Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Doctor Who - A Christmas Carol

Who Stalwart Terrance Dicks used to say that all you need for a good Doctor Who story is a good original idea, but that the idea didn't have to be your good original idea. The Grand Moff has taken this fine tradition of getting stories off the back of a lorry and used it for this year's Christmas Special.

This was actually the first Christmas Special worthy of the name since Voyage of the Damned. The Next Doctor and The End of Time were regeneration specials far more than they were Christmas Specials. Like Voyage of the Damned it repeats the trick of "fit blonde singer as guest star" and as with Kylie, Katherine Jenkins does okay.

There's not a whole lot I can say about the plot itself other than the fact that the ending is a bit of a con. Fast forward another day and instead of a "happy" ending you've got a crotchety old man mourning over a dead welsh singer. I suspect that Kazran would've fallen into another bout of depression and bitterness. Speaking of Kazran, Michael Gambon was absolutely brilliant throughout. For my money the first person to steal the limelight from Matt Smith since he first Geronimoed onto our screens as the Doctor.

I really was taken with the idea of fish living in the atmosphere, a great little SF idea of the sort I could imagine cropping up in a Stephen Baxter book.

For my money The Chimes of Midnight still stands as the best overall Doctor Who Christmas story. But this was the best Doctor Who Christmas special to be shown on TV to date.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

One more thing

Fezzez are not cool. They are fucking awesome!

Friday, 24 December 2010

Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens & The Big Bang

Meanwhile, in the Doctor Who production office:

Steven Moffat: "Hey guys. Do you remember when Russell did the finale where the Doctor does a big speech about not having a plan and then a secondary companion gets resurrected from the mind of the main companion?"


SM: "And do you remember when Russell did a finale where the Daleks and the Cybermen teamed up and the Doctor and his companion got separated when a crack in the universe closed?"


SM: "And do you remember when I did a story with wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff?"


SM: "And do you remember when Russell did a finale where everything got put right by time being re-set?"


SM: "And do you remember when I did that bit where the Doctor confronted the big bad by telling it to review its records?"

SM: "And do you remember when Russell did an episode where all the stars went out?"


SM: "And am I right in thinking people love all that stuff?"


SM: "And do you think people will remember all that stuff?"

"Dunnoh boss, Why?

SM: "I'm going to be using all of that stuff for this years finale".

Some might say that I am being a bit uncharitable. But I think most people would admit that season's five's final was at times, a tad derivative.

Towards the back end of RTDs run (Stolen Earth onwards) there was a definite impression that the team had started to run out of creative steam. On reflection a year or so on the Waters of Mars is an honourable exception but Stolen Earth, Journeys End, The Next Doctor, The Planet of the Dead and The End of Time all tend to rely on their presentation and sense of occasion to support underdeveloped plots and/or recycled ideas. This is not to say that they were bad, more that they were like having a meal comprised entirely of deserts, enjoyable but lacking in nourishment and substance.

The Moffat era was therefore an opportunity to try something new. A way for the show to resist the pressure to go "bigger" all the time and instead try "different". Prior to the launch of season 5 there was much talk of the show having a more fairytale feel to it. But in reality this simply meant a return to old style Who sleepy villages in place of the urban settings and style of the RTD era.

Stylistically this years finale does feel smaller than any finale since Army of Ghost/Doomsday with most of the first part taking place in or under stone henge and with a relatively limited cast too. The first part is certainly very focused and I loved the use of the Cyberman as a technological mummy. The use of the head as a glorified Cybermat was totally cool too. Rory's return was handled in an amusing way, but at this rate he has already been resurrected more times than Jesus and will presumably soon have had more resurrections than the Doctor has had regenerations. The twist of the Pandorica being a trap for the Doctor was genuinely good. I could've done without the "alliance" of enemies. The reality is that any one enemy could have set this trap. I'm also stumped as to what the couple of random Silurians and the alien from the Love and Monsters chase sequence were doing there. The Judoon works in the context of the reasons given for the alliance and also ties in quiet nicely with the events of the IDW comics.

Sadly the twist is almost immediately undermined in the second part by more Wibbly-Wobbly stuff. This resolution is both clever and funny, but also too easy for my liking.

Much the same could be said about the whole of the second part of this story. The idea of the TARDIS exploding a causing the end of the Universe is a little hard to swallow in so far as there must have been TARDIS destroyed prior to this one (accidents, time wars etc). But on the basis that reality has changed now the Time Lords have gone I can accept this. What is somewhat harder to accept is that a cube of less than 100 square meters could contain an imprint of the entire universe. That is some compression ratio! I would be half tempted to refer to the use of the Pandorica as a deux et machina but for the fact that all good fans know only RTD does D.E.M.s!

The bottom line was that this was a clever and entertaining finale full of "cool moments". It was however something of a greatest hits package and I can't help but wonder if the Grand Moff was playing it safe. I also found the story basically lacking in the heart that I have come to expect from the RTD finales, each of which was a game changer. Here the resolution truly was a reset button as in terms of character development we are back to the middle of the season. I also found the whole thing to be somewhat lacking in heart, something I have come to expect from my season finales (be they Doctor Who or otherwise).

To boil it down into numbers, a solid 4 start out of 5. Very good, but not great and not a classic.

Overall though season 5 ranks highly for me, but not as high as season 3 which remains one of the greatest seasons of tv full stop. I would like to see Moffat and co take more risks with season 6. RTD's era had a few duds, but in those first four years you could never criticise it for playing it safe or staying in a comfort zone.

Doctor Who: The Lodger

I'm cheating on this one folks. What with one thing and another I got somewhat derailed from finishing up my season 5 posts, so I had to watch this one again to refresh my memory. That being said my opinion has not really changed in any great respect.

A curious thing about this episode is that you would almost expect it to have been the episode written by Simon Nye. The storyline of the Doctor moving into a flat and striking up an Odd Couple style friendship with his flat-mate is not a million miles from Men Behaving Badly territory. Instead this is a Gareth Roberts episode, dramatising his own tenth Doctor comic strip of the same basic story. The episode is placed in the now traditional "Doctor-Lite" slot, but is actually Amy-lite and Doctor heavy. This is no bad thing as once again Matt Smith rules all as the Doctor. James Corden as Craig essentially takes Amy's place in the episode. I find Corden to be irritating in real life, but he works well here as an upmarket Smithy.

The episode is a strange hybrid of old and new who. This is really classic Yeti/Tooting Beck territory but this aspect is kept mostly in the background to allow the Doctor to spend an episode being a weird and funny matchmaker. I do wonder who was trying to build themselves a TARDIS and whether that will have any relevance to "The Silence" to come.

There's little more I can find to say about this one. What it amounts to is a reasonably successful attempt at doing a sit-com. Great fun, but ultimately inconsequential.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Blake's 7: Blake


Blake's 7 is a strange series in many ways. Frequently camp as Christmas, yet often unremittingly grim. The show was created by Terry Nation, he of the Daleks and post apocalyptic Survivors series (as well as the jobbing writer for any number of other popular telefantasy shows). The series was conceived as "the dirty dozen in space", but is as much informed by Star Trek, Doctor Who, Survivors, 1984, the second world war, the cold war and any number of folk tales.

Consistently underfunded and under-appreciated by the BBC its production values made 70s era Who look like 90s era Trek. The directorial style in particular is generally bland and lacking in flair and ambition. The show borrowed heavily from the Doctor Who talent pool with Who stalwart Robert Holmes being a regular writer. The more important writer, perhaps more so than Nation himself in later years, was Chris Boucher.

When it was at its best the show was superlatively brilliant, taught edgy plots meeting cracking dialogue spoken by iconic and complex characters. At its worst it really is bad. There's not much in between to be fair, so you probably get a ration of 3 classics to 1 stinker and 1 average show. The bottom line is that you can't consider yourself a sci-fi or cult TV fan if you've not seen this series. The show was a key influence on genre classic Babylon 5 and the premise was basically lifted wholesale for the short-live (but brilliant) Firefly series. They are all out on DVD and they are routinely on offer too.

Anyway, the story so far (in very brief):

Season One: How the band gets together, takes control of the Liberator (the most powerful spaceship in the Galaxy) and starts to fight the Federation.

Season Two: Blake goes on the offensive against the Federation and plans to bring down its main control centre. The series ends with Blake joining forces with the federation to fight off an alien invasion from Andromeda.

Season Three: Blake and Jenna are gone and Avon finale gets to be in charge. The Federation is badly disabled. Avon and Friends explore the Galaxy a bit with only occasional confrontations with the Federation until the Season finale. Servelan (camp, transexual wannabe, dictator of the Federation) springs a trap on the crew. The Liberator is destroyed.

Season Four: Cally dies and Avon is never the same again. The Federation begins to massively and aggressively re-expend. Avon gets steadily more and more psychotic as EVERYTHING goes wrong for our band. He tries to organise a counter-federation of all the independent worlds only to be betrayed by the leading faction.

Before you go any further check out this EPIC fan made trailer:

All of which takes us to the last ever episode.


The story picks up from the events of Warlord, in which Avon had tried to build an alliance against the Federation. He was sold out and the location of his base was revealed to the Federation so he and the crew decide its time to get the fuck out of dodge. They leave the base blowing it up in the process, but Avon has a new plan.

As the episode title suggests the new plan involves Blake. Avon has used Orac to trace him and they have found him on a frontier world, Gauda Prime. Gauda Prime was a Wild West type planet run by crooks and murderers. Soolin was born their and saw her parent's killed. She is therefore none to pleased to hear from Avon that the thugs in charge of the planet are petitioning to join the Federation, thereby legitimising their rule over the planet and protecting their position in charge.

As they approach Gauda Prime the ship is attacked and everyone bar Tarrant beams off. Tarrant managers to crash land the Scorpio on the planet in a sequence that was ripped-off in Star Trek Generations:

Meanwhile Blake is posing on the planet as a bounty hunter. He uses himself as bait to track another bounty hunter, Arlen, with the intention of recruiting her to the cause.

Tarrant survives the crash and is rescued by Blake. Blake takes Tarrant back to his base on Gauda Prime and we find out that Jenna died in a blaze of glory.

Dayna, Soolin and Villa set up camp in an abandoned building. Villa leaves a fire going which allows a bounty ship and Avon to trace the site. Avon shoots the ship down and they follow Blake's ship back to his base.

This is when all hell breaks loose. Tarrant completely misunderstands Blake's intentions and believes he has sold them all out to the Federation. In actual fact it is Arlen that has sold them out. The episode reaches a bloody climax:

Avon asks "Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!". Blake's answer is fatal he says "I set all this up". Avon was totally batshit paranoid by this point having been screwed over several times in the last two years and he interprets these words as "I set YOU up". He shoots Blake and Blake dies in his arms:

his last words are "Avon".

Arlen gloats that Blake was right, he couldn't tell the Federation from the rebels any more:

and the bloodbath continues:



Avon is oblivious, practically catatonic.

Soolin falls.

And finally, Tarrant.

The Federation Guard moves in on Avon:

And Avon takes his place standing over the fallen Blake:

The Camera cuts in:

And again:

And again:

And again:

And Avon smiles one last crazed, ironic, nihilistic, smile:

The picture freezes, the credits hit and we hear the sound of multiple shots over the names "Avon" and "Paul Darrow":

Then the familiar theme tune begins:

And the series is no more.

This was not just the season finale, it was the last ever episode of the show. It went out a few days before Christmas thereby traumatising thousands of children. The irony is that Season 3 was supposed to be the final episode, but the series was recommissioned. Series 4 was not meant to be the final episode at all. Chris Boucher has planned to continue into series 5 with any of the cast that signed back on, but the continuity announcer stated that it was the last ever episode and that was that.

In my mind this is probably the best episode of the show. It is unremittingly bleak and nihilistic. Everyone we came to care about had died before the episode or during the episode. The Federation turn out to be the winners and probably stronger than they were at the start of the show. Our hero's lost big time. This is entirely apt. It was only realistic that the tactical advantages of two superior ships and one superior computer would ultimately be overcome by the might of an entire interstellar empire. Particularly as one as ruthless as the Federation was. Nevertheless, this sort of thing does not normally happen in tele-fantasy finales and would not have happened had the show gone to a fifth series as Boucher and Nation wanted.

One side affect of the curtailment of the series is that Jacqueline "Servelan" Pearce was not present for the finale. This was because she had already starred in her contracted number of episodes for that year. This was a sore point for her, although the writers have said that they had not deliberately set out to exclude her from the last ever episode. However, the absence of Servelan serves the episode well. Just as Blake could never bring himself to kill Travis directly, so Servelan could never quiet bring herself to dispose of Avon face-to-face. Arlen had no such compunctions and also lacked the camp factor of Servelan. The result is that the conclusion is played entirely straight and is extremely bleak.

Ever since the episode aired there have been numerous stories and theories put forward to continue the story and explain how one or more members of the crew could have survived. Boucher himself intended for Avon and Villa at least to survive. Nation tried to revive the series on the basis of Avon alone surviving in exile like a futuristic Napoleon. Years later "Blake's 7 Enterprises" attempted to use a similar idea to sell a continuation to Sky (don't even get me started on their incompetence). For me though I can't help but think that Blake's 7 is now a series that would better suit a "re-imagination" rather than a continuation, particularly since several cast members have been lost over the years.

On a personal note, I first saw this episode in 1994 when I was 14. I did not have access to the net or any episode guides, although I did know from Sky's pre-advertising that Blake was the last episode. I was fully expecting a rabbit out of a hat after the events of Warlord until there was about 10 minutes left and I realised that there was no way that Avon, Blake and Co were going to beat the Federation, even then I did not see the climax coming. When it did I was utterly shocked and I experienced exactly what the contemporary viewers must have felt. Years on this episode continue to hold considerable power and holds up to repeated re-viewings. Blake's 7 had a dozen or so episode that are classic SF stories and another twenty or so that hold up as being very good indeed. For me Blake is the greatest of them all. I have used the word nihilistic several times, but this episode could be the very definition of the word. Certainly no over drama I have seen can match Blake (Life on Mars final moments are the closest, but not in the same league at all). By circumstances of intention and accident it is a classic tragedy that could easily be performed (or "re-imagined") as a standalone story in any media with precious little alteration. It is a masterpiece.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Vincent and the Doctor

Anyone who doesn't think that Doctor Who is one of the greatest shows on telly should have their telly confiscated.

I'll put my cards on the table. I have something of a weakness for Richard Curtis stuff (obv. not the Vicar of Dibley). Yes his stuff can be ridiculously middle-class and twee at its worst, but the guy did Not the Nine O Clock News, Blackadder and I Notting Hill, which I consider to be the finest fairy tale in living memory. So I was almost as pleased and surprised to read that he was doing Who as I was pleased to see that Gaiman was doing Who.

The title of the episode was clever in so far as we were all clearly meant to think "Ah this is the Celebrity Historical romp for this series". However, if anything that turned out to be Victory of the Daleks with its cartoon Churchill and Spitfires in space. This is far from a romp. It is however a wonderful character piece. I get the impression that Curtis has wanted to write this story for a while but lacked the vehicle to do so. The flexibility of Who's format allowed him to tell this story and get it on prime time TV. In some ways it reminds me of The Also People in so far as the plot and the monster is simply a reason for the characters to talk to each other. Indeed the use of the "invisible" (cheap) monster was the only thing that held the episode back. I get that the Kids probably expect a monster, but if you are barely going to show it on screen, why bother? Similarly I could have done without the Athlete track at the end. That felt like the Doctor Who confidential house style rubbing off on the parent series. It was over-egging the pudding.

Anyway these are minor flaws in what was an otherwise brilliant episode. A story of the Doctor and Amy given a deeply wounded man a few moments of joy and grace.

In many ways this was a return to the ethos of the Hartnell era. Taking the show back to the idea of following one man's travels through time and space. We need more episodes like that, they don't all have to be about the mosters of the good of the Doctor fighting the evil of the Baddy. We should have a few more bits of character based sightseeing.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

Way back in the pre season publicity there was a lot of talk of a new approach to Who, treating it as a modern day fairy tale. To a greater or lesser extent this approach was evident in the whole of the season. In the first episode we have the orphan girl who grows up in a spooky old house with a room nobody ever sees. In the second we have the space whale carrying the whole or Britain on its back. We have vampires and dream lords and even the Dalek episode has shades of the Tin Man/Pinnochio.

This story therefore strikes a discordant note being a love letter to the Pertwee era of the show. The choice or writer is equally discordant. Why Chris Chibnall was chosen to write this one is unclear to me. He is a competent writer, but one who seems to write to the level of the brief he is given. Its arguable that nothing improved Torchwood in season 3 so much as his absence from it. The first two seasons certainly varied wildly in tone and approach and at times in season 1 the show took a positively bizarre approach to its arc and character development eschewing the resent switch but similarly failing to deliver conclusions to any of the character's individual story arcs. On the other hand Chibnall's finale to season 2 worked as a neat conclusion and, by RTD's own admission, crystalised what the show would go on to be. Similarly I have always been rather fond of 42 and episode unfairly maligned because of Michelle Collins' performance.

Nevertheless it seems to me that this story would have been the perfect story for Mark Gatiss (far more so than the Dalek one). Gatiss already has already demonstrated the chops for such a tribute in his novel Last of the Gaderene and the 2 episode format would appear to be far more suited to his style of storytelling.

It was never entirely clear to me what the production team were trying to achieve in bringing back the Silurians. I can't see that they have a huge nostalgia factor for Joe Public. Their first appearance is highly regarded by fans of a certain age and a certain style of Doctor Who. Their second is almost universally reviled by all fans. Neither story were big hits with the viewing public of the time. They do not fit the mould of being a classic monster in the way the Daleks or the Cybermen or Master do. I don't even think they rate in terms of B divisions monsters like the Sontarans, Ice Warrior or Rani. Arguably, your average punter on the street would be more likely to remember "the one with the maggots" than "the one with the Cave Monsters" if asked to recall some classic monsters. Furthermore any attempt to trade of the nostalgia factor of the Silurians as monsters is completely undermined by their "re-imagining" as a Trek/B5 style alien. The originals may now look cheap (or more accurately DO now look cheap) but in some ways humans in rubber and a mask are better than humans in makeup. Similarly the original story presented us with "scientific", "political" and a "military" leaders. The implication of this story is that the Silurians have a caste system. Whilst this is a logical development from the earlier story, it is to my mind an unwanted formalisation of the society. Human governments tend also to be comprised of leaders of specific groups and interests, but that does not mean our society is comprised solely of those groups and interests. It seems to me that Who does Monsters and Aliens. The monsters are monolithic cultures and the aliens are multi-cultural. It is for this reason that, to my mind, the sea-devils were always the much better antagonists. Being much dumber than the Silurians they basically fall into the monolith monster category.

I take the point that the Silurians are intended to be a proper society and that they have a perfectly valid point of view and a perfectly legitimate aim in wanting the Earth back. This is all well and good in theory. In practice there is never enough complexity shown in the species for them to be a truly believable alien society (as opposed to a believable monster) and there's no way the show is ever going to feature an earth run or shared with the Silurians. Even the right on lefty New Adventures continuity didn't have that happen for another thousand years or so. The consequence of this is that the end of any Silurian story set in modern times is either (1) they all die, (2) they all go back into hibernation. Dramatically then they are a dead end of an antagonist. On top of that the comparatively luxurious length of the modern two parter is still shorter than a Pertwee (or Davision) four parter and is nowhere near long enough to offer an effective presentation of the Silurian culture or the ethical dilemma posed by the story. In view of this, again, I can't help but think the Sea-Devils would have served this story better (or even the Ice Warrior as our nearest solar neighbours).

On top of all this we have the bizarre ending. The decision to kill off Rory is another part of this story that baffles me. Was there anyone who saw it that wasn't expecting him to be revived in some SF fashion by the season finale? Dramatically it doesn't really take us anywhere. We already know from the previous episode that he DOES really mean something to Amy. It doesn't even have the fun and entertainment factor of Adric death. Even those that don't like the character don't loath him as much as Adric! It seems he dies only so he can be resurrected in an "unexpected" way so Steven Moffatt can show how "clever" he is.

So yeah, there's a lot in this one that doesn't sit well with me. That being said there were a good few things I did enjoy. On a purely superficially level the throwbacks to the Pertwee era were a nice change from the RTD era "London and soon the whole world will be in peril and its all on CNN and everyone knows about it" motif. Matt was great (again) as was Meera Syal. I was surprised by that to be honest. I fully expected a painful "ernest" and/or "I'm above this" turn from her akin to Keeley Hawes in season one of Ashes to Ashes (or indeed Meera herself in Jekyl) but she put in one of the best performances of any of the guests since the shows return. This was particularly impressive and creditable given some of the dialogue she was given. The design work for the underground Silurian base was wonderful too (and yes I know they went to the same place as the Doctor's Daughter and no I don't give a toss). Although the death of Rory may have been the nadir of the season, the moments in the TARDIS immediately after the death were beautifully written and acted.

I'm not usually one for ranking episodes on a scale. But overall I cannot recall a story that ever fit so comfortably at 6 out of 10. This was the epitome of average with a few great moments being weighed down by a total lack of original though, clear direction or consistent tone.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Amy's Choice

Crickey I am behind on these! It's not for lack of enthusiasm either. Unless The Big Bang is a Big Flop this has been the best season of new who outside the perfection that is season 3.

This episode certainly had "Low-key" written all over it in the previous. I was basically anticipating a sub-star trek, Brannon Braga-esque "what's really real" type of story. Up to a point that is exactly what we got and yet I found that outside of the first ten minutes, this was something quiet new and different too. In some ways that's a typical pattern for New Who. In the writers tale RTD comments on one story (can't recall which one) and points out that for all the advance publicity, everything after the first ten minutes was unspoiled.

The rather basic SF "what's real and what's not" plot was at least given a clever twist by having all of it be not real. This at least would put it ahead of 7 years worth of Star Trek Voyager for a kick off. Fundamentally, the plot wasn't the point. It was instead merely the pre-text for some fantastic dialogue and even better exploration of our key characters.

It's perhaps not surprising that this had its funny moments given that Simon Nye was the writer. This was however a more bitter and introspective form of humour than we have seen in the show before. I loved the "Self-harm" and "goodmare" lines, but the greatest gags in the episode:

"If you had any more tawdry quirks, you could open a tawdry quirk shop! The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first year fashion student... I'm surprised you haven't got a little purple space dog, just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are!"

takes on a new meaning when you discover that the Dream Lord is the Doctor's own internal commentary on himself. Yes kids we are in Timewyrm: Revelation territory, only this time the story takes places in the companions psyche as well as the good Doctors. The notion of the Dream Lord as being some kind of proto-valeyard is as tawdry as the aforesaid quirks. This is an old man's bitterness and self-loathing made manifest, not some black hatted continuity-wank, poor man's Master. The brilliance of the episode is such that the you have to connect the dots to realise this. The Doctor's rather glib admission that the Dream Lord was him comes half an episode after he states there's only one person who hates him as much as the Dream Lord. If there's a flaw at all in this its that reflection at the end to help out the slower viewers.

All of which brings us to the subject of the episodes' title. Amy had, to this point, felt lacking to me. Whether you like Rose, Martha or Donna (and I do) or not, the fact of it is that they started out as well fleshed out characters and continued to develop from there. RTD really beefed up the quality of writing for the companions even if this was sometimes achieved by reducing the emphasis on the Doctor at times. The writing for Amy has simply not been as strong. To some extent this is arguably inevitable with a new, practically unknown, lead actor taking on the role of the Doctor. Nevertheless it's noticable that Rose is out of character is The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Sidelined in the Girl in the Fireplace. Similarly Donna got stuck with a stock Trek storyline in Silence in the Library, albeit a particularly well executed one. It's clear that the Moff has a bigger interest in the Doctor than the companion. This has certainly been to eleven's benefit but poor Amy has seemed rather generic and surplus to requirements at time. This episode corrects that in a large way. The Doctor (or Simon Nye) forces the issue of her relationship with Rory with the effect that we get to see a lot more of what makes Amy tick.

I simply loved the scene with Rory dying and Amy begging the Doctor to bring him back, followed by her angry "Then what is the point of you". Again a mark of the brilliance of the episode that its followed by an even better scene with the Doctor agreeing to drive into the cottage. Again, its what isn't said here that's important. The Doctor may well have figured it all out by then and if so he has clearly helped Amy to make her choice. But equally, he may not have it figured out, in which case he is prepared to take the risk of dying for nothing other than making a gesture to his new best friend.

I can see why this episode won't be to everyone's taste. On an objective level I couldn't say its a classic like Human Nature/Family of Blood. But it provides the heart and soul for this season in the same way that Turn Left did for season 4 and I LOVED it to bits because of that.

Also the snowy TARDIS was gorgeous.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Vampires of Venice

Now here we have a really cool alliterative title, which is a CON. They aren't Vampires and they aren't of Venice! They are of an alien world and/or Croatia depending on your perspective!

Now here's a thing. Back in the RTD era, the Vampire's probably would have been just that. RTD had an actual werewolf and actual Witches for example. So I am rather vexed, I've been waiting for the new series to do proper Vampires. The show has a good little history with Vampires: State of Decay, Goth Opera, Blood Harvest, even Zagreus. Good proper Vampires are becoming a rare thing in this post-Twilight, twee bullshit, era.

That point aside, this is the very definition of a bog-standard Who run-around. In some ways its arguably the first time the show has attempted to do something so pedestrian since the relaunch in 2005.

What raises the episode above Victory of the Daleks is the character stuff between The Doctor, Amy and Rory. Everything about that felt natural and Amy now feels like a much more fully rounded character to me than she did previously.

Nothing spectacular, but watchable enough and still better than Victory of the Daleks, which remains the season lowlight so far.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Time of Angels & Flesh and Stone

Okay, there was a lot in this one and I think I will need to watch it again to give any proper overview. I think that it was, without a doubt, one of the most intricate and clever Doctor Who stories and almost certainly the cleverest one to be shown on television. At times it was also stupendously cool. The whole sequence of River Song escaping and being rescued was the single best sequence/set piece I have seen since the "Putting out fires with Gasolene" sequence in Inglorious Basterds. Matt Smith is, once again, effortlessly brilliant and mulit-faceted as the Doctor. Karen Gillan gets to be more interesting as Amy. River Song remains firmly wedged on the line between intriguing and irritating, but by and large I remain intrigued.

All in all this was, at least, a solid 9 on 10. But I do have to take issue with the "OMG BEST EPISODE EVAR!" type reviews we are getting. Here's a list of episodes that are better:

1) Dalek.
2) Bad Wolf/Parting of Ways.
3) The Girl in the Fireplace.
4) The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.
5) Army of Ghosts/Doomsday.
6) Human Nature/Family of Blood.
7) Blink.
8) Utopia-Last of the Timelords.
9) Turn Left.

Not to mention a bunch of stories from the original run, novels, audios and comics.

But I'll certainly take "one of the greatest ever" any day of the week!

Monday, 3 May 2010

THIS was NOT their finest hour.

And so we move onto Victory of the Daleks. This was a strange episode and a definite case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. I'll start with the positives, the biggest of which was Matt again putting in an excellent performance as the Doctor. The Moff and his team have stumbled on a real star here and I hope they have got him signed up for at least 3 years as he has not put a foot wrong so far.

Next up: Spitfires in space, Cool.E.O. but coming with an automatic negative. The scenes were not nearly long enough (compare with any number of battles in B5 or DS9, or even The Parting of Ways), really given the shortness of these scenes they should not have been included in the trailer.

The Dalek redesign. I have to admit I hated this when I saw the pictures online and they looked like toys. But in the episode itself they are big menacing buggers and I am now totally sold on them. I also loved the fact that the plot comes about as a way to trap the Doctor and that they got to win too, so good times on that one.

On the downside. Amy is basically anonymous again here and very Generic Who Companion for the most part. The portrayal and writing of Churchill is just too cartonish for my tastes, not to say that it isn't respectful, because it is, but it just didn't have the depth I was looking for. Depth of character was a problem for the whole supporting cast to be honest with the whole thing being a little too "Boys own" adventure for me. Indeed the tone of the episode seems, at best, uneven. Ignoring for the moment the Dalek involvement, it seems that the episode wants to have both ways being a "boys own" bank holiday special, but also trying to be dutifully respectful to the people that fought the war. The overall effect is a feeling of being preached at rather than quiet respect. And preached at in a rather simplistic and cliched way to boot. NuWho has stuck this balance better already (Empty Child/Doctor Dances and Human Nature/Family of Blood, Hell even Mark Gatiss as Dr. Lazarus) and old Who and spin-off who has stuck the balance better numerous times before.

Whilst its not generally fair to criticise a show for being one thing and not another, I do think its valid here to raise the issue of the whole concept of the Daleks versus Churchill. I have pointed out in the past the clear parallels between the Nazis and the Daleks and clearly this was in the mind of the creative team in formulating this episode. However, its not particularly well drawn out in the episode, which relies on the incongruity of the Daleks as wartime servitors. I would've preferred to see much more of the Doctor saying "these guys ARE the nazis", "these guys are the nazis taken to their ultimate conclusion", "if you rely on these guys you will become the nazis". I don't think that this point was expressed well enough in the episode.

I have to say that I am not convinced that Mark Gatiss is well suited to writing for the new series. He has done some great stuff in the books and audios and is clearly capable of doing "old who but better". But I have never been particularly fond of his work in the new series. I think that the Unquiet Dead was a hugely flawed entry to season one and although the Idiot Lantern was better, it was still one of the poorer episodes of season 2. On the other hand I would just point out that I thought that the Confidential episode was excellent.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

What if you were really old and really kind and alone? Your whole race dead, no future, what couldn't you do then?

The Beast Below maintains an honourable Nu-Who tradition. Specifically the second episode of any season being an absolute corker.

The Grand Moff once again goes to the RTD playbook and takes the new companion to a point far into the future of Humanity (presumable circa The Ark in Space time frame). In doing so he also FINALLY gave us a Space Whale in Doctor Who, some twenty-odd years after Davision was supposed to get one! That the Whale is also the Great Atuin is an additional bonus. There's hope for The Killer Cats of Gengh Singh yet (and no the cats of New Earth don't count, cool as they were).

The Doctor and Amy work far better in this episode too. There wasn't a whole amount of post regenerative trauma in the first episode, so the Doctor here is only subtly different from the Doctor of the Eleventh Hour. But we get to see him as the detective/problem solver that Moffat has always maintained the Doctor should be. Interestingly this is a Doctor who is a little more guarded around his companion than the nine and tenth Doctors were. Equally interesting is that this is a more secretive companion too. The Doctor once again hides and then brushes off the Time War (see The End of the World) and Amy has yet to reveal her impending marriage. Similarly they both hide their suspicions/knowledge of the enslavement and torture of the Whale from each other in order to protect each other. Amy certainly seems more like a person and less like a character description here. I also loved the Doctor's anger and his "you don't get to decide what I should know" bit.

The story is certainly stronger than The Eleventh Hour too, in that there actually is one to speak of. The only downside to this is that it once again taps into the Moffat trick of there not being a bad guy so much as a mistaken one and the Doctor saving the day by working this out. The Nanogenes in the Empty Child were trying to heal, but get it wrong. The Clockwork Robots were trying to fix the ship, but get it wrong. The Vashda nerada were displaced from their home and the library "saved" people to stop them dying. Here the humans misinterpret the action of the Whale and Amy works this out. This is no bad thing in as much as very few stories in Who's 40 odd years have played with this idea, but there is a risk of the Moff running it into the ground now that he is the head writer.

Moving on, I got a total kick out of the casting of this episode too. For a second episode in a row we got child thesps that can actually act, an Oscar nominee as good Queen Liz ten (gawd bless er) and Terrance Hardiman. The latter is the one I got a real kick out of as I have really fond memories of THE DEMON HEADMASTER. Sadly he didn't get a huge amount to do and wasn't the bad guy, but still THE DEMON HEADMASTER!

All in all a really good, if not quiet classic, episode.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Doctor Who: Season Fnarg - The story so far

So we are now a few episodes in what is already the Moffat era of the show. It shows the way Who fandom thinks that its the "Moffat" era and not the "Smith" era, but there we go. On the other hand there is no real consensus on what to call the new season with there being 4 distinct camps: 1) its season 1, 2) its season 5, 3) its season 31, 4) its season fnarg/it doesn't matter. 3 and 4 are bollocks. I tend to alternate in my thinking between 1 and 2. Key thing is, contrary to popular opinion, is season 31 is nonsense. You cannot have a season 27 after a 15 year gap! Not to mention all the ongoing books and audios in between. Season 27 is the Timewyrm quadrilogy by the way.

Anyway onto The Eleventh Hour. Matt's performance was arguably the best 1st appearance since Troughton. If the series ended at this point you could build an ongoing series of books and audios for Matt much more easily that McGann. Obviously all the stuff with Young Amy was totally fantastic. I particularly loved the bit which culminates in the Doctor realising/saying that the crack in the wall must be well scary. Next up, I also loved the "14 years" and "2 years" gags. The new TARDIS control room is gorgeous, I grew to accept the RTD Era one, but I was never more than luke warm on it. This one is so beautiful I don't even mind the fact it isn't futuristic-white as tradition dictates! Plus it's got proper roundals! And I really liked the tapping into the Doctor's thought processes with the weird snap shot photography.

On the downside; the plot is a complete retread of Smith and Jones. Timey wimey meeting of the companion, alien coppers chasing a prisoner who is hiding out on earth and using disproportionate force to do so; the Doctor tricking the alien into revealing its species; setting the thing in a hospital. Secondly, if your gonna make porn jokes then you really shouldn't be coy in making Amy a "kissogram". Thirdly the effects were not good (although that may be an issue of high def effects being downscaled to standard def). Fourthly adult Amy was rather bland and Rory was Moffats typical "useless bloke" character (see Coupling for many more examples!). "Have you counted the doors, really counted them", how about Fuck Off I am not buying that at all!

Another problem I have is the introduction of the "arc" with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Which brings me to a more general point. I think that the show needs to shit or get off the pot with respect to Arcs. Bad Wolf was not an arc, it was somewhere between foreshadowing and a story thread. Torchwood was foreshadowing. The lost moon of bloody Poosh was foreshadowing. I'm sorry but you cannot call repeating a buzz word (or special effect) an arc. Babylon 5 had an arc, Buffy and Angel had arcs, Blakes 7 had arcs, Dawson's Creek had arcs. The nearest New Who has come is season 3 with the buildup of Saxon intermingling with the Face of Boe and Human Nature/Watch stuff. Rant Over!

Next up we will have The Beast Below, which long story short was fucking brilliant.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Stirring Up a Hornets Nest

Hornets Nest was billed as a five part series featuring Tom Baker reprising his role as the fourth Doctor. To say the return of Tom to the role was long awaited would be putting it very mildly indeed! The timing of the release was serendipitous falling as it did in a Doctor light year.

Sadly the stories themselves prove to be something of a missed opportunity and it is to be hoped that Tom will have another go soon. The project suffered an early set back with Nick Courtney being too unwell to feature as the brigadier. To be fair Richard Franklin as an older Mike Yates actually works really well as a replacement. But the concern is that Tom was apparently persuaded to reprise the role on the back of Nick Courtney's involvement and these plays may prove to be the last gasp of the fourth Doctor.

The marketing guys at the Beeb really need to have their head examined. These plays were billed as Tom's first performance as the Doctor in a full cast audio. This is misleading. The stories are actually much closer to talking books with the Doctor narrating his past experiences with the Hornets to Mike Yates. There are passages of "full cast audio" where the Doctor is in character as it were, but over the whole of the 5 stories I doubt if they are as much as 50% of the running time. What makes this worse is that there are a few dire performances that weight those sections down. The first part in particular suffers from this problem. The sound design is not a patch on what we have come to expect after years of Big Finish productions. Apparently this was a deliberate choice on the part of the writer. However, the execution of this, again particularly in the first story, is that it is not always readily apparent when the Doctor is "speaking" and when he is "narrating".

The individual stories themselves are a mixed bag. The first one, The Stuff of Nightmares, starts with Mike Yates rather whimsical introduction to events and his reunion with the Doctor. However, things rapidly deteriorate and what we end up with is a 30 minute story dragged out to over 70 minutes with a pretty dire guest performance from the normally reliable Daniel Hill as Percy Noggins.

Things pick up and improve big time for the second story, The Dead Shoes, which sees the Doctor beginning his backward trek through time. This is a terrific little story of the possession of a small time ballerina being possessed. It has some great little set pieces with the Doctor being shrunk and using his scarf as a rescue device. The performances are largely excellent, the only downside being the occasional bit of overemphasis that is often a product of radio plays anyway. If your not a completist this is the one to start off with.

So good was the second story that Margs, obviously decided to simply re-write it for the third outing, The Circus of Doom. Seriously the basic story is essentially the same, an acrobat gets possessed (same shoes too!). We learn a little more about the Hornets, but you could virtually remove this story from the overall series without really noticing at all. Its better than the first story in terms of execution, but actually has even less substance.

A Sting in the Tale is the best story of the Bunch. The performances are perfect all the way through, the sound design seemed better to me, although it may just be that the locations described naturally suited the minimalist production better. The balance between narration and performance is balanced better and there are some real moments of jeopardy and excitement. There is also a terrifically funny and macabre reveal of a Mother Superior which I won't spoil here. The cliffhanger at the end is absolutely brilliant too. This is one that Big Finish would have been proud to put out and is definitely the best of the five.

The concluding part, Hive of Horror is a respectable conclusion. It doesn't hit the heights of A Sting in the Tale and as with most of these plays it feels somewhat padded. Rula Lenska makes a pretty good Queen of the Hive and gives probably the best guest performance of the series.

There is an argument that any return of the fourth Doctor would have been a disappointment and that may well be true. However, it is also true that this return could easily have been much better than it was. The choice of Paul Margs as writer is questionable. He has the zany imagination that is suited to the fourth Doctor and some of the prose in these stories is exceptional. On the other hand he tends to write towards the more frivolous end of the spectrum and has never demonstrated the chops to pull off a five story epic. Frankly Hornets nest is a fantastic trilogy stuck in a bloated five-parter. Bear in mind also that in terms of running length this would have been something in the region of 15 episodes of 70s Who! There is simply not enough story to justify that length! Given that stories were produced by the Beeb it seems strange that they did not use Gareth Roberts the master of the 4th Doctor story and one who has written for the modern series too.

And so we come to the other main point of debate, Tom himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly reaction to his performance has ranged from adoring adulation to "worst performance ever". A common comment on the interwebs is that Tom is basically just playing himself and that its difficult to place his style of performance here within the TV continuity. I am somewhere towards the positive end of the spectrum. Whilst it is true that Tom seems to be playing himself at times (and channelling his Little Britain persona) this to me is not a problem. Tom's performance was always largely informed by his own persona and its only natural that he continued to do so. I don't really give a toss about the continuity aspect of it as such and can happily imaging this as a post logopolis Dark Dimension stylie fourth Doctor. But really this performance would fit in fine between The Deadly Assassin and the Face of Evil (seriously watch the first few minutes of the Face of Evil, the fourth Doctor is off his head even by his own standards!).

So overall what we have is an interesting experiment that is occasionally brilliant but ultimately flawed. Lets hope it doesn't have to bear the weight of being Tom's one and only return to the role of the fourth Doctor.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Shadow in the Glass

Every now and then you get a story in a SF series that is far better than it has any right to be. The Shadow in the Glass follows in the tradition of City of Death or Yesterday's enterprise in being a hastily written fill in by a "staff writers" which ends up being a classic story.

This one takes the generic stock SF/Conspiracy idea of "what if Hitler survived the war" and treats us to a cracking story which twists and turns right up to the very last pages. It reads as part historical, part speculative fiction and part conspiracy thriller.

Featuring a rare combination of the 6th Doctor and the Brigadier together with stand-in companion Claire Aldwich, this is a story which stands head and shoulders above most, if not all, of the 6th Doctor's TV stories. The characterisation of the regulars is spot on and Claire Aldwich is a better companion than we ever got in the JNT era of the show, albeit somewhat reminiscent of House of Card's Mattie Storrin. The Brig gets a decent amount of stuff to do and shows himself to be a cunning old fox (this is a post Battlefield, pre-Shadows of Avalon/Sarah Jane Adventures Brig).

The novel would not feel out of place as a modern Who historical satisfying the "celebrity historical" tag by featuring both Churchill and Hitler and also having a pace more akin to a Modern Who historical that the historicals of the classic series. The use of Hitler as a "historical celebrity" results in some of the best moments in the book with Hitler viewing the Doctor as a trusted ally, much to the Doctor's understandable discomfort.

Top notch stuff!

Saturday, 13 February 2010


The first thing to say is that I love the exclamation mark in the title. Its like an exclamation an Asterisk character would make ("By Zantium!").

Anyway, this is a frustrating read. The plot is fine; your basic Hartnell pure historical. The regulars get split up and the story then has four plot strands following their respective attempts to survive in ancient Rome. Nothing wrong with that, you can't beat a Hartnell historical. The setting also works, with enough jeopardy and unfamiliarity to keep things interesting. As a basic story this would easily have worked in the 60s as a 6 partner, no question.

Unfortunately the use of this template only serves to highlight the features of the book that simply do not work. The Hartnell era is now itself largely historical being over 40 years old. Its a measure of how brilliant the show was in those years that most of it holds up as excellent television to this day whilst most other television from the early 60s has been forgotten entirely. Hell even looking solely at Doctor Who, a story like The Aztecs feels less dated than Black Orchid.

But for all that there are still things the show wouldn't have done back in the 60s. It would not have had the Doctor observing/influencing the early days of the Christian religion. Indeed, you probably wouldn't have found many literary SF authors who would've done a story along those lines. Now it could be argued that the very function of the Past Doctor Adventures is to tell stories that could not have been done on the TV and that would be a valid point. The problem is that the situation isn't developed into a story. The Doctor clearly can't be seen as being a driving force in the creation of Christianity, partly because at this stage the Doctor "can't re-write history" partly because it would still be offensive to a great deal of the readership, but mainly because the idea is terribly crass. He can't be seen to openly dismissive of it for the same reason. So what we get is the Doctor fussing over some translations and making achingly bland PC speeches that say very little at every given opportunity. Seriously, its like Topping thought that the 1st Doctor's only words were the "wanderers in the fourth dimension", "citizen of the universe" and "one day I shall come back" speeches.

Ian and Vicki fare better in terms of their storylines. Ian is actually quite an interesting little political thriller. But both suffer with terrible characterisation. Ian and Barbara are, in reality, basically characters of the 50s. The "swinging 60s" hadn't really happened when they were in the show. It is therefore incredibly jarring to read and Ian who frequently reads like an Alfie/Parklife/Carry On film style of cockney geezer. To be fair its not like he is always out of character, but for at least half of the book he is. So the moments when he isn't out of character only serve to further highlight the many moments when Topping gets it frequently wrong!

Vicki gets an adequate plot, but is characterised like she has spent a couple of years living in Sunnydale rooming with Dawn Summers!

Barbara gets the best of the book. Her story is the strongest and the characterisation is the most authentic, albeit there are the occasional wobbles here and there.

So there you have it; a good story ruined by a hopelessly inaccurate depiction of the regulars.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Your hopeless late Doctor Who reviews

Hornets Nest to follow as I have yet to listen to the final disc. Plenty of stuff to get through in the meantime though.

First up a quick reflection on the RTD Era now that it has ended. Fantastic. Well I did say quick!

More seriously, the Waters of Mars was almost flawless. With the possible exception of the fate of humankind as depicted at the end of season 3, this was one of the grimest stories the TV series has done. Not since the Hartnell era has the show gone to the lengths of showing the cost and pain of the Doctor being unable to interfere in history. The only faults I can find are "Gadget Gadget", WHY would you build in a character to be irritating; it doesn't make it any less irritating that the "character" was obviously intended to be irritating. Anyhow, that was pretty minor, the bigger flaw was that this episode should have taken the place of Planet of the Dead so that we had an episode to deal with the fall-out of the Time Lord victorious, rather than the somewhat glib conclusion we got here. I didn't mind the suicide as such, it was a pretty balsy move for a "family" show to have the hero basically cause the death of the heroine. But something like that was worthy of an episode itself. Still if I was a fellow to give scores it would get at least a 4 out of 5.

Next up we have Dreamland. I wasn't expecting much from this, but its really quite good. It's obviously hugely derivative, even to the point or recycling Murry Gold's music from previous episodes in lieu of a proper score. But its got spectacle and rattles along at a great pace. The animation is a big step up from the Infinite Quest too. The jokes were great too. Basically this is Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks done much better, with more focus (albeit lacking Daleks and Dobbsters).

Then we come to the finale and to be fair things hit the skids a little. The problem is that RTD appears to want to basically redux season 3 in a mere 2 episodes. Season 3 is the absolute peak of the RTD era and probably the strongest TV season in the history of the show so that was always going to be over-ambitious. The other problem is that RTD is, like most of us fanboys, clearly still scarred by the problems of the show in the 80s and 90s. This has been beneficial for the most part because he kept on trying to increase the quality and audience of the show. Despite what some fans would have you believe this is not a bad thing! However it has resulted in RTD constantly trying to employ "bigger" season finales. This worked up to and including season 3. However, you can't really get much bigger than the utopia arc, so season 4 ends with an everything but the Kitchen sink finale and just about gets away with it. That left the problem that there was nowhere left to go for the final end, but RTD was clearly still determined to top season 4 anyway. So what we got was a finale with no real story, but lots of great moments and some terrific performances too and everything from Wilf 4 taps onwards is utterly wonderful.

Anyway Byzantium, Shadow in the Glass and Hornets Nest together with some other stuff will follow shortly.