Monday, October 16, 2017

Into The Dalek



I found Into The Dalek rather entertaining.

I know you could pull it to death by focusing on all the stuff it borrowed from elsewhere. From Dalek*, from The Invisible Enemy, from Fantastic Voyage and so on but equally I'm gob-smackingly surprised it hasn't been done before. Surely this is the idea that everyone must have had. And yet it took until 2014 for someone to actually get around to doing it.

I fear 'originality' is a stick to beat many a Doctor Who writer or showrunner to death with. It's as if Doctor Who was entirely original from 1963-1989 and never borrowed from other sources. Or from itself.  I mean Terry Nation wrote virtually the same Dalek story time and again, although I'm not sure ripping off yourself is entirely unfair. If you have a good idea why not hammer at it again and again. After all, Robert Holmes wrote The Caves of Androzani twice. It's just the first version was called The Power of Kroll. Doctor Who has always been a magpie television series and without undertaking a proper scientific review I'd wager that genuinely original stories are few and far between. Mostly Doctor Who picks up something and metamorphoses it into something distinctly Doctor Who. So I'm not quite sure lack of originality is as bad as all that.

It's a tale of morality. The Doctor's morality, which is to be a thread in this season as we deal with a Doctor who is a lot less comfortable than we're perhaps used to. Is the Doctor a good man?

It's a big question. I think we like to find a Doctor that fits our own image and the Doctors of new Doctor Who have certainly been less ruthless than the Classic Doctor could be. Or at least has always made more of a big deal out of his morality, which makes the scene here where he uses a soldier's impending death to find an escape route ice-cold shocking. No 'I'm so sorry's' etc. Just 'this man is going to die but I'm going to save everyone else.' It really does feel different this time.

He's still finding his way this new Doctor. He's clearly not the man he was. There's a ruthless streak of logic, sharp snark and a lack of neediness about this new Doctor. He doesn't have the time to care about whether people like him or not. He is just going to do his thing.

I love Capaldi's take on the part so far. He's such a brilliant actor. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that he's the best actor to play the part since Troughton. Not necessarily my favourite Doctor. Yet.

Then there's Jenna Coleman's Clara. She's developing a character, which is nice. Now she's not a puzzle for the Doctor to be solved. The Moff gets a lot of criticism for the way he writes women characters in Doctor Who and the Doctor makes one or two unnecessarily snide comments about Clara's appearance that veer dangerously too close to 'banter' for my liking (although I was reminded of the Fourth Doctor's digs at Sarah Jane in The Ark in Space whilst they were crawling through the ducts). Anyway, I thought Clara / Coleman was great in this.

One caveat: I didn't like the slap. It was too serious. And physical violence as a form of communication is not something I want to see Doctor Who normalising. Would we have found the slap acceptable if it had been from the Doctor to Clara? No. So, let's not have it be acceptable at all.

I also liked Clara's initial scenes with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). The Clara-Danny thing is endearingly awkward, which I like. I get the impression that Steven Moffat would quite happily write a sit-com revolving around those two. Danny Pink is another teacher at Cole Hill School. He's an ex-soldier with a secret. He's also got one of the best and brightest smiles I've ever seen. It seems the Clara-Danny thing is going to be a 'thing' for the whole season so it is early days for judgment, although when has that ever stopped me

The soldier thing is going to be another thread in a season of threads I think. Along with Missy, who makes another appearance here. Ah, Missy. The face that launched a thousand theories. When I watched this on the first broadcast I had many theories about who Missy would turn out to be. I think I was wrong about my initial guesses but I can't actually remember at this distance. It does seem that Steven Moffat is confident that the Missy pay-off is worth her regular appearances, although it does have a touch of the Madam Kovarians about it.

[There's me ignoring my own earlier paragraph about the dangers of whinging about originality. I'm such a hypocrite.]

Where was I. Ah, the soldier thing? Yes, the Doctor dismisses Journey Blue (Zawa Ashton) at the end when she asks to come along with him by saying he doesn't like soldiers. I'm assuming that's just this Doctor because the Eleventh Doctor was quite upset when he found out that his soldier friend Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart had died. But it's a new Doctor. I suspect his judgmental approach will come and bite him on the arse before the season is out.

Oh and Danny Pink and Journey Blue. Is this colour thing also going to be a 'thing.'** How many 'things' can Steven Moffat get into a single season and still tie them all up neatly? How many of them will be - and forgive me - red herrings. Doctor Who fans - always finding patterns in things that aren't there.

The other thing I want to mention - apart from Michael Smiley's appearance as Colonel Morgan Blue - is Ben Wheatley's fab direction. He manages to make the Daleks look menacing.  I particularly like the shot of all their blue eye-stalk lights coming out of the darkness

And Rusty the Dalek gets a fine line in snark, which is unexpected in a Dalek so this might be a good time to hand out some well-deserved praise for Nick Briggs whose Dalek voice work reaches pretty impressive heights in this story. The slight change in emphasis between the 'good' Rusty and his return to Dalekness is rather brilliant and subtle.

Next up Robots of Sherwood which looks whimsical. And there's not a lot of love for whimsy in the Doctor Who fan world. Me, I'm a big fan of whimsy. Lord Peter included.




*I listened to Big Finish's The Genocide Machine today too and that's got similarities with this story thematically too in terms of what happens when a Dalek changes.

**I'm pretending that I don't know how this all pans out. Assume I've never watched the rest of the series at all.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Deep Breath



If you're new to this blog then I should explain that what follows isn't a review in the traditional sense. That would involve critical faculties. It is a collection of immediate reactions, thoughts, ideas and bees in bonnets that pop up in the immediate aftermath of watching the episode. This blog will also contain spoilers so if you've not seen the episode then go and watch it and then come back. You have been warned. This blog, in particular, is based on the blog I sketched out on original broadcast combined with some additional thoughts from tonight's re-watch.

Deep Breath launches the Capaldi era of Doctor Who and it seems that the story was designed to do a couple of things. Most importantly it is to introduce us to a new and older Doctor and the New Doctor Who audience's first experience of an older actor in the part. Even if Christopher Eccleston wasn't that much younger than Capaldi when he first took the role.

Hence a lot of the conversations Clara gets involved in with either the Doctor or Vastra are aimed at us, which makes her decision to leave the TARDIS before being reassured by the Eleventh Doctor's phone call an plea to the audience not to leave because this is still Doctor Who. As a consequence, it is different to a lot of new Doctor's first stories, which just assume we'll pick up with the new Doctor and run with him/her.

The call at the end in particular, emotional though it is, seems unnecessary. No other Doctor has required the previous incarnation to beg for his acceptance.And in a way, it's insulting to both us and Capaldi but perhaps I'm being harsh.

It's almost as if Steven Moffat doubts his own choice of Doctor.

Also, Half-Face Man's 're-building' of himself is an obvious reflection of regeneration. It shows how weird regeneration actually is. The Half-Face Man is regenerating the slow way around. Piece by piece. So, the Doctor's broom analogy is applicable to himself as much as to the Half-Face Man.

There's also a mild dig at us the audience. The whole 'I'm not your boyfriend/You might as well flirt with a mountain/He wanted you to like him' stuff seems to be a criticism of our apparent need for a younger more fanciable Doctor. Even though it was Steven Moffat that chose Matt Smith and even though Capaldi has his fans too.

Then we have to re-boot Clara for her post-Impossible Girl future. She now needs to be a character not just an enigma and this story is designed to be a regeneration story for her too. It's just not as drastic. I'm not sure I've seen enough 'control freak' in Clara so far to justify the Doctor's accusations that she is one though.

Jenna Coleman's clearly a good actress so it would be nice to see her given more scenes like her confrontation with the Half-Face Man. In that scene, she gets to do the whole Sarah Jane Smith brave and scared at the same time trick. Indeed I can't praise Jenna Coleman enough. This story - if we hadn't realised it already - shows what a fine actress she is. She wonderful in this. And seems to hit it off with Capaldi immediately. There's a real electricity between them.

As she's seen all the previous Doctors though you do wonder why she's so shocked that he's old but then perhaps she just assumed that they all started young and then got old. After all, what's the point in renewing yourself if you renew yourself older? It's counterintuitive.

Which brings us to another thread in Deep Breath: where does the Doctor get his faces from? Or any Time Lord for that matter. Is there a database of faces? A Facebook perhaps. [I'll get my coat.] The Doctor's face thing - like the Doctor's name - seems to be a Steven Moffat bee in the bonnet as a result of casting Capaldi but I do think some of the best lines came as a result of this. I especially liked "Who frowned this face" and "It's like I'm trying to tell myself something." The face is going to be a thing. Let's see where it goes. If it goes anywhere.

Then there is Missy. Who is she and what's she up to? This being New Doctor Who we need a big season-long arc, don't we? Sigh. Do we though? Do we? Perhaps we do. Modern television series - or at least SF and fantasy ones - seem to have become moulded to the arc & the big season finale pattern. In the 21st century, a more radical television programme might just have a run of adventures that are simply fun without the need for us to see how clever the writers are? Or actually am I again being harsh? Perhaps the arc/finale structure rewards the loyal viewer so we can make up our own theories as we go along, searching for clues in each episode and trying to tie everything together?

In the end, we should judge the arc on its quality. If it turns out to be good then great. If it turns out to be bad then boo. Arcs themselves are not the problem. It's the quality of the arc (and I suppose the quality of the emotional journey we and the characters are taken on.) 

Quick diversion: title sequence and theme tune. Loved the new title sequence. Hate the theme tune, which sounds like it was played on a weird combination of elastic bands, bells and kazoo. The new series has never cracked the theme tune in my opinion but perhaps one day they will. 

What of Capaldi himself? I think he's fantastic. He has an edge that Tennant and Smith didn't have. It's not darkness. It's just an acidity. A lack of botherdness about how people see him, which I like. He's able to do both the comedy and the darker stuff. I like the fact that we're left to decide for ourselves whether the Doctor threw the Half-Face Man to his doom or whether it was self-destruction. The last scenes give us a vulnerability to this new Doctor underneath his crusty exterior. So yes, I'm happy with Capaldi.

Oh, and do we really need all the hilarious Scottish stuff. The Doctor's been Scottish before and didn't seem to think it was a big deal. But then the showrunner then wasn't Scottish. RTDs gay agenda* has been replaced with a Scottish agenda.** Damn that McMoffat chap.

I'm less happy with what's happening with Vastra, Jenny and Strax. All three are brilliantly performed but Strax has become only comic relief. I'd like him to have a bit more edge. I also wish Steven Moffat would have had the courage to give Vastra and Jenny a proper kiss without having to give them a 'breath' excuse. The Paternoster Gang are great when used properly but not when they're just there to provide some exotic sexual background and dumb comedy. Use them better Mr Moffat. Use them better.

So after all that rambling, I should say that I really enjoyed it. It's lifted by the brilliance of Capaldi and it's excellent design. Doctor Who looks great these days, although Strax's disappearing bucket seemed to skip someone's attention in the edit.***


* There was no gay agenda.
**There isn't a Scottish agenda either
***Or it'll turn out to be a key thing in the forthcoming story arc. The Bucket of Rassilon. Or something. [It won't.]

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Invasion of the Bane


So, the last time we saw Sarah Jane Smith have her own spin-off was K9 & Company. That was back in 1981. Yet here we are in 2007 and Sarah Jane is back. This time with only a small appearance from K9. It says something about the character and Lis Sladen herself that a character who first appeared back in 1973 was able to kick off a series of her own decades later. How many TV characters can you say that about?

And Invasion of the Bane shows Torchwood how to spin-off properly. Perhaps because Torchwood got sucked into this 'adult theme' nonsense it struggled to find itself a tone that worked but The Sarah Jane Adventures hit the ground running.

This feels like Doctor Who, perhaps because it is aimed at children.* But there is more actual tension in this episode than in either Torchwood episode I've watched so far. Plus Samantha Bond's Mrs Wormwood is far more memorable and fun as a villain. Bond manages to avoid crossing the line into ham acting whilst still being a little larger than life. She's part of why the story works so damn well. And I love the confrontation between her and Sarah Jane as they do some polite but icey verbal fencing.

Also, The Sarah Jane Adventures feels 'real' in a way that Torchwood (so far) hasn't felt. It also feels very Russell T Davies. The first character we met is Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) a young girl moving into a new house after her parents split up. It's through her that we get to see Sarah Jane for the first time and get introduced to her life.

The whole story feels very Third Doctor. The Bane Mother isn't a million miles away from the Target book illustration of the Nestene in Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion. Aliens are trying to take over the world through a fizzy drink. What's more Doctor Who than that?

Indeed, what The Sarah Jane Adventures shows is that it is possible to have a female Doctor without scaring the pigeons.** Sarah's very Doctor-ish throughout this story. She's got her Sonic Lipstick, she warns the Bane that if they don't leave Earth she'll stop them and she thinks there should be another way. A way that doesn't involve going in 'all guns blazing'. The children - Maria, Kelsey (Porsha Lawrence Mavour) and Luke (Tommy Knight) - get to be the companions to Sarah Jane's Doctor.

Perhaps that's why it works? It is both new and comfortably familiar. And by Jove it is fun. Something that - so far - Torchwood hasn't been.

It isn't perfect. For example, Maria's mother, played by Juliet Cowan, is just a little too conveniently rude and thoughtless which just feels a bit wrong to me. But any criticism is just minor quibbling really.

There's a great set of scenes when after Luke, Kelsey and Maria have found Sarah Jane's ridiculously sized upstairs room we get a potted history of how Sarah Jane's come to be where she is and it is done both by the actors and by the camera scanning over pictures and drawings. We see a Dalek, the Brigadier and Harry. Sarah Jane's wistfulness about her time with the Doctor has an emotional heft that really hits home. It's brilliant work by Lis Sladen and the director Colin Teague.

But this is how to do a 'pilot' if that's what it was. It shakes Sarah Jane out of her 'I work alone' mentality, introduces us to the main characters and rolls along at a delightful pace.

I could waffle on for longer but this is a genuine joy.



*That's one for Professor Parry.
**I'm not sure that's the phrase but it's my blog and I'm sticking to it.

Torchwood: Day One


Ah, Torchwood. A chance to explore more adult themes in the Doctor Who Universe and, of course, we get an alien high on orgasmic energy. Because sex is SO adult innit.

So, on Gwen's first day she screws up badly, releases an alien gas creature, which turns out to thrive on the energy of the male orgasm. Not the female orgasm. O no. There's no good reason for this that I can tell but I suppose I'd be foolish to ask for one. This is, after all, Torchwood.

I mean it always struck me that the male orgasm is a slightly less impressive thing than the female one but perhaps I'm looking at it from the wrong end so to speak. (Cough) Of course, to find out that the male orgasm is key we have to have a massive lesbian snogging scene between Gwen and the infected/occupied Carys, which goes on long enough for the Owen, Tosh and Captain Jack to have a bit of a perv.

This is pretty awful with exceptions. The key one being Sara Lloyd Gregory who does a stonking job as poor Carys who becomes the host for our Orgasmaterian - as I'm going to call it from this point forward, although Torchwood does a spectacular job of failing to keep her in captivity considering that neither she nor the Orgasmaterian is particularly a fighting creatures. Indeed, surely it is the very definition of a lover, not a fighter.

Indeed there's a spectacularly bad moment when - for no obvious reason - Carys grabs the severed hand* and Captain Jack immediately makes it obvious that this is an object he cares about deeply thus giving her all the leverage she needs to escape. It isn't The Barrowman's finest hour.

The other good thing in this story is Eve Myles even though Gwen does a lot of stupid things. There's some fine eye acting from her early in the episode when her error hits home. The rest of the team are still bedding in, although Owen (Burn Gorman) is clearly something of an unlikeable twat. Who thinks 'I'd shag you' is acceptable office banter as opposed to sexual harassment. But hey, it's Torchwood. Tosh (Naoko Mori) hasn't really had much to do so far but she's done what needs to be done as well as can be expected. She does a fine line is awkward, which I like.

Captain Jack is Captain Jack. The Barrowman is The Barrowman. I think, at this point, he's struggling to make the jump from Doctor Who sidekick to the lead on his own show but perhaps that will come as we move on.

Is there much else I can say about this?

No.

It's not great and two episodes in you have to say that Torchwood is struggling to be something more than an adolescent male wet dream of what adult telly would be like.

Still. It could be worse.




*For those not in the Doctor Who loop this severed hand belongs to the Tenth Doctor. He had it cut off in The Christmas Invasion. You all knew that though.






Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Torchwood: Everything Changes


Ah, Torchwood. It seems a long time since the heady days of October 2006 when I sat down to watch this with Doctor Carrie Dunn. There we were looking forward to seeing The Barrowman in action.

I'm not going to dwell on how Torchwood came to be. This was the red heat of the return of Doctor Who when RTD could do no wrong and a spin-off series starring John Barrowman as Captain Jack, a character introduced in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, seemed like a no brainer. Captain Jack was sexy, cheeky and maybe they could pursue more adult themes in Torchwood than they could in Doctor Who.

However, particularly in Series One, they were to make the same mistake that the Virgin New Adventures did in the nineties: swearing and sex do not adult themes make. Especially if you have a very poor grasp on consent and turn your series into something that might, just, be a bit rapey. But, I'm leaping ahead of myself. At least a little bit.

We're in Cardiff. Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is a PC in the Welsh Police. She's at the scene of a murder when a gang turns up from an organisation called Torchwood. They proceed to mess about a bit on the murder scene, then disappear. This leaves Gwen all a bit curious. From here on in we get the story of Gwen's discovery of Torchwood, who they are and what they do, which is hunt aliens. In Cardiff. Because, it turns out, Cardiff is built on a ruddy great rift in the space-time continuum and as a result, a lot of intergalactic, timey-wimey flotsam and jetsam turns up to cause trouble and/or be cannibalised by Torchwood to protect the world. After all, as Captain Jack says: "The Twenty-First Century' is when it all happens. You've got to be ready."

Gwen's been involved in investigating a serial killer in Cardiff, who it will turn out has links to Torchwood. And we'll end up with a stand-off, two shots and a resurrection before the end. Gwen is our intro to Torchwood as a fairly ordinary person. She's our companion figure. At least in this episode. She asks lots of questions.

We meet the rest of the team: Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), Suzie Costello (Indira Varma) and last, but not least Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). None of them is really given much character at this point because our story focuses on Gwen and Jack.

I like Eve Myles as Gwen. I think Myles is a great actor. She's particularly good here when terrified. The Barrowman is The Barrowman. I'll probably talk more about that as the series goes on. Gwen's coming aboard the good ship Torchwood, although how she'll explain that to her husband, Rhys (Kai Owen - who is brilliant btw) may become an issue.

Hopefully, the next few episodes will broaden out the characters a bit and drop the unnecessarily creepy sexual stuff. There is definitely an unnecessary light-hearted approach to sexual consent in this episode that seems to say that using alien pheromones to get two people to sleep with you isn't rapey at all. O, no. It's just a wee bit of high-jinks using office equipment. Like borrowing a piece of tech that allows you to read a book pretty much instantaneously. As I said all this stuff is a misunderstanding of what 'adult' means. It's a problem I remember Torchwood suffers with.

That and the spectacularly stupid idea of a top secret organisation that drives around in bloody obvious vehicles and is known to half of Cardiff's police force and orders pizzas to its top secret headquarters under the name of Torchwood. I think Torchwood could be creepier. There's hints at it when Tosh talks about the porter who died in the hospital and whose body they dispose of. This is an organisation with frightening powers, which no one ever really talks about. Except Gwen.

So, it's not a bad introduction. It's entertaining enough. But there's problems in the initial episode that might be fatal if not dealt with at some point. I mean who wants a heroic team of rapists?

K9 & Company



I am sure there are people out there that love K9 & Company but I'm afraid it is almost entirely terrible. From one of the worst title sequences ever & a theme tune so horrible and inappropriate that you wonder what the hell everyone was thinking who was making this. It's like JNT's brief to the director was 'let's start the programme in such a way as no one will ever want to watch it.'

It's easy to blame Ian Levine. who co-created the theme tune, with Fiachra Trench but that's not entirely fair. They might have written it. The producer didn't have to use it.

The story itself, written by Terence Dudley, involves Sarah Jane (Lis Sladen, of course) coming to her Aunt Lavinia's (Mary Wimbush) house to do some writing. Or something. I never quite got why she was going to live with her Aunt. She is also joined by Brendan (Ian Richards) who is Aunt Lavinia's 'ward'. You only seem to come across 'wards' in television series. I'm sure there are some out there in the real world but the only two I've ever heard of are Robin, in the 1960s Batman series, and Brendan in K9 & Company.

Anyway, Aunt Lavinia has left mysteriously early and Sarah starts to fret. Meanwhile, a big box that's been sitting around Aunt Lavinia's house in Croydon turns out to contain K9, Mark III. A gift from the Doctor. K9 is voiced in his usual fine way by John Leeson.

There is talk of witchcraft. Then there is an attempted kidnapping. Then an actual kidnapping, when Brendan is snatched by Peter Tracey (Sean Chapman) to be used for sacrifice. By this time we've met an assortment of the villagers. There's Lily, the Post Mistress and Bill Pollock, who is Aunt Lavinia's farm manager and played with gurgling grumpiness by Bill Fraser. Colin Jeavons crops up as George Tracey. There's Juno (Linda Polan) and Howard (Neville Barber) Baker who seem to throw parties and invite Sarah Jane for drinks and dinner. We're obviously meant to suspect these two are part of the coven, especially as Howard keeps popping out mysteriously and Juno makes sinister looking phone calls.

Turns out that rural England is still home to a witches coven. Worshipping Hecate. At this point, I started to feel like I was watching Hot Fuzz. And this is the main problem I have with this story. It's all played too damn straight. It either needs a splash more camp and comedy - although George Tracey's reaction to K9 is hilarious not necessarily for the right reasons - or it needs to be a lot darker. It needs to have the atmosphere of a Philip Hinchcliffe production. It all feels a little amateurish, which is perhaps the point.

Most of the acting is fine. After all, there are some good actors here but some clunking performances too. The only thing stopping it from being an utter catastrophe is Lis Sladen. You can see, even in the rubble of this disaster, that there could have been a Lis Sladen spin-off that would work. It didn't really need K9, although that helps. One day we'll get one and people will the character and the actor justice. One day.

The other problem with K9 & Company is that in 1981 the technology didn't exist to make K9 anything but a clunky box on wheels. K9 was never the most mobile of creations and the site of Sarah Jane lifting him out of the car amuses me.

I'm almost certainly being too harsh on something that was created to fill a Christmas slot but it never really works for me at all. I found myself reminded of Hot Fuzz or Mindhorn (oddly) because this feels more like a pastiche than a programme in its own right.

You also find yourself wondering where they would have taken the series if they'd made one. Brendan's role in this story is to be Sarah Jane to Sarah Jane. He's the character that gets kidnapped and almost sacrificed. Sarah Jane herself is more the Doctor. Would this have carried on? Would Brendan be kidnapped, hypnotised etc each week to be rescued by K9 zapping away whilst Sarah Jane does some very mild martial arts on a collection of fine British character actors? Would they have stayed in the countryside? Would Aunt Lavinia have come back and had more of a role to play? Who knows. Who cares.

In the end, this is a mild curiosity that doesn't quite work hamstrung by awful titles and music but you can see potential in Sarah Jane.

So, if you do like K9 & Company let me know why. I'm intrigued.



*Yes, I know the titles and theme tune are an easy target but that's because they might as well be painted with a series of coloured rings ending with a small red bullseye.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Inferno


Inferno is the final story of Season 7. It's another seven part story, but never really drags. There's a real tension throughout, especially as we get to see the Doctor fail and the world destroyed thanks to the miracle of alternative universes. It's a strong story, which ends a strong season. Possibly one of Doctor Who's strongest seasons full stop.

We find ourselves at a drilling project, which is led by Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley). Its objective is to crack through the Earth's crust. This will turn out to be a bad idea but you already knew that didn't you? Stahlman will turn out to be a double-Doctor Who trope: the scientist to whom the ends justify the means & a leader who is too highly strung for his own good. HR in the Doctor Who universe is clearly a discipline lacking in expertise, especially in the military and scientific community.

We discover why this is bad when engineer Slocum (Walter Randall) encounters some green slime leaking from one of the pipes. He makes the mistake of touching it and from that point onwards it is all downhill to the transformation of Slocum from human to Primord.

PRIMORD DIVERSION

Alas, the Primords are the classic poorly rendered Doctor Who monster. They look like slightly too cuddly Wolfmen. Or shaggy dogs. Depending on your point of view. We mostly don't see their transformation, which is probably a good thing as the transformation of Platoon Under-Leader Benton (John Levene) is a little silent movie for a 20th-century television series. Personally, I find these things easy to ignore. The sense of tension that surrounds them drives home their danger but they are the sort of thing that some people find distracting.

PRIMORD DIVERSION OVER

UNIT are providing the security for the project so the Doctor has taken the opportunity to tap its nuclear power source to work on the TARDIS console. The Doctor and Stahlman clearly do not get on. During one of his experiments with the console, the Doctor finds himself torn out of his reality and into an alternative universe.

This is one of the strongest parts of the programme. All our heroes - apart from the Doctor himself - are now part of a fascist Republic. The Brigadier is now Brigade-Leader complete with eye-patch. In this universe, the Brigade-Leader has none of the Brigadier's twinkle and isn't far off just being a bully. It's a fine performance from Courtney but the same applies to Caroline John whose alt-Liz Shaw is brilliant. And John Levene turns Benton into a thug. They are all different people but another character, Greg Sutton (Derek Newark), isn't too different to his normal Earth character. He's a drilling expert in both brought in, much to Stahlman's disappointment and annoyance.

In the alternative universe, the drilling is ahead of ours. So, despite the best attempts of the Doctor penetration of the Earth's crust takes place and the world comes to a terrible end but in that ending, we get to see our favourite characters, even in alt-form, die (or about to die.) This is the Doctor failing. It's something he'll carry with him going forward, especially as he escapes. Thanks to help from Liz, Greg, Petra Williams (Sheila Dunn) and - for more selfish reasons - the Brigade-Leader the Doctor finds himself back in our Universe.

By this point, Stahlman has started his transformation into a Primord but remains determined to finish his project. He tries to stop Sir Keith Gold (Christopher Benjamin) from reporting the problems to the authorities by having him killed. Something he achieves in the alt-world. The Doctor's return though puts a spanner in the works. He's seen the world's destruction and won't let it happen again. This is the Doctor at his most ruthless and Pertwee really sells it. He's going to save the world even if the world doesn't want to be saved.

Stahlman has turned into a full Primord by this point but the Doctor and Greg take him down with fire extinguishers*and stop the drilling. Sir Keith promises to have the shaft filled in. And things all end happily. If you forget the total destruction of an Earth. Probably.

Inferno is such a strong story. It's packed full of excellent performances from Pertwee downwards. It manages to keep its coherence even though health issues affected Douglas Camfield and he ended up in the hospital. Barry Letts finished the filming and actually I think he does a fantastic job of showing the end of the world via heat. It takes advantage of the alt-universe to allow us to see what would happen if the Doctor fails, which adds tension to the final episode in the 'normal' Earth.

The regulars get a chance to play a darker version of their existing characters and demonstrate their acting chops accordingly. John Levene, in particular, seems to revel in being Platoon Under-Leader Benton. But the rest of the cast do a fine job too, including Newark and Dunn as the nearest thing to a romantic subplot Season Seven has had. Olaf Pooley does twisted scientific bully well. Christopher Benjamin is his usual excellent self in a not particularly over-written part.

This will turn out to be Liz Shaw's last story and Caroline John gets to be superb in it. But Liz Shaw has been a little wasted as a companion, but that's not John's fault. It is the fault of writers that didn't know how to use her properly.

Pertwee finishes his first season on a massive high. He's settled into the role of The Doctor immediately and Inferno gives him a chance to be the Doctor in defeat**. Plus there's a moment in this story when the Doctor shouts: 'Listen to that. That's the sound of this planet screaming out its rage" That line, the way Pertwee delivers it has made me use it a number of times when terrible things are happening to the environment. Or in politics.

Basically, if you haven't seen Inferno then you should. Indeed, if you haven't seen Season 7, then you should. It's almost entirely brilliant if occasionally a story turns out to be a tad too long.




*There is a reason for this
**Not the Doctor in Distress, which is a terrible record. Google it. No. Don't Google it. It is horrible.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Thirteenth Doctor


So, I thought I'd finally add my tuppence worth to the whole Thirteenth Doctor announcement response.

First of all I should explain that I'm delighted. Jodi Whittaker is a fine actor. I think she'll be a fine Doctor but a lot will depend on the quality of the scripts she gets. I wrote - a while back - that casting a woman or a person of colour might require the telling of different stories and I'll be fascinated to see in what direction Chris Chibnall takes the programme in.

Steven Moffat has done fine work in sowing the seeds for this but fundamentally there was never any reason given in the television series as to why The Doctor had to be a man. The only thing that made it so was convention. It had always been a man. Therefore it must always be a man. The gender fluidity of Time Lords is now and always will be a thing.

There's been a hostile reaction from some people, which I find baffling. All this nonsense about having your childhood ruined I find frankly pathetic. My childhood went a long time ago. Somewhere around 1986/87. Nothing that happens in the present will ruin it (or improve it.) It's gone. Sometimes when the world is complicated and stressful I miss it. I think that's one of the reasons Doctor Who always cheers me up. It reminds me of a less complicated time. And if I want to revisit my childhood then I have shelves full of Doctor Who DVDs and CDs that allow me to do that. The casting of a female Doctor hasn't deleted all the past Doctor Who stories. The BBC isn't going to come around and take it all away from you. It's all still out there.

I'm a 46 year old man. Doctor Who isn't made for me anymore.

I still happen to like it quite a lot but I'm not the person who the BBC wants to make this stuff for and that's perfectly right. If they were making Doctor Who just for me we'd have Zarbi and Nimon. Doctor Who has survived so long because it always brings a new generation of fans who bring a new generation of fans. It will die if it just appeals to the hardcore amongst us. It needs to change to survive. It's why New Doctor Who was radically different to Classic Doctor Who. And since 1966 change has been in the programmes DNA. Or even earlier when Susan left and was replaced by Vicki. Companions come and go. Writers change. Showrunners change. And Doctors change. Accept it. Embrace it.

But the best thing about the announcement has been the joy with which it has been received by young girls. There are a couple of video reactions out there and it seems that was echoed elsewhere. We should be pleased for them rather than disappointed for ourselves. They're the new audience. The new fandom. They know the Doctor can be a man or a woman now. They're not anchored to the past. And that's the way it should be. Doctor Who needs to be a living show not a television museum. I've also had female friends - one of whom never even watched Doctor Who - who are interested in watching to see how it pans out.*

So let's all welcome the new Doctor, Jodi Whittaker. Let's hope she gets the stories that make everyone forget that this is something different. And we'll just settle down to watch Doctor Who once again.

Welcome aboard Jodi.

Enjoy.





*And - on a side note - we shouldn't be gatekeeping these people. I want everyone to love Doctor Who. I don't want them to be forced to justify their interest to some quasi-inquisition by fanboys on the internet. However you come to Doctor Who enjoy it. Obviously, I'd like you to dip into all of it. If you like New Who try some Classic. Or vice versa. There's something for everyone in Doctor Who. So, let's be nice to those coming on board. Doctor Who isn't just for me. It's for everyone.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Ambassadors of Death



I write this blog in the afterglow of the announcement that Jodie Whittaker will be playing the new Doctor. The first woman to play the part. I wasn't convinced the BBC would ever have the courage to do it. But they have. Good luck to Jodie. Welcome aboard. I'll probably write more about this later, which I'm sure will thrill my reader.

But what of The Ambassadors of Death I hear you cry. Well, I enjoyed this. Mostly. I have one quibble, which is how rubbish UNIT are at actual fighting and how easily they have rings run round them. This, though, is UNITs fate in most stories. They constantly face creatures that can't be killed by convential weaponry. UNITs casualty rate must have been horrific? How did a soldier end up in UNIT? Was it voluntary? If so how did word not get around the British military that joining UNIT was effectively a suicide mission? Is the Brigadier actually a terrible officer? Sorry, all that was brought on by watching some pathetic soldiering in the final episode. Come on Brigadier get it sorted out.

Although to be fair to the Brigadier it is clear that he had his doubts about General Carrington (John Abineri) early on. And there's a lovely exchange between the Brigadier, who doesn't want to speak ill of a fellow officer, and Ralph Cornish (Ronald Allen):

Brigadier: I think the General is a little over-wrought.
Cornish: I think he's mad.

Which brings us to one of the best things about this story: the villains. That's not the Ambassadors themselves. It's General Carrington and his various associates. John Aibineri is superb as Carrington., who is a man acting in what he thinks is the best interests of his world. He's been mentally shaken by the death of a colleague at the hands of the Ambassadors* earlier and he blames them. He twists that into them being a threat to the entire world and tries to stir up events to create a war between Earth and these mysterious aliens. He's not a moustache twirling, evil laughter black hat villain. He's a broken man. His final exchanges with the Brigadier and the Doctor in Episode Seven are actually quite moving.

One of Carrington's henchmen, Reegan (William Dysart), is also brilliantly played. A dry-witted, intelligent sadistic bastard he's one of the best henchmen in Doctor Who. The fact that he doesn't die at the end is great and part of me hopes that he survives another day. Perhaps UNIT use his skills in a poacher/gamekeeper way? Perhaps not.

Ronald Allen is Ralph Cornish. The problem I have with Ronald Allen is that I remember him most as David Hunter in Crossroads, which was a soap opera with a reputation so terrible that Victoria Wood was to create Acorn Antiques as piss take of it. That, combined with his semi-regular popping up in The Comic Strip Presents & the fact that he's in frankly awful The Dominators makes him a hard actor for me to take seriously. But he's suitably solid and serious in this story.

There are some great cliffhangers in this story too. (I miss cliffhangers) The Ambassadors are suitably creepy without being hugely memorable but I willing to think that they must have been in Steven Moffat's head when he wrote Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, although I could be wrong.

Yes, the story is too long but it doesn't particularly drag for me. However Liz Shaw's 'escape' is a tad annoying as I don't think Liz would be that stupid. The problem for Liz (and for Caroline John) is that the writer really doesn't know what to do with her as a character. She's too intelligent to be standing around asking stupid questions and, alas, that's what Pertwee seems to need. But Caroline John does fine work with what she's been given.

I should also pay tribute to appearances from two Doctor Who stalwarts: Michael Wisher as the journalist John Wakefield and Cyril Shapps as the scientist Lennox. Michael Wisher seems to be able to get exactly the right TV journalist tone as Wakefield who seems happy to broadcast the rantings of an insane General to the whole damn world whilst Cyril Shapps does the Shapps thing, which I love. His characters always seem to be in permanent danger of cringing to death. Oh, Lennox's death I put entirely down to bad work on behalf of the Brigadier btw who, instead of going to see him immediately, decides to faff around long enough to allow the bad guys to stick a radioactive isotope in his cell, which brings me back to my original quibble about UNIT's competence in this story.

So, to conclude The Ambassadors of Death is a reasonably enjoyable, slightly over-long story raised by some excellent performances. I also love the ambitions it has for a British Space programme that has taken us to Mars. More than once. It isn't perfect. It's probably the weakest story of Season 7 so far, but that still makes it an exceptional piece of Doctor Who.

Give it a watch.You never know, you might like it.

Next up: Inferno





*They never get a proper name. They are on Mars when Carrington first meets them but there is never any explanation of who they are and why they are where they are.





Thursday, July 13, 2017

Doctor Who and The Silurians


Doctor Who & The Silurians is as fine a Doctor Who story as you'll ever see. Yes, it is probably a tad long but then that gives us the space to see The Doctor actually doing science and some genuinely disturbing scenes in and around Marylebone Station as the Silurian plague starts to take its toll. It also allows some fine British character actors room to give their characters life.

The cast is superb: Fulton McKay as Dr Quinn, Norman Jones as Major Baker, Peter Miles as Dr Lawrence, and Geoffrey Palmer as Masters. All four of whom are doomed in their own ways. Doomed by greed for knowledge. Doomed by a desire to make up for a past mistake. Doomed by a failing career or the desire to protect his career.

Dr Lawrence's final scene, when he goes berserk, is painful to watch (in the right sense) and hilariously English. He's dying, mad and the Brigadier and Liz are circling him nervously and trying not to look. It's as if he finally dies because he's caused so much of a fuss. Dr Lawrence is almost an overhang from the Troughton era. The leader that can't lead. The difference perhaps is that Dr Lawrence has a fine line is dry snark before things get too bad but eventually in his refusal to see the obvious truth pushes him over the edge.

But let's go back a bit. (Admire the technical brilliance of the writing in this blog. It's like a well-oiled machine.)

Season 7 consists of one four-part story & three seven-part stories. All set on Earth. This was a decision of the departing producer, Derrick Sherwin, but wasn't one that new producer, Barry Letts, liked. Nor did his script editor Terrance Dicks. What it meant was they had to come up with some cunning ways of doing 'Earth Invasions'. Malcolm Hulke's solution in Doctor Who & The Silurians was to have the aliens already here. Or that the enemy wasn't even an alien. The Earth had once been theirs and they'd quite like to take it back from the mammals with ideas above their stations.

The Silurians are a species in Doctor Who that seem to have a life beyond just being an enemy of the Doctor. Their history is hinted at here - and will be given more depth as the years go by in the various parts of the Whoniverse - but the minimum we know is that they were an advanced scientific species that went into hibernation in fear of an impending cosmological catastrophe that never came to pass. Their alarm clock then never went off so they over-slept and let us take over the world. When the British government builds a nuclear power station and Cyclotron* on top of their hibernation place it seems to trigger a handful of them to wake up. They start syphoning off energy, which causes problems for the base plus the base seems to have a weird affect on the minds of those who work in it. The Silurian also make contact with Dr Quinn whilst he's caving. Dr Quinn sees this as an opportunity to get Silurian scientific solutions. But some cave explorers die and UNIT get called in to review what's happening. Then etc etc until the end and the Brigadier blows up the Silurian base much to the disgust of the Doctor.

Two things to note here. Nicholas Courtney is fantastic as the Brigadier in this story. He feels like a proper military man and isn't any kind of uniformed buffoon. And at the end he's devious and ruthless. He knows The Doctor will try and stop him destroying the Silurian base so he deliberately lets him leave. He also willingly follows orders to kill the Silurians. If these were the only Silurians then our beloved Brigadier has just committed genocide. And the Doctor witnesses it. In a way that's the point at which Doctor Who as a television series is done. How can the Doctor and the Brigadier continue to work together after this?

Yes, the Silurians - or some of them - have tried to genocide humanity but the Doctor knows they're not all like that. The Brigadier would argue that this has to be done because humanity needs to be protected from that threat. A threat that they might not be able to defend themselves against. The only good Silurian is a dead one. It's pretty dark. This is murder. But we've got five more seasons of Jon Pertwee to go and the gradual unsoldiering of UNIT to come. I love the Brigadier and UNIT but at the end of this story, you have to ask yourself why.

Also, this is only Jon Pertwee's second story and yet he's already so settled in the part. It feels like he's been the Doctor forever. We talk about Tom Baker being meant to be the Doctor but watching this you have to say that Jon Pertwee was born to be the Doctor. He has the charisma to burn. Yes, his Doctor can be a tad patronising - witness his tone with Miss Dawson (Thomasine Heiner) when talking to her about Dr Quinn. But he's trying to do the right thing in the face of hostility from friends and enemies.

Poor Caroline John as Liz Shaw is left at a bit of a loose end though. She's reduced to answering phones and checking HR files, although in Episode 6 she does at least get to assist the Doctor in attempting to find a cure to the Silurian plague. John is clearly a good actress but I fear Liz Shaw is a tad unwritten.

A brief word on the design of the Silurians. They look slightly dated now but they look proper alien here. Whereas the modern Silurians have been humanised to a degree that you can have a marriage between one and a human being you can't imagine Jenny settling down with one of these Silurians. Also, their third eye**, which has some kind of sonic power so can be used as both a weapon and a way of digging through rock to convenient locations close to the person you want to kidnap, is effective.

The director, Timothy Combe, gets some great shots from the Silurian point of view. In fact, Combe's direction is pretty damn solid throughout. The scenes of the Silurian out on the Moor are well done. He also does a fine job of keeping the Silurians hidden until their appearance actually has an impact. The first couple of episodes should be part of the instruction manual of anyone making Doctor Who, although I will politely skate over the dinosaur. Because I am a gentleman.

So, Doctor Who and the Silurians is a fine story. It's well-directed, well-written and well-acted. If you've not watched it you should do. And don't binge watch it. Classic Doctor Who thrives on breathing space between episodes.

Next up...The Ambassadors of Death.




*Which appears to be a particle accelerator aka a Large Hadron Collider.
**This use will be forgotten by the time The Silurians reappear in Warriors of the Deep when people think it is a signal to announce which of them is speaking. By the time we get around to New Doctor Who it will disappear altogether.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Spearhead From Space


Well, hello, everyone.

It has been a long time. Let us forget this long gap and carry on as if nothing has happened.

Spearhead From Space arrives like a brightly coloured meteor after all the black and white Hartnell and Troughton. There's a glorious new title sequence although, I suspect the majority of people watching this saw it in black and white. I had a black and white portable television well into the 1980s. I digress.

I'm going to suggest that Spearhead From Space is the best story to introduce a new Doctor - ignoring An Unearthly Child for sake of argument - until The Eleventh Hour. So good is it that RTD basically homages it to death in Rose, which is surely Spearhead From Space but without UNIT and with a shift in companion to the more 'ordinary' Rose Tyler.

Indeed, it is UNIT not the companion that introduces us to the new Doctor. That's because they are also busy interviewing the new companion, Liz Shaw (Caroline John.) Liz Shaw is a proper scientist with multiple degrees, a fine line in dry wit and a dash of cynicism. She's being interviewed by the Brigadier for the role he really wants the Doctor to fill.

Meanwhile, mysterious things are falling from space, yokels are trying to be devious at risk to their own life and limb and all is not well at a plastics factory.

Our introduction to the new Doctor is slow by modern standards. We don't really get a clear idea of what he's like until the second episode. Indeed, the Brigadier - who knows nothing about regeneration - isn't even convinced it is the Doctor initially but the Doctor's escape from the hospital and blasé arrival at UNIT headquarters help convince him otherwise.

We start to find out more about what's going on. Ransome (Derek Smee) escapes from the plastics factory run by Hibbert (the ever-wonderful John Woodnutt) and his mysterious new colleague: the sinister Channing (Hugh Burden).  Those three put in marvellous performances. Smee doesn't last long but gives us one of the few genuinely realistic depictions of terror in the series history. Woodnutt, who will serve Doctor Who well over the years, is great as Hibbert. But I think the star of the show is Burden who gives a chillingly alien performance.

It turns out that the meteorites contain the energy required by the Nestene Consciousness to build themselves an ideal body with which to rule the Earth and use plastic to take over the world. The Autons are just a place to put that energy. They come in basic models - the shop window dummy - through to the increasingly sophisticated replicas and are rather brilliant in both forms, although we only really see one proper replica in action, which is General Scobie (Hamilton Dyce).

The Nestene's plan is quite clever too: sow fear in the streets via shop window dummies whilst the replicas of the important civil servants and military officials do their worst behind the scenes. The latter we don't really get to see - except General Scobie - but the Target novelisation really brings this to life. (PS Read the novelisation btw it is fabulous.)

The Doctor and Liz have put together something which might defeat the Autons, they go out and after testing it on General Scobie go on to take on the monster itself. Obviously, there are some issues with it in order to stretch out the tension. However, all comes good in the end. The Doctor kills the weird tentacled beast in the tank illustrating a) it is hard for Doctor Who to do good tentacle and b) some superb Pertwee gurning.

This is tightly plotted and rattles along at an almost modern pace, although we get more time to establish characters, such as Liz Shaw and the Doctor himself. Caroline John does a fine job of her first story. Staying with Pertwee and Courtney as they begin a wonderful partnership takes some doing and she never seems to be lost.

What of the new Doctor? Well, he seizes the part with both hands. He has the charisma to burn and his Doctor gives us a chance to see a bit of comedy, a bit of seriousness and a lot of energy pretty rapidly. This is a different Doctor to Patrick Troughton. He's less aimless. He's angry at being dumped on the Earth by the Time Lords and a little bit devious. He tries to trick Liz into giving him the TARDIS key so he can escape - but the Time Lords have foreseen that and blocked him there. To cut a long story short he's brilliant from the off and it makes you look forward to seeing more of this new Doctor.

However, this is the last four parter for the rest of Season 7. The next three stories are all 7 parts long, which feels like a serious chunk of Doctor Who even for me. And I've seen them before. Indeed this blog started with my thoughts on Season Seven a long time ago.

So, next up Doctor Who and the Silurians.