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.