Friday, 29 January 2010

Doctor Who: Love & Monsters

“I just put that bit at the beginning because it’s a brilliant opening.”

I’m… whelmed.

I’m not sure why this failed to grab me; there are a hell of a lot of nice little touches, but it seems to be less than the sum of its parts. I can’t put my finger on exactly why it never catches fire, but I suspect it’s mostly that, however cleverly the absence of the Doctor and Rose is being handled, they’re still absent. The question has to be asked: if they can’t make thirteen episodes featuring the regulars, why not just make twelve episodes?

It’s a nice start, introducing Marc Warren (who seemed ubiquitous on British telly to me at the time) as Elton and giving us a lot of RTD meta-textualness (see that quote up there). But unlike the treatment of the series’ tropes in the last season, RTD doesn’t actually be saying anything in particular with the meta-textual stuff. It’s very noticeable that this season is consistently pushing the format of the series further than ever before, often to good effect, but without actually saying much.

Anyway, the teaser finishes, and that’s the last we’ll be seeing of the Doctor and Rose until the last five minutes. It’s theoretically a great idea to recreate certain events from the last couple of years as seen through Elton’s eyes, and not so great an idea to feature ELO so sodding prominently. But there’s some genuinely excellent stuff on the nature of fandom here; a group of people are drawn together through their shared interests, but eventually develop a friendship which goes beyond that shared interest until “superfan” Victor Kennedy turns up. Gosh, I wonder who he could possibly be based on? Still, much as I enjoy this subtext, isn’t it perhaps a little insular for primetime television?

The stuff with Jackie is great, and as in Aliens of London we see just how much she’s suffering with worrying about her daughter. Again, this doesn’t exactly reflect well on Rose that she puts her mother through all this. And I’m glad she gives Elton a good telling off.

Peter Kay as Kennedy / the Absorbaloff is simultaneously fantastic and probably miscast. He gives a great comedic performance, but playing it straight would probably have been better, allowing the humour to come out in the lines only. Still, the moment when Elton finally speaks out against him is fantastic from both actors, and it’s great to see him finally ask Ursula out. Gosh, was Shirley Henderson really forty years old when this was made.

As an aside, I paused on the headline of the Absorbaloff’s Torygraph and it says “Saxon leads polls with 64%”. Gosh, I wonder what this could possibly mean?

The Absorbaloff is revealed, it has a full-on Bolton accent, and it’s absorbed every member of LINDA, now including Ursula. I love the way she still has her glasses on even when absorbed! Of course, the TARDIS finally arrives at the most dramatically appropriate moment, but only so that Rose can wag her finger at Elton for upsetting her mum. It seems that the Absorbaloff is from the sister planet to Raxacoricofallapatorius, Clom.

We finish with an ominous line from Elton (“I keep thinking of Rose and Jackie and how much longer before they pay the price.”) and the revelation that Ursula has been saved, sort of, to exist as a paving slab. And Elton is holding said paving slab in an, er, interesting position when he says they still have “a bit of a love life”…

3/5, then. An ambitious and inspired experiment which doesn’t quite come off, mainly because the absence of the regular characters isn’t really justified well enough.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit

The Impossible Planet

“And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his Gods?”

For all that this extraordinary story more or less stands on its own, the teaser is just the sort of thing we’ve come to expect by now. It plays amusingly with both the Doctor and Rose’s relationship and the tropes of the show, as they burst out laughing at the mere suggestion they might perhaps decide not to explore where they’ve landed and just get back into the TARDIS. It’s also a nice little cliffhanger and resolution. But from this point on everything just feels different from the rest of this series. However much Matt Jones has utterly nailed the two regulars, he’s done something completely new and different and fantastic with this script.

It’s not the first time the “New Series" has taken us to a new planet, but it’s the first time it’s done it properly; this isn’t just somewhere that might be Earth. And this is where the show’s new aesthetic of space travel is established; as Rose says, it’s not “whizzing about, teleports, anti-gravity”- it’s tough. A very lived-in, post Alien style future, and although it’s not the first time we’ve seen this sort of thing in Doctor Who it’s never been either as well-realised or as refreshingly free from Eric Saward’s nihilism as this.

It’s a wondrous yet precarious situation that the Doctor and Rose find themselves in; a planet balanced, just, in orbit round a black hole, something which takes incredible quantities of energy which originates from somewhere below the surface. And almost as precarious is that the crew can only return to Earth as long as the black hole continues to generate some kind of bizarre gravity chute. Naturally, then, it’s here that the Doctor and Rose lose the TARDIS and become stranded. Makes you all nostalgic for the early Hartnells, doesn’t it?

Brilliantly, though, grim as this all should feel, somehow it doesn’t. And this is because of the crew- every single character has their foibles but is basically well-rounded and likeable, and there’s something noble in the human desire for knowledge and exploration which has led them here. The Doctor certainly seems to think so, and he has a point. For all that the mission has a practical purpose in that there’s the possibility of a new energy source, the crew seem just as interested, even enthusiastic, in the pure science and archaeology there is to discover on the planet, and whatever the grubbiness of their living conditions the romantic side of their work is not lost on them.

There’s something very New Adventures about the whole feel of this, incidentally, and that’s something which we haven’t seen on screen before. I haven’t read Matt Jones’s effort (is it any good?), but this reminds me a lot of the “Future History Cycle” novels from early in the range. It’s the whole mood of the thing, I think; for all that there is a dark threat, and even a dark side to humanity (the huge ethical problems with the Ood being used as slaves are not dwelt upon, but they are addressed, and that’s important), we care about these people, and that makes us more scared for them. The “don’t look behind you” scene with Toby is particularly effective (and isn’t it great to hear Gabriel Woolf’s voice again?) but Scooti’s horrible death is effective for a completely different reason, and really sold to us by the reactions of the crew. This really seems like a tight-knit group who care about each other.

We get a nice little interlude between the Doctor and Rose where the character arc stuff gets a bit of action. Billie Piper is particularly brilliant here. And, of course, the fact that Rose seems to want to settle down with the Doctor in domestic bliss but knows she shouldn’t just come out and say it in no way means that the relationship is going to end soon or in tears, so that’s all right.

Lots of fantastically scary things keep happening- the things said by the Ood and computers are easily as scary as anything we see- and the response of the crew is fantastic. I particularly like the way Jefferson, the gruff security guard, could so easily have been something of a cliché, but he isn’t. He’s no closed-minded bigot, so we get no tiresome suspicion of the Doctor and Rose, he’s capable of listening to reason, agreeing not to shoot Rose in the next episode when Rose reasons with him, and he’s a cultured man, who quotes Macaulay, good old-fashioned nineteenth century Whig that he is. Come to think of it, there’s something very much of the Whig interpretation of history in this story’s themes of human progress and daring.

The Doctor, of course, volunteers to accompany Ida on to the planets surface, and mentions a number of names for the devil, including “Abbadon”. Wonder if we’ll be hearing that again any time soon?

The Satan Pit

“Maybe that’s what the Devil is in the end- an idea?”

There’s a slightly disappointing resolution to the biggest cliffhanger yet, but fear not- the excellence continues pretty much non-stop. We get a bit of a contrast between the action sequences above ground and the more contemplative sequences between the Doctor and Ida below ground. And these in particular are brilliant; this Doctor has never before been shown quite so philosophical as he is here, but the characterisation never fails to ring true.

We begin with the Captain’s order to withdraw, and the subsequent discussion between the Doctor and Ida. The Doctor muses on the human urge to explore, but ultimately decides against the temptation. Fascinatingly, we’re touching on the themes which caused me to be underwhelmed by this story first time round; the Doctor seemed first time round to be implying here that there’s space in the universe for supernatural forces into which science should not pry. And being myself something of a rational, empirical, pro-Enlightenment sort of chap, I tend to be somewhat alienated by such messages.

We get a brilliant scene in which the Devil speaks to everyone, with a brief statement for each individual which serves to round out their characterisations rather nicely. And Rose, incidentally, is going to die in battle”. Ooh! This doesn’t stop her taking charge of the situation, though; having been more than a little annoying and selfish in recent episodes she more than redeems herself here in performing the rather Doctorish role in encouraging the crew to find reserves of strength and brilliance within themselves and survive. But everyone’s magnificent, above all Jefferson, whose noble death uncannily reflects the subject matter of the poetry he was quoting earlier.

There’s a nice Fanwank thrill from the Doctor as Ida lowers him into the pit; we get mentions of Draconia, Daemos, and the Kaled god of war. But the cable comes to an end, and beneath is only darkness. In a leap of faith, the Doctor jumps. Again, I had problems with this scene on original transmission. But on this viewing the scene it (and the story) seems not so much to be about the theme of faith versus reason but about human courage and curiosity, and the urge to climb Everest, walk on the Moon, leap into the unknown, all in spite of the dangers, because it’s there. Again, a very Whiggish view of human progress.

Mind you, we do get a brief musing on religious themes, albeit obliquely. The Doctor expresses agnostic sentiments, but arguably he’s not really talking about religion so much as his willingness to have his certainties challenged. But then he says something really quite charged: “If you get back to Rose, tell her… tell her… oh, she knows!” And then he jumps. We’re kept in suspense for the next several minutes as to whether he survived.

While the Doctor’s working out what’s going on and preparing to save the day, Captain Zachary Cross Flane finally gets to move away from the control panel and show himself to be a worthy and decent leader, whatever his doubts. He’s quite right to restrain Rose and take her with his to safety; too many people have indeed died. And he gets a wonderful line as they’re all seemingly plunging to their doom, pointing out that they’re making history, being the first people ever to fall into a black hole. Arguably his character represents the story’s view of the human race as a whole.

Fittingly, not everything is explained, but that’s okay as the writing and the nature of the Beast aren’t really relevant to the plot. And there’s a point here; not, as I used to think, that there were more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in my philosophy, but that it’s good to have unknowns so that we can carry on exploring.

Wow. I liked that rather more than I was expecting. 5/5- in fact, it pushes The Robots of Death out of the top ten. A brilliantly constructed thriller with themes, character, and depth.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Idiot's Lantern

“I am talking!”

“And I’m not listening!”

The teaser gives us some dialogue about television rotting your brain and ends with it seemingly about to happen to this Magpie chap- how very metatextual.

The Doctor and Rose exit the TARDIS all dresses up for Elvis at Las Vegas, complete with Vespa, and discover they are in fact in London, 1953. It’s a good joke but it immediately highlights one of the unfortunate things about the story; Britain in the ‘50s seems to have been a rather visually dull place (or so popular culture and documentary footage leads me to believe) and unfortunately come off on screen as exactly that. It’s one of a couple of things which prevent what is in fact an excellent script from coming off as well as it deserves.

It’s established early on that there’s an unpleasant undercurrent in the Connolly family. The balance is struck about right, with an emphasis on Eddie Connolly’s controlling tendencies rather than any actual physical violence. Lines such as “Forget that college nonsense” are effective enough. It’s also an interesting look back from, inevitably, a modern perspective at some of the assumptions and prejudices of the ‘50s English working class: the underlying homophobia; the suspicion of education; the obsession with “what the neighbours think”. It’s just a pity that the performances here are somewhat weak.

In fact, Tennant and Piper aside, the only performance to really impress here is that of Maureen Lipman as the Wire, whose delivery of her lines is fantastic. This is a great idea for a villain, although the name “The Wire” now instantly makes me think of McNulty and Bubble and Omar, which it certainly didn’t do at the time.

It all rattles along very quickly and it’s good fun, which is pretty much down to the script, although not always realised effectively. The big reveal of the grandmother with no face should in theory have been the dramatic centrepiece of the episode, but there’s something in the execution which doesn’t quite come off. There are some well-constructed scenes, such as the reversal of roles between the Doctor and the Detective Inspector and the scene in which Eddie Connolly is revealed to have been an informer; suddenly, his authority ebbs away and his wife gains the courage to reject him, seeming a lot happier and more confident afterwards. But the strength of the writing never seems to translate effectively to the screen, and I’m not sure why.

The ending’s very effective- a bit like Logopolis, only better- and I like the effect of a television switching off as the Wire dies. Death by Betamax, indeed. I suppose the question of the social stigma surrounding divorce at the time is brushed under the carpet somewhat as Rita and Eddie Connolly are obviously separating, but given the context and the light-hearted nature of the episode it feels right that it should be that way.

The script really deserves better- it could even have got a 5/5 with better performances- but overall I can’t really give this more than a 3/5.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel

Rise of the Cybermen

“And how will you do that… from beyond the grave?”

It’s an odd beginning- Roger Lloyd Pack, in a wheelchair, unveiling a new creature which is part machine. The echoes of Davros from Genesis of the Daleks are difficult to ignore. Still, this megalomaniac has a much better sense of humour. And I think this scene is funny even if a lot of people didn’t at the time.

This is the first time since the RTD era started that I’ve found myself knowing very little about the writer. I have no idea who Tom MacRae is or what he’s done. In fact, I could almost claim to be coming to this story with no preconceptions if it weren’t for the small detail that I’ve already seen it several times.

The story’s notable for the return of the you-know-whats, of course, but also to the foreground is Mickey, his character arc, and his relationship with the Doctor and Rose. The first TARDIS scene has Mickey still being the outsider of the gang, the butt of the jokes. And while the Doctor later worries about Rose going to find her father, it hasn’t occurred to him that there might be a parallel situation for Mickey, or indeed that he might have a hinterland at all.

It’s a good story for him, fittingly enough. It’s the sci-fi savvy Mickey who’s the first to realise that they’re on an alternate Earth, and he deals with the situation a lot better than Rose does in something of a role reversal. He also tells us that Tony Blair exists in “our” timeline, sadly. Or did, presumably, before the Slitheen got him.

Rose’s dad is alive here, in another fascinating plot thread which reaches backwards and forwards and, like the Mickey arc, is far more significant and fascinating in the context of the Marathon than it was at the time. To digress, though… both Jackie and Pete exist in this reality, and given that the chances of the same sperm fertilising the same egg as in our reality are vanishingly small I have to assume that events must have diverged from our reality less than forty years previously, after they were both conceived. That seems quite a tall order, given the zeppelins, the fact that Britain is a republic, and so on.

It’s fun exploring this world, where Jackie is rich, a bit nasty, and has a dog called Rose, Don Warrington is the President, and everybody’s wearing silver ear things that bring up Cybermen-style jug handles when Lumic wants to take control.

The Doctor states quite clearly that, with no more Time Lords around, “the walls of reality are closed,” and that travel between different realities is impossible, except for just this once. I wonder why he’s emphasising this so much? It’s almost as if something’s being foreshadowed.

The moment where Rose and the Doctor see everyone just stop and receive their “downloads” is just as horrible, once you think about it, as the forced Cybernisation to the sounds of Tight Fit that happens shortly afterwards. An entire society is just allowing one private monopoly to get inside their heads and “download” its own stance on politics, culture and everything, and hardly anybody seems to question it. Could this be the second dig at Rupert Murdoch from the “New Series”, I wonder?

Mickey finds that his Gran is still alive, and then things start happening rather quickly as he’s bundled into a van by people talking about “International Electromatics” (Now where have I heard that before?). But at least he manages to, ahem, find himself. Heh. Sorry.

There’s a nice bit of dialogue from Lumic which I only noticed this time round, as he says to Crane that he’s governed by greater laws than those represented by the President- “The right of a man to survive.” What a very Cyberman mentality.

The Doctor and Rose infiltrate the party, where Rose, interestingly, has a conversation with Pete that closely parallels their conversations in Father’s Day; Pete instinctively trusts her. Jackie’s reaction to her is quite a shock, though. This is not the Jackie that we know and love, and we know that be the narrative laws of the programme she’s going to die.

It’s a fantastic ending, showing us that Graeme Harper’s still got it; not only do the Cybermen look fantastic, but they’re brilliantly shot and, best of all, brilliantly choreographed. Again we get an outstanding cliffhanger.

The Age of Steel

“I’d call you a genius, but I’m in the room.”

Actually the cliffhanger resolution is quite good, I thought. A bit convenient in hindsight, perhaps, but I didn’t see it coming at the time. And from this point on it’s pretty much all epic movie action stuff.

There’s a bit of exposition in the van first, though, in which Pete makes two earth-shattering revelations. Firstly, he’s been spying on Lumic for the preachers, and secondly, they have Scooby Doo in this world.

It’s fascinating to see that here, as so often, the Doctor just takes charge of these people he’s just met and is questioned by no one, and yet the script manages to make this entirely plausible. It’s also interesting to see how Mickey and Ricky are shown to be more similar than the might have first seemed, with Ricky not being quite the freedom fighter we imagined and Mickey constantly showing himself to be more brave and resourceful than even he realises.

Of course, we can’t have two of them, and it’s only polite of Ricky to be the one to bite the dust, what with him not being a regular character and all. And Jake not only has to deal with the loss of his boyfriend (interesting angle on Mickey here, and also our first glimpse of a proto-Torchwood take on sexuality) but has his doppelganger hanging around apologising. But Mickey comes up trumps with his magnificent speech about how he’s going to help, dammit.

The Doctor and Mrs Moore re-enact the hatch scene from Tomb of the Cybermen and then, in a scene which brilliantly shows us the horror of Cybernisation, they examine an immobilised and dying Cyberman and the Doctor accidentally damages its emotional inhibitor. We find out that she was called Sally and tomorrow was going to be her wedding day. Meanwhile, Pete and Rose are spotted by a Cyberman who turns out to have been Jackie but then, even more effectively, she disappears into the crowd and they have no idea which one she was. This is brilliant; never before has the nature of Cybernisation and the existential dilemmas it raised been dramatised so well.

Lumic, of course, is forcibly Cybernised by his underlings and becomes the Cyber Controller. I suppose there’s grounds for criticism in that we’re not told how or why he seems to retain a bit of emotion while other Cybermen don’t (rather hypocritically, given his boasts to the Doctor), but I don’t really mind as the character fulfils a dramatic need for a chief villain who can cut it in a verbal showdown scene.

And it’s a pretty damn good showdown scene, too. The Doctor echoes Peter Davison’s speech from Earthshock but also emphasises the New Series’ themes of change versus stasis and human potential. And, of course, it’s Mickey who saves the day. I love the way he apparently learned to fly a zeppelin via Playstation.

There’s an interesting role reversal at the end, though- when finally tells Pete who she is things don’t work out as they did in Father’s Day; this time he can’t deal with it. And Mickey’s leaving scene is brilliant as he finally unloads his dependence on Rose. And his last line is perfect.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Girl in the Fireplace

“What’s a horse doing on a spaceship?”

“Mickey, what’s pre-revolutionary France doing on a spaceship? Get a little perspective!”

Steven Moffat’s back, and it’s timey-wimeyness right from the start. It’s Versailles, it’s the eighteenth century, then the credits roll and it’s Moffat’s very own 51st century. But we’ll be coming back to this scene in a rather clever way. Let’s not beat about the bush; I might as well say from the start that this is a blatant 5/5, and it’s going right into my chart at number three. It manages to be simultaneously a genuinely affecting romance, an ingenious treatment of time travel and an awesomely plotted tale that not only works like clockwork but is probably doing a metatextual nod to the story’s monster by doing so. Simply awesome.

The TARDISeers walk out on to the spaceship, to Mickey’s obvious delight. But something is odd; the engine’s running, and is clearly powering something, yet the ship is still, with not a crew member to be seen. But even stranger is the genuine eighteenth century French fireplace in the wall, behind which is a little girl called Reinette who thinks it’s 1727.

The Doctor spins round, and he is indeed in Reinette’s room, albeit a few months later. We then get the only flaw I can see in the story; the clock’s broken, so what’s doing the ticking? This is fine, even brilliant in itself, but it’s too similar to the scene with the tape recorder in The Doctor Dances. Seeing Moffat repeat himself like this is worrying. Still, aside from this the episode, and indeed the scene, is pretty much faultless. The fact that the monster is underneath Reinette’s bed is brilliant, as is what it is- an eighteenth century style automaton! This is exciting stuff. I love the no nonsense way the Moff sets out to scare the kids here.

The Doctor returns through the fireplace a few minutes later, and my, hasn’t Reinette grown! She indicates she’s rather pleased to see him but has to leave. The Doctor is then made aware that he’s just snogged Madame de Pompadour.

Back on the ship, there’s a certain amount of weirdness- a horse, a camera containing a human eye, and a human heart attached to machinery, for starters. There are windows to various events in Reinette’s life scattered throughout the ship; it appears to be stalking her. Once again, an awesomely brilliant concept.

The Doctor partially explains things, slightly yuckily; the ship is damaged and is in need of parts. It’s used parts of the bodies of the now ex-crew, but for some reason it now wants to use Reinette’s brain as its central computer. Blimey.

In a development of last week’s themes, Mickey gives Rose a bit of a ribbing now that the Doctor again seems to have a new lady friend. And there’s also been talk of Cleopatra (“He called her Cleo”). Interestingly, though, when I first watched this I had the impression that, brilliant though both this story and its predecessor undoubtedly are, the character arcs were poorly done as the Doctor’s relationship with Reinette seemed to indicate a betrayal of Rose. Interestingly, I no longer feel that’s the case. The Doctor loves Rose, but essentially in a platonic way, whereas the reverse isn’t necessarily true, although it’s not necessarily false either.

Reinette shows how fab she is by reading the Doctor’s mind as he read hers, and says some very interesting things about his loneliness. And we get the return of our favourite semi-euphemism as she asks the Doctor to “dance” with her. The camera then cuts away. Some time has passed.

The Doctor, feigning rat-arsedness, rather easily rescues Rose and Mickey from certain death at the hands of the clockwork robots, pausing only to note that “bananas are good”. I love this script.

It’s now clear than when Reinette is 37, the same age as the ship, she will be “ready” for the honour of being beheaded. Rose has the task of explaining this to Reinette. Reinette proves to be just a bit more eloquent. It’s a wonderful scene, turning the tables on our expectations of the “primitive” person from the past.

The Doctor rescues Reinette- naturally in the most show-offy way possible- but is trapped, and is now destined to take the slow path with her. Except that Reinette is rather clever and has kept the fireplace.

The ending is truly heartbreaking. Even I cried a bit, dammit. And the final shot explains everything. Having watched this I’m getting really quite excited about the future of Doctor Who under Steven Moffat. 5/5, like I said.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Doctor Who: School Reunion

“Oh, mate! The missus and the ex… welcome to every man’s worst nightmare!”

Nice pre-credits teaser, with Tony Head being suitably dastardly and the surprise of seeing the Doctor taking a class. And then the credits remind me of Toby Whithouse, who has of course since become famous for Being Human. Must get round to watching them when I start watching television fully again after the Marathon!

There are odd goings-on, and the Doctor and Rose have gone undercover as a teacher and dinner lady respectively. For the first time we join the story in the middle of the action, giving the whole thing a sense of pace and cutting out unnecessary and tiresome exposition. Of course, the plot is little more than a perfunctory Demon Headmaster type thing, but in this story more than other the plot is just something chugging away in the background while we concentrate on the character stuff, so I have no problem with that. We’ve only got 42 minutes, after all.

In the context of the Marathon it’s such a big, big thing so see Sarah again (I refuse to call her Sarah Jane) and Tennant’s face when she walks into the room is extraordinary. But the scene where the two of them come face to face besides the TARDIS is electric. The whole thing’s perfect, and Lis Sladen is great. I love the cattiness between Sarah and Rose, too. In fact, the next few minutes are pure joy, as we get to see K9 again (yay!) and the boot’s finally on the other foot as Mickey takes great delight at Rose’s discomfort with the Doctor and Sarah (“If I were you, I’d go easy on those chips”).

We get the sort of conversation between the Doctor and Sarah which we never would have got back in the old days, and it throws a whole new dimension on to their relationship, in a good way. Sarah says that the Doctor “dumped” her, and demands to know why he doesn’t return. Interestingly, his reply, that he has such a long life compared to those he travels with, is simultaneously genuinely deep and tragic yet completely dodging the question. It’s all summed up in one exchange as the Doctor protests “You didn’t need me! You were getting on with your life,” to which Sarah simply replies “You were my life”.

And we get the brilliant revelation that the Doctor left her in Aberdeen, not South Croydon! But even this is topped mere seconds later by Mickey’s realisation that he’s the tin dog.

Next we get a conversation between Rose and the Doctor which parallels the earlier one between him and Sarah; Rose now realises she’s only the latest of many to travel with him and wonders if one day she’ll get the push too. The Doctor’s reply is more insistent and more heartfelt but really no more honest. And it’s Sarah who he instinctively gives the sonic screwdriver to.

We switch to the conversation between the Doctor and Finch, a scene relating to the actual plot which, almost uniquely, is probably worth mentioning. There are echoes of the “No second chances” line from The Christmas Invasion as the Doctor gives him just one warning; there’s a hard edge to this new Doctor.

The monster competition between Sarah and Rose is fanwank heaven, and it’s the fact that the Loch Ness Monster just can’t be trumped that breaks the ice and allows them to bond. This scene is a significant one in post-2005 Who; ever since Rose the programme has been cagey about explicit references to specific past events for fear of alienating new fans, with even the creation of the Daleks being alluded to only in vague terms. This episode marks a sudden shift, with continuity references everywhere. At last the programme can embrace its past.

It turns out that the Krillitane want to solve some ultimate equation type thingy to somehow gain power over reality. It’s only on this viewing that I realised the significance in their all being maths teachers! Interestingly, we never see whether the Doctor is ultimately tempted or not by Finch’s offer of power as it’s Sarah who decides for him, assuming the Doctorish role at that point.

Finch says “forget the shooty dog thing”- so that’s where the phrase comes from! And then the plot comes to an end with K9’s sacrifice and Mickey, er, pulling the plug. The coda’s great; Sarah declines the offer to come aboard the TARDIS again, finally getting a proper goodbye from the Doctor, and advises Rose that “Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.” We end with the revelation that the Doctor’s made her a new K9.

And Mickey finally joins the TARDIS crew (yay), to Rose’s apparent annoyance…

Utterly wonderful. The plot was by-the-numbers, of course, but rightly so; we wouldn’t want it to overshadow the important stuff, in the same way no one ever criticised the works of Jimi Hendrix for the so-so vocals. Easily a 5/5.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Doctor Who: Tooth and Claw

“This is not my world.”

Crikey. It’s gone all Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Generally speaking Doctor Who can embrace all genres but there’s something about these martial arts scenes, or rather the aesthetics of these martial arts scenes, that feels very odd.

But then we’re back to the TARDIS, and what on Earth is Rose wearing? By God, those clothes look awful. Fortunately, the Doctor’s taste in music this episode is rather better than Rose’s taste in clothing. Going to see Ian Dury in the late ‘70s is exactly the sort of thing I‘d do if I had a time machine, frankly.

They end up, of course, in Scotland in 1879, where the Doctor decides to put on a Scottish accent for some reason. This is obviously at some level a self-referential acknowledgement that Tennant as an actor is doing the exact opposite, but for all my enjoyment of this kind of thing it seems a bit empty here. Still, it’s nice that he calls himself Dr James McCrimmon. From the township of Balamory, naturally.

And Pauline Collins is back after 39 years, this time in a rather different role. The dialogue immediately makes us suspect that Vicky is being led into a trap- the pre-titles sequence was a bit of a clue as well, admittedly- but for the moment that takes second place to the sheer spectacle of what she’s actually like. For the moment we see her nicer side before she’s provoked, but it’s interesting to see RTD opting for a compromise between the mardy battleaxe of popular imagination and the more fun-loving character who flirted with Disraeli and actually, rumour has it, may have had a sense of humour. The character ultimately disappoints, though; she essentially does nothing but react to the threats to her safety and to the Doctor’s behaviour. This isn’t a “celebrity historical” in the way The Unquiet Dead’s portrayal of Dickens was.

The carriage leads them to the, cough, Torchwood Estate. Gosh, I wonder if that’s going to be significant?

By now it’s clear that there’s something worrying about the tone of this story. Nothing bad has even happened yet but the frivolous attitude of the Doctor and Rose has already become annoying. And Rose’s bet with the Doctor that she can get Vicky to say she’s not amused is the worst example of this. Once the monks and the wolf start becoming a threat their frivolity becomes even more objectionable- people are dying. I can certainly see why Vicky reacts as she does.

Oh, and incidentally, it struck me immediately after the wolf announcing its intention to bit Vicky and establish its mighty steampunk “Empire of the Wolf”- this is influenced by Brotherhood of the Wolf, innit?

Annoying though Rose is, the Doctor’s attitude here is basically unforgiveable. His frivolity slips into bad taste here. Even the very fact that he’s ended up with the responsibility for saving Vicky’s life ultimately stems from an act of frivolity- casually flashing the psychic paper before sniggering to Rose shortly afterwards that “We just met Queen Victoria!”

The ending with the telescope is decent enough, and I like the indication that Vicky was bitten, although it should have just been left there. But the scene where our heroes are dubbed “Sir Doctor of TARDIS” and “Dame Rose of the Powell Estate” is cringeworthy in a way that even the parallel scene in The King’s Demons wasn’t. Nothing about the dialogue, the attitudes of the Victorian characters, or the way the Queen does things quite rings true for the period, but this scene takes the biscuit.

I’m on Vicky’s side as she banishes them both, personally, and I can see exactly why she establishes this mysterious Torchwood thing.

Well, after it’s so-so predecessor we finally get the first true clunker of the “new” series, surprisingly so as I recall liking this well enough at the time. But although the plot functions well enough the period just feels wrong and, unforgivably, the Doctor and Rose are completely unlikeable, frivolously arsing about while death and destruction happen around them. 2/5.

The David Tennant I’m-So-Sorry-ometer

The Christmas Invasion: 0
New Earth: 1 (“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”)
Tooth and Claw: 0

Doctor Who: New Earth

“New, new Doctor!”

It looks as though we start with a continuity error- there’s no snow and everyone has changed clothes. Then again, they could just have waited a day or two. It was Christmas Day, after all.

The TARDIS lands in the year 5,000,0000,023, on the planet New Earth in the M87 Galaxy. Yes, that’s right- an alien planet! An alien planet crammed with reference points to Earth, but another world nonetheless. But the Doctor and Rose have been spotted- by one of those spider things from The End of the World

The TARDISeers haven’t arrived here by accident, though. There’s a message for the Doctor, and it’s from yon nearby hospital. Said hospital has no shops, disappointingly, but on the other hand it has lots of cat nurses, who remind me very much of the Cheetah People from Survival.

Our heroes are separated whilst travelling downwards, and while the Doctor encounters the petrified Duke of Manhattan and his rather uptight underling Frau Clovis, Rose comes face to face with Cassandra, now reduced to skulking underground with her genetically engineered slave Chip and some footage of herself back when she looked like Zoe Wanamaker. Not for long, though, as she quickly and rather rudely steals Rose’s body.

The Doctor, meanwhile, encounters another mysterious face from the past: the Face of Boe. The Face may be dying but there’s still no reason why he can’t be annoyingly enigmatic. Apparently before he dies he’s going to impart one last secret to “the lonely god”. Gosh, I wonder who that could be.

All is not well in the hospital, it seems; the cat nurses seem to have concealed hordes of lab rats-cum-lepers in a secret underground chamber, and they’re effecting their miracle cures by simply transferring their patients’ diseases into these human cattle. This almost, but not quite, seems to have something to say on medical ethics and animal experimentation and that. You get the impression that RTD feels he ought to vaguely allude to this sort of theme but at the end of the day it’s just not a particular political hobby horse of his.

We get a number of Tennant firsts around this point. The first kiss between him and Rose, sort of; the first “I’m so sorry” of which more below; and the first example of his occasional cosmic arrogance with his “If you want to take it to a higher authority, there isn’t one.” You can almost smell the foreboding.

It all kicks off as the Doctor realises something’s up with Rose, forcing Cassandra to accelerate her plans. The leper people are soon released, and pandemonium ensues. I’m reminded of Terminus. And also minded to give a rather similar score to the one I gave for that story, unfortunately.

Cassandra’s sudden, shocked, change of heart after seeing inside the leper's head actually works quite well, but unfortunately the conclusion of the Doctor just randomly mixing lots of medicines together is, well, awful. I’m not generally in the habit of uttering the phrases “deus ex machine” and “Russell T. Davies” in the same sentence, but for this story I’m almost tempted.

The Face of Boe is suddenly cured, too, and he’s going to carry on being enigmatic for a while longer- works as a sort of teaser, I suppose. Cassandra’s story ends satisfyingly, too, in the arms of her past self. But for the first time in the “New Series” there’s something lacking here. After awarding every episode of last season a 5/5 I feel almost cruel doing this, but New Earth only gets a 3/5.

Oh, and here’s the start of a new feature…

The David Tennant I’m-So-Sorry-ometer

The Christmas Invasion: 0
New Earth: 1 (“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”)

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Christmas Invasion

“Harriet Jones, Prime Minister.”

“Yes, I know who you are.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and both Jackie and Mickey (who, we now learn, is a mechanic) hear the sound of the TARDIS materialising. “She’s alive!” cries Jackie, once again showing us how traumatic the last few months of not knowing must have been, and how thoughtless it was for the Doctor to arrive now rather than shortly after the events of The Parting of the Ways.

The Doctor collapses and ends up in Jackie’s flat. The fact that he has two hearts is quickly brought out, the first of several nods to Spearhead From Space. Rose is shaken by the regeneration, coming to realise that the Doctor really isn’t human.

Meanwhile, Harriet Jones has become Prime Minister, and the British space programme has sent a probe to Mars, apparently single-handed. I mean, come on- I know this is science fiction, but that’s just too far-fetched.

It’s interesting how the change in their relationship is revealed in the conversation between Rose and Mickey- he’s come to accept the situation to the extent that he’s able to give Rose a ribbing for constantly going on about the TARDIS. Of course, as soon as he gets her to promise they’ll just have a normal Christmas with no aliens or anything a bunch of robots dressed as Santa try to kill them with a flamethrower. And then there’s the attack of the killer Christmas tree, which I just love. In a way it’s a shame that these ideas have been used up, as no Christmas special will ever be able to be quite so Christmassy again.

The Doctor briefly wakes up and sorts it out, and then the focus shifts to the PM and UNIT in the Tower of London. The probe has come across some aliens on live TV (cue another appearance by Trinity Wells) and there’s some debate as to who they are. They can’t be Martians; as the UNIT major point out they look completely different. They make contact with the aliens; Mickey, of course, is hacking into this, as that’s how the Internet works in TV dramas. There’s another mention of the mysterious Torchwood, which the PM is not supposed to know about and the UN doesn’t know about, although the UNIT major apparently does.

Harriet refuses to surrender, and the Sycorax, controlling peoples’ blood, makes a third of the world’s population, including the Royal Family, go and stand right at the edge on the tops of buildings. Oops. It’s all looking a bit grim. And then, when things seemingly can’t get any worse, the Sycorax ship manoeuvres itself over London blotting out the Sun, Independence Day style. This is a triumph both of effects and design, the ship being essentially a massive rock with the technological components built into it.

While Rose manoeuvres Jackie and Mickey into the TARDIS, for no reason other than safety, Harriet and underlings are teleported up to the Sycorax ship, where Harriet assumes the role of leader of the world! The Sycorax leader demonstrates how nasty he is by killing both scientist Daniel Llewellyn and the UNIT major, and then proceeds to throw a major wobbly because Harriet hasn’t told him about some secret alien tech she’s hidden. This turns out to be the TARDIS, and the Sycorax leader duly teleports it on to the ship. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t a good idea.

Rose and Mickey emerge, leaving behind an unconscious Doctor and a dripping flask of tea. But as the Sycorax leader’s words start to be translated, it’s clear that tea is indeed the solution to everything as the Doctor emerges. His first scene is a killer and leaves us in no doubt that this is indeed the Doctor. Disappointed he’s not ginger (how very topical!), he babbles on for a bit before he eventually deigns to allow the Sycorax leader to speak. And then, brilliantly, he presses the big red button and calls the Sycorax bluff, simultaneously resolving a major plot point and showing us something of this new Doctor’s character. He instantly feels a lot more confident and, well, Tom Baker-ish than his traumatised predecessor.

The final challenge between the Doctor and the Sycorax leader gives us a couple more great moments; as he’s less than fifteen hours into his new body, he can regrow his hand after it’s been cut off. And we get the “No second chances” moment, which in hindsight looks as though it’s foreshadowing rather a lot.

There’s another nod to Spearhead as the Doctor explains to Harriet that Earth is drawing attention to itself with probes and such like, but the cosiness of the coda is shattered as Harriet orders the mysterious Torchwood to vaporise the Sycorax ship as it’s retreating. This causes the Doctor to end Harriet’s career with six short words in a scene which may not be entirely believable but is more than cool enough to get away with this. Still, it looks as though the Doctor has changed the future from what was supposed to happen back in World War Three

With the adventure over, the new Doctor gets the traditional clothes choosing scene. I think it was said somewhere that there was supposed to be something on screen from every previous Doctor, but all I spotted was the two scarves. Still, it’s a nice ending. The Doctor stays for Christmas dinner; this incarnation clearly does do domestic.

And just when things seemingly can’t get any better, the middle eight is back. Yes! 5/5.

Doctor Who: That 2005 Children in Need Thing

“We’re gonna crash land…”

Blimey, that’s an awfully long barrage of clips. I imagine it must take up an uncomfortably large percentage of the total running time.

It’s something of a treat to get a sneak peek at this new Doctor, or rather it would be. Unfortunately, we’re entering the part of the Marathon where memories are quite fresh, and the mannerisms of this “new” Doctor are instantly familiar. Of course, Rose can’t instantly accept him, and she’s not sure whether she’s going to stay- it’s good to see a scene like this, which acknowledges the consequences of the Doctor’s regeneration on their relationship. Once again RTD is deconstructing the tropes of the show.

There’s an interesting line about Captain Jack- the Doctor replies to Rose’s query by blandly stating that “He’s busy. He’s got plenty to do rebuilding to Earth.” This doesn’t sound honest, and what’s more is pretty much confirms that the Doctor left him behind deliberately, Interesting!

It’s a fun few minutes (4/5, if we’re rating), but we see the start of Tennant’s main fault- his tendency to gabble so that you can’t make out what he’s saying. It’s all right for me- my hearing’s a bit crap and I use subtitles whenever I can- but it’s something that needs to be looked at. Still, all good fun, and it’s for charidee…

Doctor Who: Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways

Bad Wolf

“Ladies, your viewing figures just went up!”

Arse. I might as well admit from the start that I’ve ended up awarding a 5/5 to every story of the season. This in no way affects my credibility, I’m sure.

Anyway, we start with a few clips from The Long Game, and a caption tells us it’s a hundred years later. Except that we seem to be in the Big Brother house. And the Doctor’s a contestant. Now there’s an extremely weird pre-titles sequence.

We then switch to Rose in a scene which directly parallels the Doctor’s, right down to parts of her dialogue. She’s about to play The Weakest Link. With an, ahem, “Anne-Droid”. And Captain Jack Back is with a robot Trinny and Susannah. Naturally.

In 2005 I was distinctly uneasy about these references to contemporary game shows, especially as this is supposed to be 198,100 years in the future and technically a bit implausible that people in the distant future would be watching these shows, although at the same time I admired how it was done. This time round it doesn’t bother me at all- that’s just the style of Doctor Who these days. And I can accept the implausibility because it doesn’t really matter- this is allegory, like a large chunk of science fiction generally is, and therefore really about the concerns of the present. Besides, we couldn’t possibly depict the distant future at all without doing this sort of thing on some level. Everything we see is necessarily an extrapolation of the present, so we might as well be blatant about it.

Anyway, it soon becomes clear that not only are the Big Brother contestants disintegrated once evicted, with the only prize being survival, but being the Weakest Link also means disintegration. Oh, and Trinny and Susannah extend their makeover tendencies to rearranging peoples’ faces. It’s all quite mysterious, too; the transmit beam which transported our heroes into these game shows did so inside the TARDIS, indicating considerable power. And no one in charge seems to be picking the TARDISeers- they seem to have just arrived.

Oh, and the Anne Droid asks a question about something called the “Torchwood Institute”. Just thought I’d mention it. No particular reason.

The Doctor escaped, with his new friend Lynda with a “y”, and learns that this is in fact Satellite Five. It seems this is all his fault, as the collapse of TV news is what caused all this to happen. Gosh. And there was me thinking that 24 hour rolling news was a complete load of crap. Oh, and the Doctor agrees to let Lynda travel with him in the most fate tempting way possible. She’s so going to die.

Rose is still playing The Weakest Link alongside the rather gittish Rodric, played rather well by Patterson Joseph (who, incidentally, I was expecting to be cast as the Eleventh Doctor- shows how much I know). The questions are rather amusing: Jackie Collins is now apparently classed as “literature”. Oh, and the Face of Boe is apparently from the Isop Galaxy. As is Vortis, I seem to recall. But just as the Doctor and Jack rush in to disintegrate her, apparently she’s disintegrated. And both Eccleston and Barrowman convincingly portray their characters’ utter dejection as they’re arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced, Frontier in Space style, to the lunar penal colony. Without trial, naturally.

Of course, they escape, and head up to Floor 500 with a whopping great gun. They soon discover that things are rather odd, and that people are just as unquestioning as in The Long Game. There’s a great moment of moral force for the Doctor when, upon being told that the people running the games were “just doing our jobs,” he replies “And with that sentence you just lost the right to even talk to me.”

There’s a brief power cut, courtesy of a solar flare, and the Controller is able to explain that the has brought the TARDISeers here in the hope that they can stop her mysterious “masters”. These “masters” were the power behind the Jagrafess and have been guiding humanity’s destiny for centuries- this means simultaneously that all this is, crucially, not actually the Doctor’s fault, but at the same time he should have thought to dig a bit deeper into what lay behind the Jagrafess.

Jack, though, has found the TARDIS, and it turns out that the “disintegrated” humans are not killed, merely transmatted- Rose is still alive! Then we cut to her- and a certain familiar throbbing sound…

At last we see loads of Daleks, and they look fantastic. The odds against the Doctor are huge, but brilliantly the cliffhanger emphasises not that but his resolve to defeat them.

The Parting of the Ways

“New teeth. That’s weird.”

The Doctor rescues Rose with admirable speed, materialising the TARDIS around Rose and a Dalek, while Jack shoots the Dalek with that whopping great gun. And now the Doctor naturally has to have a chinwag with the Daleks. He discovers they’re half-human. Ah, that old favourite…

It seemed they survived the Time Lord because of a single survivor, who is now their Emperor, with delusions of Godhood. Having established the Emperor’s a bit of a nutter, they all head back to Satellite Five. Once there things start to go a bit UNIT, with the Doctor taking charge of the boffin stuff while Jack takes charge of the military side of things. Jack kisses both the Doctor and Rose full on the lips, indicating he doesn’t expect he’ll live to see them again. Things are getting very dangerous. So the Doctor sends Rose home in the TARDIS.

Rose is not too pleased about this, especially as the conversation with Jackie and Mickey as they eat their chips is as mundane as a conversation can be. Rose is insistent that she can’t live like that, to which Mickey very reasonably retorts “Why, because you’re better than us?” But Rose insists it’s not the travelling she can’t live without, but the better way of living, the refusal to give up. I’m not sure she’s written as being entirely honest here, but it does the trick with Mickey. The fact that “Bad Wolf” suddenly appears as graffiti everywhere clinches it. Rose is determined to get at the heart of the TARDIS…

Meanwhile, the Doctor is nonplussed as the Dalek Emperor denies all knowledge of the Bad Wolf thing. And the cowards on the bottom floor, including Rodric, get what’s been coming to them. The situation seems hopeless, in spite of a bit of fight being shown by the Anne Droid, and Lynda is killed in a brilliantly executed scene. Meanwhile, on Earth, Jackie finds a truck for Rose and Mickey to use. It works, and Rose looks into the heart of the TARDIS. The TARDIS materialises…

It’s too late for Jack, though, who dies heroically. Everything seems hopeless; the Doctor is unable to carry out his plan in the end as the collateral damage would just be too great. But then Rose arrives, full of power from the TARDIS- again, the TARDIS has some worryingly powerful abilities, and this is a potentially bad precedent. But for now it provides a satisfactory ending. In something of a time paradox, Rose herself is the Bad Wolf, scattering the words throughout eternity. Jack is resurrected, the Daleks are all killed- and Rose starts to collapse. She won’t be able to survive all this power.

Of course, the Doctor saves her (with a kiss!) and they leave in the TARDIS. Without Jack, for reasons which remain unexplained. But the Doctor can’t survive himself, and regenerates, to the sounds of the “Chancellor Flavia” theme. Standing up.

Actually, this is one of the weaker episodes of the season. But it’s still good enough for a 5/5. And the season as a whole- wow. A perfect score. Surely this level of quality can’t be sustained?

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Doctor Who: Boom Town

“Dinner in bondage. Works for me.”

I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly here, but a short while before this Marathon started- and what a scarily long time ago that was- there was a thread in the old forum about what we were expecting to happen. I can’t remember what I put, but I rather suspect I’d have been expecting most of all to slag off The Keys of Marinus and to mount an impassioned defence of Boom Town, the most underappreciated gem in all of Doctor Who. And once I’ve finished writing this I’ll have done them both. How time flies.

This blew me away in 2005 and it blew me away again earlier this evening. Which might seem a little odd given its reputation as a cheap and silly bit of lightweight fluff. Certainly I remember not being impressed with the trailer at the end of The Doctor Dances. Actually, I’m very curious about how other Marathoneers have rated it (I don’t read the threads until just after I post my own review)- I’m guessing rather higher than its general reputation if not necessarily that highly overall. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m right.

I may not have realised before I reached this stage of the Marathon that I was going to rate every single story so far 5/5, but it’s safe to say I’m not particularly surprised that this season is looking really quite likely to be my favourite. And Boom Town is absolutely vital to this best of all seasons, in fact the heart of it. Set just before the non-stop action of the season’s climax, this is where the season stops to examine its themes in ways which look both backwards and forwards.

The early scenes are very silly, of course. And yes, technically there are problems with the plot logic. How can Margaret Blaine become Mayor of Cardiff without ever having been photographed? How on Earth can a proposal to demolish Cardiff Castle and replace it with a nuclear power station stand any chance of being reality? How can so many absurd and suspicious deaths not cause someone in authority to raise an eyebrow, however much London may not care if all of South Wales falls into the sea?

But all these things are supposed not to make sense. It’s part of the joke. I can understand how a lot of people would object this type of comedy device being used, of course. (I don’t- I have a weakness for self-referential humour, and I accept this sort of thing as part of the wonderful diversity of styles in Doctor Who) But it’s funny; when Margaret replies to journalist Cathy Salt’s question about the fate of the European safety inspectors with “But they were French!” and regrets that the signs saying Danger: High Explosives were only written in Welsh, the dialogue is signalling that this part of the episode is following the narrative rules of sitcom rather than drama; it’s allowed to have dodgy plot logic as long as it knows that and makes a joke of it.

There’s one very important serious scene in this part of the episode, mind; Margaret decides not to kill Cathy, which will be referred to later on. But essentially the entire section with Margaret and the nuclear station is just a bit of light-hearted preamble, albeit well-crafted, and it’s the serious stuff later on that’s the real meat of the episode. This is paralleled with the regular characters, too; their lighter scenes are put at the beginning before things get serious later, so we get a bit of fun, a bit of banter, a bit of exposition about the rift being a good refuelling spot, and, bizarrely, a brief allusion to the events of An Unearthly Child. But there’s stuff bubbling under, of course; Mickey’s relationship to the three time travellers is fascinatingly ambiguous. On the one hand he’s now being welcomed socially into the group and even takes part in the plan to capture Margaret. But he’s still something of an outsider amongst his maybe-girlfriend and two alpha male types. Jack, meanwhile, gets to be the action hero before taking a back seat for the rest of the episode.

It’s not long before Margaret is captured and the episode proper can begin. After one last great comedy line (“Oh, I sound like a Welshman,” says Margaret, in a line which was of course scripted by a Welshman. “God help me, I’ve gone native.”), the TARDISeers decide to take Margaret back to Raxacoricopalafatorius(?). And with a single line- “They have the death penalty”- the episode suddenly turns on a sixpence. As Margaret explicitly states, the Doctor now has to face the consequences of his actions, and this of course foreshadows coming events in which the aftermath of The Long Game will play a central part. But it also looks back to the consequences of the Doctor causing Rose to be missing for a year (the consequences of which are still being played out in this episode)- in fact, the consequences of the Doctor’s wanderings are a central theme of the season, and this is the episode where we stop to explore it. Throughout the season RTD has been deconstructing the tropes of the programme, and this is the ultimate example of that.

Of course, it’s great for other reasons, too. The dialogue between Margaret and the Doctor before and during their “date” is great not just for the gripping discussion of ethics but for her obvious manipulation of him, for Margaret’s comedy assassination attempts, and for the Doctor’s triumphant reoccupation of the moral high ground as he points out that occasionally sparing the odd someone is how a murderer like Margaret can live with herself.

This is paralleled by the conversation between Mickey and Rose, where Rose finally has o confront the way she’s been treating him- she leaves him behind to go travelling but gets jealous when he starts seeing another woman. And yet she only has to call and he comes all the way to Cardiff for her. She’s forced to conclude that “He deserves better.”

The resolution may be a little overly neat, and perhaps over-reliant on the ever-increasing powers of the TARDIS, but it’s very satisfying as far as the themes and characters are concerned. And now that all that’s been dealt with we can finally get to the climax…

5/5. You guessed it.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances

The Empty Child

“Not sure if it’s Marxism in action or a West End musical…”

A very brief pre-titles sequence this time; it’s a mauve alert situation, and the Doctor and Rose are following an alien artifact that’s heading for central London. Red alerts, apparently, are camp.

It’s a month later when the TARDIS arrives. It’s London, it’s night, and the dialogue sparkles. My Marathon has reached Steven Moffat’s first script, and the combination of this and The End of Time means I’m getting rather excited about the upcoming new era. But back to The Empty Child.

What’s wonderful about Steven Moffat scripts is that not only do his plots fit together like clockwork but even witty dialogue is paid off with related further witty dialogue later. Here it’s Rose lamenting that the Doctor hasn’t got enough “Spock”, what with being unable to scan for alien tech and everything. And of course it’s revealed that this is the middle of the Blitz right after the Doctor has asked a roomful of people if anything has fallen from the sky recently.

Rose, for reasons of her own, ends up hanging to a barrage balloon in mid-air in the middle of an air raid while wearing a Union Flag t-shirt. As you do. I’m surprised to see that the backdrop is a little too obviously a matte painting in some shots, and this isn’t the first time that an effect from this season has convinced a little less than I remember it doing at the time, and especially in comparison to more recent episodes. Still, that’s no real criticism; this season pretty much saw the BBC learning how to do sci-fi all over again.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is puzzled to find the TARDIS phone ringing, which is particularly odd as it’s not even a real phone. He also finds strange goings-on in a nearby family home of which the man, Mr Lloyd, is played by that bloke from the video for Basement Jaxx’s Where’s Your Head At?. A bunch of street urchins enter the house and start eating the abandoned meal, all under the supervision of the mysterious Nancy. Even more strange, just as Rose slips from the rope she is coincidentally caught in a tractor beam- definitely not 1940s technology. Naturally, she’s told to switch off her mobile phone as it interferes with the equipment.

The ship belongs to the mysterious Captain Jack Harkness, and it’s fascinating to see the character as he appears here given all the baggage he’s acquired since, much as I shouldn’t be thinking of any of that while wearing my Marathon hat. And the psychic paper flirting is great. Jack has a Chula warship, and he’s offering to sell it to Rose, who he believes to be a “Time Agent”. Naturally he tells Rose this as they sip champagne atop an invisible spaceship during an air raid just by Big Ben, to the sounds of Glenn Miller. On hearing that the Doctor’s around somewhere, he… does a scan for alien tech. Finally, a professional!” purrs Rose. This is great.

Rather cleverly, the little boy with a gas mask who’s been popping up throughout the episode, seemingly harmlessly, is revealed as the big threat in a scene which is actually quite scary. Everyone’s scared of it, it can control phones, radios and the like, and the Doctor’s alone in the house while it asks to be let in and to see its Mummy…

The Doctor finds Nancy again, and after a rather splendid little speech about Britain and Hitler, he’s told to go and see “The Doctor”- Dr Constantine, played by Richard Wilson- a surprisingly small part for possibly the most famous guest star to appear so far this series. Constantine’s patients all have exactly the same wounds- “Physical injuries as plague,”- and they’re the same wounds as the little boy. They’re all alive, extremely creepy, and wanting their Mummy. And worse, Constantine becomes one of them in a horrifying scene. Rose and Jack arrive just in time for the cliffhanger. Jack admits that the artefact they were chasing was put there by him as bait as part of an attempted con; it’s a Chula ambulance. But all that can wait; the patients are all advancing…

The Doctor Dances

“When he’s stressed he likes to insult species.”

It’s a simple and elegant resolution to the cliffhanger, and also the perfect set-up to the Doctor’s admission that “Those would have been terrible last words!” Then we can just sit back and enjoy an episode crammed with quickfire witticisms fired between the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack. Who, incidentally, is an ex-Time Agent from the 51st Century. I wonder how he got to 1941- Zygma technology, perhaps?

It seems that all this is Jack’s fault; he brought the Chula ambulance here, and everything that’s happened seems to stem from its arrival. Still, he has a squareness gun, which is pretty cool, although the Doctor disagrees. They’re still in danger, though; there’s a fantastic moment where everyone realises the tape has run out and it is in fact the gas mask boy talking. The only worrying thing it that this seems to be a recurring trick of Moffat’s; he did it in the excellent Jekyll as well. I hope we won’t be seeing it again any time soon.

It’s rather amusing now to recall that up until 2005 I (and a lot of people, I suspect) sort of casually assumed the Doctor must be pretty much asexual as far as I thought of such things at all. So it’s fascinating to see the conversation between the Doctor and Rose about, ahem, “dancing”. “You just assume I don’t dance,” complains the Doctor, both to Rose and to the viewer. “Well, I’ve got the moves but I wouldn’t want to boast.” Well, well, well…

They’re teleported to Jack’s ship, where he explains more of his background; he was indeed once a Time Agent, but left once he realise his employers had wiped two years’ worth of memories, something which has remained unresolved ever since, oddly. Oh, and he’s very much the 51st century guy, very flexible with “dancing”. Perhaps he once “danced” with Mr Sin, you never know.

There’s a wonderful scene between Rose and Nancy as they repair the barbed wire; Nancy has no problem accepting that the Doctor and Rose have a time machine, but she can’t accept the possibility that perhaps the war may not be so hopeless after all and she may actually have a future.

The ending is very neat indeed; the nanogenes from the Chula ambulance found the child, Nancy’s son, and has been using him as ac template for what it believes humans should look like. Nancy’s genes are able to teach them otherwise, though, and it’s quite moving to see the Doctor’s joy that “Everybody lives!” Not only that, but restored to perfect health, even if that means an entire leg growing back, which leads to the best line of the story, and perhaps the series, courtesy of Dr Constantine: “Well, there is a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?”

The Doctor and Rose leave, with the Doctor is a great mood, encouraging everyone to keep fighting, beat Hitler, and “Don’t forget the Welfare State.” Jack, on the other hand, is facing certain death, having deliberately sacrificed himself to stop the Chula bomb and make amends. He faces his certain death with dignity and champagne, but the Doctor and Rose ensure he isn’t going to die quite yet. It seems he might be living just a little bit longer…

As per usual for this season, that was fab. 5/5. Again.

Doctor Who: Father's Day

“The past is another country. 1987 is just the Isle of Wight.”

Oddly enough for an episode which I might as well admit I think is fab from the outset, it doesn’t get off to the best of starts. The opening dialogue from Jackie and Rose feels overly artificial, too obviously a framing device, and doesn’t feel at all naturalistic, which feels wrong for something rooted in the world of Jackie and the Powell Estate. Fortunately, though, everything else about this story is great.

Paul Cornell gives us a story completely unlike anything which Doctor Who has ever given us before, a drama which essentially focuses on relationships in a domestic setting and where the sci-fi elements, though important, are there to serve this. The result is something wonderful but also brave given the possible reaction.

We’re back in the Powell Estate, and it’s 1987. Wisely, the production team haven’t gone overboard with the ‘80s-ness as this would have distracted from the tone. The early scenes are brilliant; at first unable to move as she watches her father die, Rose convinces the Doctor to let her have another try, and I can’t help thinking of Day of the Daleks as they watch their earlier selves.

Rose does the inevitable, and the expression on Christopher Eccleston’s face is priceless. And the fact he proceeds to say nothing for ages speaks volumes, adding extra weight to his eventual outburst, questioning whether Rose is any different from Adam in The Long Game, using time travel for her own purposes. But the difference here is not only that Rose’s motives are rather different but that this is just as much the Doctor’s fault as hers, if not more.

The Doctor takes Rose’s key and goes to the TARDIS as though about to leave without her. We know he won’t actually do it, of course, but it’s quite effectively shocking when we discover he can’t. Rose’s messing with time will have consequences. Admittedly I haven’t a clue why the TARDIS should go all Wheel in Space, or why the phones and Pete’s radio behave as they do, but for once that sort of thing hardly seems to matter.

Before we get to the meat of the episode we get our first sight of the car that was to have killed Pete driving around like a ghost, and we get a scene in a park which seems strangely unlike the sort of thing I remember from the ‘80s. No woodchip or modern play equipment for us; every swing and every roundabout was a potential deathtrap, but we were happy. No trip to the park was complete without an exchange of gossip with the other kids about the last time someone had “cracked their head open”. Halcyon days.

Er, where was I? Yes, the meat. For a start, there’s Jackie’s hair. But there’s also Rose getting to understand that her parents’ relationship was never quite what she’d been led to believe it was. But perhaps it’s not quite as bad as it appears at first glance here either.

Suddenly, we get our first glimpse of the CGI bat thing, and the consequences of Rose’s act are looking very bad indeed. The CGI doesn’t exactly look that good by more recent standards, but that’s another thing which hardly seems to matter.

Everyone rushes inside the church for safety, and it’s not long before Rose and Pete have their inevitable chat. You can tell instantly that he’s worked out he’s Rose’s dad, and from this point it’s inevitable that before long he’ll realise exactly what’s going on. Shaun Woodward is brilliant here, but so’s the script. And it again demonstrates its brilliance very soon afterwards in the Doctor’s speech to the newlyweds-to-be.

Mickey as a kid gives us some comic relief, but things look very grim. The creatures have “sterilised” the whole planet apart from themselves and other small besieged communities, and the Doctor hasn’t even got a plan. The Time Lords would have been able to prevent this sort of thing but now there’s no one to do there job- a nice, subtle use of the season arc. But Rose says she’s sorry, and the Doctor forgives her. So he should; it’s as much his fault as hers.

The climax is perfect; Pete knows he’d been fated to die as soon as Rose tries to claim that he was always there for her: “That’s not me.” And then, catastrophe: just as the Doctor’s about to save everyone, Rose goes up to her younger self and, er, crosses the streams. And a Dad’s gotta do what a Dad’s gotta do.

5/5 again. Even I cried, dammit.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Long Game

“Look at me- I’m stupid!”

Again we’re introduced to this week’s setting by means of on-screen media- a developing RTD trope- but this time it turns out to be the focus of the story as well. We also have an extra character in Adam, allowing this to be the first of two sort-of Doctor-Lite stories. And at last we get to a story I’ve been confidently expecting to award less than 5/5 to, which was going to be a good thing- after all, giving 5/5 to every story since Rose would be rather embarrassing, wouldn’t it. Er, well…

Annoyingly for my plans, we get a rather good beginning. It’s the year 200,000 (that RTD likes his big round numbers, don’t he?), it’s Satellite 5, and it’s the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire. I remember being a little underwhelmed by the design four years ago but this time round I couldn’t see what made me think that- and it’s supposed to look rather less impressive than the Doctor’s expecting it to in any case. It’s all looking very 2000 AD, too, with Kronkburgers and all. And, as we’ll see, the way the subtext is done feels very 2000 AD, too. Much like the last two McCoy seasons did, in fact. There’s another thing I’ve learned from this Marathon; there’s far more continuity in style and content (Ace is also a kind of prototype Rose) between the McCoy years and the Eccleston years than I’d previously appreciated.

TV news is produced here, and it’s staffed by journalists, one of whom, Cathica, will be our audience identification character for this evening. And the journalists exist in a claustrophobic corporate atmosphere in which the ultimate is to be promoted to Floor 500, where “the walls are made of gold”. In the hands of a lesser writer this would already be food enough to supply the subtext for a forty-five minute tale. But we also get Simon Pegg and some interesting character stuff between Rose and Adam. On the one hand Rose is enjoying the chance to pose as the experienced traveller, but it’s clear that she’s unimpressed by him. He’s overwhelmed and needs to get away, and in doing so both rejects Rose’s lifestyle and subtly disappoints her. But worse, he has a selfish agenda.

There are increasing hints that all is not well; Suki is promoted to Floor 500, but we’re told, ominously, that those who go there never come back. Worse than that, though, is that Cathica, and those like her, are supposed to be journalists but show little or no curiosity for the world around them. Things just go unquestioned; Cathica hasn’t noticed the lack of aliens until it’s pointed out to her, casually guessing that security must have been tightened because of vaguely defined “threats” (“The usual stuff”)- a blatantly obvious bit of contemporary satire which I don’t remember noticing at the time and which also seems to have gone unnoticed in the media just a couple of weeks after RTD’s “massive weapons of destruction”. It just goes to show how much you can get away with in terms of satire when there are elements of the fantastic to hide it behind.

Things are not as they should be. Humanity’s development has been set back ninety years, and News Internatio- er, Satellite Five has been there for 91 years. Most damning of all is that the Doctor and Rose, who’ve only been there five minutes, instantly work out what’s going on and quickly get themselves to Floor 500 while Cathica just worries about getting into trouble and constantly fails to spot the obvious.

Adam, meanwhile, is behaving rather less impressively than the Doctor and Rose, having surgery to implant an “info-spike” for the purpose of relaying future tech to his family’s answer phone back in the 21st century so he can get rich. It’s a funny scene, but the consequences are going to be deadly serious, as the Doctor and Rose finally reach Floor 500 where they meet the Editor and his boss, the Jagrafess. And going by the beast’s appearance, it looks as though they got the real Rupert Murdoch to play him. Now there’s an impressive piece of casting.

We get a bit more juicy subtext which tears wonderfully into the tabloids’ favourite hobby horses (“Create a climate of fear and it’s easy to keep the borders closed,”), including a bit which has improved with end- the Editor represents a consortium of banks! But, essentially, our heroes are in dire peril, not helped by the fact that Adam has been an utter pillock and shown the Editor all of their innermost secrets. Fortunately, though, Cathica, “a member of staff with an idea,” has been listening, and saves the day. It’s the first time, but not the last, that an incidental character ends up as the hero, having been made a better person by the Doctor’s example- another fine RTD trope. And her ordinariness is wonderfully emphasised by the Editor’s dismissive “Who’s that?”

Adam, on the other hand, is dumped back on Earth for being such an utter pillock, and the family answer phone feels the wrath of the sonic screwdriver. “I only take the best,” says the Doctor. “I’ve got Rose.” In no way is this tempting fate for the next episode…

Er, it really has to be another 5/5, I’m afraid. Sorry. Duly embarrassed and all that. You never know, the season could still end up with less than a perfect score. It could happen. Seriously, though, it’s really surprised me how much I liked this. It’s the second new series story to enter my top ten, and the best so far of the twenty-first century.