Sunday, September 21, 2014

Time Heist

I enjoyed Time Heist.

You know what it reminded me of? The Gunfighters. 

Stick with me with this. I'm not entirely mad.

Half the enjoyment in The Gunfighters - which a lot of people who like things serious miss - is the fact it is as much a parody of western television stories and films as well as being a Doctor Who story. Time Heist is as much as stylistic parody of television series like Hustle as it is a Doctor Who story. Douglas Mackinnon's direction - cuts, lens flares and slow motion etc - reflects that. And Mackinnon's direction is rather lovely. And was in Listen too.

This is the first story of the season where The Doctor leads the story and Clara gets to play the 'traditional' Doctor Who assistant. This is a Capaldi episode through-and-through and he's rather fantastic throughout. He gets great lines, delivers them with style and is rapidly setting a high standard that rises above whatever material he's given.

I'm not sure it's the most original script in Doctor Who ever but perhaps that's part of the point but I think there's a danger of over-analyzing these stories. Original ideas are hard to come by and the heist genre has its rules, which is fair enough. But there's a certain pattern emerging in this season, which is starting to irritate me mildly. It's the lack of proper villains. I'm all for 'shades of grey'. I'm all for villains who don't think that their plan is 'evil' but for heaven's sake does every story have to be like this? It's like a reverse Season 8 problem : instead of the villain being the Master every week, now we've got no villains. It's not a terminal problem but it's just getting a bit samey, particular when the ending of this story feels so much like that of Hide.

There's a lot of talk about plot holes from people that criticise The Moff's style of writing and I've argued that you'd struggle to find any Doctor Who story free of plot holes. It's just a question of what we're prepared to accept. Normally I don't really care about them unless there's an absolute gaping hole so big you could drive a tank through it. But there's one moment in this story that I found myself on. [SPOILER FOLLOWS]

And that's when Psi and Saibara turn up to save the Doctor and Clara disguised as guards in Ms Delphox's office. When The Teller is there. This is a creature that we've been told can detect guilt but doesn't notice Psi and Saibara...but maybe there's so much distortion going on as the - very - guilty Doctor and Clara are standing in the room. Perhaps I've been unkind. Perhaps not. Maybe it matters. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe I'm just looking for reasons to pick holes in something that I quite enjoyed. Who knows. Who. Knows.

Psi and Saibara were interesting additions to the 'team' and make a change from the Paternoster Gang. Neither character is spectacularly original : the half-man, half-computer and the shapeshifter but they're played well enough by Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner. I get the feeling this isn't the last we'll see of either character.

I mentioned it above but this is the least Clara episode of the season so far. She's under-used - which some of the Clara 'haters' might have enjoyed - but I kind of think it is a waste of a good actress.

Kudos should also go to Keeley Hawes, who is brilliant as Ms Delphox. I'm not sure how they decided on her 'look' and who had input but I think someone in the production team - going back a while - has a thing for women in glasses and suits. Or eye-patches and suits. Or women in suits full stop. But Hawes is fab. It's another example of an actor doing a small-ish part in Doctor Who that makes you wish they'd been given something meatier and semi-regular.

The Teller looks great too. Surprisingly realistic and alive, which brings a certain charm along with it. The exterior shots of the bank also look fab and then it is nice to see we find ourselves inside a lot of Doctor Who corridors. In that sense - again - it feels very Classic Doctor Who.

Anyway re-reading what I've written I seem to have found less in it to enjoy that I my actual level of enjoyment would indicate. It was enjoyable. Not as much of a fun romp as Robot of Sherwood - which I found the most fun of the season so far, even if it isn't the best story of the season or perhaps it is - but fun enough. Not hugely original but that's not necessarily the worst of crimes (despite what some people seem to think.)

As I've said before the fundamental rule of Doctor Who for me is that it should be fun. Sometimes it's so fun that it over-rides all my standard adult analysis but sometimes it's just about fun enough. And that's how I feel about this story.

But still: Capaldi. Brilliant.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Canon: What Canon?

Time Lord of Gallifrey. Not in 1966 he wasn't.

Apparently Doctor Who has 50+ years of canon and beware fiddling with the canon. Canon is a word we've borrowed from religion to describe - effectively - the facts that are apparently non-negotiable in the world of Doctor Who.

Of which I'd argue there are precisely...none.

Now the pure 'canon' is, of course, only what we've seen on television. So that would exclude Virgin New Adventures, Big Finish, The DWM Comic Strip and a lot of other Doctor Who apocrypha. Now me, I like to think it is all canon. Even when it makes no sense or utterly disgrees with something we've seen elsewhere.


Because Doctor Who is a time travel series that accepts the existence of multiple universes and alternative timelines. Generally, of course, like in all these things there is a hierarchy of what might be acceptable and what isn't. To me - pretending to be a neutral observer - this hierarchy is based on the degree of seriousness involved in the material plus the format it is presented in. So Big Finish and Virgin New Adventures, BBC Eighth Doctor Books, Missing Adventures et al are easier to swallow as part of a canon that the First Doctor's adventures with John and Gillian in the TV Comic Comic strips.

But mainly what is canon is what we as individuals get hung up on.

So when it was first said that Time Lords could only regenerate 12 times, back in the mists of the 1970s, fans were annoyed. This wasn't something that had ever been established. Or said. In fact you can argue that the 'regeneration' from First to the Second Doctor wasn't even an actual 'regeneration' as it is understood now. We've retrospectively decided that the First Doctor was a Time Lord from Gallifrey with two hearts. Even though none of those things would be 'canon' if you only watched the First Doctor's era.

The Daleks, created as they were for a one off story, were trapped in their city. Unable to move outside, operating on static electricity. They weren't the intergalactic threat they became. They weren't Kaled mutants. They were Dals. There was no Davros. All these things came later and retrospectively we - as fans - have tried to pull all the threads together.

So what am I saying here? Well there is a canon. But it isn't set in stone. Doctor Who's canon is what the last story tells us it was. So 'New' Doctor Who stripped all the baggage away from The Cybermen and popped in on an alt-Universe version with a whole new creation myth.

Could The Moff have ignored the 12 regenerations rule? Yes, he could have done. He could have come up with any number of explanations but he wanted to make a big deal out of it because he wanted to set up that big end of an era feeling, even though he's tied some poor future Doctor Who producer/showrunner to having to go through the whole thing again in 11 regeneration time. By which point of course accepted Doctor Who canon could be completely and utterly different.

As Doctor Who fans - as opposed to the general viewer - we choose what is canon based on personal preference. Me, I think all of it counts. Except the bits I don't. So important was canon once upon a time that the JNT used Ian Levine as an advisor on Doctor Who's past. So successful was that exercise that we got Silurians with third eyes that - for reasons that passeth all understanding - operate to let us know which of them is talking as opposed to being the focus for mental weaponry it was in The Silurians. So that went well.

Terrance Dicks, and I paraphrase here drastically, said that there was no Doctor Who 'bible' just what he could remember of his predecessor's work. And what those that followed remembered of his. Others have pointed out that this stuff shouldn't get in the way of a good story. I'm inclined to agree.

So to cut this short enough for me to get back to my proper job I'd say this. Canon is what I care about. Canon is what I - or you - choose to accept. And we can all go down the pub together and discuss how we can explain the triple destruction of Atlantis or why all those monsters that were busy helping humanity to develop in order to improve their plans weren't tripping over each other (and forgetting about it in the case of the Silence) or how the Skarasen and the Borad manage to co-habit in Loch Ness.* It's more fun that way.

For me it's one of the reasons I love Doctor Who. It doesn't have a set in stone, nothing can ever change approach. Sometimes a writer changes something I liked and makes it something I don't - yes, Mr. Moffat I'm looking at you - but that's my issue to deal with.

Doctor Who never stays the same. That's one of its glories.

*They didn't. I suspect the Skarasen had the Borad for breakfast on about the third day. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

PS I almost wanted to call this Canon & Balls but thought better of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Listen is one of those Doctor Who stories that I feel I need to watch again. And again. There might actually be nothing going on here but the Doctor trying to sort out his own issues but then again there might be an entire new race of creepy creatures to be added to the canon. There might not be a villain here at all, except possibly the Doctor himself in a strange way.

I think I liked it.

It intertwines the Doctor's dangerously focused desire to get to the bottom of a dream he's had with Clara and Danny Pink's date. It's a mixture of the extraordinary and ordinary. It's about fear and how we deal with fear.

It has some genuinely creepy moments, especially the scenes in young Danny Pink's room and those on the ship with Orson Pink. There's no actual answer given either. Was the thing in the bed a monster or was it one of Danny's friends playing a trick on him? Was there a monster outside the airlock or was nothing out there? I like the fact that there are loose ends going on here. We don't need answers to everything, although being Steven Moffat this episode might end up being key to the whole story arc. The less that happens, the more I'm wondering what I'm not supposed to see. I think I might have to call this parmoffatanoia, except that's a terrible word.

But does it matter that we don't see the thing? Probably not. The whole young Danny scene is about getting an insight into Danny's character. People say that Clara's involved in every aspect of the creation of the Doctor, particularly after the final moments of this episode on Gallifrey but she's also creating Danny Pink too. Here she takes Rupert and makes him Danny. It might not be intentional but she's trying to help. Indeed if she makes Danny a soldier, in the final scenes perhaps she stops The Doctor becoming one, based on the overheard conversation by his 'parents'.

Yes, I'm a bit uncomfortable about Clara having to be intertwined with the Doctor's whole history but it doesn't mean Clara's THE only reason the Doctor becomes the Doctor. She perhaps gives him just the boost to be less afraid but there's a long, long history between the young Doctor and the First Doctor fleeing Gallifrey with Susan.

Also Clara's involvement with the Doctor seems to have had little in the way of consequences for her so far. Perhaps her interference into Danny Pink's life might have a different effect. After all Doctor Who can't kill off Doctor Who but it might be able to bump off Danny Pink. But perhaps I'm over-analyzing. It's easily done.

There are hints in the conversation between her and Orson Pink about what is to come but who knows what if anything that will mean.

My quibbles aside I think Jenna Coleman's doing a stonking job as Clara this season. Now she doesn't have to just be the 'Impossible Girl' she's developing into a character, although some of the banter between her and the Doctor re. her appearance borders on the uncomfortable. Now that might be because there's a British piss-taking friendship thing going on - certainly at one point Clara's reaction is an amused smirk - but occasionally it seems played too seriously. Maybe I'm just being ultra-touchy about it.

The thing that I will say without quibbles is that I'm really enjoying the Capaldi Doctor. He feels properly Doctor Who-ish. It's not darkness so much, which has become a massively over used phrase attached to the Capaldi era already, as alien. Capaldi's Doctor Who isn't human. And it shows. It's a nice change to both Tennant and Smith, although it has a certain resonance with Eccleston (who often gets forgotten in these discussions). But we're only four episodes into the season so things have a long way to go yet.

I haven't really talked about the more domestic scenes between Clara and Danny at dinner. You know what's strange I'd have hated this kind of scene back in the Eccleston era but now I find them quite fun. Their a nice counter-balance to all the alien madness that's about to come. Ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives who turn out to be extraordinary. Again having been Moffated once too often I find myself wondering whether the waiter might turn out to be significant or that line about twenty-three wells will be important. But that way madness lies.

The other thing to note is the sound design on this is incredible. In some ways it would be a brilliant Big Finish story. Perhaps 'Listen' can be seen as a massive advert for audio Doctor Who. But the scenes inside Orson Pink's ship are atmospheric as hell as much due to the sound design as the performances.

So after all that I can say I enjoyed it. It wasn't as much fun as Robot of Sherwood but it has a certain creepy charm of its own. There are unanswered questions and seeds sown for the future of Series 8 but I bet there are kids up and down the country hiding in beds tonight in an attempt to scare their friends and family.

A second viewing is needed though.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Robot of Sherwood

Here's the first thing I should say and get it out there straight away. I loved Robot of Sherwood. Adored it. And do you know why? Because it was fun. There. I've said it. It was fun. And it won't matter a jot that tomorrow I'll probably start finding the plots holes or the bits and bobs that I can pick at like the fan that I am. At this point I'm feeling nothing but joy.

And you know in the end what more can you ask for from an episode of Doctor Who than that joy. All the analysis that follows and the picking apart of every single moment and the reassessments that will follow the seasons end is just frippery really. The key thing is - and should always be - was watching that Doctor Who episode fun. Did I enjoy it. And I did.

Why though?

Partly because it wasn't weighed down with much in the way of overall story arc, even if there was one reference. There's no Missy. Partly because it was clearly meant to be fun. This isn't dark. This is what Robin Prince of Thieves would have been like if everyone decided to have as much fun with their parts as Alan Rickman did.

And Capaldi is bloody brilliant. His utterly denial - both of Robin Hood's actual existence and his role as hero and legend - is key to this story. Plus his refusal to play second fiddle to Robin Hood who in turn refuses to play second fiddle - or should that be lute - to The Doctor. This is two alpha males with a lot in common. Robin says it himself at the end. These are two aristocrats come into the world determined to do good. It's another piece in the Doctor's own post-regeneration puzzle about whether he's a good man or not.

But in a way this is as much Clara's story as it is the Doctor and Robin's. She's more in control and less involved in trying to prove herself top dog than either of them. It is Clara that gets to the heart of the Sheriff's plan. It is Clara who looks and sounds like the sensible one. She chooses not to go into denial and swallows up the whole Robin Hood and his Merry Men thing in one fell swoop. Jenna Coleman's having so much fun and her character now seems to actually be coming into focus now she's not just a mystery for the Doctor to solve.

By the way I'm with the Doctor on banter. It should stop.

And I love the Robin v Doctor sword v spoon fight. I bet there are people out there whinging about it being silly. About this whole episode being silly but you can't be deadly serious every time and I adore silliness in Doctor Who. My favourite season is Season 17. My fandom was tested in silliness. Smart silliness I accept but silliness nonetheless. Or whimsy. Or whatever you want to call it. Give me more of it I say. More than the tedious dragged out season long portentous story arcs. Give me fun. Please just fun.

I mentioned Robin Prince of Thieves early. Everyone except the Sheriff of Nottingham is played with a Rickmanesque touch. Ben Miller's Sheriff is actually rather serious. He doesn't get much in the way of laughs and his ruthless streak is demonstrated very early on. I can't have been the only person thinking how Ainley he looked. Indeed in Classic Who the Sheriff of Nottingham would probably have turned out to be The Master in one of his disguises and strange choices of accent. Miller's good.

The other thing it reminded me of was The Gunfighters in both tone and with the fact that it almost - but not quite - got its own Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon courtesy of  Alan-a-Dale. I'm a big fan of The Gunfighters as the regular reader of this blog will probably know so obviously that also inclines me to look upon this favorably.

I love Tom Riley's Robin. There's a touch of seriousness under all the banter and laughter, which he manages to bring out rather well. But he's what you'd want Robin Hood to be like if he really existed. You want the legend, not the likely historical truth.*

New Doctor Who likes celebrity historicals and Robots of Sherwood is one of those but with a historical figure that probably didn't exist. Alas. However as Robin says perhaps it is better to be a story that will inspire others than been burdened by history.

Oh and hurrah for the database Robin Hood bit with the Troughton Robin Hood picture. And the little throwaway references to Classic Doctor Who that add a little frisson of fun for the Classic Who fan like me without over-ladening the story with baggage.

So well done Mark Gatiss. Thank you for putting fun back on the Doctor Who menu again.

This feeling I have at the moment is why I love Doctor Who so much. It's a kind of giddy joy. I'm almost tempted to go and watch it again. Now.

*I studied Robin Hood as a historical figure at University. I won't bore you with the details. It's an interesting thing to study. Feel free.