Monday, 14 May 2012

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

Oh dear God the Parent Agenda is set up to 11 on this one.  Ripping off a Christmas Carol is one thing.  It is arguably obligatory in a series revolving around time travel which has routinely ripped off other shows and literature since at least the Pertwee era.  I am however a sucker for the Chronicles of Narnia, so if you are going to rip that off you at least need to make a good job of it.  This was a largely underwhelming effort from the Moff. 

These Christmas shows are usually weak from a plot point of view but you are not expecting much at Christmas and there is usually something to lift the mundane and pedestrian plots of these episodes.  In the first we had our first glimpse of Tennant and the spectacle of an Alien Invasion in the real modern world (rather than a secluded spot in the home counties).  The next time was built around the involvement of Catherine Tate and the Doctor recovering from Rose.  The Voyage of the Damned repeated the trick on a bigger scale with Kylie.  Then we had the Cybermen.  Then the last story for Ten.

This episode is an exercise in atmosphere at the expense of anything else.  However, the atmosphere is ultimately undermined by the happy ending.  The poignancy of two children’s last magical experience before real life affects them is lost to the Hollywood miracle ending.

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy the episode, I did.  I just can’t imagine reviewing it on anything other than a marathon re-watch all of eleven in order stint.  

The one particular highlight was Claire Skinner’s delightful line in matter-of-fact eccentricity.  Her interactions with the Doctor, particularly her first ones are a complete joy and the way she said the line about having a forest in her head was downright hilarious.

The Wedding of River Song

I will start out with the bottom line on this one.  This was the best season final since (and possibly including) the magnificent trilogy which closed out season 3.  That may not seem like much, but when you think it really encompasses season 4, The End of Time and season 5 it shows how well the Moff has really done here.  I was not too sure that a one episode final would work, but the story benefits from coming in a concentrated burst, particularly as some of the key arc points were resolved already in A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler.  

There were the usual naysayers who thought the whole thing was either too predicatable or a “cop-out”.  Nuts to that I say.  Unless this was going to be the final ever episode; the Doctor was always going to survive somehow.  If you want to look at it in the most cynical fashion there was always a built in cheat factor.  The question was what would the cheat be?  There’s nothing here that wasn’t set up earlier in the season, so it is not as if the Moff pulled a hitherto unknown rabbit out of the hat in the finale.  The only real question was whether the Doctor would actually be his Ganger counterpart or the Tesalector.  The people that “predicted” this were the same people as those who “predicted” who River Song would be.  That is to say those fans who spent ages thinking about it and who “worked it out” at precisely the point the Moff intended them to.  

To me there is nothing wrong with the explanation of the Doctor’s death being predicable in episode 8 given that the mystery was set up in episode 1.   There is a section of the fanbase that just won’t be happy; RTD used to be criticised for Deux et Machina despite the fact that the set ups were always there in ahead of time.  The Moff now gets criticised for making the endings to obvious, but that only because he emphasises the set ups far more that RTD did.

In a similar vein the confirmation of River being the Doctor’s wife is “predictable”.  But the key is surely the execution which is fascinating.  River may be the Doctor’s wife, but she is also his companion’s daughter.  There is the obvious point of whether they are really married, River obviously knows that she exchanged vows with a tesalector, but then the tesalector was clearly speaking the Doctor’s words for him.  Perhaps a more interesting consideration is what are the Doctor’s motives in all this? He goes into the marriage willingly, but there is a sense that his motive is to take responsibility for River rather than any desperate wish to be married to her per se.

The Doctor’s relationship with River is one of the most fraught of his life (if not the most fraught), her entire existence and being is owed in large part to him and her death will also be on his watch.  Does he view the marriage and the relationship itself as being an apology to Amy, Rory and River or even as being akin to granting a dying woman her only wish?

Even ignoring the long running questions arising from the Doctor and River’s relationship, this was still very much a season finale rather than an arc finale.  The Silence are has hardly progressed since the season premier.  The events that happen in the alternate/aborted timeline are perhaps a clue for the Doctor in what is to come.  But it is surely to be expected (and hoped) that Madam Kovorian survives to be a complete bitch another day.  One would assume that the next season will have the Doctor consolidating his position and plotting for the culmination of this arc during the 50th anniversary season.  The Silence themselves were wonderfully creepy in this one, laying dormant and waiting to spring their trap.  The body count emphasises their threat whereas The Impossible Astronaut and The Day of the Moon hinted at it.  By this point I think they are better monster than Moffat’s own Weeping Angels and it seems to me that there is more scope for them to be reused in the future too.  The suggestion is that they are working for someone else, so that perhaps leaves the door open for them to be general guns for hire in future years.

I found this to be the most visually striking episode of the Moffat era.  The mash-up history is constantly interesting and it has a sense of barmy fun that harkens back to the best of the RTD era.  And although we did not get a proper return of the Headless Monks, we did get their cannibalistic skulls by way of a gleefully ghoulish compensation.  

Overall this has been a very strong season indeed.  The Curse of the Black Spot was easily the weakest story for being a lightweight run-around, but it was at least a well-placed palate cleanser between the season openers and The Doctors Wife.  Everything else fell into the very good to downright excellent.  This season had a proper genuine arc for the first time ever rather than a slight running thread dressed up as an arc.  It is a bit too early for me to have a true perspective on whether it has usurped Season 3 as my favourite season of New Who, the highs of season 3 were spectacularly high but the lows were lower.  It is most definitely in the running and far superior overall to last season.

Closing Time

The Lodger was something of a sleeper hit for last series as Gareth Roberts hit of a fun vibe and ultra-quirky Doctor in what was probably the closest we will get for the foreseeable future to a RTD episode in the new era.  I am not sure that the world really needed a sequel but equally I am not complaining that we got one either. 

It’s another episode that I really enjoyed, but one which is a highly derivative curates egg.  There is precious little of anything original in this story.  As with the Lodger the general tone is that of the Doctor being in a sit-com as we get a continuation of the Men Behaving Badly set up, James Corden doing his usual “Smithy” type performance, Lynda Baron, AKA her from Open All Hours (and Enlightenment).  On the Who side of things we have the throwbacks to the Doctor speaking Baby (and most of the same jokes), Matt Smith at his most Troughton-ish and of course the fact that this is a sequel story which also features the Cybermen.

As with The Lodger there is a lot of charm in seeing the Doctor in a blokey friendship with Craig and acting as a surrogate Uncle to Stormageddon.   I would have liked to have seen some Doctor and Sophie moments too.  The Doctor has after all had just as much of an impact on her life as he has had on Craig’s life.  In a way they are the Anti-Ponds with the Doctor’s influence being entirely beneficial to both of them.

As I have previously said on this blog, I am not a particular fan of the Cybermen and the use of them in this story yields predictably mixed results.  I liked the fact that Roberts went with presenting them as 4 would have it, a broken down rabble.  If we can’t have the powerful and calculating Cybermen of the Flood; then I far prefer to have the metal vampires we have here to the bombastic Cybertroopers of Earthshock and recent years.  In the best moments they had a feel of Noir and Hammer Horror about them which was reminiscent of their portrayal in Illegal Alien.

On the downside I think the episode does not build up quiet enough suspense or dread and the Cybermen themselves are rather overshadowed by the Cybermats in the fear stakes and by the Doctor/Craig/Arc stuff in the plot and character stakes.  Worse still is Craig defeating the conversion process because he loves his son.  Once again the Parent agenda raises its head, this time in a most puke inducing way.  I know that this can be explained away on the basis that the Cybermen’s conversion equipment was probably not working properly, but it would have been nice if the episode had stated that outright.  I find it difficult to believe that not one person in the history of Cyberconversion had previously thought about their children!

The highlights of the episode were the two quiet moments.  I loved the little scene of the Doctor seeing Amy and Rory living their lives, that was really beautifully done and surprisingly poignant given that they had only both left about half an hour before hand in screen time!  The second was Craig telling the Doctor that he should give himself a break.  In terms of what we see in the TV episodes 11 is easily the most guilt-ridden Doctor and The Moff seems more than happy to explore this aspect of the Doctor.  This Doctor is also the most manipulative seen since the show returned to our screens.  What we are seeing is a lot of the traits of New Adventures being used to good effect on screen. 

The New Adventures Doctor never really got that moment of forgiveness and understanding from a friend, although he came close with Benny.  It was nice for 11 to get that moment of a friend pointing out how much worse things would be without the Doctor’s interference and meddling.  

Last but not least was the final coda and the second abduction of River Song which was totally tacked on but still stupidly exciting.  They missed a trick here though as it would have been an even better as an Epilogue to Let’s Kill Hitler.

This episode does not have enough focus to be a great episode but it was certainly a good one.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The God Complex

The recurring theme of this season (apart from aren’t your mum  and dad great) has been that of the Doctor’s fallibility.  It remains open to question what the Doctor’s fall at Demon’s Run really is/was/will be, but here we have the third in a trilogy of falls as once again the Doctor, through no fault of his own, is put in a position where he gets things badly wrong.  The first part of the trilogy was the loss of Melody, the second was the loss of Older Amy and here we have the Doctor severing his friendship with the Ponds after once again having made a mistake and after being confronted with his own personal failings in a pretty brutal way. For Rory and The Doctor this is practically “The Girl Who Waited part 2”. 

This is also an episode in which the differences between the Doctors is indirectly highlighted. 11 never really had control of the situation.  Rita clearly didn’t believe that he could save her, nor for that matter did Gibbis.  Rory was actively expecting people to start dying!  I think 10 would’ve had an easier time of this episode.  Of course people would still have died and people would’ve turned on him in the end (see Voyage of the Damned and Midnight) but crucially they would have believed in 10 in the first place.  11 was just too weird and too unable to function  on a human level to ever inspire that level of confidence.

The Doctor’s ultimate confession of his vanity to Amy is handled in a genuinely sensitive way, far less brutally than the similar confession to Ace in Fenric.  The abrupt goodbye is similarly well handled; reminiscent of Tegan’s departure, but more mutual and with a much fonder overtone.  In many ways this episode is arguably the redemption of the Doctor as he finally takes responsibility for the unintentional havoc he has wrought over Amy’s life (and to a lesser extent Rory).  The Doctor has realised that he did not have a good enough answer to Rory’s concerns over Amy’s safety and that the best answer was to get Amy out of harm’s way.  He does so in a way that gives Amy and Rory a real chance to live and enjoy a real life and marriage without Amy pining for him or a life in the TARDIS.

It is a shame that the culmination of the Doctor/Rory/Amy arc overshadows the other merits of the episode.  This is by far the strongest contribution Whithouse has made to the series to date.  The guest cast is excellent.  The Conspiracy Geek is perhaps a little one note, but Rita is the latest in an honourable line of “characters who could have been companions”.  Gibbis is a real joy, the kind of character who would sit comfortably in Douglas Adams’ Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.  The Doctor is suitably repelled by his sly and aggressive cowardice and the character is never played entirely for laughs.  There is a low key menace to him  throughout.  

The energetic direction was impressive.  Initially I found it a little gimmicky, but as the episode progressed the gimmicky flashes became simply a flourish of the overall style.  This is another small way in which we see the show striving to tell stories in a new and invigorating way.  It would be over-egging the pudding to have used this style in say The Impossible Astronaut, but it elevates this more straightforward tale.  Night Terrors could certainly have done with this sort of verve.

Finally, we have the minotaur creature itself.  Although it is not always wholly convincing it is far more convincingly realised than its closest comparator, the Nimon.  In the end it is the intelligence and feeling underneath the costume that is the really interesting feature here and Whitehouse script and Smith’s performance as the Doctor subtly provide a great deal of character depth and sympathy for the creature. 

All in all this is another notable and highly effective episode in season full of such strong stories.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Girl Who Waited

Now this is much more like it.  A massive improvement on McRae’s (and RTD’s) reintroduction of the Cybermen in season 2.  If the last episode was a Missing Adventure, this one is a New Adventure, with a fallible and morally ambiguous Doctor once again acting in a highly questionable and manipulative way in relation to his companions.  Some won’t like that and some won’t like another timey-wimey plot, but this was a proper and necessary examination of our three regulars.

Amy and Rory once again suffer because the Doctor gets things wrong.  He doesn’t intend to do so, but that is scarce consolation to Older Amy or Rory.  Rory has to choose between the Women he loves and the woman he loves and Amy and Amy have to decide which of them is to die.  All the time the Doctor is lying to them all.  This is pretty dark and heady stuff for a mainstream Saturday evening audience and it speaks volumes that the show is able and willing to take the risk of going into this territory.  The New Adventures swam these waters regularly, but its arguable that the TV series has not presented us with such a difficult position for the regulars since the ‘60s.

Older Amy is beautifully judged by Tom McRae and Karen Gillan.  She is “the same but different” in just the same way that we are all the same but different to our younger selves.  Her refusal to assist her younger self and sacrifice herself is completely in keeping with the selfish streak that runs through Young Amy, but with an extra helping of bitterness and scepticism.  This is an Amy that must have some understanding of Rory’s endless waiting and it is no coincidence that she naturally falls back into her relationship with Rory in spite of her own best efforts not to do so.  Tellingly, she does not fall back into the relationship with the Doctor.  It is open to interpretation as to whether she actually believed that the Doctor could find a way of the two Amy’s to co-exist or if she ultimately decided to sacrifice herself for the sake of Rory.

Rory’s understated decency in this episode is a wonderful.  You could see him settling down with Older Amy in an alternative ending.  He cares about whether she is okay and he cares about the prospect of loosing a life with Amy, but it is obvious that he is not about to dump Amy because she has piled on the years.  His condemnation of the Doctor is pitched perfectly too.  The Doctor spends his life having to make awful decisions; it is an inevitable part of his lifestyle and consequence of his own life history.  Rory sees this because his is in the TARDIS for Amy, not for the adventure.  He has every right to call the Doctor to account on this, particularly as he had already raised the risk Amy is subjected to in Vampire of Venice.  The Doctor is found profoundly wanting for a good reply to Rory’s indignation.

All of which brings us to the Doctor himself.  The Eleventh Doctor shown here harkens back not to Troughton but to Hartnell and McCoy at their most callously alien.  It is evident from the get go that the Doctor is aware that a choice will have to be made between Older Amy and Younger Amy.  It seems equally clear that the Doctor decides very quickly that the survivor must be Younger Amy.  The Doctor’s actions throughout the rest of the episode are calculated to manipulate the Amys and Rory to achieving this end.   On the one hand this is a logical and “necessary” decision to make.  Both cannot survive, one must live to the exclusion of the other.  Older Amy’s life appears to have been pretty awful and traumatic.  Younger Amy can have a happier, safer life with Rory.  The survival of the Younger Amy would correct the Doctor’s mistake also.  

Against all of the moral issue that Older Amy is the original time line.  Younger Amy’s life requires a re-writing of the time line with the effect that Older Amy will effectively die.  Older Amy clearly sees enough worth in her life to want to carry on living.  In no way can it therefore be said the Doctor has made the “right” decision.  There is some sense of the Doctor realising this himself in attempting to “give” Rory the choice, but for the feeling that in doing so he is attempting to relieve himself of responsibility for the choice.  

Looking at the more superficially aspects of the episode for a “cheap” “Doctor-lite” show, this has some fantastic design work.  The Handbots are as effective in their own way and environments are the arty robots in The Robots of Death.  Some of the CG was really beautiful, albeit reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland film.

The only thing I can really hold against the episode is the same problem as The Girl in the Fireplace. It is not really clear how the multiple linked time streams should really work and they fail in precisely the way needed to ensure the story takes place.  But some dodgy technobabble is easily forgiven when it allows for the innovation of a such an excellent tragedy.

Night Terrors (short)

The Parent Agenda returns once more in this episode, although strangely not for Amy and Rory who are remarkably chipper.  There is frustratingly little else to say about this episode.  It’s not seriously flawed like the Curse of the Black Spot.  It is a good and very competent slice of Who.  The problem is that it shows no ambition at all and is utterly predictable. Not once do you get the feeling of Gatiss going outside of his comfort zone or trying to innovate.  A certain amount was made of the fact that this was his first story set in the present.  But it may as well have been set at the dawn of time for all the difference it would really have made to the plot.  The frustrating thing is that Gatiss has shown he is an innovative writer elsewhere (not least of which is Sherlock, his other collaboration with the Moff).

This is basically the first example of New Who applying the ethos of the Missing Adventures/PDAs.  Gatiss re-writes (and to be fair improves) Fear Her and recycles a bunch of classic New Who moments.  So what we are left with is something that is a derivative and moody attempt to “scare the kids” with better production values that Fear Her (but a less cool monster).  There’s nothing wrong with that and I really enjoyed the Peg Doll stuff, which was an instant classic moment for the ages, but there’s nothing else here that stands out in the memory. 

This whole approach of this episode also reminds me of the ultra-“Trad” who books put out to counterbalance the “Rad” books put out during Stephen Cole’s editorship.  It’s practically screaming “look this is a nice simple standalone for you all”. 

For all its supposed flaws, I still think the Idiots Lantern is the high watermark of Gatiss’ New Who writing.

Let’s Kill Hitler

And now for something completely different.  The Space Opera stylings of A Good Man Goes to War are immediately replaced by a story that feels part 30s knock about romantic comedy and part Graham Williams with a little bit of The Beezer thrown in for good measure.

This seems to be treated as being the conclusion of a two part story but it’s anything but that.  A Good Man Goes to War was clearly a season finale and Let’s Kill Hitler is clearly a season premier, but there is a disconnect.  The resolution to the events of Let’s Kill Hitler are so roundabout that it feels as though  Let’s Kill Hitler is largely concerned with ignoring A Good Man Goes to War’s long term implication in favour of resolving the River Song story arc and the cliffhanger to Day of the Moon. 

The Wedding of River Song would prove to be the real conclusion (or at least continuation) of A Good Man Goes to War.  This is effectively a timey-wimey prequel to A Good Man Goes to War.As much as I loved the Epic Space Opera of A Good Man Goes to War, I was just as happy with the frankly bizarre comedy on show here.  Pretty much everything is pitched towards comedy, but as with the best comedies there is some real heart and drama underneath the jokes and great lines (“The Third Reich is a bit rubbish” bit was priceless).

The backstory of Amy, Rory and Mels is terrific fun.  Amy’s assumption that Rory was gay was pretty funny.  Rory really is LONG suffering.  Mel’s attitude to life frankly makes River Song and the Doctor look well adjusted.  I got a real kick out of the fact that Mel’s intervention effectively guarantees her own conception.  I also loved the fact that she actively sought out her mother and father.  You do get the sense that she wanted to be brought up by her own parents after a fashion.  

Against the fun of that is the real problem of Amy and Rory’s attitude to all of this.   I can buy into River feeling like she had a childhood and that she had her parents, but I don’t buy Amy and Rory feeling like they had a daughter.  I know the Moff took and tried to present the view that they were effectively River’s parents.  But they did not know that at the time.  There is a whole hell of a difference between keeping your friends on the straight and narrow and bringing up a daughter.  

As funny as the ret-conned backstory is, the whole situation doesn’t bear any close examination anyway.  Amy might not have thought to ask about Mel’s parents (or even her home) because of the crack in her bedroom wall, but Rory?  Fundamentally, what we have here is a very clever, funny and entertaining idea with no sense of any real emotional truth to it.  Just as the Amy and Rory relationship fell flat last season, so the pregnancy storyline falls flat in this one.  There is never any real feeling that Amy and Rory are truly parents.  My feeling is that the Moff was a little too ambitious and clever for his own good here and we should at least have had the chance to see Amy and Rory realise and come to terms with their impending parenthood and the loss of that parenthood.  The result is an inversion of the flaws of the RTD era, with emotion being sacrificed for Plot.  In general I prefer the RTD approach, but I will let the Moff off here as this season has delivered in spades in terms of presenting and paying off several complex story arcs.  This ambition is to be applauded and I have yet to see an arc heavy show that hasn’t had to make a compromise or dropped the ball somewhere along the line.  

I found the final reveal of River Song’s identity and origins to be particularly satisfying.  There are levels here to be explored with the Doctor’s role in all of this being questionable.  We have seen the Doctor manipulate his companions before, sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally.  What we now have is a Doctor that has essentially played God with a whole family history. 

This seems to be mostly accidental and mostly to the benefit of Amy and Rory (Amy gets her parent’s back, Amy and Rory marry each other, Amy and Rory have a child), but it’s clear that River is a very messed up person who only exist because of the Doctor.  It seems that her only purpose in life is to be obsessed with the Doctor, firstly as an assassin, then as a companion for the Doctor.  Then there’s the fact that she essentially commits suicide to save the Doctor on two separate occasions.  Again, there is nothing to suggest that the Doctor wants any of this.  But he benefits from it.  What is uncertain is just how much of the Doctor’s behaviour and actions in relation to River are his taking advantage of the situation and how much are his taking responsibility for the situation.  We see in this episode the guilt he feels about Rose, Martha and Donna; how much does he now feel about Amy, Rory and River in particular? 

The final element of this episode worthy of consideration (since Hitler was in this context rightfully relegated to a cupboard) is the Tesalecta and its crew.  The Moff was clearly channelling RTD for this one as we see the Numbskulls recycled into a space-time traveling, vigilante, war crimes tribunal.  The sets looked a little cheap, but the idea was great fun and generally well executed.  

One final niggle. “I always dress for the occasion”  was cute in the TVM.  The Doctor doing the same here was irritating in view of the minutes to live stuff (and yes I know it was all part of his plan, but even so).

Overall, this episode was terrific fun which delivered emphatically on the story arc front. 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A Good Man Goes to War (long)

One style of storytelling the “New Who” has generally avoided is that of the Epic Space Opera that was a feature of B5, DS9 and to a lesser extent StarGate.  It’s generally and probably fairly considered, that this is a style which alienates mainstream audiences.  It is a mark of the success of New Who and the complex timey-wimey plotting of the Moff, that we finally get just such a story here.  Of course, being Who there is still plenty of humour too, but then to be fair it not as if B5, DS9 and StarGate were lacking in humour either.  

There are perhaps some key differences between Who’s version of Space Opera and the approach of the US shows.  Doctor Who is home-grown and never as serious as those shows could sometimes be, Doctor Who is much more individualistic (man in a box v armies and diplomats), Doctor Who has built up to this level of complexity and has earned both good will and interest from the audience by keeping its “Arcs” small and simple.  There are some notable commonalities too.  Much like the Trek shows, there is something of the Western about this story (Doctor gathers together a posse to deliver his own brand of vengeance/justice on the bad guys). But all of that being said, this is an episode which requires much from the casual audience and which would never have been attempted in the more straightforward RTD era, RTD at least felt the need to make his arc heavy episodes discrete season finales.

What we have here is almost certainly the most arc-centric episode that the show has ever done and it is clearly not a resolution point in any real sense, rather it is a crescendo.  Everything the Moff has been in charge of since Silence in the Library builds to this point and one gets the sense that everything to come will follow directly from this point.   The big one is of course the birth of Melody Pond/River Song and the resolution of the mystery (or most of the mystery) as to “who is River Song”.  

Predictably, everyone and his uncle was on GallyBase claiming that they had guessed who River simply ages ago and that the Moff had built the thing up too much.  I am calling bullshit on that.  Nobody after Silence in the Library was saying “oh yeah, River’s the daughter of the next two companions”.  The predictions were “Doctor’s (Time Traveller’s) Wife” (kinda correct, but much more to it than that), “Romana (or other favoured time lady)”, “Donna Noble”, “Bernice Summerfield”, “future female Doctor”.  At no point in season 5 were people saying “Amy and Rory’s daughter”.  Amy’s and Rory’s daughter only became a possibility after Day of the Moon which is exactly when we were supposed to start suspecting it (hence regenerating child scene).  So essentially this only becomes “predictable” some 5 episodes before the reveal and some 3 years after the mystery first began.  More on this once I get to “Let’s Kill Hitler”.

The resolution of the River-arc (such as it is) also serves as the resolution of the Amy’s pregnancy arc too.  This is somewhat less elegantly for the fact that the Moff has not entirely earned this one.  We never really get to see Amy or Rory come to understand that Amy is pregnant and what that will mean for them.  We don’t get a sense of Amy bonding with the child or even being aware that she has a child.  Rory certainly isn’t aware at all.  Amy’s awareness is up for question, but the implication is that her consciousness was with the Doctor and Rory whilst her body was with Kovorian.  The result is that the pregnancy falls somewhat flat and seems to serve purely as a function of the overall story arcs.  The upshot of this is that for the rest of the season Amy and Rory seem to be oddly sanguine about the whole affair.  Amy and Rory’s parenthood this season is as unaffecting as their relationship with each other last season.  This is a real shame as both characters work much better this season as individuals and a couple.  Moffat’s time-wimey, clever plotting in Let’s Kill Hitler just barely works as a way of seeping the matter under the carpet but there really needed to be another episode in between to deal with what the Ponds have been through.

Moffatt’s attempt to bring what we might call the Legend of the Doctor to the forefront works much better precisely because he has earned it.  This is something that the Moff has been building up to and threading through the TV stories ever since Silence in the Library and prior to that in the brilliant short story Continuity Errors.  This season in particular has seen the subtle revelation of the eleventh Doctor as a scheming manipulator in the mould of his seventh persona.  To be fair this has been shown in the nicest possible light, but the difference is purely presentational.  All the traits of the Cartmel/New Adventures era are present here; the Doctor manipulating his enemies and companions, the Doctor knowing more than he is letting on; the Doctor actively seeking confrontation with his enemies; the Doctor relying on an extending group of friends to execute the more violent aspects of his plan; the Doctor humiliating his opponents with words; the Doctor’s plan mostly succeeding but backfiring to an extent too; the Doctor being indirectly responsible for putting his friends through hell!  

The reality is that the Doctor should be (and is) a powerful individual.  He should be able to manipulate his enemies and he should be pre-planning his confrontations.  Anything less than that makes the character appear to be, at worst, weak and foolish.  If that makes him an uncomfortable figure to identify with that is all to the good.  The Doctor should not always behave in way that is human or comfortable.   I am firmly in agreement with the view that the Doctor is first and foremost an alien who wants to travel through time and space, rather than a “hero” who sets out to right the wrongs of the universe. 

The bottom line is that the Doctor has always oscillated between being the scheming, mysterious, powerful and all-knowing alien force and the irresponsible mad man-child in a box sight-seeing his way through the universe who desperately improvises his way out of scrapes.  Even the care free tenth Doctor had his Racnos, Family of Blood and Time Lord Victorious moments.  A change of companions, big bads or a regeneration is all it would take to restore the character to the happily shambolic days of the 8th Doctor and Fitz or Charlie. 

A more justifiable criticism is that there is little here to suggest the great fall prophesised/remembered by River Song.  That may yet prove to be something that plays out over the rest of the arc but at things stand it is hard to imagine that the events of this story will eat away at the Doctor in the same was as say the events of Earthshock did.
Aside from the momentous developments in the on-going narrative, we also have an actual the (proper) introduction of a cast of quiet brilliant supporting characters.  Off the top of my head I am struggling to think of a better ensemble of characters since the show retuned to our screens.  

Madam Kovorian is a quite brilliant creation, equal parts Servalan and Travis, completely malicious and immediately hateable.   I just hope she survives her death at Amy’s hands in the alternate reality of The Wedding of River Song.  Quiet why she hates the Doctor so, who she is working for and how the silence are involved all remain something of a mystery, but I really think that Moffatt has come up with something here.  She could be for Matt what the Deglado Master or Davros were for Jon and Tom.  Her Headless Monk henchmen were utterly glorious and I hope that we have not seen the last of them either, a pure Science Fantasy monster but one which effortlessly and stylishly re-invents the role the Cybermen have had in the show ever since The Invasion.

Against them, in the Doctor’s posse we have the reinvention of the Robert Holmes double act as a kinky Victorian Ape/Reptile lesbian couple with Sherlock Holmes/Dexter overtones.  Lorna Bucket works beautifully as the tragic reflection of Amy and to a lesser extent the smug-timey-wimey flirtations of the River/Doctor relationship.  Dorium also felt like a throwback to the wheeler-dealers so beloved by Robert Holmes.  Strax sees the series finally point and laugh at the Sontarans.  I’m sorry but this was long overdue, the Sontarans are not a particularly interesting big bad to me and playing them for laughs is at least entertaining to me.   

Finally, Amy does not like Jelly Babies and the Moff has clearly decided to prove that there IS in fact a grey area between foetuses and Jelly Babies (one for the Coupling fans).

Monday, 6 February 2012

Being Rebooted

The excellent and treasurable Being Human returned to our screens last night with what was almost certainly the most important episode in the history of the show.

Let’s rewind for a moment. Series three ended with the deaths of Mitchell and the (Final?) death of Herrick (and McNair the episode before that) and a hero shot of George, Nina and Annie about to start the fight against the coming Vampire take-over of Wyndham and the Old Ones. A mere hour later and we learn that Nina and Wyndham are dead and we see the death of George.

The death's of Nina and Wyndham were unsatisfactory for having taken place off screen (not the first time the show has resorted to this stunt). It is understandable that with George dying in the episode, there was not really room to dwell on these other deaths. But ideally we needed an episode devoted to those events before moving onto George's passing and the reboot. As it is what we get is a show making lemonade out of lemons. 

There's plenty of lemonade being made elsewhere. George “tricking” his body into transforming occurs solely to allow for his death to take place. The skins of prophecy, as interpreted by him off The Fast Show (This week, I shall be mostly eating babies!) and Harry Potter, are crowbarred into the series mythos inelegantly to say the least. The end hints at Splodge killing herself, which in turn suggests that we have yet to see the last of George and, together with our new ghost, that Annie's days are numbered (Ghost going nuclear to end the Old Ones?).

The fact that there is now only Annie left from the series one cast brings home the reality that the flat share fantasy comedy of series one is now long gone. Being Human has always chopped and changed styles and pushed forward into ever darkening territory. With each series the pressure on the core trio intensified. But the core and the show held firm against everything.

The bloodbath of the last three episodes has removed the core and the question must be whether the show can survive and thrive where our trio of misfits were unable to do so. In some ways it may prove to be to the shows benefit. A series with Annie, George and Nina would always have had a Mitchell shaped hole in it. A series with Annie, Tom and Hal may prove to be simply be a regeneration.

The early indications of last night’s episode (and the on-line prequels) are reasonably positive. Although what we got was something of a bloodbath, with hints of a bleak future to come, there is also promise of a lighter tone than that of series three. Tom and Hal both look to be less angst ridden than George and Mitchell. It is also worth remembering that the “supernaturals behaving badly” vibe of series one really did exist only for that season. Ever since then we have been heading into darker and darker territory with Mitchell’s “Box Tunnel 20” underground massacre being a point of no return for the show.

Annie remains in place as the compassionate heart of the show. She remains a person who is prone to fucking up when the heat is on, but I am optimistic that she will be taking the lead from now on and getting her shit together. We have seen in the past that she can be a powerful force and it really is time for that to become a more prominent feature of her character. Basically, she now needs to be the leader of the gang.

Next week promises to be the “real” season premier and it will be interesting to see whether the new crew can manage to equal the interplay of the old. Epic Vampire Wars are all very well and good, but are frankly ten a penny these days. Being Human's real draw was the friendship between supernatural outcasts. Doctor Who, Torchwood and Hustle have all managed to make major cast changes work with aplomb, let's hope Being Human can joint their ranks.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People

You've got to feel a little sorry for Matthew Graham. He got lumbered with the “can you do us a replacement script in 5 minutes and no budget” story in season 2, which to this day is unfairly underrated (seriously check the DWM poll of polls), especially since it had the awesome scribble monster.

He finally gets another crack at it, a two parter no less, only he has to follow the Gaiman episode and, if that wasn't hard enough, the masterpiece that was Season 3 of Ashes to Ashes. He was never going to come out of this one with anything other than faint praise unless he delivered an out and all-time classic.

There is to compound the problem the fact that the story was immediately overshadowed by the Cliffhanger to A Good Man Goes to War. There is though much to enjoy in the run-up to that Cliffhanger. This is reminiscent of the two part “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” in that it is a rare example of New Who plundering the tropes of Old Who. Specifically this is a structured very mush as a “base under siege” and “rebels v colonist” type of story that permeated the show from the Troughton to Baker years. There's also more than a hint of the Cartmel era in the “right-on politics” and manipulative Doctor. This is a double edged sword because as enjoyable as these kisses to the past are, they also make the story feel highly derivative particularly in comparison to the stories that precede and follow it.

It is to Graham's credit that he doesn't play to any great degree on “who is the good one” and to the extent that he does its in respect of the Doctor, with the answer being “both”. My favourite aspect of the episode is the relationship between Jennifer and Rory. Jennifer story is ultimately sacrificed for a cheap “monster” finish, but I liked the steady build in her resentment to the humans. Rory is shown once again to be highly compassionate and thoughtful and doesn't Amy resent it! The writing for Amy and Rory has been much better this seasons. They feel much more fully formed and consistent and more of a couple. Amy's characterisation is almost a throwback to last season in this story, but now it feels like we are seeing an aspect of her personality rather than the ONLY aspect of her personality.

I could have done without the “hey isn't your dad great” subplot. Unfortunately it became running trope of this season to the point where its now clear that the Moff really wants his kids to know how much he loves them. There's nothing wrong with that of course except it became far too repetitive. We now have “the parent agenda!”.

All of which brings us to Amy's pregnancy and the finale/Cliffhanger. Now before I go any further there is the issue of the Doctor killing Amy's ganger. Not surprisingly this caused some consternation with plenty of people saying that it wasn't necessary. It actually was. The Ganger was ultimately an unwitting spy and would have died as soon as the Doctor rescued Amy anyway. On top of that there was no guarantee that Kovorian and the silence would have kept the original Amy (and therefore the Ganger) alive once Amy gave birth.

What is clear is the Doctor obviously had all of this in mind prior to the beginning of the episode. So we basically have the Doctor reverting to the “master of chess on a thousand boards” persona of his seventh incarnation. Events are manipulated from the very beginning by the Doctor. The whole story is an excuse for the Doctor to work out what is going on with Amy and how the Ganger's work. He must know that this was a turning point for the use of Gangers (this is the exact turning point for where they are recognised as having “human rights” in Earth's history). So he is also taking the opportunity to right a wrong and teach and manipulate his companions at the same time. Somewhere Ace and Benny are saying “join the club”!

Good stuff, but better was to come.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Your hopelessly late Doctor Who Season 6 round-up – The Doctor's Wife.

Never let it be said that I am not topical!

Firstly, a housekeeping point. I've turned on the log-in for leaving messages and feedback. I know its a ball-ache having to log in. But against that is the simple fact that it is impossible for me to tell one “anonymous” reply from another and I'd like to know who I am replying too! I can't be arsed with moderation though, so say what you like. If I don't like it I'll simply respect your opinion or tell you to eff-off or ignore you.

Let me continue by saying The Doctor's Wife left me with a problem. My normal “what I like” v “What I don't like” v “general comment” review was never going to be any good. I loved the episode and had little that was unique to say. Most of what could be said about the episode had been said by someone within 24 hours of broadcast. The “what I liked” would basically have consisted of me quoting about 80% of the script verbatim. The “what I didn't like” came down to the slight disappointment caused by the nondescript TARDIS corridors and the use of the RTD era control room rather than the Five Doctors to Survival era one. That was it, and even that was offset by the cool TARDIS grave yard, makeshift control room and the bliss of seeing proper old fashioned roundalls again.

It was only when I finished reading Michael Moorcock's “Coming of the Terraphiles” that I recognised a different way to consider the episode.

One thing that the episode absolutely isn't is a “Game Changer”. I think perhaps that everyone has realised that by now, but this was a common opinion at the time. The list of Game Changing stories is not a long one. By my reckoning the only true game changers are: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, “The Tenth Planet”, “The War Games”, “The Deadly Assassin” and “Rose” all of which reverberate throughout the following era's of the show.

The Doctor's Wife is actually an anniversary story in disguise. We come away feeling that we have learnt so much more than we actually have. The notion of the TARDIS as the Doctor's wife has been spoken of as being surprising. In reality it is completely obvious and has been explored and hinted at in the books, comics and audio's long before now. Similarly, the notion of the TARDIS being alive and in some sense sentient has been hinted at practically from An Unearthly Child onwards. That the TARDIS “stole” the Doctor is a new bit of history, but one which can be easily and logically inferred from the previous episodes. Was it really all that surprising to know that the TARDIS wants to see the universe too or that the Doctor was the only Time Lord made enough to go with her? Along the same lines, The Corsair's sex changing regenerations simply confirms what has long been speculated and again is a logical extension of a process known to allow for changing species (see Destiny of the Daleks, The TV Movie and iirc The Runaway Bride).

What the Doctor's Wife actually does is to consolidate and re-iterate the existing mythology of the show across all media and to flesh out long held fan theories. It is not so much an episode of the show as an episode about the show. It is does for “New Who” what the Five Doctors did for “classic who” albeit in the guise of a darker fairy tale. The hook here is that instead of seeing the Doctor interacting with himself, we finally see him interacting with the TARDIS in a way that is utterly appropriate and completely beautiful. Neither story does adds as much to the mythos as you first think, but both use the mythos to celebrate the show and ultimately confirm that the show is and always will be about a mad alien who stole a space time machine in order to travel the universe.

Neil Gaiman has always been one of the writers on the average Who fan's wishlist. He achieved much with this episode. It works as an accessible story in its own right far better than one could reasonable expect, it is a wonderful affirmation of the series and it somehow managed to meet or satisfy expectations even though we really weren't sure what to expect. Finally, it manages to feel like a typical Neil Gaiman story whilst also feeling like a Era Who story. The switch from series 5 to 6 actually helps out in that respect. Series 5 was an awkward hybrid of the Moff's Burton/Spielberg/Fairy Tale vibe and the RTD ear. Series 6 has definitely lost the RTD era tropes.

Michael Moorcock's Terraphiles is by contrast a case of a writer failing to meet expectations and putting a story out at just the wrong time. I'm not one for synopsis so the linkage for that is here: Note the cover its stunning.

Moorcock is another writer who has always had a significant following amongst Who fans and who also seemed to be a natural fit for a novel. The announcement that he was to write the first major Who hardback was greeted with almost universal praise and eager expectation. However, many of those voicing an opinion were simply conservative Who snobs who wanted “an established SF author” as opposed to a “fan writer”. Moorcock is obviously an SF powerhouse, but that very fact should have tipped people off that he was unlikely to be satisfied emulating some nebulous concept of “serious” or “proper” Who (Which almost always boils down to Dicks/Letts and Hichcliffe/Holmes). Those who are familiar with Moorcock's work also knew and realised that he writes in different flavours and voices, a literary David Bowie.

Terraphiles is very far from being “serious” who. It's so whimsical that it makes The Unicorn and the Wasp look like Cracker. It's basically a PG Woodhouse pastiche and has proven to be Marmite to the Who fanbase. It doesn't fit with the general feel of the Moffat era. The Doctor is generally well captured and feels like Matt Smith more and more as the book goes on. The characterisation of Amy is more hit an miss, but that's not surprising given the inconsistent writing for the character throughout season 5. A character needs to live and breath consistently on the show before a novelist can have any hope of capturing them.

Terraphiles is a story that would never go out on prime time BBC1. It could only ever be a novel and that's part of the appeal for me, especially some passages of quite beautiful prose which would only amount to some bog standard CGI on the telly. The books, audios and comics should do things that can't get on the TV, that's their greatest advantage. What is jarring is that this is the clash of Epic Cosmic Scale with twee Bertie Wooster – boys own story telling. This is not an entirely new approach to Who, Dave Stone has done much the same thing, albeit on a much less publicised scale. That the Beeb chose to Launch the “Guest Author hardback line” with what is essentially a Mash-Up is either a terrible false start or a confident and bold mission statement.

Ultimately, I am not sure anyone's expectations were really met. The book is too many things at once to be a classic Who story or a classic Moorcock story. But I don't accept that it is a failure in its own right either. I read it is four sittings and enjoyed all four sittings. On the other hand those four sittings were spread over several months so I can't claim the book is easy to pick up, only that once you have you will quickly get lost in it.

I started out by saying that Terraphiles was badly timed. It may have faired better if it had not been saddled with the expectation of being the first Guest Author hardback. It would have faired best if released in 1979. The Fourth Doctor and Roman flitting around space with a bunch of literary pastiches in search of an artifact which holds the universe in balance between chaos and order is just So Graham Williams.