enough already, rocking back and forth in five minutes from "Time Lord Victorious!" to "Is this how I die?" to "No!", without throwing in a completely new personality as well?  I think so.  Oh well.  For good or ill, there is a hell of a lot to chew on.

And that's not all.  Finally accepting her place in history, Adelaide takes matters into her own hands and shoots herself.  History gets right back on course, despite the Doctor's interference.  This is impressively shocking at first, but as often happens when Doctor Who gets clever, it raises further questions.  If her granddaughter was inspired by her mysterious death on Mars, does it go without saying that she will be inspired in exactly the same way by a suicidal corpse turning up in her living room?  Even in the throes of (what I assume to be) a nervous breakdown, the Doctor seems confident that history will stay the course.  And it does – two of them survive, and no harm done.  Would Adelaide's survival, and her ensuing support for little Suzie, really prevent all that space travel?  Is her corpse automatically a better solution?  As the Doctor says, the details may change, but the story stays the same.

Speaking of other solutions, the Doctor brings up The Fires Of Pompeii.  As well he should, it being another fixed point and all that, but aren't we missing a sort of elephant-shaped-thingie in the room?  In Pompeii, faced with a fixed point in which everybody died, the Doctor still managed to save a group of people.  He just tucked them away somewhere else.  (And presumably told them not to mention Pompeii.)  What's stopping him sneaking Adelaide and everyone else somewhere they won't do any damage?  It's a big universe.  All they'd have to do is live quietly.  Their mysterious deaths are a part of history, but their corpses aren't.

Hmm.  It's definitely dark, unsettling drama, but also puzzling and perhaps a bit muddled as well.  Where the really good stuff is concerned, it's great that Doctor Who can go there, especially on a prolonged home stretch when you're not expecting very much.  You've no idea where the story will go from this point, other than the fact that it's nearly over, and kudos for that.  More's the pity The Waters Of Mars still goes exactly where you'd expect for the first 45 minutes.  It's a toss-up between The Fires Of Pompeii and Every Base Under Siege Ever, at least until the end, which is the bit you'll remember anyway.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Blandstorm

Doctor Who
Planet Of The Dead
2009 Easter Special


2009 saw Doctor Who at a crossroads.  A new showrunner was on the way, but Series Five wouldn't air until 2010.  What to do with the intervening year?  The outgoing team could justifiably have spent it checking their watches, playing cards or crying uncontrollably.  Instead they made a series of Specials leading up to David Tennant's regeneration.  We were lucky to get them.

Even so, gratitude only takes you so far.  It still matters that the episodes are, you know, good, since they've effectively got to carry the show for a year.  Planet Of The Dead was the only Doctor Who episode for miles around, and it feels half-hearted.  It's quite sad in a way; it was probably meant to show off Doctor Who's unique appeal, but ended up showing just how badly a change was needed.  And bugger me, it's boring.

Please tell me that is not a Psychic Oyster Card.
Admittedly, it has an exciting (if distinctly Mission: Impossible-rippy-offy) start.  We open with a cat burglar, Lady Christina de Souza, robbing an art gallery.  The alarm sounds so she runs for it, ditching her lover in the process.  (How charming.)  Seeing no alternative, she gets on a bus – as does the Doctor, who is tracking a mysterious something in the bus's path.  The police see Christina, they give chase (very slowly!), and the bus promptly disappears through a wormhole to an alien planet.  This is San Helios, a world of desert.  The only way back is via the bus, which is stuck and running out of petrol.  To make matters worse, an ominous cloud is approaching, and a psychic passenger knows this will mean doom for everybody.  (Well, it's ominous, innit?)

I know I should jump for joy because it's set on an alien planet (and filmed abroad, no less!), but the moment they arrive everyone starts tediously clambering to get back home again.  All of them.  Even the Doctor!  "That planet is nothing compared to all those things waiting for you."  He's talking about eating dinner and watching telly.  The Doctor is saying that.  You could well understand this viewpoint of one or two out of a group – it would be boring to have them all think like that just from a keep-the-script-interesting POV, but fair enough, some people are boring.  But all of them?  Including the guy with a TARDIS – who famously refuses to settle down, eat dinner and watch telly?  Why wouldn't you be excited to visit an alien world?  Why wouldn't the Doctor want you to be excited?  What the hell's so bad about visiting alien worlds, anyway?  (I'm looking at you, every-companion's-mother.  And by extension, Russell T Davies.)

Of course it doesn't help that San Helios is not an interesting place to visit.  There's a reason for it being covered in sand – more on that in a sec – and it looks great, especially the incongruity of a red London bus in the desert.  But sand is, well, a bit boring, isn't it?  And not to denigrate the money they spent going to Dubai, but they might as well have gone by green-screen for all the interaction there is with the landscape.  Our intrepid heroes spend most of the episode either in a spaceship or sat in the sodding bus.

In their defence, there is a time limit for getting out of here: that cloud is made of metallic stingrays, which eat everything in their path and travel so fast they create wormholes.  (And they're headed for Earth, naturally.)  The sand is what's left of San Helios, and everyone on it – which is probably meant to be a big revelation, since it comes at the halfway point, but the (hackneyed much?) title already gave it away.  As does a moment where The Psychic Passenger says they are "surrounded by the dead", and we cut to the Doctor tasting the sand.  There's nothing intrinsically wrong with plot-points being obvious, but there is if you act like they're mind-blowing.

Space.  The final frontier.
LOL, kidding!  Let's just stay on the bus.
A bus.  The final frontier.
LOL, kidding!  Don't even bother leaving the house.
The stingrays are not among the show's better monsters.  They depend on science, or rather, "science".  The Doctor says they're travelling hundreds of miles per hour, but every time we see them they are, to put it mildly, not.  (It takes them the whole episode to get from the horizon to the bus!)  As for how it all works, it's obviously 24-carat bollocks, so, eh.  But anyway, it's boring that they're just doing what their species does.  And it's confusing that they've created a wormhole already, which the bus came through, but none of them have gone through it yet.  Perhaps they like to make a big entrance?

Seeking to avoid the giant cloud of impending death, the Doctor and Christina stroll about leisurely (WTF are you doing? Run!) and they encounter some more aliens, the Tritovores.  (Because if all else fails, you can always make a joke out of how trite something is.)  These are another in a long line of Russell T Davies aliens which look very convincingly like an Earth animal – in this case, flies – but are nonetheless disappointing because they look like an Earth animal.  It's a small world after all!  Anyway, the Tritovores have some random anti-gravity clamps that can help lift the bus to safety.  They even fit over each of the bus's wheels, plus there's four of them.  Isn't that handy?  (I'm surprised Russell and Gareth Roberts didn't head us off at the pass and call it "Contrivium".)  Pretty soon the fly-people are dead, and the bus is off to Earth again.  Plot?  Oh, you can barely move for the stuff.  Oh, hang on – that's sand.

With the fly-people effectively mute and none of the passengers wanting to look at the nasty old universe, most of the dialogue is between the Doctor and Christina.  Fair enough: this is a "Special", and that means a new one-off companion.  What's she like?  Well, she's a jewel thief, plus a member of the Aristocracy; she doesn't need the money and does it for fun.  All in all, she's less relatable than the Doctor.  She's also clever and confident, with not an ounce of humility, and she's positively one-note.  But the Doctor likes her.  We know this because the script keeps drawing thick, brightly coloured arrows between the two characters, whether you like it or not.  "We were made for each other!"  "You were right, we're quite a team!"  "We could have been so good together!"  "Christina – we were!"  At one point, the Doctor even forgives Christina's life of crime because he stole the TARDIS, and that's... sort of the same as leading a life of crime?  Er.  No, it isn't.  If that really needs spelling out, then I don't know what show you've been watching.  WTF?

Ah, CGI.  Always making Doctor Who a bit better.
Especially on mute.
With all the clumsy hints (and a kiss, which may be required by law), it seems the writers felt they had to work harder to make this connection, possibly because she's so obviously cartoony and unlikeable.  Which begs the question, "Why make such a cartoony and unlikeable character in the first place?"  It does look as if he has noticed she's a total bitch at the end, when he says "No" to taking her on board the TARDIS.  Alas, that's just his usual "I've lost people before therefore I don't want to endanger your life" routine, and presumably it has nothing to do with her being a horrible person.  He lets her out of her handcuffs at this point; having learned nothing, that'll be her rushing off to commit more crimes, then.  Wizard.  The Doctor's behaviour towards Christina, as with his strange determination not to explore anything this week, makes me wonder who the hell this guy is.  Talk about an off day.

David Tennant is fine – pretty much on autopilot, but the script calls for nothing more.  It's not his fault he has to go against his character.  (Although he could have said "Oi, that goes against my character."  What are they gonna do?  Fire him?)  Michelle Ryan does what she can with Christina, which means making her more irritatingly cocksure.  Their conversations, which make up the bulk of the episode, are invariably dead weight.  The guys on the bus are an interchangeable lot; I yearned for the days when a marginally more interesting bus-load of people wanted to kill the Doctor.  (At least they had different opinions.)  Still, one of them gets to drop the He Will Knock Four Times prophecy, which is transparently the only reason a psychic person is involved.  Let's see, what else?  Despite the bad joke, I quite liked the Tritovores.  Shame they're dead.

Back on Earth, UNIT's Captain Magambo (a nice presence in Turn Left) converses with a scientist named Malcolm, also the Doctor's biggest fan.  Cue obvious Doctor Who fan allusions, and the frantic flailing of Lee Evans – and yet, I quite like Malcolm, too.  I like that he measures things in "Malcolms" and "Bernards".  He's not too much of a piss-take (it's no worse than the Tritovores or what's going on with the Doctor this week), and he briefly gets to show the Doctor up without becoming too much of a Mary Sue.  His subplot lacks a sense of urgency, but that may be down to the direction.  He's ordered to close the wormhole, trapping the Doctor on San Helios, and he won't do it until the Doctor gets back.  All very laudable, except when a London bus very noticeably appears via the wormhole, solving the problem, neither Malcolm nor Magambo seems to notice.  The Doctor has to phone and tell him.

Planet Of The Dead makes me wonder if the term "Special" should really be applied to every out-of-series episode that happens to run longer than 45 minutes.  Aside from the fact that this incredibly dull, rather stupid story somehow made it to the screen rather than any number of others, there is nothing special about it.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Oh No He Isn't!

Doctor Who
The Next Doctor
2008 Christmas Special


Well, there's a natty idea for a Doctor Who Special.  Have the Doctor minding his own business, then – whammo! – he bumps into a different Doctor.  Even better, it's a future one.  All at once, you've got the Doctor facing his mortality, plus the excitement of meeting another one.  It's a win-win.  And if the lead actor has recently announced he's leaving the show, some of the more easily-confused among us might think it's a glimpse into the future.  That's more people talking about it, and more viewers.  Win-win-win.

The future's orange.
Of course, you can't actually do it.  Anything you randomly guess about a future Doctor will unfairly bias whatever the next bloke comes up with, not to mention spoil the surprise, and you almost certainly won't have the right actor yet.  (Even if you do, as they did for the 50th anniversary, chances are you still won't have the costume.  A quick glimpse is clearly the way to go.)  That leaves us with a fake Doctor, which much of the audience will guess in advance, especially after the hyperbole of the Doctor's "daughter" (really a clone) and his "regeneration" (where he didn't change).  If you're seriously still falling for this stuff on the third go around, you probably shouldn't be in charge of any heavy machinery.

Oh well: the story of a man who thinks he's the Doctor is worth telling, and as long as the genuine article believes it, you get all that facing his mortality/excitement stuff for free.  The Next Doctor has a lot of fun with this in the opening twenty minutes, as the Doctor (David Tennant) plays companion to the Doctor (David Morrissey).  It's a change of pace for Tennant, who gets to view his character from the outside and thoroughly geek out about it.  Why not?  He's the last Time Lord, so this is the only way he'll meet another one.  He's tantalised by the idea of a guy who's had more adventures.  He's excited, as are we, by the idea of helping a Doctor remember who he is.  (The scene with the Time Lordy fob-watch is hilariously disappointing.)  After two Christmas Specials where the ever-so-lonely Doctor makes a new best friend for an hour, a fake Doctor is certainly one way to change the record.

Shame it doesn't last.  Granted, it's fairly obvious this isn't the real (Sylvester) McCoy.  David Morrissey's Doctor is little more than a bunch of half-remembered catchphrases, the flimsiest bits of David Tennant's already-as-broad-as-possible interpretation watered down beyond recognition.  He's got his own TARDIS and sonic screwdriver, but both of those are sight gags, and weak ones at that.  It's a very fun character, and Morrissey gives it loads of levity and pathos, but he's really not much like the Doctor.  In all likelihood, it was never meant to fool anybody.  (Right?  Right?)

Even so, the ruse is the most interesting thing here, and it's kaput before we even reach the halfway point.  "The Doctor" is Jackson Lake, a man who narrowly escaped an encounter with some Cybermen and had his brain accidentally filled with The Doctor Files.  (Which raises the question of why he doesn't recognise David Tennant.)  Once that's out in the open – and it's a heartbreaking, well-played reveal, even if it is obvious – all that's left is the Cybermen and whatever daft nonsense they're up to this week.  Settle in.  At this point, there's still thirty minutes to go.

Sod Jackson Lake.  Kids, look!  Proper Who!
Having escaped the Void (which, in true Russell T Davies style, is full of stuff), the Cybermen find themselves without the technology to convert everybody.  So, they set about kidnapping as many children as possible, and making them work on a huge Cyberman factory on legs, the Cyber King.  (Which mysteriously, they do have the right tools for.)

This all feels pretty random.  Why kids?  Are they known for being really great labourers, what with the no muscles and the tiny hands?  And the Cyber King looks really, seriously awesome, but you've got to wonder... what?  They have kings now?  If the Cybermen are in the habit of building colossal robots that spit out thousands of other Cybermen, why are we only hearing about it now?  Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the episode's budget, we have the the Cyber-Shades, a.k.a. blokes in woolly carpets with plastic Cyber-faces stuck on.  It's unusual for an episode to feature one of the most impressive-looking special effects in Doctor Who ever, as well as one of the worst, but they manage it.  These guys would have looked like total garbage back in the days of cardboard ant costumes.  Even better, they're completely pointless.

The Cybermen are as dreary as ever – stomp-stomp, mumble-mumble, "Delete", etc. – but they're not exactly helped by having to play second fiddle to the villain-of-the-week.  Russell dips into his Evil Diva bag to give us Miss Hartigan, a man-hating monster played by Dervla Kerwan.  She's cold, amoral and (like the equally two-dimensional Miss Foster) enjoys pointing out what a cleverly-chosen name she's got.  (I wish Russell would pack it in with the "literally" jokes.  They're just wince-inducing.)  She ends up in the Cyber King's hot seat because of her uber-amazing mind (which can't be that amazing since she didn't see this coming), but it's so strong it counteracts the Cybermen's control.  However she's quite happy stomping around in it anyway, so that was pointless.

The dark hints about her life of abuse are vaguely interesting, and not bad motivation for wanting to stomp humanity into little bits, but I've no idea how any of that translates into Cyber-impressiveness.  Perhaps they like her because evil people save you the bother of converting them?  She makes the Cybermen seem passive and ultimately redundant, which is hardly a new experience, but jeez, when will these guys catch a break?  (I should add that Dervla Kirwan is brilliant, and fortunately this comes as standard with Doctor Who guest actors.  She doesn't write this stuff.)

"Why do they not rejoice?"
It's probably the big shooty robot monster putting them off, love.
Probably the most important thing here is the Doctor, since adding a fake one is a handy excuse to underline the ways in which the Doctor, our Doctor, is special.  David Tennant's certainly very good in it, all doe-eyed enthusiasm when he believes Jackson, benevolent understatement when he realises what's going on, don't-mess oomf when dealing with the baddies.  But the Doctor is largely defined here by swashbuckling and derring-do, which is all very whiz-bang and Christmassy but never quite rings true.  He's not an action hero.

In all the dashing about and explosion-dodging, he rarely gets a chance to show off his brain.  Most of his problems are solved with the Cyber-gizmo du jour, "info stamps": a weird, retro way to gather information that is suicidally easy to turn into a weapon against Cybermen.  (Even Jackson can pull it off.)  The episode doesn't really say anything about the Doctor, although his ultimatum to the Cybermen raises questions.  Move to an uninhabited (and therefore useless) world, or die?  When they (entirely logically) don't agree to that, he takes it as cart blanche to zap them to death, even saying "You made me into this."  Hmm.  Friendly they ain't, but it would be nice if he'd accept that what he's really doing here is getting them to sign their own death warrants.  Meanwhile, in the "characters telling the Doctor about himself" stakes, Jackson points out that no one ever thanks the Doctor for his good deeds.  Ever.  Is that a fact?  If you can remember instances where people did just that – such as the endings to most episodes – you're wrong, apparently!

And another thing.  Coming right after another traumatic companion departure, you might expect The Next Doctor to have an emotional undercurrent like The Runaway Bride.  But no; the Doctor must have taken some time to deal with it, as he seems fine.  (Although at one point he suggests he has nothing to live for, which is at odds with his cheery behaviour elsewhere.)  Now, it wouldn't automatically make this episode better to have him sulking over Donna, and it would sail pretty close to plagiarising The Runaway Bride if he did, but when a plot deals with a character forgetting and remembering things, and the previous companion lost her memories under tragic circumstances one episode ago, it seems utterly bizarre to leave those dots unconnected.  Once again, I wonder why Rose was worth so much histrionic foot-dragging, since apparently nobody else is.

The Next Doctor has one great idea in its head and makes a reasonable go of it, but it's too quick to get it over with.  The rest is just the usual clunky bobbins, doused in naff Christmas Episode Victoriana.  By the end, anyone still watching will be Christmas-drunk or Christmas-sleepy.  Welcome to every Christmas Special, I know, but for once it feels as if Russell T Davies may have nodded off first.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Finale Countdown

Doctor Who
The Stolen Earth and Journey's End
Series Four, Episodes Twelve and Thirteen


The end is approaching – of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who, not to mention Series Four.  So, what to do?  A big finale?  Think bigger.  A retrospective of the whole series?  Think even bigger.  A celebration of the entire Doctor Whoniverse under Russell T Davies, including Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures?  That's more like it.  These episodes aren't just a big finish, they're a full blown wrap party.  You will get drunk and wake up with what's-her-name from Catering.

Both episodes radiate with affection, excitement and (not entirely uncalled for) smugness at the show's massive success.  Everyone involved is obviously having the time of their lives, and that energy works to their advantage.  It's never boring; it's often exciting and funny (favourite line: "Get back inside, Sylvia!  They always want the women!"); the special effects have never looked better.  But there's something missing.  Namely, anything more substantial than a two-hour round of applause for the people making it.

So many CGI!
Such pretty!
Shear away all the shouting and special effects and here's what you're left with: Daleks are pinching planets from all over the universe, which obviously means Earth, but also Pyrovilia and the various "missing" planets from Series Four.  These planets form an "engine" which will trigger a "Reality Bomb".  The Daleks want to blow up literally everything in existence besides themselves.  The Doctor's friends are brought together, they stop the Daleks, and they go their separate ways again, some happier than others.  And that's it for plot.  An unbelievable amount of window dressing and hot air makes it seem like more, but it ain't.  Despite an impressive 61-minute runtime for Part Two, this could be one of the most threadbare plots in Doctor Who.

That doesn't mean it's not exciting.  The Stolen Earth does an amazing job of keeping the audience's pulse rate up, with one "OMG!" moment after another.  OMG, Earth is gone!  Cool, it's Torchwood!  Wow, Sarah Jane!  Zoinks, Rose Tyler!  And Davros, and Daleks, proper Daleks, squillions of Daleks!  Squint, though, and you'll notice how the characters spend most of The Stolen Earth just trying to get the Doctor to RSVP for Journey's End.

He's trying to follow Earth, gets stuck, and uncharacteristically gives up.  (You what?  Do something, you lemon!)  He only breaks through because everyone on Earth dials his phone number and shoves it through the Torchwood hub.  Good luck making that look exciting – quick, Billie, hold your phone in the air! – and you'd better hope the audience doesn't think about it for a nanosecond.  (Millions of people calling one number will "boost the signal", will it?  As opposed to millions of people getting an "engaged" tone?  They're amazing, these newfangled "tell-ee-fones".  I wonder how they work!)  It's a whole episode of almost nothing happening.

Anyway, it's all about reunions, inasmuch as anything, so the Doctor and Rose finally get back together.  Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.  Are that many people really cut up about her leaving the show?  I was never a big fan, but I quite liked her in Turn Left when she seemed to have grown up a bit.  In The Stolen Earth she's right back to Whingeing Brat status: "Who's that?  I was here first!"  Oh, it's like she was never away.  Alas, the Doctor is kept out of her reach by the first Dalek in history to shoot straight.  Cue the episode's biggest OMG moment, the most contentious regeneration in the show's history.  And... cut!

The newspapers went mad for this.  A week of absolutely mental speculation later, and the Doctor chucks his regeneration in the bin and carries on, still noticeably David-Tennant-shaped.  You don't have to be very cynical to figure out there's no new Doctor this week, but even so, this was misjudged.  Regenerations are a big part of Doctor Who, and now they're a little less special, because apparently you can wriggle around them.  Not to mention that we all spent a week thinking about Doctor #10 leaving the building (however unlikely it was), and thinking "Actually, that would be pretty exciting," and he's still here.  Awkward much?  Oh well: John Barrowman's reaction is perfect, which is something.

"Okay, which of you bastards was excited to meet Matt Smith?"
So, after the mighty plot development of "all the characters have met", we're onto Journey's End.  Davros throws the TARDIS down a rubbish chute with Donna inside.  She has a little incident with the Doctor's extra hand, and presto, a brand new Doctor is born, half-human, naked and David-Tennant-shaped.  Tennant has fun as Human Doc, and there's some vague ominous gobbledegook about Donna's universal importance, but the two of them might as well play I, Spy until the plot gets back to them.

Meanwhile, the (proper) Doctor spends all his quality Rose-time chatting with Davros, who is in a philosophical mood.  Julian Bleach is good, isn't he?  There's not a lot you can do with a character like Davros – a ranting megalomaniac obsessed with his creations, he's always been a dully obvious Hitler to the Daleks' Nazis.  But Bleach finds a middle-ground between his various telly predecessors, and it's a fine, memorably evil performance.  Kudos as ever to the make-up department.  You don't really need him here, but hey, why not.

It's just a shame he's not better written.  The Doctor is often characterised via the super-subtle art of other characters telling him all about himself, and it's bad enough without getting most of it arse-backwards as well.  Plenty is said here about how manipulative and destructive the Doctor is, and there's some mileage in that – "He never carries a gun" was obviously bull from the start – but actually, there's a difference between killing people and just fighting back.  The Doctor often does the latter, whether he's convincing others to pull the trigger or doing it himself.  And yes, it's unfortunate that billions of Sontarans, Daleks and Cybermen have gone to Villain Heaven because of him, and he feels bad, but when the alternative was They're Going To Kill Everyone, what else can he do?  And who the hell is Davros to throw stones?  At the end, with the Doctor once again causing the death of the bad guys via proxy, Davros calls him "the destroyer of worlds".  Who do you think you're kidding, Mr Hitler?  Claiming the moral high ground after trying to blow up literally everything that exists is some downright brazen taking of the piss.

On the subject of "not that well written", this is a Dalek plan, and that means dumbness.  At risk are 27 planets, the rest of the universe, all other universes and the bits in-between... which is a threat so grotesquely overstuffed that it feels completely meaningless.  The Daleks have always been enthusiastic misanthropes, and it makes sense to try to kill everybody, but what's the point ruling a cosmos with absolutely nothing in it?  What are they going to do, besides bumping into each other in the dark?  It's not as if Dalek Caan is a great conversationalist.

He only speaks the truth!
(Presumably due to a whimsical Liar, Liar contrivance.)
Speaking of which, these Daleks only exist because Dalek Caan Emergency-Temporal-Shifted into the Time War (which is impossible, but he did it anyway, because shut up).  It turns out he is a) mad and b) in this to make the Daleks extinct, so he quite happily lets the Doctor and co. do the deed.  Okay, but if he wanted to make the Daleks extinct, couldn't he have taken a more direct route?  Like not manufacturing billions of them?  (Oh, but it's a "prophecy".  Don't you love those things?  They allow you do literally anything without bothering to invent a reason.)

To combat such a monumental problem, you need a monumental solution.  The Doctor is stuck in a forcefield (oh good, another finale where he patiently waits for rescue), so it's up to his friends.  Martha's got the Osterhaagen Key, a device for blowing up the Earth in times of crisis; Sarah Jane has a Warp Star necklace, which can create an enormous explosion and destroy the Dalek ship; and Human Doc has cobbled together an anti-Davros gun.  Much effort and technobabble goes into all three, especially the Osterhaagen Key (which has its own subplot), but it's all for nothing, as they're chucked away on a whim.

If you're going to invent stuff only to throw it away, it'd be better if it didn't raise bizarre questions.  Like why the Earth has a suicide button, how any situation could possibly be bad enough to use it while the Doctor is still around, and how anyone could ever agree on when we've reached that point.  It's a waste of effort bringing these characters back at all if you're just going to nix their plot-lines before they go anywhere.  Martha is only here to carry out all that Osterhaagen Key bumf.  Cut her, or Mickey, or Jack from these episodes, and see if you can spot the difference.  You can cut Rose as well, for all the difference standing next to the Doctor makes.  These characters aren't celebrated – they're just here.

In the end it's Donna who makes the big difference, finally becoming The Most Important Person In The Universe.  Here we go: using her now-activated Time Lord DNA (thanks, Human Doc), she instantly knows how to use the Dalek controls to make all the bad things go away.  And well done her – but she's only able to do this because a) she's got some of the Doctor's DNA, and b) Davros mysteriously didn't stick a forcefield over her like he did with everyone else.  None of which is really Donna.  After all the hints and build-up, Donna's "importance" amounts to the Doctor's influence, plus a bit of dumb luck.  It's not much of a pay-off.  And the script tries to draw a line between her and the Doctor, in a "No, really, she's still special" sort of way, but since there's a corresponding half-human Doctor as well, it's difficult to see what she's got that he hasn't.  "That little bit of human"?  Well, gee, that explains everything.  Anyone else suspect they made this up at the last minute?

It happens to the best of us.
Still, it goes somewhere memorable.  After plenty of dreary hints about one of the Doctor's "children" dying, which fans of Doomsday will guess is not to be taken literally, Donna's new mind doesn't take.  The Doctor must wipe her memories of him, and all her adventures, to save her life.  It's a genuinely horrifying and sad moment, and probably the only really effective thing here.  Catherine Tate, whose "half Time Lord" never really progresses beyond a David Tennant impression, does heartbroken very well.  It's a legitimately grim way to end her story without actually killing her, and it affected me much more than Rose's still-mourned departure.

Ah yes, Blondie.  I used to really hate Journey's End, and watching it again now, I struggled to remember why.  It's long, overblown and smug, but that goes for a few other episodes as well.  Then I got to Rose's big goodbye.  Ah yes.  That was it.  Is there any part of this that isn't hideous?  From the totally unnecessary fan-service of doing it all again, to having Rose bring up the Doctor's unfinished sentence in Doomsday, and demanding to stay with him forever (because screw character development), to the unbelievable wrongness of gift-wrapping a brand new Doctor who'll sleep with her, not one bit of it works.

Of course, there's a certain dark corner of fandom for whom it will, but those guys write their own fan-fiction, and plenty of it.  The rest of us are stuck with this super-awkward scene, as the Doctor coldly decides Rose's fate and placates her with his hornier replacement.  (Which works.)  As for Human Doc, comparing him to the Doctor when he first met Rose is laughable; this guy isn't wracked with guilt about blowing up the Daleks.  Why should he be?  What else was the Doctor, our Doctor, planning to do with them?  Asking Davros to stop what he was doing didn't seem to work (what a shock!), and as for giving him a complimentary offer to come aboard the TARDIS at the end, you can guess how well that went.  I'm all for the Doctor being glass-half-full, but this is just random, bordering on naive.

Rose's departure is the worst thing here – a self-serving, every-character-ruining-beyond-all-recognition train wreck of an idea.  But at least it puts the rest of it in perspective.  None of it's that bad.  Okay, it's two hours of Russell moving a bunch of action figures around, bringing back his favourites and making them kiss.  (Just look at the ghastly "towing the Earth" scene at the end.  Quick!  Find them something to do!)  Stuffed in between is a maelstrom of padding, half-digested technobabble and sheer bollocks, apart from the fate of Donna, although knowing Doctor Who that won't stick.  But there are times when the celebration is infectious, and you feel invited to the party.

Then again, the constant marching band of references doesn't so much interrupt the story as drive it in the first place.  It's smug – there's no getting away from it.  A moment where the Doctor pauses amid the chaos to connect Gwen Cooper to another character played by the same actress should stick out, but it's merely a part of the general effort to fanwank these episodes into oblivion.  You don't have to be Russell T Davies to be happy there, but it helps.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Doctor Where?

Doctor Who
Turn Left
Series Four, Episode Eleven


Riddle me this: what would Doctor Who be like without the Doctor?  Literally, if the plots happened and he wasn't in them?  It's a mind-bending conundrum which could go in any number of directions...

Wait, what?  What do you mean, "I already know what Doctor Who would be like without the Doctor"?  Gosh, you must be some kind of telepathic mega-genius!  Wait, what?  What do you mean, "Each episode would just play out exactly as it was going to before the Doctor arrived, only instead of him preventing a thing, the thing would happen, obviously"?

Above: every episode ever, minus the Doctor.
When Donna's past is changed so that she never met the Doctor, it results in his death.  This leads to global disaster on a regular basis.  All of which is novel in a morbid parallel world kind of way, but it's still not exactly eye-opening to point out that, instead of the Doctor steering the Titanic away from Earth, no one steered it away so it crashed.  What did you expect it to do?  Of course there would be death and destruction if he wasn't here – that's why he's here!

It seems to me the point of stories like this, such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Wish" (which probably inspired it), isn't just to show us the world going to hell.  It's to examine how the characters change under different circumstances.  What would they become?  Would they still be friends, or even good people?  Just how much do they really need each other?  It's another way of examining familiar things.  That doesn't really happen here, apart from Donna's mum becoming extra venomous and unsupportive – and judging from the bafflingly acidic car scene at the beginning, she's already there.  Donna previously had the choice of not travelling with the Doctor, and we know she regretted it (that's why she came back in Partners In Crime), so it's hardly a newsflash that she's miserable without him.  This is really just about plot elements crashing and exploding instead of not doing that, with people either dying or being very sad about it.  We don't learn or explore much during any of it, let alone worry, because any sentient being knows the only place this plot can go is The Land Of Reset.

Still, Turn Left does make us appreciate the Doctor, although it really, really rubs it in.  When the Juddoon kidnap Martha's hospital, all but one of its occupants dies, including Martha, Sarah Jane and Sarah's friends.  Then the Titanic nukes the south of England.  (Although wasn't it supposed to wipe out the human race?)  Next, the Adipose kill 60 million Americans.  (Although they had no intention of doing that, and possibly only killed anyone because of the Doctor and Donna.)  And the Sontarans get wiped out, but they take Torchwood with them.  (So, every cloud?)  Eventually this means millions of English people displaced in the north, and – oh, why the hell not? – the army starts rounding up foreigners and sending them to labour camps.  What next?  Well, now that you mention it, the stars are going out.  (What, at the same time?  What about the speed of light?  Some of them must have "gone out" millions of years ago!)

By the end of the episode, yes, we get it, everything stinks, please bring him back now.  But Turn Left isn't just about how great the Doctor is and how screwed we are if he ever goes on holiday.  It's mainly about Donna, and how important she is to the Doctor – which, three companions in, may take some explaining.  We get some idea of his need for a companion in most episodes.  Take Midnight: flying solo, the Doctor was about as useful as a toilet roll raincoat.  But that doesn't speak to Donna, specifically.  This week, with a little help from Rose Tyler, UNIT and the TARDIS (aww), Donna saves the world.  However, just like those listed in the last paragraph, it requires 100% more getting killed than when the Doctor does it.  Which is a fairly broad way to underline how great he is, and it doesn't quite nail down The Donna Factor, if there is one.

On the plus side, no Doctor = no Master, and no Series 3 finale.
Leave it, Donna!  It's fine how it is!
There are lots of dark hints about how important she's going to be, but for now, the only way to make her previous self turn left (and meet the Doctor, etc.) is to throw herself in front of a lorry.  (Perhaps they could have worked out a better plan in advance, but sadly they're in too much of a hurry.  Still time for a coffee, though.)  Not to take anything away from her sacrifice, but couldn't anyone go back in time and do that?  It's not as if Donna is the only one who'd like to change the world.  Maybe it needs to be her specifically, and that's the only way to shake the time-beetle off her back?  They don't say, though.  Shrug.

Slightly muddled as Donna's journey may be, the whole episode revolves around Catherine Tate, and she doesn't disappoint.  She's reliably caustic and hilarious during her unemployment woes ("Well, isn't that wizard!"), gently childlike around Wilf (who's brilliant as ever), witheringly miserable around her horrible mum, and otherwise unstoppably argumentative.  She has a real tour de force moment at the end, as she is sent on her way and celebrates the fact that she won't have to die to save the world, then realises she will.  (Her "death" still doesn't amount to much, as we know they're going to rewrite the whole shebang anyway, thus erasing "this" Donna.)  Billie Piper plays the scene well, communicating this complicated piece of bad news with a look.

Of course, Rose is here as well, but she's not quite her usual self.  That's all to the good: she's more of a Doctor stand-in, all technobabble and not-telling-anyone-her-name, which is a neat (if again, broad) example of people stepping up when the Doctor is no longer around.  (It's not due to his death, however, so it doesn't really count as one of those Buffy, alternate-reality-character-developy things.)  I've no idea where her see-the-future abilities are coming from, but then, we don't know how she gets between universes all of a sudden either.  Maybe they'll explain it later.  (Audience laughter.)

Rose is mostly here to set up the finale, which is largely what this episode amounts to: a stock-take of prior Doctor Who events, plus the implication that it's all leading somewhere bigger and worse; Donna's a part of it, and she needs to get there.  Even Donna's "importance" is largely an advert for next week's episode.  But Russell T Davies knows how to build excitement, and the bludgeoning awfulness of the non-Doctor world, along with Donna's increasing need to do something about it, gives the episode a momentum separate from the finale stuff.  Despite the connections, Turn Left is its own story, hence its own review.  (You hear me, Utopia?)

It's all a bit obvious.  Well, it's all a lot obvious.  (Labour camps?)  But overall, it's like Wilf telling Donna she can't fix the world just by shouting at it.  She may not be able to fix the episode, either – but she can try.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Magical Misery Tour

Doctor Who
Midnight
Series Four, Episode Ten


Let's say you're the showrunner and head writer for Doctor Who.  (Let's call you Bertram, er, Davies.)  You're a busy man (or woman – Beatrice?), and you've got thirteen scripts a year (on a good year) to write, or rewrite, or otherwise put into production, or all of the above.  You realise quite late in the day that one of them doesn't work.  No one else is available to fill that slot, so... surprise!  You've got to write a new one.  Oh, and you're shooting the series by this point, so licketty-split, Bertram.

This happens occasionally.  Notable replacement episodes include Boom Town and Fear Her, and neither is entirely without its charms (although Fear Her comes pretty close, and that was another writer), but both have got varying degrees of obviously-not-their-first-choice syndrome.  And then there's Midnight.  Written in something like a week, shot on a smallish amount of money and only featuring half the main cast (so, one of them), it's not exactly your blockbuster episode.  But if you didn't know better, you might not think it was a replacement at all.  (And I only know better because I read The Writer's Tale.  Sorry to keep banging on about it, but if you're watching Series Four you'd be mad not to read it.)

"Okay, Russell, it's a replacement episode, let's save some money.
EXT: BEAUTIFUL CGI LANDSCAPE, MADE OF DIAMONDS.
...Hi, Russell?  It's Russell.  What the hell are you doing?"
The Doctor takes a bus ride on an alien planet.  Donna's busy sunbathing, so it's just him and his fellow travellers.  They encounter something sinister – something outside, knocking on the walls, except no life can exist here.  It gets inside somehow, and into one of the passengers.  Things escalate.  And that's it: a short play, in real time for the last two thirds, wringing the tension out of a small cast on a tiny set.

Admittedly this setup isn't massively original.  I've seen it compared to Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (which I've not seen), Russell T Davies apparently claimed inspiration from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, and in The Writer's Tale he mentions seeing Jeeper's Creepers 2 and jokes that the writers must have stolen his idea and gone back in time with it.  But Doctor Who is versatile enough, in theory, to take any old setup and make it special.  You just make it Doctor Who.

What Midnight does is examine the Doctor's effect on other people.  Nearly every episode has him wading into a group of strangers and assuming command.  How does he do it?  Usually by appealing to their better natures and making them feel safe.  There's always a degree of trust involved, rounded off with characters dazedly wondering who the hell he is, generally as an afterthought.  Midnight is what happens when that doesn't work: when the psychic paper doesn't cut it and "I'm clever" isn't reassuring in the slightest.  And it's not exactly without precedent.  I'm forever moaning about how David Tennant's Doctor tries to get people to listen to him with no success.  Maybe it's the increased reliance on the sonic screwdriver or the psychic paper, both of which anybody could use with at least some success, but this Doctor never seemed all that influential to me anyway.  He's just very friendly and quite loud.

That said, it's a bit of a stretch that For One Night Only absolutely no one listens to him in the slightest – you may wonder how he's gone this long without being strung up.  The time it takes everyone else to go from "scared" to "let's kill the alien" is terrifying, yet also (thanks to the runtime) chucklesomely brief.  We're talking twentyish minutes here; these guys would tear each other's throats out in the queue at the chip shop.  It's probably A Sobering Examination Of The Dark Side Of Human Nature, but it's extremely pessimistic if it is.

Then again, this isn't the normal Doctor Who setup, since the Doctor's on his own.  Perhaps Midnight is A Sobering Examination Of Why The Doctor Needs Someone To Vouch For Him?  It may not be much, but having Donna on hand to say "I know he seems like a dipstick but trust me, he's clever", or at least "I vote not to kill the alien", might have made a big difference to the group hysteria.  In that sense, it's a very successful episode.  The Doctor clearly shouldn't leave the house without her.  (But then, she's great, so what else is new?)

All this arguing over throwing someone out, but if they do,
what's to stop The Intangible Knocking Thing coming right back in?
If this were a horror movie, it would end with: knock, knock, knock... 
While it is a bit of a leap that this group of people agrees to murder someone in the time it takes to watch an episode of Friends, it's still incredibly tense.  The "monster" is the ultimate in budget-saving technology, i.e. we never see it.  The driver thinks he saw something (I'll bet you went back and looked!), then there's a knocking on the outside (simple and scary), then it possesses one of them, who begins to copy everything anyone else says.  Slowly, the copying gets closer in time to what's being said, until she's speaking at the same time.  And then she speaks first, before the Doctor.  It's a brilliant, novel way to handle a possession story, and a brilliant, creepy way to create tension in a small room.  (Shut up!  SHUT UP!  Right, that's it, let's do a murder!)  It's also mysterious enough that it remains interesting, with the Doctor unsure whether the creature is evil or just trying to communicate.  You'll figure that out: Lesley Sharp does an amazing job with the looped dialogue, but also at scaring the hell out of her fellow passengers (and us) just by looking at them.  After she "swaps" with the Doctor, who's rendered motionless as he now copies what she's saying, her performance takes another devious turn, full of creepy little nuances.  Keep an eye on the lighting, which singles her out sinisterly.

All the while, David Tennant sits there unable to move.  Another thing I often bang on about (I'm beginning to sound like I take pots and pans everywhere) is how David Tennant is less effective the more over the top he is.  Following that logic, this is his best performance ever.  He is seriously brilliant early on, trying to get the others to listen and watching his efforts land like tossed blancmanges, but it's the final minutes of the struggle, as he's paralysed, listening to the conspiracy against him and repeating his own death sentence when he's at his best.  It's a stunning, gripping, lots-of-words-ending-in-ing performance, about as restrained as it's possible to be without clamping his mouth shut, and all the more potent for it.  The moment where he makes a relatively enormous effort to save his own life – sticking his foot out – is more compelling than anything he could have done with the screwdriver.  It's seriously good stuff.

The rest of the passengers are interesting enough, in particular David Troughton as Professor Hobbes.  (He's a wonderful actor, but I can't not geek out over how much he sounds like Troughton Senior.)  However, they're not exactly rounded.  The tensions running between them are amped up at super-speed, because we haven't exactly got all day.  (And also, as I may have mentioned, this was written in a week.)  This is particularly egregious when the Doctor says "I'm just a traveller, that's all", and one of the surlier passengers responds: "Like an immigrant?"  (Wince!  Doctor Who is good at lots of things, but subtext is apparently not one of them.)  There's still some room for complexity, as even though nobody's listening to the Doctor there's still one or two who notice that Lesley Sharp isn't what she seems, and then act on it without his influence.  But ultimately, one-note-to-quite-good as the others are, this is mainly a two-hander between Tennant and Sharp.  Both are amazing.

Midnight is a concentrated effort to create tension, and though it takes a few shortcuts to get there, and raises some worrying questions about the current Doctor's usefulness, it is utterly effective at that.  Just bear in mind you may need a lie down and a cuddle afterwards.