Monday, 28 December 2009

Doctor Who: Dalek

“You would make a good Dalek.”

Blimey. It’s been ages since my last review. And they probably won’t be all too frequent until the New Year, after which I’ll really get going. Anyway…

We’ve established the new format, with a story in the far future, a story in the past, some present day alien invasion hi-jinks, and a lot of rather clever and knowing deconstruction of the series and its tropes. Here, this time from Rob Shearman, we get what feels like our first “regular” story now that the format has been set up, but also one which develops the Time War stuff and the season’s arc.

The Doctor and Rose land in a museum of alien artifacts somewhere beneath Utah in 2012, where they find among other things the arm of a Slitheen and the head of a Revenge era Cyberman. Which would presumably be from the 29th century, but best not to dwell on such things. Anyway, they’re soon caught and taken to the museum’s owner, amoral tycoon Henry Van Statten. Van Statten is a fantastic villain, casually wiping the memories of people who annoy him and casually leaving them as homeless junkies on a street somewhere. He also owns the Internet, apparently, and also seems to somehow choose the President of the USA.

Van Statten has managed to capture a real alien creature, which he calls a “Metaltron”. This is of course a Dalek, and the moment the Doctor realises what else is in the room with him is, ahem, fantastic. Eccleston plays this very intensely indeed, and we soon discover that not only is this the last Dalek, but it was the Daleks the Time Lords were fighting against in the Time War. The Dalek and the Doctor are each the last of their kind, and both prisoners of Van Statten. This is a very different way of presenting a Dalek- not only is there only one, in a position of apparent vulnerability, but the whole Time War angle makes us look at them afresh.

Meanwhile, Rose goes off with Adam, Van Statten’s annoying underling, a character I couldn’t look at for more than two seconds without the word “Hollyoaks” occurring to me. This is not a good thing.

Adam spends his time cataloguing Van Statten’s artefacts, which automatically puts him in a lesser position to Rose, who’s experiencing the wonders of the universe in a rather better way than he is. She’s also better than him morally; Adam is willingly working for someone who’s more than a bit dodgy and doesn’t seem too concerned about the Dalek being tortured. But Rose is horrified, sympathising with the Dalek. They have a bit of a chat, and then Rose puts her hand on its dome. Oops. This is the sort of psychological Dalek cleverness we haven’t seen since the days of David Whitaker. I like it.

Even better, the Dalek then goes on to demonstrate exactly how cool it is, using its sucker to kill its former torturer Simmons (so that’s what they’re for!), downloading the whole Internet, and turning its mid-section right round to shoot behind it. And right through this the gun makes the same sound it used top in the ‘80s. This Dalek is pretty damn impressive. If I didn’t know better I’d suspect they were going all out to show just how scary a single Dalek is just so they can really freak us out by showing hordes upon hordes of them at the end of the season. Of course, it probably won’t happen.

We get the obligatory stairs scene, of course; it may not be doing anything Remembrance of the Daleks hasn’t already done, but it’s no less cool for that. And I loved the cold inhuman efficiency of the Dalek activating the sprinkler system and simply electrocuting everyone. This is Dalek behaviour circa The Daleks’ Master Plan.

The Dalek conversation with the Doctor is just as good, getting to the heart of the Daleks and the Doctor’s relationship with them. Without orders the Dalek doesn’t know what to do, so it simply intends to revert to its default behaviour and just kill everyone. But the Doctor’s outburst (“Why don’t you just die?”) raises some uncomfortable parallels.

Rose ends up trapped behind the closing door with the Dalek, seemingly doomed. This has particular resonance after Jackie demanded of the Doctor last episode whether her daughter was safe. Naturally, the Doctor takes this out on Van Statten, a total git who’s entirely deserving of the abuse, but the terrible guilt he feels is obvious. There’s quite a lot going on between this scene between Van Statten and Goddard, too, as power gradually drains away from the one to the other. Van Statten’s authority suddenly means nothing.

Of course Rose is alive, and has “contaminated” the Dalek with her humanity, not something which would be welcome to an absolute racial supremacist. And once we, the audience, know that, we get a bit of comic relief with the Doctor (“Broken. Broken. Hairdryer.”) And then the Dalek goes sunbathing. What else?

The ending is most satisfying indeed. Rose forces the Doctor to face what his survivor’s guilt has done to him as he’s the one pointing the gun at the Dalek, not vice versa. But then, on the other hand, Rose is made to be complicit in the Dalek’s suicide. In other news, Van Statten gets his comeuppance as Goddard takes over and wipes his memory. Finally, the obligatory Time War conversation finishes things off, as the Doctor confirms to Rose that he’s definitely the last of his people as it “feels like there’s no one.”

Well, that’s just got to be another 5/5, which means this season so far is doing really rather well. I’ll score a story less that 5/5 at some point, honest!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Doctor Who: Aliens of London / World War Three

Aliens of London

“I’m shaking my booty!”

We begin with another reprise, this time of Rose, and the TARDIS arrives back in the Powell Estate. And… Rose has been gone a whole year. Oops. That’s quite a pre-titles sequence.

Hang on, what’s that the little kid is writing on the side of the TARDIS with is spray can? Never mind. This whole set-up is great: once more RTD finally does something that’s never been done before but must have been speculated about by the viewers. In exploring the consequences of travelling with the Doctor on those left behind RTD once more deconstructs the Doctor / companion relationship, to brilliant effect. There are some funny moments- Jackie slapping the Doctor; the Doctor and Rose replying “NO!” in unison as the policeman asks if they’re in a sexual relationship- but these moments are needed to prevent things getting too dark. Because for Jackie things really have been horrible, and Rose really is very uncaring to her mother. Both these things are wisely kept subtle but they’re there.

Things then slow down a bit as Rose and the Doctor go outside for a chat. They start getting all philosophical, and the Doctor casually mentions he’s 900 years old (he’s lost at least 53 years since Time and the Rani, then). But just as Rose is musing on how no one else around her knows that spaceships exist, a bloody great big one proceeds to crash land above them, in the most dramatic way possible. So what should the Doctor and Rose do but watch it on telly, just as we‘re doing? I love it when things get all postmodern.

The montage we get of different TV programmes (including Blue Peter!) and their reaction to the events is another superb touch, and yet another example of both RTD’s effortless grasp of things you can do with the narrative in television and the much greater degree of TV literacy viewers are credited with compared to earlier eras. Plus, we get Andrew Marr as himself, and he’s great.

On a less positive note, RTD clearly has a rubbish grasp of how British politics works, something I’ll be whinging about quite a bit as I’m a bit of a politics junkie, but this time round it doesn’t loom as large as it did at the time, and I think I may have overreacted originally. But there’s no denying it’s absurd for a parliamentary committee chief on sugar standards or whatever- and thus a backbencher- to suddenly become Acting Prime Minister just because the Cabinet are all conveniently outside London.

The Doctor goes for a wander, but to reassure Rose he gives Rose a TARDIS key of her own; big moment, that. He sneaks off to the TARDIS, where Mickey (who no one’s bothered to tell) spots him…

We meet the tenacious, decent and dull (in a good way) member for Flydale North, with her commendable continued interest in the kind of boring details that proper politics is all about in the face of a ruddy great spaceship that’s just landed in London. And it’s through her eyes that we see something is very strange in Downing Street.

The Doctor, meanwhile, lands near the place where the alien has been taken to, and discusses things with one “Dr Sato”. They don’t tell us what her first name is. I’m guessing something like Toshiko.

Bizarrely, the alien turns out to be a cute little piggy- something which just seemed tonally wrong at the time but no longer does. Perhaps I’m more used to RTD’s style. Even more bizarrely, the whole thing turns out to be a joke, an alien hoax concocted by aliens. And if that’s not enough to tell us that the baddies in this story are very silly aliens, we see our three obvious baddies behaving in a most silly fashion.

Mickey’s shocked to see Rose; no one bothered to tell him that she’s back. Worse, he’s spent the last year being thought of as Rose’s murderer; the character was a buffoon in Rose but now he’s suddenly a very sympathetic figure, a casual victim of the Doctor’s and Rose’s lifestyle who’s genuinely suffered in their wake.

The Doctor returns in the TARDIS- and Jackie sees. Oops. Jackie can’t take this, or the shock of the TARDIS interior, and just runs away, her whole world falling apart. Once back inside she reports the Doctor as an alien- and all sorts of alarms go off. The Doctor is a known figure.

We’ve not had much in the way of explicit continuity from previous series thus far, but here we get a mention of UNIT! And Mickey’s been looking up the Doctor online; there are an awful lot of myths and legends that have built up about him. For the first time in the “new” series, we get explicit acknowledgement of previous incarnations.

Troops surround the Doctor and Rose and they’re put into the back of a police car. But they’re not being arrested but rather conscripted; the Doctor is able to smugly inform Rose that he’s well known in government circles as an expert on alien invasions. And that “Lloyd George used to drink me under the table.”

Unfortunately, it’s a trap, set by the aliens, and we get an excellent triple cliffhanger, with aliens- Slitheen- also advancing on both Rose and Jackie…

World War Three

“I need to be naked!”

“Rejoice in it. Your body is magnificent!”

The Doctor saves the day- but unfortunately one of the Slitheen is disguised as someone who seems to be accepted as Prime Minister for some reason; all the forces at the state’s disposal are now out to get the Doctor. Still, he’s brilliant, and manages to manoeuvre himself into the Cabinet Room with Rose and Harriet Jones.

Apparently “Slitheen” is the aliens’ surname, not their species- nice bit of wrong-footing there. And it’s not an invasion, just a family business who somehow wants to make money.

Nice conversation between Jackie and Mickey. It’s hard to argue with Mickey when he says that “This is what he does, that Doctor. Everywhere he goes- death and destruction.” It’s also nice that he bonds with Jackie, sort of (You saved my life. God, that’s embarrassing.”

The bit with the nuclear codes being held by the UN drove me mad with its implausibility when this was originally shown. I’ve now seen Robot, so I understand it’s a nod to continuity (and by far the biggest so far), but in isolation it’s quite absurd that a nuclear power should give up its arsenal so easily, and here it’s far more than the throwaway line than it was in Robot, and no longer supposedly in a “near future” to boot. Even so, it didn’t annoy me so much this time.

It’s great to see that, after his portrayal in Rose, we now see a different side of Mickey, with the trapped Doctor and Rose suddenly reliant on his computer hacking skills. He could get into trouble for that if he’s not careful. And it’s a great moment when Jackie asks the Doctor “Is my daughter safe?” and he can’t answer.

Probably the heart of the episode is the Slitheen attacking Mickey and Jackie while the Doctor “narrows it down”. It seems the Slitheen are from the planet Raxacoricofallapatorius and vulnerable to vinegar.

The line from the “Prime Minister” about “massive weapons of destruction, capable of being deployed within 45 seconds” is even funnier now than it was then, and shows how you can get away with a lot more satirically in a drama if you include elements of the fantastic.

Mickey, of course, saves the world at the climax, guiding the missile which destroys the Slitheen (“Oh, boll…”). And the episode concludes with the Doctor actually inviting him aboard the TARDIS. The offer is turned down, of course, but it’s a nice bit of character development.

Jackie is finally forced to accept the Doctor, if only because she fears losing contact with her daughter if she doesn’t. But the Doctor refuses to stay and have a meal, as though he’s somehow afraid of domesticity. This is an interesting part of the Doctor’s character; this Doctor wouldn’t have cooked supper at the end of Battlefield.

I’m rather surprised to be rating this two-parter a 5/5 after not liking it way back when, but perhaps I’m lightening up a bit in my old(er) age. Once again RTD has a good play with the fundamental building blocks of the series, and it’s great.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead

“The stiffs are getting lively again.”

It’s going to be Gothic (in the proper sense). It’s going to be Christmassy. It’s therefore going to be Victorian. Why, we even get a bit of gaslight at the start. And a great looking zombie, and an undertaker who’s clearly in on it! But the most striking thing about the pre-credit sequence is that the Doctor and Rose aren’t in it, which instantly makes it feel much like the openings of old.

It’s also our first script of the new era not to be by RTD, as Mark Gatiss makes his debut. We begin pretty much as we’ve left off, though; they’ve done the future, so now they’re doing the past, namely Naples, 1860. Apparently. And, of course, they’re going backwards in time, so the vortex turns blue this time. Once again the TARDIS interior is full of action, motion and hammering as the TARDIS travels- I love that. But not as much as the Doctor’s directions to Rose about the wardrobe!

Victorian Cardiff, and it’s so weird to see Eve Myles as Gwyneth from the vantage point of now. She’s brilliant, of course, as is Simon Callow as Charles Dickens, whose every word of dialogue is something to treasure (“What the Shakespeare is going on?”). It’s Christmas Eve, and Dickens is feeling old and deflated, perhaps a little like Scrooge, of whom he’ll be reciting later tonight.

The pace may be a bit slower than the last two stories, but things still happen pretty quickly. The undertaker kidnaps Rose pretty sharpish while the Doctor instantly hitches a lift in Dickens’ cab to give chase. This is a rather amusing scene, in which the two men bond over the Doctor’s love for The Signalman.

Unfortunately this is counterpointed somewhat by a later scene in which the Doctor is startlingly rude to Dickens for his scepticism concerning the supernatural. This is simply wrong for the show, which has always presented reason as a good thing. Fortunately, this is the only lapse. It’s clear that these apparently supernatural events have shattered Dickens’ worldview, and this is something which is to be developed.

There’s also a good scene between Rose and Gwyneth, showing the clash of values. While Rose sees Gwyneth as downtrodden- and she probably is- Gwyneth doesn’t see herself as such. Sneed doesn’t actually treat her that badly in the context of the time. But the point about this scene is Gwyneth’s mindreading abilities. What’s all this about “The darkness… the big Bad Wolf”? Ah well. It’s probably nothing.

Weirdly, we get a séance (Dickens is, of course, correct about all the things that used to go on), but this is actually great because I love the way that Word just put that acute accent in “séance” just then. Anyway, the creatures that have been inhabiting the cadavers are apparently called the Gelth, and they’ve come through a rift. They’re the last of their kind, and deprived of physical substance, as the result of a Time War, which was “invisible to smaller species, but devastating to higher forms.” Is it me, or does that sound a bit familiar?

We get a bit of a debate between Rose and the Doctor about whether the Gelth should be allowed to inhabit human corpses, although if we put the ethical arguments to one side this would blatantly not be a practical solution. But this is followed by a more interesting conversation between the two of them about how their actions can in fact change the past, and thus the present- an important thing to establish.

The Gelth, unfortunately, were ever slightly dying; there are in fact billions of them, and they plan to kill every human on Earth and inhabit their corpse. Oops. Fortunately, Dickens and Gwyneth save the day with a bit of quick thinking and self-sacrifice respectively. But, of course, we can’t end on the downer of Gwyneth’s death, and so Dickens gets a nice coda.

After the brilliance of late, this is merely great in the traditional sense rather than breaking any new ground. It still scrapes a 5/5 though.

Doctor Who: The End of the World

“Moisturise me! Moisturise me!”

We begin with a bit of a reprise from the events of the previous story, something I’d entirely forgotten. And then we get the pre-credit sequence proper, our first as a standard part of the format, as the Doctor shows off shamelessly to Rose about the TARDIS and all the times and places they can visit. It’s a great scene, though, especially as the way the TARDIS is now operated is so charmingly steampunk, and so much more visually interesting than it has been before what with all those buttons and levers and the sense of movement. Rose chooses to visit the future, so for the first time the TARDIS is seen travelling through the red vortex.

The TARDIS lands on a space station on the day the Sun is scheduled to expand and destroy the Earth. Naturally, this is a tourist event, and has not been left to nature. The planet now belongs to the National Trust and even the continents have been restored to the “classic” arrangement.

The Doctor dodges the once traditional “Oi! Who the Hell are you?” tiresomeness by flashing some psychic paper for the first time ever. Imagine how short Frontier in Space would have been if he’d carried it back then. Still, it’s particularly convenient for our new format of mainly self-contained 45 minute episodes. That and the pacing.

We get to see loads of aliens, such as the Moxx of Balhoon, the Face of Boe, and Jabe, a tree who the Doctor immediately starts flirting with. And of course there’s also the rather striking looking last human, Cassandra, with her ostrich eggs and her iPods.

It’s rather clever how Rose suddenly panics; it’s all suddenly too much, and she feels she’s got to get away, she’s got to run away to the sound of Tainted Love. This, and the scenes that follow, is exactly the sort of examination of the core ideas of the show which have never really been addressed before except by viewers at home, and pretty much gives us in microcosm exactly what’s so great about RTD’s rebirth of the show.

Rather neatly, Rose is immediately brought back to a manageable reality by a simple chat with a plumber from Crespallion (so that’s where Max Marble got the name from!), where she suddenly realises that the Doctor’s a complete stranger and she has no idea who he is, and wonders what she’s done by agreeing to go with him. This is brilliant, completely deconstructing the Doctor / companion relationship in a way which makes it stronger. And even more brilliant is her subsequent conversation with the Doctor. First she’s angry at him for letting the TARDIS get into her head as it translates for her, then he’s angry at her for asking questions about a past he doesn’t want to talk about. Then, after a brief mutual sulk, they make up, and the Doctor does some jiggery-pokery to Rose’s phone so she can call her mum, five billion years ago. As a scene it’s simply perfect.

It’s also a bit shocking how dated Rose’s phone already looks. And suddenly it’s evident just how much of the dialogue between Rose and Jackie centres on the compensation culture.

Back to what’s happening on the space station, though, the most obvious thing is how refreshingly thought through the design it. The days of dull white corridors are over; at last we have a future with an aesthetic that was actually designed for living in. But, of course, there are also some aliens in it. Hang on, what was the Moxx of Balhoon just saying about the “Bad Wolf scenario”? Never mind.

Rose’s chat with Cassandra quickly establishes just how shallow, racist, narcissistic and plain nasty she is. The Doctor’s chat with Yasmin Bannerman’s rather lovely Jade is much more pleasant, and it’s great how she’s apparently descended from Earth’s rainforests. Jade has discovered the Doctor’s species: he’s a Time Lord. And it’s obvious that some terrible tragedy has befallen them. But it’s a pleasant scene in spite of this as Jade touches his arm in sympathy. Oh, and by the way, there are nasty spider things on the loose and the shields are down, putting the whole space station in peril. Forgot to mention it earlier.

The Doctor now gathers everybody together to exercise ze little grey cells. Dismissing the Adherents of the Repeated Meme as the obligatory red herring (and perfectly named for their function!), he fingers Cassandra as the culprit, but away she promptly teleports, leaving the Doctor to save the space station with help from Jabe, who bravely gives her life. The Doctor’s rather put out by this, so he effectively teleports Cassandra back to the space station and promptly puts her to death. And for all the talk about how “everything has its span and everything dies,” that’s what this is: an execution. It’s just about acceptable here in the context of Cassandra’s unnatural lifespan, but I wouldn’t like to see a lot more of this sort of thing.

The Doctor and Rose return to the normality of 2005, and the Doctor finally confides to Rose that his own planet also “burned”, in a lost war. He’s now the last of the Time Lords. Blimey!

Once again, brilliant. With time to breathe, this time RTD has a good examination of the tropes which make the series tick. 5/5.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Doctor Who: Rose

“Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!”

Now that’s what I call a set of opening titles, especially after what we were subjected to by the TV Movie! The theme tune is fantastic as well, very much based on the classic template, as it should be. And not only the titles but the programme itself seems to have an overriding sense of redness, which in a bizarre outbreak of synaesthesia I tend to associate with the visual style of the middle of this decade. I know, I’m weird.

It feels very strange watching this again a few years later, and seeing the name of Russell T. Davies for what I’ll try and pretend is the first time. But it’s just as great now as it was then, starting in space above the Earth, zooming down to Rose’s alarm clock and whizzing us through her working day. The pace is incredibly fast compared to anything we’ve previously assumed in the Marathon, and trusts the audience to understand narrative short cuts which the programme hasn’t used before. It’s also a jolt to see an unmistakably contemporary London. And we’re introduced, of course, not only to Rose but her mother, Jackie, and her boyfriend, Mickey, who’s portrayed as quite the prat here.

Rose ends the working day in a claustrophobic basement, surrounded by shop window dummies which we all instinctively know to be Autons cos we’ve seen Spearhead From Space. And incidentally, that’s two stories in a row that borrow heavily from said Pertwee tale.

The dummies come to life and surround Rose, but suddenly a mysterious, leather jacketed man grabs her hands and simply says “Run!” He appears fleetingly, blows up the building, and then disappears from Rose’s life, apparently forever.

We then move to scenes from Rose’s domestic life, establishing the characters of Rose, Jackie and Mickey, all of whom we’ll be getting to know quite well over the next few weeks. Mickey, in particular, seems to be behaving exactly like the bloke who gets killed first in a slasher flick.

It’s a new day, signalled by a very nice repeating of the shot of the alarm clock, and suddenly the Doctor turns up at Rose’s door, drawn there by the plastic arm that Rose has kept. We get some amusing moments, as Jackie flirts with the Doctor, and the Doctor seems to appraise what is apparently a new regeneration by looking at his face in the mirror. But then we get to the important bit, as Rose follows the Doctor out of the flat and they have a very interesting conversation, the subtext of which is that they’re both sizing each other up. Suddenly the Doctor comes out with a fantastic speech about the planet revolving, but then he disappears, again seemingly forever, as he tells Rose to forget him. The camera moves away as he walks towards the police box, and then, alongside our first instance of what would become known as the “Chancellor Flavia” theme, we hear that old familiar sound…

In a nice modern touch, Rose looks up the Doctor on the Internet; inevitably, in the Whoniverse, he’s generated conspiracy theories, the theorist here being Clive, played rather interestingly, by the same actor who played the Devil in Davies’s own excellent The Second Coming, opposite Christopher Eccleston. In what is presumably a nod to Who Killed Kennedy, also concerning conspiracy theories in the Whoniverse, the Doctor is shown to have been at the assassination of JFK.

Meanwhile, Mickey has some trouble with CGI while investigating a wheelie bin, and there is burping. Mickey is replaced by a plastic version, and Rose fails utterly to notice the extreme oddness of his behaviour in spite of the time that must elapse before they end up in the restaurant. Here, the Doctor turns up again, and plastic Mickey is strangely scary as his arms suddenly turn into meat cleavers and he lashes out at anything in front of him. The Doctor defeats him, but Rose is no less impressive, having the presence of mind to sound the alarm and evacuate everyone.

They flee to the TARDIS, which gets exactly the sort of introduction here that it should have been given in the TV Movie. Everything is introduced to us through Rose’s eyes, and the fact that it’s bigger on the inside is played for maximum effect by having Rose walk right round it. The new TARDIS interior is brilliant, too. And the conversation between the Doctor and Rose is brilliant, too- I love the way the Doctor replies “Yep. That all right?” as Rose suggests he might be an alien. He’s also shown to be alien, in a rather Tom Baker-ish way, in his apparent lack of concern for Mickey, or Rose’s need for reassurance as to his fate, focussing instead on the bigger picture.

We get some admirably concise exposition; the Nestene have lost their “protein planets” in some unspecified recent catastrophe, and the Doctor has a MacGuffin called “anti-plastic”. Although this is technically a cheat, something like this is needed if we’re to fit everything necessary into an introductory episode with so many different jobs to do. The bare bones of the actual plot, quite rightly, are perfunctory.

After the highly amusing scene in front of the London Eye, the Doctor confronts the Shadow Proclamation. Refusing to just use the Anti-plastic, he insists on giving the Nestenes a chance. We get some information here; there’s some authority called the Shadow Proclamation, and the Doctor has recently fought in a war, during which he failed to save the Nestene homeworld “or any of them.”

As all this is happening, the Autons smash through windows in scenes we never actually got to see during Spearhead From Space. Clive is killed, thus proving him right about the Doctor bringing death in his wake, with his last words suggesting he’s heard about the events of the earlier story. I’m pleased that the sound effect for the Auton guns is exactly the same as the original.

Back to the Nestene Consciousness, and I’m surprised to hear (well, read in the subtitles) that it cries “Time Lord!” Rose saves the day, with the Doctor taking her and Mickey away from danger in the TARDIS. Mickey’s terrified reaction to its dimensions here underlines even further the contrast between him and Rose. Rose initially refuses the offer to travel in the TARDIS, rather unconvincingly citing her responsibilities to her mother and boyfriend, but when the Doctor gives her a second chance she doesn’t take much convincing.

Wow. Now that’s what I call an introduction. This story got so much done in the course of its 45 minutes, and did it with wit, style and incredible characterisation. Our two leads are both fab too. 5/5.

Doctor Who: The TV Movie (1996)

“I was with Puccini before he died.”

“Name dropper!”

This one starts with narration and has a lot of that Gallifreyan symbol in it, but it’s no Deadly Assassin. In fact it’s an extremely weird experience watching it now, when its ‘90s-ness is finally beginning to date.

So the Daleks are putting the Master on trial and putting him to death. Best not to think too hard about this. Then they release the body to their mortal enemy, the Doctor. Best not to think about this either. Or the Dalek voices, which are mercifully drowned out.

The opening titles are completely devoid of character, as is the theme tune. From the perspective of today it just looks like a standard ‘90s sci-fi title sequence, and along with the bland orchestral theme it starts out feeling more like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation than Doctor Who. And that’s not a compliment, coming from me!

The awkwardness continues. The first few minutes consist, as Charlie Brooker might say, of the viewer being constantly being smashed in the face by continuity references, yet what is glaringly absent is any kind of quick and early introduction to the show for the American audience. Incredibly, we’re shown the inside of the TARDIS with no actual explanation of what it is until a long way in.

Still, the TARDIS interior looks great, very retro, with lots of clocks everywhere, an old library and a generally Victorian feel pretty much symbolised by the Doctor’s reading material, The Time Machine. In the context of the Marathon this feels like a continuation of the running gag with the Doctor’s reading material from Dragonfire and Remembrance of the Daleks but, of course, it can’t be! And Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, travelling alone, is much better dressed than we’ve ever seen him before. In fact, for the first time since The Horns of Nimon we have a total absence of question marks and this, at least, is one thing worth cheering about. I wonder how much time has passed since Survival?

The escape of the Master from the casket gets the plot started, and we cut to San Francisco’s Chinatown in a very well directed scene which pans out from a close-up of a fish’s eye to encompass the sense of a whole story. The story as a whole is extremely well shot, dull though some of the design choices may be.

There’s a shootout, the Doctor fails to check the scanner and is gunned down, and gang member Chang Lee takes him to hospital. We’re introduced to Grace Holloway, watching Madame Butterfly with her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, as she’s summoned to operate on him. This is all well and good, but it’s a very odd way to begin the story for someone who’s never seen the show before, such as the main part of the target audience.

Things start to get very Spearhead From Space at this point, although I like the fact that the Doctor’s two hearts are dismissed as a double exposure. And it’s a nice touch that the Doctor’s injuries are not that serious and it is in fact Grace operating on his heart(s) that kills him!

The scenes with Pete in the morgue are brilliant, and probably the best thing about the story. The counterpointing of the Doctor’s regeneration with scenes from James Whale’s superb 1931 Frankenstein is genius. The regeneration itself, though, is a little underwhelming, and the morphing effect doesn’t really work; it’s obvious where they locked the camera and switched actors. And the implied Christ symbolism of the regenerated Doctor emerging from the morgue in his robe is extremely pretentious.

Chang Lee rifles through the Doctor’s belongings; the sonic screwdriver is back, as is the yo yo. Meanwhile, there’s a chillingly effective scene as the Master wakes up in the body of ambulance driver, Bruce, and casually kills Bruce’s unnamed wife. The Master may look and sound different, but his fundamental underlying character is the same, driven by an unrelenting urge to survive alongside the same old obsession with the Doctor. And Eric Roberts is superb in the role.

The introduction to the TARDIS which should have occurred at the beginning finally takes place as Chang Lee enters the TARDIS, to be met with the Master and his smooth lies. We see the Cloister Room, which now looks very different, like a cathedral, complete with bats(!), and which for some reason has the Eye of Harmony, literally an eye, right in the middle. Apparently this powers the TARDIS and has other vague magical powers, none of which makes any sense at all in the wake of The Deadly Assassin. And then, just to push the wrongness even further, we’re told for no particular reason that the Doctor is half human. What?

Meanwhile, there’s a much better scene going on between the Doctor and Grace, in which Paul McGann excels. And is very Scouse, far more so than I remembered. He finally remembers who he is, speaking of his father and “the warm Gallifreyan night”. And then the kiss happens. Finally, an acknowledgement that the Doctor’s not some kind of eunuch! It’s quite comical, looking back, to see how controversial this was at the time.

The Doctor declares the electronic thingummy inside San Francisco’s atomic clock to be this story’s McGuffin, while Grace denounces him to the psychiatric unit behind his back. The upshot of this is the Doctor, Grace, and the Master posing as Bruce all riding in the ambulance, each having a radically different agenda. Only when the Master suddenly goes CGI does Grace finally accept the Doctor is telling the literal truth.

After a scene which means Grace will probably be put away for a long time after the events of the story, the Doctor and Grace are racing towards the atomic clock on a police motorbike, while the Master gets his best moment ever (“THIS… IS… AN… AMBULANCE!!!” But the Master and Chang Lee get there first. Unfortunately, there then follows a lot of embarrassing scenes in which the Doctor seems to know about the personal futures of everybody he meets for some reason. Worse, he further underlines that he’s half-human “on his mother’s side”. And describes the TARDIS chameleon circuit as a “cloaking device”. Grrr.

But still there’s good stuff alongside the chaff. I love the fact that the Doctor keeps a spare TARDIS key just above the “p”. And the police motorbike riding into and out of the TARDIS is a deservedly iconic moment.

The climax has the master triumphant, and dreeeessed for the occasion in his robes, while Grace is possessed and the Doctor is doing his Christ thing again, only this time crossed with Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Oh, and the half-human thing gets mentioned yet again, forcing us to conclude that it must, sadly, be true as everyone seems to be suddenly making such a big thing of it.

All this is juxtaposed with scenes at the atomic clock as partygoers wait for the New Year and the year 2000. How ironic; this professor bloke has built a clock able to measure time with absolute accuracy, yet he’s got the start of the millennium a whole year out.

The ending is disappointing, presenting the Doctor as rather passive for the supposed hero of the show, and words simply fail me at the Doctor’s apparently turning back time to bring Grace and Chang Lee back to life. So, that’ll be no more sense of threat ever again, then. Still, I like the very end where Grace subverts the tropes of the programme by asking the Doctor to come with her.

Frustratingly, there’s actually quite a lot that’s right with this; it’s well shot, well acted and contains lots of good set pieces. But the cheat ending, the tiresome Christ symbolism, the inevitable awkwardness of having the actor playing the lead suddenly change 21 minutes in, and worst of all the story’s failure to work as an introduction, mean that sadly this has to be considered a failure, and we’re probably lucky that it never led to a series. 2/5.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Doctor Who: Survival

Part One

“People don’t just vanish.”

“You did.”

“That’s different.”

Blimey. Doing the Marathon has really leant this story a sense of occasion. The last proper McCoy story. The last story of the ‘80s. The last regular story for sixteen years. And for a long time threatening to be the last story ever. Fortunately, though, none of this is apparent in the story itself.

We end with another new writer, Rona Munro, now better known as a playwright, of course, and incredibly only the second woman to write for Doctor Who. It’s set in London’s suburbs in what was then the present day, and for the first time in this Marathon it’s a setting that feels pretty much like now. It’s quite shocking to get this sudden rush of normality; of streets, clothes and attitudes in Doctor Who, especially at this point.

So this is Perivale, where Ace comes from. I can identify with her even more, especially when she complains that “Nothing ever happens here”. Ace is back to see what happened to her old mates, but they’re nowhere to be found. Ace tries a phone box (ok, that’s dated a bit) while the Doctor gets bored very quickly (!) and is distracted by some feline goings-on. There’s something about this Doctor that suits such domestic ennui in a way none of his predecessors ever did.

They reach Ace’s old youth club, which is now the setting for some self-defence classes given by Sergeant Paterson, arse and windbag. I’m very strongly reminded of the Monty Python sketch where people are taught how to defend themselves against fresh fruit.

Said windbag alludes to Ace’s past (“The police let you off with a warning, didn’t they?”) and scolds Ace for not bothering to ring her mother, but fails, oddly, to query why the Doctor is hanging around with this young teenager. I suppose that’s another thing which dates this story a bit. We’re told four other young people are missing, and the Doctor removes himself from Patterson’s tiresome company by claiming he’s “going to see a man about a cat”. It’s a good scene, with Julian Holloway nailing his unlikeable part straight away.

The scene also, of course, introduces the theme of the story. While Ghost Light dealt (loosely) with natural selection, this story is more concerned with social Darwinism and the “law of the jungle”, with the carnivorous ways of our feline friends acting as the pivot. This is underlined in the following scene, in which shopkeepers Hale and Pace regale the Doctor with an obvious parable on this theme. Of course, the fact that the scene takes place in a shop makes it easy to relate the theme to Thatcherism.

And ok, Hale and Pace date the story a bit too.

Ace finally finds a mate who, in a further nod to the story’s themes, is a hunt saboteur. Apparently people are saying that Ace had “either died or gone to Birmingham”. Oi! There’s nowt wrong with Birmingham.

We then return to the topic of Ace not phoning her mother. I suppose it’s a shame the Doctor couldn’t rig some kind of device in the TARDIS, really. I’m sure such a thing will never happen. The Doctor then wanders off to find a cat for some reason, armed with some obviously fake brands of cat food (good old BBC!) while Ace wanders off to the sort of park that I used to play in as a kid but you just don’t find any more, with a roundabout and proper swings and everything.

And then suddenly a Cheetah Person on a horse appears from nowhere, chases her for a bit and then teleports her to Planet Quarry. The Doctor then discovers, firstly, that Ace has gone, and, secondly, that Patterson is still an arse. Ace soon discovers there are other people on Planet Quarry, including her mates Shreela and Midge, one of whom is slightly nicer than the other. Ace, of course, being fab, instantly takes charge. The Doctor and Patterson, meanwhile, are also transported to said planet by a cat of more conventional appearance. Well, I think it’s supposed to be. Actually it looks like some weird stuffed animatronic thing.

And so to the cliffhanger. The Doctor and his annoying companion are in a village full of tents and Cheetah People, and who should be there but the Master…

Part Two

“No dead wood!”

The Sergeant, goaded by the Master, runs, and instantly becomes the plaything of some Cheetah People, giving us our first inkling that he’s perhaps not so well equipped to survive as he thinks. The Doctor grabs a horse and saves him, and they move away from the village. The Master, apparently able to control the Cheetahs, remains unharmed in the village.

While this is going on we get the beginnings of a power struggle between Ace and Midge for leadership of the group. But while Midge offers nothing but cynicism, Ace instantly starts making plans to “get” a Cheetah Person. Her first trap fails, her second works- on Patterson and the Doctor. Here we get an exchange of exposition between our two groups, and the Doctor leads everyone through the village, being careful not to run and attract the attention of the hunters. It’s noticeable here that Patterson, in this context, has no authority and is below not only the Doctor but arguably Ace, Shreela and Midge in the pecking order.

The Doctor explains that the animatronic cats are “Kitlings”, scavengers with the ability to teleport between worlds, while the Cheetah People are linked to the planet and slowly destroying it by fighting each other. We don’t need to look hard for the metaphor here, but I like this way of doing things- science fantasy with social subtexts instead of “hard” sci-fi.

Sadly, a milkman suddenly teleports in front of everyone and the Doctor is forced to watch as chaos ensues. Ace, ending up by a stream, finds a Cheetah Person, Karra, helpless and in need of water, and goes to her aid. This contrasts with Midge, who kills a cat and takes its claw. Does this explain their different fates? I suspect their genders matter, too, especially as one of them is nurturing while the other is hunting and killing. Still, although I’m aware that symbols of femininity are said to be important to this story, that aspect of it went right over my head.

We discover that the Master is seemingly trapped here, and slowly being turned into a Cheetah himself. We’re left unsure whether this is to be Ace’s fate. But the Doctor is surprisingly ambivalent about whether or not Ace should help Karra, leaving the choice to her. The dynamics between the others, meanwhile, are getting very interesting. The Sergeant manages to assert leadership briefly, turning again to the Darwinian (and now more explicitly Thatcherite) theme of “no shirkers and no dead wood”. Midge, interestingly, attempts to consolidate the number two position by bullying others. But he’s too far gone; turning into a Cheetah, he’s captured by the Master who uses him to return to Perivale. Meanwhile, Ace’s eyes turn green…

Part Three

“If we fight like animals, we die like animals!”

Interesting, each episode has a different setting and flavour: the first on a very normal-seeming Earth; the second on Planet Quarry; and the third back on Earth again, but this time no longer so normal-seeming.

The Master is worried that he may still be turning feral, and the juxtaposition of this scene with scenes featuring scenes with Ace and Karra does nothing to diminish our fears for Ace. But when the Doctor arrives and asks her to “come home”, she chooses her existing life. Only at the end of the episode, of course, do we find out what “home” is.

The Doctor informs Ace that she has the ability to get everyone home, as Midge did, but if she does so she risks passing the point of no return and remaining feral. But he insists the choice is her; once again this Doctor’s reputation for manipulation proves an exaggeration of the truth.

We return to Perivale. And while not everything can just return to normal, Patterson immediately switches back to straightforward arse mode. But the Master and Midge are at large, and usurping his territory. Midge, strolling into the youth club dressed like a yuppie and pronouncing on survival of the fittest, seems very much the Gordon Gecko. But of course it’s the Master who’s pulling the strings, and he has a showdown to arrange with the Doctor. This turns out to consist of the Doctor and Midge charging at one another on motorbikes, causing a bit of a bang. The Master, horribly, orders Midge to just give up and die as he’s lost the Darwinian struggle for survival. But the Doctor has survived, and in the true showdown that follows he ultimately triumphs by breaking the cycle of Darwinian struggle and refusing to fight. The Master remains on Planet Quarry, trapped there by his adherence to the empty doctrines of social Darwinism. Anthony Ainley has been a revelation here, at last getting the chance to shine as the Master without the need for any of the “heh heh heh” stuff.

The final few lines are wonderful, as is the fact that we end simply with the Doctor and Ace walking to their next adventure…

Yet another 5/5, then. A brilliant script well made, and a fitting farewell in so many ways.

As for Season 26, with 4.25/5 it gets the same strong score as its predecessor. After a wobbly start the McCoy era has proven a revelation to me.

Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric

Part One

“I like looking at the sea. It makes me feel small.”

Translation subtitles. Crikey. That’s rare. The subtitles are pretty shoddy compared to the ones we saw in The Mind of Evil, but fortunately this is a much better story.

It’s the North Yorkshire coast, it’s the Second World War, and the Doctor and Ace are striding purposefully into a top secret military research complex. We begin with a brilliant set of scenes in which the Doctor effortlessly bluffs his way into everyone’s confidence as only this Doctor can, blatantly asking for two pens and using them to forge the signatures the Prime Minister and MI6 in front of everybody.

We meet Dr Judson, in a scene contrived to make Ace look clever, and then move on to the scary Miss Hardaker, her two cockney charges, and the Rev Wainwright, a mystifyingly fantastic performance from Nicholas Parsons. We also meet Millington, who has designed his office to mimic exactly that of his German counterpart. When I first watched this twenty years ago I initially thought he was supposed to be Hitler. He certainly has the hairstyle.

There’s loads of atmosphere- mist, Vikings, games of chess- to sustain us while we introduce the cast and before the plot can get started. And also something I noticed this time around; when the Doctor looks at Joseph Sundvik’s grave, you can clearly see that one of his daughters had the married name “Millington”…

With everything in place, Millington kick starts the plot by mystifyingly ordering Judson to use the Ultima machine to translate the inscriptions, in spite of the fact that there seem to be more pressing uses for it; there is a war on, you know. Also seemingly significant is the parallel between the Vikings described by the inscription and the Russians today, both intending to return to Norway with treasure. There’s also something beneath the water which killed half of the Russian party, and there’s a scene with Ace, Kathleen and her daughter Audrey which will pay off later.

Part Two

“I’m not an invalid, I’m a cripple. I’m also a genius, so shut up, the pair of you.”

More creepy stuff happens; new runes are inscribed in the crypt as the translation is read, while the Doctor and Ace discover a secret passage in the crypt. Millington, obsessed by Norse mythology in ways which for once, as we’ll see, actually relate the myth to elements of the story, is producing a strange green poison, a chemical weapon to be dropped on to German cities. Not only that, but the Russians are intended to steal the enigma machine, which will release the Ultima machine as soon as a certain word transmitted by British intelligence is translated: “love”. Blimey. That’s a bit hasty. Can’t they wait until the Cold War actually starts?

We also get a great scene showing the vicar to be losing his faith, and Jean and Phyllis get turned into vampires and lure a Russian soldier to his death in a scene which might, possible, just about have some sexual undertones. On a minor note, some old jar is found underneath the church,

That’s a lot happening for only episode two. And there’s an awful lot here that foreshadows the ending, most blatantly in Millington’s order for all chess sets to be burnt. Millington has also drawn a picture of that old jar. Gosh, do you reckon it might be important?

Miss Hardaker gets killed, which technically means that, old dragon though she may have been, she was in fact right all along.

It’s all kicking off now. There are Haemovores everywhere, the vicar’s having a particularly bad day, and that old flask has started glowing…

Part Three

“Just look for something… evil.”

Gosh, what a coincidence. This is Whitby, where Dracula came ashore in Bram Stoker’s novel, and there are sort-of vampires running around. What are the chances, eh?

We’re told the Haemovores are the inhabitants of the Earth in a polluted future and, in a slightly more domestic vein, that it was Millington who caused Judson’s accident twenty years ago. Meanwhile, the Doctor takes some time to realise that Ace has the flask. Oh, and the church is under siege by hordes of Haemovores. Almost forgot that one.

The Haemovores are defeated by faith- the Doctor’s in his fiends, as we can see by the fact that he’s mouthing the names of all those who have travelled with him. Sorin- well, his faith is in the revolution; he’s a true believer. Ace also clearly likes him and the script clearly intends him to be a good guy. And that’s the one problem I have with this story. Because he’s, like, a Stalinist. And you can’t just present a Stalinist character as a hero. Especially when you’re contrasting his character with that of Millington, shown being an utter git as he abandons two soldiers of the Motherland to their deaths.

Said commie then reveals himself and loudly asks to speak to Commander Millington. Somehow I suspect this may harm his ability to remain concealed. But from this point on things become darker. Kathleen receives a letter telling her that her husband has been killed, and Ace confronts the Doctor about his secretiveness. This scene is not really about what much of fandom seems to think it is; the Doctor’s manipulative side seems to have been much exaggerated compared with what we actually see on screen. Ace’s problem with the Doctor is simply that he’s been too preoccupied to tell her what’s going on.

Naturally, I let out a huge cheer at the line “Evil! Evil since the dawn of time!” At last we get to hear about Fenric, our mysterious big bad. He’s an old enemy of the Doctor, who has been trapped inside that flask for ages. Er, ok. Perhaps we don’t actually get to hear all that much.

We then get quite an extraordinary scene. Essentially it consists of Ace distracting a guard by flirting with him, but it’s all highly metaphorical; clearly none of the dialogue here is meant as a literal reflection of what is said. This seems to be intended as a kind of sexual awakening for Ace (“Professor, I’m not a little girl any more”), but I’m not sure it entirely works; for all the cleverness of the metaphorical dialogue, it doesn’t seem to be saying anything beyond “Look! Here are some sexual undertones of an unspecified kind”.

Oh, and if you hadn’t already guessed there were sexual undercurrents here there’s a sign at Maiden’s Point telling you to beware of undercurrents!

The Doctor frees Sorin, and the Judson gets possessed by Fenric. Oh dear…

Part Four

“Don’t interrupt me when I’m eulogising!”

Fenric has been trapped for seventeen centuries in the “Shadow Dimensions”, apparently. Gosh. He must be a bit cross, then.

The Doctor, Ace and Sorin are about to be executed for treason, and unfortunately the weather’s rotten. Fortunately, the firing squad is interrupted, but unfortunately the rain carries on. The Doctor then rushes off to, er, set up a chessboard, while the Great Haemovore makes himself known. He’s also known as the “Great Serpent”, apparently, so we get an allusion to the Midgard Serpent to go with the earlier allusions to Yggdrasil. This is more actual Norse mythology that we got with the Gods of Ragnarok in Greatest Show, to put it mildly.

The Doctor almost defeats Fenric by, er, repeating his trick of seventeen centuries earlier by setting him a chess puzzle he can’t solve. But rather unfortunately Ace rather ruins it all by telling Fenric the solution: for the pawns of both sides to join together, as the British and Russian soldiers are doing. Er, that wasn’t a legal move the last time I checked.

Ace briefly alludes to Gabriel Chase, but that experience is nothing compared to what she’s about to experience. Fenric’s “wolves”, descendents of all the original Viking settlers, include Millington (shot); Judson; Sorin (now possessed); the Great Haemovore; and even Ace. This is where the “undercurrents” really start to get dangerous.

It turns out that the baby Audrey is in fact Ace’s mother, and that she’s just created her own future. But still, Ace has faith in the Doctor. Until the Doctor demolishes that face by stating that he’s seen Fenric’s hand in many things recently, such as the chess set in Lady Peinforte’s study. But the big revelation here is that the time storm that took Ace to Iceworld in the first place was Fenric’s doing, and the Doctor knew this all along, only tolerating “emotional cripple” Ace’s presence because of it. This devastates Ace.

Crucially, though, the Doctor doesn’t mean any of it, has a very good reason for saying what he does, and doesn’t do anything wrong here. Earlier, he persuaded the Great Haemovore that to follow Fenric would be to create the very future he comes from, a doomed and apocalyptic future which he does not wish to come to pass. (And, incidentally, when we’re told that the Great Haemovore was brought back in a “Time Storm”, that’s a bit of a clue as to what happened to Ace in Dragonfire a few minutes before it’s revealed.) The Doctor destroys Ace’s faith in him; the Great Haemovore is able to act; and the Great Haemovore kills Fenric. Very neat.

Crucially, a line is symbolically drawn under this is the final scene as Ace goes for a swim, symbolically cleansing herself. There’ll be no more “dangerous undercurrents”.

Wow. That was brilliant. A moody, atmospheric thriller with moments of high excitement and a lot going on under the surface. 5/5.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Doctor Who: Ghost Light

Part One

“I’m as human as you are!”


From the beginning to the end everything we see happens in the same few excellent sets, which are stuffed with various objects to draw the eye. The effect is that for once it’s easy to forget that this is the season’s studio-bound story.

Fairly early on we’re made privy to the fact that this richly atmospheric big Victorian house features some oddly futuristic technology and a strange creature which is kept imprisoned in a cell. But the things that are in store for us are much weirder than that. Such as the magnificent sideburns of the Reverend Ernest Matthews, a character so superbly brought to life that I had to be told by the closing titles that it was John Nettles.

The Doctor’s arrived here as some kind of “initiative test” for Ace. And they land in a richly atmospheric part of the house full of stuffed animals and all sorts of artefacts a Victorian explorer might collect. Speaking of which, we meet the magnificently grotesque Redvers Fenn Cooper, who introduces us to the dense literacy of the script with dialogue alluding to The Lost World, Heart of Darkness and no doubt other things. There’s a lot of this sort of thing.

Matthews, clergyman and naturalist who’s quite high up in the Royal Society, has arrived to question the house’s occupant, one Josiah Samuel Smith, on his blasphemous Darwinian theories, which he dismisses. Of course, no one alive today could possibly hold such a view.

On a related theme, Josiah’s manservant, Nimrod, appears to be a Neanderthal, and no one appears to be behaving naturally. This, and the claustrophobic confines of the house, makes things already feel deeply charged. But then things start happening. The creature is found to have escaped from its cell, and Ace realises this house is Gabriel Chase, a place which affected her very strongly with the evil she sense when she was in its ruins at the age of thirteen. This is a great scene, and one that gains a lot from being watched as part of the Marathon. Ace has been travelling with the Doctor for a while now, and her character is ripe for a bit of development.

It’s often argued that the Doctor’s being cruel, forcing Ace to face her fear like this, but it ain’t necessarily so. She seems to have exorcised some demons by the end of the story, and this all seems to tie in to some long-term plan the Doctor has for her. And the Doctor’s motives in this story hinge rather heavily on where all this is going in the long term. Sadly, of course, all this lies mostly in “what if?” territory.

And then there’s the story of Ace’s friend Manisha, of course, although we’re not told how she ties into Gabriel Chase.

I love “That’s the Way to the Zoo.” After all, not all references to the evolution theme have to be subtle. Nor, indeed, are those husks at the cliffhanger. For all that I don’t think this story is half as confusing as it’s supposed to be, I have no idea what the “Ratkin” stuff is supposed to be about.

Part Two

“Tricky things, mammoths.”

Another episode, another dose of splendid weirdness. This time we get an Inspector from Scotland Yard who’s spent the last two years asleep in a drawer. But things are also moving forward; we’re introduced to the powerful “sleeping one” who “must not be woken” in the stone spaceship. Of course, Ace sets in train the chain of events that will lead to its awakening.

There are some revelations which make things clearer. Well, a bit. The husks are previous versions of Josiah, “old cast-offs” from before he evolved into his present form. Josiah’s not the real owner of either the house or the ship, but was originally “part of the cargo”. He knows as much about the ship “as a hamburger knows about the Amazon desert”. And the mysterious escaped creature is called “Control”.

There’s a lot of wit and literary allusion- dare I say, ahem, semiotic thickness- in the dialogue which prevents the exposition from feeling like an exposition, and it’s all done with a real lightness of touch. It says a lot that most of this episode is exposition, the only real respite from it being the splendidly comical scene of the Reverend Ernest Matthews turning into an ape, but that in no way stops it being great.

The awakened Inspector MacKenzie is another fabulous comical grotesque, the classic small-minded ignoramus who tries to bluff his way through life. He’s also a major plot point; two years ago he was sent to the house to investigate the disappearance of its owner, Sir George Pritchard. And no doubt a second inspector was sent to investigate his own disappearance, and so on. No doubt there’s an entire police force hidden within Gabriel Chase.

The Doctor, being the Doctor, has a plan, and it involves doing a deal with Control. He knows this mysterious “sleeping one” is feared by both Josiah and Control, and worshipped by Nimrod, who, wonderfully, has “gone to see a man about a god”. We end with a few revelations- Mrs Pritchard is in fact Lady Pritchard and Gwendoline is her and Sir George’s daughter- and the unleashing of the powerful and mysterious Light…

Part Three

“Even I can’t play so many games at once!”

Sadly, in a story of almost uniformly excellent performances, we get one duff performance, and Light is it. And even McCoy has an odd moment, delivering the line “Only I didn’t get caught napping” in a most peculiar fashion whilst holding his arm right out in front of him for some reason.

We’re not told who he is or where he comes from, but Light’s ship crashed on Earth (although, as we later discover, it wasn’t significantly damaged) and for unexplained reasons he set about cataloguing all of its life forms. But he was shocked to discover that no sooner had he finished than it had all evolved into something else. It’s a little odd that a being capable of travelling through space at the speed of thought should be ignorant of natural selection, but never mind.

Oh, and in a scene absolutely vital to understanding what’s going on, Control states that “Control is me,” and the Doctor continues “And the survey is Josiah,” telling us the crucial fact that Light’s experiments were performed by using a control (Control) for the experiment (Josiah).

Meanwhile, Control spends most of this episode going through a speeded up version of Pygmalion; she’s even dressed as Eliza Doolittle for most of it. And we get more of Ace’s past- she has a sort of mini-breakdown in the corridor implying there’s a question she may have caused people to die. We’re later told she was guilty of arson at thirteen, setting fire to this very house exactly one hundred years later. If she did accidentally kill someone, no wonder she’s repressed the memory of this house and no wonder she was so upset is the first episode. If I’m reading this right, I’m surprised I haven’t heard about it before. It’s a big, big thing for the character.

The increasingly irrelevant Josiah had been planning to cause Redvers to assassinate the “Crowned Saxe-Coburg” in the delusion that he would somehow precede Bertie to the throne and in some way become an absolute monarch, a plan rather casually foiled by Redvers, simply because he likes Control better than him. Control has a rude awakening of the hugeness of the world outside, but fortunately Ace is there to play Henry Higgins.

Probably the best thing about the whole story is that, in spite of everything that’s happened, everybody just appears at dinner because this is Victorian Britain and failing to turn up is Just Not Done. But this leads to a splendid finale, in which the Doctor actually manages to talk Light to death plausibly, Control and Josiah switch roles, and all the characters who clearly aren’t ever going to be able to function in Victorian society just take off in the spacecraft, heading for somewhere “Light years from Zanzibar”.

Brilliant, easily a 5/5. For all the criticism this story sometimes get, it made a lot more sense to me than Battlefield did. I think I pretty much grasped the plot, although there are a couple of points which weren’t explained, although arguably they all lie outside the main plot (Who is Light? Why is he surveying Earth? Why does evolution surprise him? Why did he become dormant? How long have Josiah and Control been active- since 1881 when Sir George was, ahem, sent to Java? If so, what awakened them?). I must admit, though, this is not exactly my first viewing, and I’m probably advantaged by the fact that I watch all drama with subtitles if I can, so I didn’t have any problems with muffled dialogue.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Doctor Who: Battlefield

Part One

“And boom!”



A garden centre. Whoopee. How very exciting. But hang on- it’s the Brig. With Doris, she of the name checking in Planet of the Spiders! How very fanwanky. But it’s great to see the Brig again, even though all the dialogue in this scene is a bit of a crude info-dump (“What, giving up teaching?”)

And we get UNIT too, now a proper UN organisation with blue berets and a few token foreigners to prove it. And there’s a new Brigadier, played by Angela Bruce, the female Lister from the most recently broadcast episode of Red Dwarf. She’s great. Her catchphrase isn’t. And it’s a bit odd how Zbigniew calls her “sir”. Hasn’t she noticed she’s, er, a she?

Blimey, it’s a bit dark in the TARDIS. It’s almost as if they were trying to hide the fact they’ve managed to dump most of the console room between seasons. The Doctor is also a bit darker with his new jacket. Symbolism, perhaps? There’s talk of “sideways in time” which alerts all those aware of how this show works that this is where the baddies are going to come from. They’re following a signal from Earth “a few years” in Ace’s future, a signal consisting of just the word “Merlin”. Oooh! We never do find out what it was.

The Doctor’s great when infiltrating himself with UNIT. I love the old-fashioned pocket-emptying, the passes, his reply to Winifred’s “I think I would have noticed a nuclear explosion.” With “Yes, they are conspicuous.” But he’s even better being all brooding and mysterious about this Arthurian stuff, at least now where the possibility of it all making sense by the end still seems open.

If Patrick’s “Arthur’s Ale” is approved by CAMRA then it must be damn good, but the script seems to mock it, especially with the philistine comments of Ace’s explosive-loving mate Shou Yuing. Bah. Apparently Ben Aaronovitch is not a real ale lover. Disgraceful. Shouldn’t be allowed. All right-thinking people love real ale.

Still, the coolness of the Doctor apparently having a Zoid in his pocket rouses me from my ranting state of mind as the knights with guns suddenly appear and start shooting at each other all over the place. I’m not sure what good the mediaeval armour’s supposed to be doing them under the circumstances, but I understand Aaronovitch intended it to look a lot more futuristic, which would have made a lot more sense and been a lot cooler.

I love the Brig’s constant assurances to Doris that he’s definitely not going to get killed, which were clearly put there to foreshadow his Beowulf-esque demise until Aaronovitch decided otherwise.

We finish by meeting Ancelyn, who recognises Merlin, and then some baddie knights. All this looks good mostly, and there are some cool concepts flying about, but I’m with Shou Yuing when she asks “Can someone tell me what on Earth is going on?”

Part Two

“Yes, remember Badon and my mighty arts!”

For years until I first saw the DVD with subtitles I thought the above quote was about a “mighty arch”. Anyway…

These knights are from another dimension. One of them, Mordred, is obviously a key figure from Arthurian legend, but I don’t think Ancelyn is. I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on, or how it’s all supposed to relate to the mythology, if at all beyond the superficial.

Mordred’s insane laughter is… an interesting approach. The Doctor’s use of a crisp packet to wake up Winifred and Ancelyn is much cooler, and I love the humorous way their relationship develops throughout the story.

A couple of niggles though; who got Geneva to call in the Brig, and why? Is Winifred not considered capable? And then there’s the ridiculously slow pace of Peter Warmsly’s archaeological dig. It would have taken the Time Team crew a bit less than ten fricking years to sort that load of trenches out. And then there’s Morgaine’s confrontation with the Brig at the cemetery- good scene, yes, but what are the Thirteen Worlds, and who are the S’Rax? And why is Arthur in a sodding spaceship under the lake? What’s happening?

Part Three

“Something’s wrong.”


“We haven’t been attacked yet.”

So, Warmsley thinks the whole Arthurian thing’s “a bit of a myth really,” in spite of the fact he’s spent ten years digging a site whose only apparent worth is its connection with the legend? Still, it’s cool to see Ace emerge from the lake with Excalibur.

The Doctor and the Brig finally meet, and I love the Brig’s casual attitude to the fact the Doctor’s changed again; “Who else would it be?” We get Bessie too. But the best bit is of course where the Doctor stops the battle. I don’t mean “THERE. WILL. BE. NO. BATTLE HERE!” but the hilarious insults Mordred and Ancelyn throw at each other.

I still have no idea what’s going on, mind.

Part Four

“Exotic alien swords are easy to come by. Aces are rare.”

I admit the Destroyer looks good, whoever he is. This story is getting more and more like an episode of Angel as it goes on. Except nowhere near as good, obviously.

Everything in this story, with the Brig knocking the Doctor out so he can get the final confrontation, is clearly signposting his heroic sacrifice. I’m glad it doesn’t happen though. Full of nice little Brig moments though it is, this story isn’t really worthy of being the Brig’s swansong.

The Doctor’s talking Morgaine out of using the nuke sort of works, I suppose, and I like the note left from his future self. That doesn’t mean I have any idea what’s been happening, though. And it’s with good reason that everyone always asks exactly how they’re supposed to “lock up” Morgaine.

Still, there’s something about this story’s heart that’s in the right place. We may get the very Scooby Dooiest of Scooby Doo endings, but in a good way.

Well, that made no sense. There’s also a sense, although to a lesser extent than Silver Nemesis, that things have been edited so tightly as to affect the clarity of the narrative. And it’s not directed all that well either. But the main problem is the many basic things that aren’t explained- we learn nothing of who Morgaine’s lot or Ancelyn’s lot actually are, where they came from or what they want. And because, unlike last story, this story isn’t abstract or allegorical- it’s not about anything other than the plot itself, not even Arthurian myth in any meaningful way- these things matter. Still, it diverted me, had some good set pieces and some fun humour. A highish 2/5.