Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Max Warp [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]


This is fun.

Doctor Who takes a satirical hammer to Top Gear whilst in the middle of an interplanetary Agatha Christie story. The Doctor gets to play Hercule Poirot and Lucie Miller gets to be Doctor Watson - or should that be Captain Hastings - and we all have a rather enjoyable time of it.

It's got a fantastic cast starting with Graeme Garden as Geoffrey Vantage aka His Royal Highness Jeremy Clarkson. The satire is pretty broad but Garden does a good job bringing out Vantage's 'act', which comedian Stewart Lee has described quite accurately as 'having outrageous views for money'. Whether Clarks...sorry Vantage believes everything he says is a moot point.

Then James Fleet gets to be O'Reilly, Vantage's main abuse point on the 'Max Warp' show. It's basically the Big Finish version of James May with added tediousness. Fleet's got a niche playing slightly stupid, posh blokes (see Four Weddings and a Funeral  or The Vicar of Dibley) and O'Reilly's almost one of those, but not quite. He's more of a train spotter than that.

You can guess what's next: Timbo 'The Ferret' aka Richard Hammond aka the one who has the accident played by Duncan James or - to give him his correct name - Duncan James (of Blue). He's pretty good actually, even sounding a bit too much like Richard Hammond for his own good. Apparently he's also the voice of President Varlon's 'spinbot', which you'd never guess so hurrah for Duncan James (of Blue) I say.

President Varlon, who is caught up in the whole mess and is trying very hard not to let her terrible poll statistics from leading to another destructive war between The Kith and the...er...the...other people. Varlon's played with a certain sharp charisma by Samantha Hughes, whilst the Kith - with their bizarre West Country accents (lots of planets have a Bristol as well as a North apparently)* - are played by Nick Brimble. The thing I like about the Kith is that we're given hints of what they might look like without (obviously) ever being able to see them.

O and Katarina Olsson turns up again as Judd Gilbride, the Security Officer. She's got an amazing way with accents and voices does Olsson. It's impossible to tell that it is her based on any previous appearance.

It is the danger of a new war that is the key reason why a simple murder mystery might lead to something far nastier and as a result the Doctor's investigation is essential. Fortunately - and in the nickest of times - he solves the case, gets to do the great Detectives summing up scene with all the possible suspects (although at breakneck speed. We don't have that much time) and in the end it turns out that...ah...spoilers.

Add Paul McGann (who makes the Doctor's joy in this whole thing pretty obvious) and Sheridan Smith doing a grand job (as well as having a ball by the sounds of things) and you've got a entertaining and amusing story, even if it isn't the most subtle of satires.

If you've not heard a Big Finish story before, this might not be a bad one to start off with. It's not dark, it's not arc and it's pretty self-contained. It is however a little atypical by being so obviously comedic, even if it does have a sliver of a dark lining in the talk of war, death and more war.

Enjoy.

*I like the idea of a story where all the aliens speak with different British regional accents for no apparent reason. Maybe it is the TARDIS having fun. This story comes close: we've got posh, we've got Northern and we've got South-Western, North-Eastern and Scottish all vying with each other for our attention.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

New Earth


I was dreading re-watching this. I wasn't that impressed with it on original transmission and the last time I'd tried to watch it I got so annoyed with it after about five minutes - somewhere around the moment when the Doctor says "We had chips" - that I had to turn it off.

This time round it wasn't quite so bad.

All that Rose and Doctor lying about in the grass gazing and smiling at each other is still disgustingly twee for me. It's also the first time in my entire Doctor Who watching life where I felt excluded from the fun. I felt less like a viewer, more like a gooseberry. I'm going to sound like a miserable old git here (probably because I am one) but for me Doctor Who should never, ever be about watching two pretty people fluttering their eyelashes at each other. There are plenty of other television programmes for that.

Fortunately though we are swiftly moved on to the adventure proper, which is nothing if not entertaining. It's ending does however make almost no sense but as we're dealing with a story that involves Cat Nun Nurses (which would make for incredibly niche porn) it seems a bit remiss to complain about the lack of scientific rigour implied in the ending of this story. It's not even a deus ex machine, more a made up load of nonsense.

The thing is though - and I've found this with a lot of New Doctor Who - it entertaining stuff. It's only afterwards that you find yourself going..."Hang on...what about...?" It's like that feeling I get every time I have a Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is sort of nice whilst I'm eating it but afterwards you know you've made a terrible mistake and that whatever it is you've just eaten it bares only a distant relationship to nourishment. That's how I feel about a handful of New Doctor Who stories.

There's still some good stuff in here. Billie Piper in particular is excellent and funny as hell when playing the 'occupied' Rose. It's genuinely quite amusing and mildly frisky for Doctor Who with all those jokes about curves. But it works.

I'm still not sure about David Tennant at this point and I'm not sure how much of that is because of the performance and how much is the writing. I'm also aware that it is early days yet and every actor playing the Doctor takes time to settle in. I think it is the combination of arrogance, which teeters far too close to smugness, and the 'hugging Messiah' tendency that seems to have popped up. He's at his best though in the quieter moments, his chat with The Face of Boe for example and in the last five minutes or so when he does something rather lovely for someone who might not really deserve it.

So this isn't particularly great but entertaining enough. I suppose I shouldn't be too snarky as if nothing else Doctor Who has to be entertaining. It's the dull ones I can't forgive but thankfully they're a few and far between. Well, the dull ones and the truly idiotic ones. This isn't quite that but as I said for the first few minutes it teeters dangerously towards making me feel excluded, which ain't good.

And its still early for Tennant so I'm not going to get too bothered about things. Let's see how the rest of the season pans out.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dead London [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]



The second season of 8th Doctor and Lucie Miller adventures by Big Finish begins with this delightful little story. It begins with the Doctor in court, arrested for parking the TARDIS on a double-yellow line, and Lucie off shopping somewhere. Simple enough to deal with. Except this is Doctor Who, so nothing is simple.
This isn't a stable London. This is a timey-wimey jumpy London. 21st century one moment, 17th century the next.

In the end, of course, it is even more complicated than that. The final twist in this production is the only thing that I didn't like. It shook my suspension of disbelief by being just a little bit too silly but I shall say no more for fear of spoilering you all.

The jump from time zone to time zone and the profusion of strange - and occasionally dangerous - characters makes for a certain confusion that helps build up the story's rather fine atmosphere. Oddly reminding me of the scenes within the Matrix during the Ultimate Foe segment of the Trial of a Time Lord with a dash of the War Games thrown in for good measure.

Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith settle back into their respective roles with aplomb with their banter much less acidic than it was in Season One. Now that the Doctor has accepted Lucie on board voluntarily, rather than having her foisted upon him by Time Lords with an agenda, he's much more his usual friendly self. His concern for Lucie throughout is rather lovely.

The Doctor palls up with Spring-heeled Sophie, a funambulist and thief with dreams of heroism. Clare Buckfield does an excellent job of bringing Sophie to life and in another time and place you could see her joining up with the Doctor. There's also a nice turn from Katarina Olsson as Yellow Beryl, a 1917 Munitions worker. Olsson has an amazing ability to sound completely different in almost every story she plays for Big Finish. She was totally unrecognisable here, even though I'd listened to her in the morning playing The Headhunter in 'Human Resources'. It's rather impressive.

The villain of the piece is a reptilian gentleman called Sepulchre (and his avatars). Played by Rupert Vanssitart (General Asquith in the Eccleston story, 'Aliens of London-World War Three') who also does some fine voice work. He has a fairly recognisable voice does Mr. Vanssitart and although we are meant to know it is him at each stage he changes it enough to make it interesting. It's a good bit of stuff.

Fundamentally it suffers from the similar issues to the first Lucie Miller season in that the tone and jeopardy are rather light but when it is as fun as this it doesn't really matter.

My quibble is all about the ending and why the Doctor just leaves everyone where they are as opposed to returning things to normal. It seems a little cold. He doesn't even offer to take Sophie away. It just doens't feel quite right.

Tis but a quibble though. This is an enjoyable story and well worth a listen should you get the chance.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Adventures in Black & White & Colour & Sound


49 Years ago tomorrow Doctor Who was first broadcast on BBC television. That's a long time ago. In a galaxy far...sorry.

Seriously though 49 years. That's older than me and I feel really old.

By the time I was born in 1971 Doctor Who was already doing pretty well longevity wise for a television series. By the time I have my first memories of Doctor Who in 1976 the Doctor had reached his fourth incarnation, Tom Baker.

When I did my O-Levels and A-Levels he'd become Sylvester McCoy. He was still Sylvester McCoy when I went to University but the Doctor slipped off of our television screens to become the star of Virgin's New Adventure novels. Those novels kept the Doctor alive and some of them were astonishing. One of them, Paul Cornell's magnificent 'Love and War', help keep my faith in the Doctor.

I started to go back to the older stories then too. Watching fuzzy video copies of Australian television repeats of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Listening to almost inaudible twelfth generation C-90s of Hartnell and Troughton missing episodes. Buying and reading the Target novelisations. Collecting. Gathering. Building up my knowledge of Doctor Who's past and gathering myths.

In 1996 The Doctor was back on television. For one night only. Paul McGann was there and then gone. Still there were still more books and the ever faithful, ever wonderful Doctor Who Magazine whose comic strip is home to some of the Doctor's most interesting adventures.

Then came Big Finish. Their audio ranges breathed life back into the old Doctors: Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Their reputations (dented by the BBC's lack of faith in the series) restored. Paul McGann, still the current holder of the Doctorship, joined the Big Finish family too.

Until finally in 2005 the BBC took The Doctor back and Christopher Eccleston became the Ninth incarnation and The Doctor was back in his rightful place: Saturday evenings, BBC1. It was still the programme all the family could watch together and love. Now in 2012 we're on the Eleventh Doctor, the wonderful Matt Smith. The Doctor is back and all is right in the world.

I'm nearly 42 years old and my parents still think Doctor Who is something I'm going to grow out of. My friends - the non-Doctor Who ones obviously - can't understand why I spend so much of my time watching, writing and talking about Doctor Who.

I used to get annoyed at people who mocked me for liking a 'children's programme'. Now I don't care. The fact that Doctor Who was always made by the BBC's drama department and not the Children's department is just that, a fact. I like Doctor Who. I think I always will.

It has been a part of my life - to some degree or another - for as long as I can remember. It's there in my cloudy, half-remembered bits first memories and it is still there now. When I'm feeling down, it cheers me up. I know some of this is clearly nostalgia. There's something immensely comforting to me in the pre-season 18 Tom Baker version of the Doctor Who theme tune, even now.

The sad truth is Doctor Who probably made me the man I am today.

Single. (Boom, Boom)

I do think the fundamentals of my belief system - and my overly romantic view of the world - were taken from the Doctor. The fact that I still believe that one person, standing up for what they believe in against ridiculous odds can change the world is as much to do with watching Doctor Who as it is reading about Gandhi and Martin Luther-King. The fact that not everything was to be taken at face value; that might wasn't always right; that wit was a weapon as sharp as any sword and that knowledge mattered. These things I learnt first from the Doctor. Other people - real people - backed this up.

Doctor Who was the gateway drug into other science-fiction, other television series and through contact with other fans into whole different areas of culture: books, music, art and everything. It made me want to write Doctor Who stories, so I wrote and kept writing. Even if most of it was trash it was wanting to be part of Doctor Who that started me writing. (That and trying to impress a rather attractive school teacher but let's not go there).

I've made - and continue to make - great friends through Doctor Who and we can have in-depth conversations about the most esoteric Doctor Who related questions and we make up our own stories and theories. We write and some of my friends Podcast (which isn't as disgusting as it sounds).

As Nick Hornby wrote about Arsenal in Fever Pitch, "Arsenal has come to me too much to me..." Sometimes I think this about Doctor Who. Sometimes I think that I could have spent my time doing 'better' things but these moments pass quickly by.

I will always spend too much time talking about, writing about, watching and listening to Doctor Who. It is almost part of my DNA. It is certainly part of my identity, for good or for bad. But when I look at what I've got from 'just a television programme' in terms of friendships, ideas, entertainment, laughter, silliness, knowledge and happiness I think it has been worth it.

So here's to 49 years and beyond.



Human Resources [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]



With 'Human Resources' the first season of Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller adventures comes to a brilliant close. It is a two part story, which explains Lucie Miller's story in more detail and ties up a lot of loose ends (although one is left dangling rather nicely).

It's not just a good Doctor Who story but it is funny too: the Office meets Doctor Who (intentionally or not) so kudos for writer Eddie Robinson for effectively combining the two. It's not easily done as the humour often over-whelms the non-humorous, especially as (some) actors have a tendency to over-play the comic. Here both the performances and the writing are balanced perfectly.

The story starts with Lucie Miller about to take up the job she was being interviewed for before she met the Doctor at Hulbert Logistics in Telford, although this doesn't particularly make sense to Lucie. The Headhunter  (Katarina Olsson) who we've met briefly in every Lucie Miller story so far finally tracked her down and bought her back.

Hulbert Logistics looks like a bog standard small British business but there's some odd things happening. The Doctor, tracks Lucie down, and blags himself a job at Hulbert Logistics. Sitting in on a strategy meeting The Doctor realises that there's more to Hulbert Logistics than meets the eye.

To cut a long story short Hulbert Logistics is cover for a rather bizarre intergalactic mercenary outfit headed by Mr. Hulbert himself (Roy Marsden) using pilfered alien technology and, as Lucie discovers when she gets fired, alongside Karen (Louise Fullerton) they aren't in Telford anymore.

The Doctor, as is his wont, decides to bring Hulbert's rather unpleasent plans to an end but miscalculates when it turns out that the people that Hulbert's latest project is designed to eliminate are [SPOILER] the Cybermen. It is a miscalculation on the Doctor's part and the second episode is spent trying to untangle the mess he's caused (and which the Time Lords (both CIA and non-CIA) have made far more complicated). Lucie Miller was pulled from time as the result of a cock-up. They should have picked up Karen instead. There's Time Lord technological jiggery-pokery afoot too. It's basically a gigantic Time Lord mess. The result, ironically, of Time Lord office politics (effectively).

We get to meet Straxus (Nickolas Grace, who is well-liked in my manor for his excellent portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham in 'Robin of Sherwood') the Time Lord charged with sorting the mess out, without showing the Time Lord's hand.

It all ends rather interestingly, especially in the case of the Headhunter and Karen. Hulbert ignores the Doctor's rather charming warning about working with the Cybermen and joins a long line of Cyberallies that don't quite get what they want out of the relationship. Yes, Tobias Vaughan I'm looking at you.

This is well worth a listen if you get the chance. The performances are universally excellent. McGann is charmingly devious and clever in this story and it is nice to see him go head-to-head with Cybermen, Hulbert and his fellow Time Lords.

I've grown to like Lucie Miller a little more with each passing story and Sheridan Smith does a fine job with both the comic and serious aspects of the part but her comic timing in particular is superb.

This whole season is worth listening to and as an introduction to Big Finish is probably ideal. I've complained a bit about the lack of jeopardy and darkness but I think that might not be a bad thing if you're coming new to audio stories. The season is pretty self-contained. It is also topped and tailed with two excellent two part stories featuring the Doctor's most classic of foes (both of which have a bit of a twist). There's a nice thread of humour through it too, which is good.

I do think - much as I love the darker and deeper stories - that Doctor Who without humour isn't really Doctor Who. Real life isn't one thing or the other. It's not always tragic, it's not always funny. You have both entwined together so it should be with Doctor Who. The key, as in all things, is moderation and balance.

In that sense this story is perfect.

Recommended.

By me.

For what that's worth.



Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Christmas Invasion



So that was the Christmas Invasion that was.

It seems odd watching it in November. It seems odd watching David Tennant again after all this time. I don't think I've re-watched much of his stuff since it was originally shown. I wouldn't read too much into that. I don't tend to re-watch New Doctor Who as much as I do the old stuff. I admit I am more comfortable with Classic Doctor Who, which is partly due to nostalgia and partly because I like a good cliffhanger.

I hadn't watched this since it was originally broadcast so this was almost like watching it afresh.

It is certainly entertaining. The one thing New Doctor Who seems to avoid is tedium, perhaps because there is no need for the padding that used to set in with Classic Who in or around episode three (depending on what story you were watching.) New Who is never dull.

But there was something I didn't quite like about this story and I think it is summed up by the final scenes of the Doctor and Rose flirting whilst the ashes of the dead fall all around them. Yes, perhaps I'm taking this a bit too seriously but it seems both un-Doctorish, even if it is batted away by a little aside from Rose. It's all very well changing the dynamic of Doctor and companion but really there's a time and a place for everything. The dynamic between the Doctor and Rose is changing. There's lots of moody glances (in both directions) and with the new Doctor being much more 'busy' than the old it already feels a little exclusive. Poor old Mickey gets to be a shoulder for Rose to cry on until the Doctor is up and running again. Then she's ready to dump them all and head off into the stars.

Rose has moved on from her boring housing estate in London. There's a whole universe out there to explore and she's got her handsome Time Lord to show her around. Why should she be bothered about Mickey or Jackie. It's understandable but it is also bloody selfish.

Perhaps I'm being unfair on the basis of a single Christmas special episode, especially one where Tennant doesn't really get into the swing of things until very late. After all he spends most of this episode asleep recovering from his regeneration. Popping up in the final act giving it large and talking. And talking. So much talking and so fast. It's like someone's recorded his dialogue on too fast a speed. He's funny though, I'll give him that and, as when he walks away from the falling Sycorax with the words 'No Second Chances', pretty good at the dark stuff. On the basis of the little we get to see of Tennant's Doctor perhaps his incarnation is going to be Tigger to Eccleston's Eyeore (if that's not a bit unfair on Eccleston).

It's impossible to make a judgement on Tennant based on this single episode. He's got potential, I'll give him that and he can clearly act, which isn't really a surprise.

The Sycorax and their blood science are potentially rather interesting but are soon dropped in to the sub-category of 'Shouty'. There are hints at an interesting culture but in the end someone's got to be the bad guys and after a couple of gratuitous deaths, in order to establish their bad guy credentials properly.

More interesting is Harriet Jones. Penelope Wilton is back and doing a fine job. However Harriet's choices are perhaps more interesting than anyone elses. Her decision to destroy the Sycorax ship, even though it is leaving angers the Doctor. He calls humans 'monsters', which is a rather changed tune than usual and decides to bring Harriet Jones's government down on a whim. It reminded me of the Doctor's reaction to the Brigadier blowing up the Silurian caves in 'The Silurians'. Harriet's arguments actually make sense (even if they aren't pleasant.)  The Doctor ignores them and takes it upon himself to end her government. I'm not sure that's a particularly Doctor-ish thing to do but then he's just in the midst of a regeneration so who knows how those synapses are working. There should have been another way.

The 'pilot fish' killer Santas and Christmas Tree seems a tad tacked on but it gives us a threat to the comatose Doctor, which helps pass the time.

Fundamentally the jury is out. There are things I didn't like about this story, which may or may not be continuing problems moving forward but there are things I did like. What I am looking forward to is seeing how this all pans out.

Monday, November 19, 2012

No More Lies [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]


I adored this.

It started off as one thing before twisting into something different.

A Doctor Who romp entwined with an story about love and letting go.

I was listening to this on the tube and I have to admit that Paul Sutton's script had me blinking away tears at the end. [Yes, despite being an Englishman of a certain age I'm afraid I'm easily led to tears. I can't help it. I don't know whether I was overdosed with sentimentality as a child or I'm just pre-disposed to a good cry but the lamest things can get set me off. And when, like this, they aren't lame at all I can't help myself.]

There's an excellent cast here to backstop the good writing,

Nigel Havers is Nick Zimmerman. I've never been the biggest fan of Nigel Havers. He always struck me as a little one note - 'The Chancer': a bounder and a cad - but that might be less his fault than the fault of those doing the casting. After all if you've got a niche, why not exploit it. He's excellent here. Taking a character and shaping him. His character having a lot more grey shading to him. Zimmerman can be misjudged, which makes him very dangerous indeed.

Havers is ably supported by Julia McKenzie (as Rachel) who not only acts her part with some style but also gets to do a bit of singing. In Hungarian. It's a rather sad sounding tune. In fact the music in this story really helps with the atmosphere. It's lovely work from McKenzie who gets her best scenes with Sheridan Smith and Nigel Havers late into the story when everything starts to come together properly.

There's also a nice turn from Tom Chadbon (formerly of 'City of Death' and 'Mysterious Planet') as Gordon, the wounded, sorry for himself CID officer dragged into the chaos.

Add some timey-wimey stuff, Vortisaurs (the scene where the Doctor and Gordon capture one and decide to call her Margaret is both funny and a nice little throwback to the 8th Doctor's adventures with Charley) and the vortex* dwelling, time-eating Tar-Madowk and you've got a fine Doctor Who romp with the bonus of real emotional punch.

My only quibble being that what was going on seemed and who was behind things seemed pretty obvious to me but I really am quibbling there.

McGann and Smith are up to their usual standards. I was particularly amused by the Doctor blaming Lucie for a mistake that was entirely his fault for ignoring her in the first place. Their banter is slightly - just slightly - more affectionate than it was at the beginning with less acidity.

This isn't a dark story. This isn't packed full of jeopardy for our TARDIS crew until right at the end when Lucie is [SPOILER].

In fact it isn't too dissimilar to Phobos in that sense but somehow it works much, much better. The emotion feels real and you feel involved. Willing on our heroes as the adventure rolls along. That perhaps is the real difference between this and Phobos. Phobos made the action seem rather cold - sorry - and distant.

Good stuff.


*The Big Finish vortex seems to teem with life compared with the television version.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bad Wolf-The Parting of the Ways



So that was the Christoper Eccleston era that was. Thirteen episodes. Gone in a flash. In a way it seems worse that Paul McGann, who at least has had a long healthy Doctor Who existence in book and audio form. Eccleston's era just ended.

I'm not going to review the era as a whole here. For that you can read Starburst Magazine, which will feature my Eccleston era overview in the next two issues. (Look at me cross-selling ahoy. Cross selling. See what I did...sorry. I'll stop now.)

Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways bring things to an epic climax. The Bad Wolf loose end is tied up - even if it does seem a rather perfunctory kind of story arc); Captain Jack is killed and then undeaded and abandoned; the Daleks return and are destroyed - again; Rose is sent to safety; is horrible to Mickey and then comes riding to the rescue. It's all rather wonderful in its way and Eccleston's regeneration is nicely done.

There are some great moments throughout. The realisation that The Doctor, Captain Jack and Rose have been dropped into separate future versions of various British television game shows and the gradual creeping realisation that they're fatal (Something I've often hoped for in reality television. If that makes me evil, then I'm evil.) The Doctor teams up with the 'nice' Lynda Moss (Jo Joyner) but Rose gets caught up on the weakest link with the devious and rather cowardly Roderick (Patterson Joseph). If there's one thing that Doctor Who doesn't like, it is a coward. Captain Jack meanwhile gets naked, flirty and produces a gun from a rather uncomfortable location.

There's a lot of characters but most of them are doomed to die. It's one of those stories and like a war film we get a scattered hint of personality here and there to give their deaths a bit more emotional oomph. It is Lynda's death. Lynda had looked like a potential companion. The Doctor had promised to get her out of there. But she dies. She's nice. And she dies.  It's a sign that when faced with the Daleks the Doctor might win but he - and his friends - always have to pay a price.

The build up to the cliffhanger at the end of Episode One is exceptional and Eccleston's response to the Dalek threat is beautifully Doctor-ish (even if he does sort of steal a line from Absalom Daak, Dalek Killer) but I remember the first time I watched this that my little rush of geek excitement when Rose comes too and you hear that familiar heart-beat hum of a Dalek spacecraft. Decades of Doctor Who watching in a special sound. How wonderful is that? I almost cheered.

There's Rose's brilliant speech in the chip shop about having learnt a better way of life from the Doctor - and knowingly pointing out to Mickey that he knows this too. It's the one thing I've learnt from the Doctor too. Sometimes you need to make a stand. To say no. Even if it is only you doing it. The Doctor's demonstrated it on countless occasions but freshly to Rose. Her frustration is great and I like Billie Piper throughout this. Her slightly jealous look at the Doctor's friendliness with Lynda. Her refusal to give up. It's good stuff and genuinely emotional too: when she talks to her Mum about meeting her Dad.

Eccleston himself is on excellent form throughout. I still think he does the darker stuff better than the more humorous but the final 'fantastic' speech is...well...fantastic, even if Rose is as confused as hell about what's actually about to happen. The regeneration is rather impressively explosive too (although there's more where that comes from).

John Barrowman gets to do good Captain Jack and I like the Doctor telling him off for flirting as soon as he says anything to anyone and I also like the fact that Captain Jack's farewell kiss to Rose is followed, almost unremarked by his farewell kiss to the Doctor. There's no fanfare, no 'ooh look epic gay moment', it is a matter of fact goodbye kiss. More grist for the gay agenda mill but to me it felt like the 'right' thing for Captain Jack at that point. I don't think a manly hug would have been quite the thing.

The Daleks are pretty bog standard here with the exception of the insane Emperor Dalek who seems to believe his own hype, even if he sounds great. They're not able to be as cunning as they often are. This time they get just to be ruthless, almost unstoppable killing machines. But they've never looked more epic. Hundreds of saucers, thousands of Daleks. This is the kind of stuff we wanted from a new series. No piddling around in single ships over Bedfordshire. Here's hundreds of the buggers off to destroy the Earth in the name of an insane Emperor. They're going to create hell and call it paradise. It's is, to be all childishly enthusiastic - brilliant. Or should that be fantastic.

The questions as to whether the get out is a bit too convenient - it is (almost) literally a ghost in the machine - is a moot point. It works. RTD had signposted the power of the TARDIS's 'heart' in Boom Town, which makes this feel a little more legitimate.

So I really enjoyed these episodes. Bad Wolf nicely ratcheted up the tension and has a great cliffhanger whilst The Parting of the Ways gives us some genuinely emotional moments. A fantastic end to the Eccleston era but to me it felt too soon. Perhaps though this was the perfect arc for the post-Time War Doctor (and heaven knows how many off screen adventures they've had).

Bye bye Christoper Eccleston. Hello David Tennant.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Phobos [8th Doctor + Lucie Miller]


Phobos is a nice little story. It's well-acted, well-written and a perfectly presentable piece of Doctor Who audio.

There you have it.

In the shell of a nut.

I am beginning to feel that these stories - being made for the (then) BBC Radio 7 audience - have had something Big Finish sucked out of them. That makes perfect sense. I don't necessarily think BBC Radio 7 would have been prepared for some of the heavier, more experimental stuff that Big Finish produced back in the days of the Divergent Universe.

But I'm pining for a bit of something indefinable that's been missing from all the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller stories so far. Some genuine sense of menace and in a story that is about fear it seems remiss to be almost utterly devoid of terror.

The story unrolls neatly enough. There's a red herring here, a dash of emotion there and occasionally people we don't know at all die. It is bereft of almost any real heart, except for a few moments when Kai (Timothy West) and The Doctor have their discussion about who is worthy to light a funeral pyre. It's so tidy. Even the hideous monster from another universe gets dispatch with a whimper not a bang,

Yes, there's a nice bit of stuff involving the Doctor's fear: what he's seen, what he will see and what he might be capable of. It also makes Lucie Miller much more aware that the Doctor isn't quite the person she's assumed he is. That she's under-estimated what he might be capable of herself. It's nicely played by Sheridan Smith.

But no I'm underwhelmed.

It isn't the acting. Everyone does a lovely job with the lines they get to say: from McGann, through Sheriden Smith to the exceptional Timothy West (whose voice is just made for audio) and the well-pitched Nerys Hughes. All the minor parts too are nicely played, including another sneaky appearance by Paul McGann's son.

It's not the words. They tell a nice, simple story that gets wrapped up a bit too quickly, which - if I may steal a moment - is the real curse of writing Doctor Who stories. It must be tough to pull all the various plot strings together, defeat a seemingly terrifying & unbeatable monster and wrap everything up. The loose ends and plot holes must be a bugger. The sudden desire to pull a rabbit out of a hat or a deus out of the machina must be unbearable. The ending of this is serviceable enough considering the lack of time that a one part, fifty minute story gives you. That whooshing sound isn't a deadline this time. It's the sound of the rapidly approaching episode ending and...cue music!

Perhaps that's what I'm missing. I've been concentrating on these 8th Doctor stories and Christopher Eccleston so there's hardly a cliffhanger to be seen. Am I cliffhanger junkie? Do I need the constant jeopardy of four part (and beyond) stories to satisfy my hunger for fear. Have I become the FEAR MONSTER?

Maybe I have.

Maybe that's what I've missed.

Whatever it is 'Phobos' seems to be to be missing something but that's not to say it isn't worth a listen. It is. It's Doctor Who. What's not to like?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Boom Town



Boom Town is an almost light-hearted piece of Doctor Who fluff featuring the return of Slitheen in disguise Margaret Blaine (Annette Badland).

It doesn't really have much of a proper plot and what is there makes no sense. Even allowing for the parochial natural of Welsh politics via Westminster would any regional Mayor be able to build a whacking great nuclear power station in the middle of Cardiff in the process of which dozens of officials die in bizarre and mysterious circumstances? No, of course not. But it doesn't matter. This story isn't about the silly plot. It's about getting RTD's ducks in a row so that we can get down to the delights of the season finale.

So we get Bad Wolf emphasised, then shrugged off; we get Mickey to remind us of Rose's home and past; we get a glimpse into the 'heart of the TARDIS' and awestruck talk of its mysterious powers and we get some light-hearted borderline smug banter that seems purely designed to isolate poor Mickey.

Like one of those dull fruit based starters you used to get in restaurants it looks nice but hardly seems worth the effort.

It's not that I don't like Boom Town, I just can't get too bothered about it.

It's not without good moments: Annette Badland is excellent throughout, especially when having her last wish dinner with the Doctor. Cunningly trying all her weapons to escape the Doctor's grasp. Some of her digs, about the Doctor not wanting to look back at what he's done seem to strike home (and are to be repeated much, much later by other nastier villains). Indeed it isn't often that we see the Doctor confronted with cogent arguments about his lifestyle. The scene where Margaret exercises her mercy, influenced by...something is also rather nice.

Unfortunately the 'egg reversion' at the end provides the Doctor with a nice escape from the moral dilemmas that Margaret had placed him in. In the end all that talk was just talk.

Throughout these scenes and others Eccleston is faultlessly brilliant. He's got the switch of emotions in a flick of the eyes down pat now. The classic example being the 'Bad Wolf' speech: he's noticed, builds it up & the throws it away. In moments. It's rather lovely.

Mickey's realisation, as he turns to find Rose rushing off towards the chaos to find the Doctor, is also nicely played: "It's always the Doctor." Also rather good is Rose's, "He deserves better." Poor old John Barrowman - words you won't see often in this blog - gets shunted off into the TARDIS for most of the story, getting to do some pretty work with lights.

But I'm dragging out what should be a short review of a nice but easily forgotten story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Empty Child-The Doctor Dances


Retrospectively these two episodes carry a Doctor Who weight that didn't seem to be there at the time. Here's Captain Jack (John Barrowman - as if you need telling) with his 51st century sexuality and here's Steven Moffat with his low casualty, mother knows best obsession bringing the spooky back to Doctor Who.

None of that mattered much then. What did matter was that this was two excellent episodes of New Doctor Who. Comparable in hiding behind the sofa creepiness with the original series for the first time (at least to me). You could imagine this as a Classic series story, almost. There'd be no use of dance as a metaphor for sex though. O no. No hanky panky in the TARDIS back in ye olden days. Here we get flirting and omnisexual 51st century time agents who might just fancy both anyone (and anything).

Some people seemed to go frothing at the mouth about Captain Jack with raging talk about 'the gay agenda'. Personally I think it is the 21st century and anyone who thinks that Doctor Who can be made here and now whilst ignoring the existence of gay people is a bit out of touch. Besides which just because John Barrowman is gay doesn't mean Captain Jack is. He's from the 51st century heterosexual and homosexual are just meaningless labels by that point. After all - the implication is - mankind is out there amongst the stars shagging everything that moves (which actually echoes a dig made by Cassandra all the way back in 'The End of the World' about purity).

Anyway to me it's an excuse for some flirtation and amusement. Don't take it too seriously. He says. Taking it too seriously.

And digressing.

This is almost the first story in the New Doctor Who where the jeopardy feels real and an excellent cliffhanger adds to that. It's nice to end on a cliffhanger unsure of what awaits our heroes, even if we know that they will escape (as they always must). I like the Doctor's method of escape too as well as the disturbing scene with the tape recorder that occurs almost immediately afterwards. I think we all notice that the tape has stopped before the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack and waiting for them to notice adds to the tension.

Who'd have thought a little child in a gas mask could have been so scary?

The advantage of the two episodes of course is  that it gives us time to breathe. To get to know characters and their mysteries. Captain Jack's introduction would have been much less effective - in my opinion - if he'd been slapped into a single 45 minute run around. Here we get a chance to get to know him (or think we know him) before the main action begins. It's all rather lovely.

We also get to know - and wonder about - Nancy (the excellent Florance Hoath) before the long slow reveal about the truth of her relationship with the Little Boy. She is, of course, a mother, which is something of a Moffat trope (as we'll see) but speaking as someone who Nan had her first child out of wedlock in the 1940s Nancy's desire to cover it up is perfectly true to the time and the place.

I liked the scenes in the hospital as the Doctor was gradually shown, first by Doctor Constantine (the mighty Richard Wilson) and then by actual events what had happened. The Doctor's dawning realisation of what's happening is well played and sign-posted. There's also a lovely little throwaway moment when Doctor Constantine says, "I started off this war as a father and a grandfather. Now I'm neither." To which the Doctor responds, quietly, "I know the feeling" (or words to those effects). The first admission in the New Series (I think) of the Doctor's parenthood (and grandparenthood: hello Susan).

Christopher Eccleston is simply brilliant in this. He covers all the bases well: comic and straight. So he's out of dancing practice. It'll come back to him in the end.

Billie Piper's good but I'm not sure I like her immediate fall for Captain Jack. It lessens her a tad I think. It's like 'ooh gorgeous man. Swoon'. But the dialogue is sharp and funny enough to gloss over this and later shrug it off altogether.

And what of John Barrowman as Captain Jack. He's good. He's not the world's greatest actor but he doesn't need to be in this. His timing is pretty good comedy wise (the scene between him and Christopher Eccleston over sonic stuff is funny but I like how the Doctor gets to use a Banana to win the overall argument.) He's still new here too. No baggage yet.

It's a refrain of mine that it is hard - if not impossible - to go back to old Doctor Who episodes 'fresh'. I've seen them all. I know what happens to them. It's easy as a result to see foreshadowing where there might not be any or to read too much into a single scene, especially with a character like Captain Jack. Or the Doctor himself.

Anyway at the end of this story everybody lives and the Doctor's joy in that jolts him out of his non-dancing phase. This story is the turning point in the Ninth Doctor's journey from survivor to 'The Doctor'. Whether dancing is just dancing (and sometimes a dance is just a dance) or not by the end of this story a weight seems to have lifted off of the Doctor, finally.

And perhaps it takes both Rose and Captain Jack to do that?


Father's Day


Father's Day is a story that illustrates the perils of time travel, especially when you don't know what you're doing. More importantly though it is about the courage of the ordinary man. An ordinary man who might not amount to much, who looks like a nobody but who has the courage to do the right thing, even if that right thing is dying.

It is a twisted version of "It's A Wonderful Life". 

In truth the Doctor should have known better. Not only does he take back Rose once. He does it twice and the second time around she can't help but interfere. Who couldn't or wouldn't if presented with a similar choice. Except, as the Doctor points out, it isn't as easy as that. Time travel brings a certain level of responsibility. Rose thinks he's jealous but I think he's just disappointed and - perhaps - feeling a little used. The dangerous consequences of Rose's actions aren't the real cause of the Doctor's anger - though it is part of it. The real reason for the Doctor's fury is to do with trust.

In the end it isn't the Doctor that saves the day either. It's Rose's Dad, Pete. He realises what needs to be done. He realises that Doctor knew too but was trying to find a way to help Rose. Pete also realises that he's dead in Rose's 'real' world. When she tells him what a reliable Dad he is, he knows that isn't him. It's a lovely moment. 

Paul Cornell does a great job of making you think there's an escape coming that'll bring about a lovely, happy ending and then snatching it away. Cornell also makes ordinary life seem magnificent. Not just with Pete Tyler's ordinariness or Jackie Tyler bringing up Rose on her own but in the little speech the Doctor makes to the Bride and Groom about how he's been everywhere but that he'll never have a life like they will. It's nicely played by Eccleston, who is on fine form throughout but really this story belongs to three people: Shaun Dingwell as Peter Tyler, Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler and Billie Piper as Rose.

All three are excellent bringing real emotional punch to their roles, especially right at the end. It's unusually emotional for Doctor Who. Unusually real. The performances back that up to the extent that the Doctor Who monster elements of the story just don't feel right. 

One of the reasons Doctor Who is such a brilliant series is that it can - within the family entertainment remit - do whatever kind of story it wants to. There is no such thing as 'typical' Doctor Who. Each Doctor, each companion, each season and each story can be as different as the next. This is an unusual story for Doctor Who touching on the ramifications of time travel in a way the series doesn't often do. 

My problem with it, despite all the praise, is that making the Doctor quite as peripheral to the final events doesn't feel quite right. I know this is a story about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The power of one person to make a difference and it seems churlish to complain but on re-watching this it didn't quite have the impact it had on me the first time I saw it. There feels like there's something missing. Something not quite right. 

I'll be honest and say that I'm not sure what that missing thing is. It's certainly not the performances, which as I've said are superb. It's something else. One day I might be able to put my quibbling in to words. In the meantime I should say that this was as enjoyable as hell and moving too so perhaps my doubts are unimportant. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Long Game


This turned out to be better than I remembered. Perhaps its themes have an extra resonance in this post-Leveson world. Now we are more clearly aware of the manipulation of the press for the benefit of a selected few. Perhaps it is because inside a relatively straightforward example of The Doctor helping to bring down an Empire there's a genuine philosophical question about whether someone can truly be a slave if they don't know who their true Masters are? And whether humanity has been encouraged to ask less questions of its information providers.

In a world of instant Twitter storms, Fact Check and a teeming blogosphere we no longer need get our information from the hands of the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe or "Rupert" as he's better known. Who controls the information, controls the world. To paraphrase - or steal - from George Orwell, "he who controls the past, controls the present." The subtle manipulation of information to create false images that become reality. Perception becomes more important than reality. A future of unquestioning sheep guided by a red hot blob and his amoral Editor (played with rather magnificent sharpness by Simon Pegg).

It's a horrible picture of a possible future. Fortunately the Doctor, Rose and Adam are here to save the day. Except Adam turns out to be a greedy, weedy waste of space. Too clever for his own good and doomed - following the failure of his cunning plan - to a life of quiet desperation. With a hole in his forehead. Adam's used as a contrast to Rose. Not everyone has it in them to be a companion. There are few Roses but a lot of Adams. I fear I'd turn out to be an Adam. Much as I wish it were otherwise.

We also have Cathica (Christina Adams) to contrast with Adam. She's a journalist with ambitions there on Satellite 5 but her encounter with the Doctor - and forgive me the following expression - opens her mind. It is Cathica whose final curiosity saves the day, not the Doctor. He's just given her a nudge. Sown a few seeds of doubt and uncertainty. He's a cunning bugger when he wants to be is our Doctor.

And Eccleston's excellent in this. I'd say this is the most comfortable he's looked in the part so far. He manages the jokey stuff better and the serious stuff exceptionally. You actually genuinely fear for Adam when the Doctor comes stomping towards him at the end of the episode. If looks could kill.

Billie Piper doesn't get as much to do as previously alas. Adam and Cathica both get to steal her thunder a bit. As does poor Suki (Anna Maxwell-Martin). It says something about Doctor Who that this story gets two exceptional actresses to play such minor parts without faffing about with them. The other being the fantastic Tamsin Greig as 'Nurse'. Tamsin  Greig would be my pick as the actress to play a female Doctor (should there ever be one) and her she is doing good work in a tiny part.

So, much more enjoyable than I remembered with an excellent cast and some interesting themes (even if I am reading too much into things). I could quibble about the pseudo-Zombies a bit and the ease with which Cathica brings things to chaos but that would be unfair. Worth a re-watch I think folks.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Dalek



'Dalek' is the tale of two survivors: a lone, soldier Dalek and The Doctor, Last of the Time Lords [Portentous Voice]. Everything else is mere frippery.

It packs a surprising emotional punch as we see The Doctor genuinely frightened and angry. At points he appears to be virtually unhinged. Driven to Dalek methods at the end of their first confrontation we realise that the Daleks bring out the worst in the Doctor, as well as the best.

I read or heard that Nicholas Briggs, who provides the voice of this rather devious Dalek, said that Christopher Eccleston said to him that their first confrontation was like a Holocaust survivor meeting a SS Officer. That might be a rather heavy comparison but there is a heft to these scenes that their context probably doesn't deserve. The last two survivors of the Time War brought together in a bunker in Utah to fight one last fight.

As usual in Doctor v Dalek confrontations a lot of people get diced in the crossfire and there's a human being  who thinks he's the one in control, Henry van Statten (Corey Johnson). Unfortunately his rather petty human concerns are just that. Petty.

'Dalek' does however illustrate the emotional 'punch' that is now a standard part of the RTD Doctor Who format. Every story seems to have - at least one moment - of solid emotional power. Often a quiet moment of contemplation but in the case of 'Dalek' bought out in confrontation.

The Daleks are at their best when devious and this Dalek is a classic of the kind. The first return to the new series of the Daleks and we are reminded of how clever they are, as well as dangerous. These aren't stupid robots. These are geniuses with a penchant for killing. Einstein in a tank. They can crack codes in seconds and manipulate humans - in this case Rose - into feeling sympathy for them. But then why should Rose not feel sympathetic to this poor, battered creature who is chained up and tortured in some Utah dungeon. She's never heard of a Dalek.

The Doctor never feels more alien than here. His knowledge of the Daleks and what they are capable of puts a wall up between him and everyone else, particularly Rose. He tries to 'exterminate' the Dalek. He's told by the Dalek that 'we are the same' and that he would have made a good Dalek (possibly the most chilling line in the whole programme). And it is Rose asks 'And what about you Doctor? What have you become?' as he waves a big gun about and threatens to destroy the Dalek.

All that anger. But there's also the killer moment when the Doctor realises - as Rose doesn't - what the 'contamination' means for this last Dalek. There's a surprising amount of sympathy. Eccleston is amazing in this episode reaching out for emotional truth in every scene. Whatever one ends up thinking about Eccleston's Doctor there's never a moment when he isn't treating the material with respect. 'Dalek' is probably the best story so far in 'New' Doctor Who and Robert Shearman's writing brings out the best in everyone concerned. There's also a couple of scenes - including right at the beginning as the Doctor contemplates the detached head of an Invasion era Cyberman - where the weight of his age and survival seems to weigh him down so much. Emotional depth wasn't something 'Classic' Who was known for. RTD's 'New' Doctor Who brings more emotion full stop and some of it is actually quite moving. Not all of it. Sometimes it does feel like a soap opera. But sometimes, like in 'Dalek', it works.

Billie Piper too excels. Her genuinely naive sympathy for the Dalek is lovely as is her admonishing of the Doctor in the final scene. She even does some nice flirting with Adam (Bruno Langley). Adam's as wet as a paper bag so I'm surprised when the Doctor agrees to take him off to with them at Rose's request but into the TARDIS he hops. But I digress from praising Billie Piper. She's doing a fantastic job so far.

'Dalek' ends with us feeling sympathy towards the Dalek and contemplating the Doctor's possibilities. There's a new person aboard the TARDIS - even if he is a bit wet - so it'll be interesting to see how that pans out. The strongest story of the season so far. Recommended.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Aliens of London-World War Three


The first multi-episode story of 'New' Doctor Who with a cracking multi-jeopardy cliffhanger this is an OK little story. It's certainly not as bad as some people seemed to feel at the time when there was much whining about fart jokes.

Yes, the fart jokes are spectacularly childish but then what's the point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes and - if my memory is correct - no one appreciates a fart joke better than a 8 to 10 year old kid so job done.

More irritating is the layered on with a trowel, half-arsed political satire clearly meant to be a dig at Tony Blair and the Iraq War. It's so unsubtle most of the time that it just seems like gratuitous. The best and sharpest dig is the almost throw away line given to Rose herself in the Cabinet Room: "Why not, it worked last time." And we're meant to know Harriet Jones is a good 'un because she voted against 'that'.

Credit to RTD though for showing the implications of travelling with the Doctor on family and friends. It's one of those scenarios that you're surprised no Doctor Who writer has taken on before. Companions often seem to have been waiting for the Doctor to turn up and then return to a normal life as if nothing ever happened. It's not something you want to think about too much because it is one of those threads of reality that can unravel your suspension of disbelief: all those empty flats and missing person enquiries are a bit too 'real' for my liking but it is interesting and it helps differentiate the RTD version of Doctor Who from the Classic era.

It helps that Billie Piper does a fine job on Rose. I said before that when she was announced as the new companion I had serious doubts but I was sold on her pretty quickly. It's interesting though that perhaps the character in Series One who is on the most interesting trajectory is Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke). In 'Rose' the Doctor is rather rude to him (in a rather un-Doctorish way actually) and the same vibe is evident in this story, at least initially. The implication is that his 'stupidity' has been holding Rose back in some way and that the Doctor's arrival releases her from a life of tedium but it is also possible to argue that perhaps Rose is holding Mickey back and it is the Doctor's arrival that broadens his horizons and changes his life as much - if not more so - than Rose. He might not be travelling in the TARDIS (and the scene at the end when the Doctor and Mickey have their little conspiratorial chat is played rather nicely in this respect) but he's a different (and better) person as a result of the Doctor's involvement. Even if Rose's disappearance made him a murder suspect.

Jackie Tyler's reactions all seem pretty real to me to from the slap through to her 'I could stop you' conversation with Mickey and the final discussion with Rose, the Doctor and Mickey. I like Camille Codouri's performance. She reminds me of a couple of people I have worked with over the years, which makes her as real as any Doctor Who character I've ever seen.

And that's the thing about RTD's Doctor Who. It's still recognisable as the same series that ran from 1963 to 1989 but he's picked up lessons from watching lots of different types of television, particularly soaps to help anchor the series more in the real world. It might be a shame not to be planet hopping on a weekly basis but the regular characters, the 'realistic' housing estates and people help cement the Doctor into place.

Having said all that RTD rather spoils that effect by making the Slitheen so cheesily bad guyesque. All they're missing are moustaches they can twirl for real ham effect. The performances aren't bad (and Rupert Vansittart's General Asquith hardly changes a jot upon becoming Slitheen) but they're just lacking a bit of subtly. An accusation that can be levelled at Penelope Wilton's Harriet Jones (although there a moments when she's allowed to calm down and breath at which point you start to like Harriet). Whilst in the end everyone stays the right side of ham this story does teeter on the brink of becoming dangerously like one of those old Doctor Who stories where people start playing it silly because there's jokes in the script and it is 'just' Doctor Who. Farting monsters does not encourage acting subtly. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh.

Eccleston's certainly not too effected by it. He's brilliant in this. Possibly as good as he's been at any point in the series. His anger at the shooting of the pig, the 'narrows it down' scene, the last chat with Micky, his reaction to Jackie asking if her daughter was 'safe' and his confrontation with Anette Badland's Margaret Blaine Slitheen: all great moments. He's got layers this Doctor and Eccleston's good at digging into deeper ones when required.

So in truth not the best Doctor Who story ever made by a long chalk but not the worst. The first episode is more interesting than the second, which is mainly a dash around but certainly not dull.