Monday, 26 April 2010

Doctor Who: Blink

“Hey, Sparrow and Nightingale! That so works.”

“Bit ITV…”

I certainly picked an interesting time to watch this one…

Well, this is a bit good. Interesting that this is in some ways the second “Doctor-lite” story in a row, and also interesting that Steven Moffat should take on the task of writing for this slot in the season- in hindsight we really should have seen this as a dead giveaway that he was going to succeed RTD as showrunner. Still- tricky thing, hindsight.

The pre-titles bit is great, establishing both the haunted house setting and the timey-wimey stuff (I’m officially allowed to use that phrase now!). The plotting and the concepts are just incredible, and it beggars belief that this was apparently a last minute job. I just can’t begin to imagine the process of thinking all of this up. The Back to the Future III bit at the door juxtaposed with Kathy in 1920; the Doctor as DVD extra and the conversation with Sally; the concept of the weeping angels themselves- this is very, very special. And that’s not all; the whole thing’s full of great dialogue. (Sally likes being sad because it’s “happy for deep people.” I reckon she’s a closet Goth. Come to think of it, the DVD shop starts selling antiquarian books as well as DVDs when she gets involved, so she definitely is.)

There’s more going on here than wit and very clever plotting, too. Few stories have been so atmospheric, and this is genuinely scary. That’s not only from the concept itself, brilliant though it is, but from how the scenes in the haunted house are rather cleverly structured so as to extract as much scariness as possible.

There are a couple of wobbles- Sally spends an awful lot of time in the early scenes clearly not looking at the rather large number of Weeping Angels, and the coda with all the statues just feels silly and tacked-on. No one likes a bit of breaking the fourth wall more than I do, but this is silly. Still, these things are trivial. We’re essentially looking at perfection here.

Not only a 5/5, but only prevented from going straight to the top of my list by, er, the previous story!

Mind you, that Carey Mulligan- whatever happened to her, eh?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Doctor Who: Human Nature / Family of Blood

“No man should hide himself, don’t you think?”

I distinctly recall the first time I read Paul Cornell’s original novel. It was the autumn of 2002, I was about to start my third year at university, and I was the first to arrive in our new student house for the year. I spent the next forty-eight hours waiting for people to arrive, and had devoured the whole thing by the time they arrived. Being alone in a house with lots of noises from outside doesn’t half make for an atmosphere, and the book made quite an impression on me.

All of which is quite irrelevant, of course. The televised version is quite different, taking place over a much shorter time period, the meaning of the events to the regular characters are entirely different, and the pacifistic subtext has been considerably softened. But it’s just as great.

The pre-titles sequence is extraordinarily pacey and sets us up in the middle of events with skilful economy. It also packs quite a punch. The concept is utterly fantastic; the perfect Doctor-lite story, albeit one featuring David Tennant rather heavily. The Doctor is entirely absent for most of the episode, and yet at all times he’s the centre of attention. The structure of the narrative is also brilliant, with the use of flashbacks telling us all we need to know of the backstory while keeping exposition to the bare minimum.

The setting, a public school in 1913, is very interesting. The story doesn’t dwell on why the Doctor’s plan had to involve this particular setting, but it’s notable (if hardly an original observation) that the Doctor, in all his guises, has always had a particular fondness for the Edwardian era. It’s also singularly appropriate that he should be a history teacher. On the other hand, things are quite appallingly inconvenient for Martha, forced to live a life of drudgery and social restriction as Smith’s maid. This is dealt with well, though, and Martha gets the best character development that she gets all season. The depiction of the racism of the period is extremely well-judged; we get just the one overt moment of nastiness with Hutchinson’s comments, but there’s plenty of more subtle prejudice from the likes of Joan and even Smith, characters whom we find largely sympathetic but who are nevertheless of their time.

And then there’s the English public school setting, of course. To some it’s a formative experience; to a state educated oik like me it’s a part of popular culture, understood through the medium of the Jennings books, Lindsay Anderson’s If… and Stephen Fry’s autobiography; all this gives me an entirely accurate impression, I’m sure. I suppose introducing the building to the strains of To Be a Pilgrim is something of a cliché, but then some clichés are too good to resist.

Jessica Hines is fantastic as Joan, as of course is Tennant as Smith, and combined with one of the finest scripts the programme has ever offered the depiction of their relationship is extraordinary, with more layers revealing themselves with every viewing. There’s not much comedy in these episodes, but I love the early scenes of Joan flirting with a terrified John Smith.

Martha’s jealous of Joan, of course, and in fact this is the only story in the entire season which makes me almost forget that I think this whole infatuation subplot is a mistake. That’s a sign of a very good script.

Also very good is Harry Lloyd as Baines, both before and after he’s possessed. And isn’t invisibility such a wonderfully cost-effective way of realising an alien spaceship?

Only when the status quo is fully established do we get the full backstory and the introduction of the Chameleon Arch, no doubt a one-off McGuffin which will never be heard from again. And the “You are not alone” which we hear as Timothy takes the watch is, I’m sure, of no importance. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.

The baddies are quite effective; the scarecrows are great, of course, and the little girl with the red balloon is quite as sinister as she is in the novel. I love that nice little musical tribute we get to the similar character in Remembrance of the Daleks as she walks along a country lane.

Crikey, there’s so much going on that’s worthy of comment. The scene with Smith supervising the boys at “corps”, as I believe it’s called, is just dripping with meaning and subtext, this being 1913. “I hope, Latimer,” says the headmaster, “that one day you will have a just and proper war in which to prove yourself”. A war which would eventually not in fact be directed against “tribesmen from the Dark Continent”. I have to admit, though- in accepting machine guns the headmaster seems at least to be more forward-thinking than Field Marshal Haig would prove to be…

Oh, and of course there’s “Permission granted”. A brave move, but absolutely the right one in context.

Just before everything blows up, we get some wonderful stuff between Smith and Joan. There’s that sequence, of course (that scene, along with the hat, makes me think of John Smith as a sort of Clark Kent figure), and the nice tribute to the founders of the show with Smith’s parents being named as “Sydney” and “Verity”.

Ahem. A meal and two glasses of wine have been consumed since the last paragraph. Just warning you.

I love the way Joan follows Smith’s claim that his mother was a nurse with “We make such good wives.” Do you reckon she might be insinuating something? Then we have Smith finally asking her out. And the moving speech about widowhood. All of this is quite wonderful. And then we have the “Um, can you actually dance?” bit- nice reference!- and Martha’s rather upsetting dismissal (“Cultural differences…”), and the chat between the two love rivals in the pub. It’s all great, and then we have the cliffhanger…

The Family of Blood

“God, you’re rubbish as a human.”

And the gushing continues. I might as well tell you now that this is going straight to the top of my list…

Martha’s so brave in the early scenes, holding the baddies off with a gun and ensuring everyone is safe. It’s suddenly obvious that Cornell is writing her so much better than she’s been written before.

And the converse of this is Smith’s reaction- to instantly summon all the boys to defend the school with guns. Much as I like to poke fun at the exaggerated impression many fans have that the Doctor never uses guns (just look at Frontier in Space!), all this is so very unDoctorish.

Back to Martha- her “bones of the hand” speech is great. And once again it’s brave yet utterly right of Cornell to allow Joan, one of the characters we’re supposed to like, to express racist views- proto-feminist Joan may be, butte’s still of her time. In trying to make her believe that she’s a doctor-to-be Martha hits a brick wall. All this makes Martha look pretty damn great.

Smith gets some great lines once he has to confront his rather unenviable existential dilemma. “How can you think I’m not real?” he protests. “Am I not a good man?” It is now highlighted that he has no actual memories of his Nottingham childhood, another brilliant touch. Incidentally, I went to uni in Nottingham and I can’t quite recall whether some of the streets he mentions ring a bell…

We get more echoes of the recent past as Tim Latimer, a sort of Doctor substitute in some ways, declares himself “a coward, every time”. And then there’s the chilling juxtaposition of the battles scenes and To Be a Pilgrim. The headmaster is then killed, and Smith at last decides to send the boys away.

And then there’s Tim’s speech in the cottage. It should be corny. It’s not. I’ll quote it in full, cos I love it: “He’s like fire. And ice, and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm at the heart of the Sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.”

The build-up and tension to Smith’s inevitable decision is brilliantly handled, and the implications are fully explored: “And it was your job to execute me?” he says to Martha.

Still- the scenes appear once the watch is opened, so I expect Smith experiences the rest of his whole life, in Life on Mars fashion. Tennant’s acting on the ship is superb- on subsequent viewings it’s more obvious that he’s playing the Doctor pretending to be Smith, but it’s a brilliant and great performance. And it’s great to have the Doctor back. He’s never more seemed like a “lonely god”; his punishments for the Family of Blood are like something out of Greek mythology, or perhaps Morpheus’ behaviour in the early issues of Sandman. This is deep stuff- I mean, the little girl being the thing in the corner of your eye whenever you look into a mirror?!

And then there’s the Doctor’s behaviour with Joan. Seldom has he been more arrogant, insensitive, or unlikeable. Someone would have always died somewhere, of course, but still, Joan is absolutely right: “Answer me this. Just one question, that’s all. If the Doctor had never visited us, never chosen this place- on a whim- would anyone here have died?” (Silence). “You can go.” Genius.

This is wonderful. Forget Doctor Who, this is one of the finest pieces of television drama I’ve ever seen. 5/5, and the best ever.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Doctor Who: 42

“Using your mobile is cheating!”

This was rather good, I thought: a nice little real-time thriller with some nice direction, a real disaster movie feel and plenty of tension. Michelle Collins was underwhelming, but there’s not much else wrong with this. For all the (sometimes justified) criticism that Chris Chibnall often comes in for, this is not a bad debut script for Who proper.

It’s interesting that the whole aesthetic here is very much the same as the Impossible Planet two-parter- it’s a tough, gritty, frontier existence with dust everywhere. Earlier stories such as Earthshock and Dragonfire were clearly influenced by Alien, a relatively recent film at the time, but by now, almost thirty years on, its template of a “lived-in” future has become much more of a sci-fi standard.

It’s interesting how the Doctor takes charge immediately; McDonnell clearly resents his usurping of her authority (“Go on, do as he says”), but she’s too weak, and eventually too morally compromised, to compete. The characters are quite well-sketched for the running time, and there are some nice funny lines from the crew, including that one. You know the one I mean.

Martha gets some nice character stuff too, and shows bravery at the prospect of an imminent and unpleasant death. But it’s interesting that, as the escape pod detaches, the first thing she says is “Sorry”. What does this say about her? We seem to be past the worst of the unrequited love stuff, but I’m not keen on this sort of thing. Martha is being portrayed as a bit of a weak character at times, and it can make uncomfortable viewing. I don’t like the final scene in the TARDIS either, with Martha being suddenly silenced by the stony-faced Doctor, who again ostentatiously refuses to confide in her and changes the subject. There’s something uncomfortable about the way she’s expected to be grateful for such “privileges” as universal roaming and a key to the TARDIS. Both of these things echo similar instances with Rose, and the comparison makes it clear that the Doctor considers Martha to be very much second to her. All of this is awfully misjudged.

The season arc stuff, with Martha’s mother and the machinations of the mysterious Mr Saxon, is cleverly done. So far this season’s arc feels much more natural and assured than either of the previous ones.

It’s well plotted, with the sort of logically and emotionally satisfying ending we don’t always get. McDonnell, who’s ultimately responsible for the while mess, redeems herself at the end in the traditional Doctor Who manner.

Good stuff, a surprisingly good 4/5. Mind you, I must admit that I haven’t yet seen Sunshine, in spite of having owned it on DVD for ages, so I can't comment on any similarities.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Doctor Who: The Lazarus Experiment

“People will sell their souls to be transformed like that…”

The TARDIS arrives in Martha’s bedroom, and it seems her journey is over. The Doctor seems to ostentatiously ignore Martha’s unhappiness at being dumped, and off he goes in the TARDIS before an unpleasant scene can happen. Then he suddenly comes back on the flimsiest of excuses. Yep, those messages are just a little bit mixed there.

It’s an odd one, this. There are lots of great things about it, not least Mark Gatiss’ extraordinarily brilliant performance, but also a lot of naff things, not least Mark Gatiss’ extraordinarily unconvincing age make-up. Worst of all, the whole thing plays out by the numbers, telling you early on that it’s a riff on Frankenstein and then pretty much having things unfold exactly as you expect them to. Still, at least we definitely know that Gatiss would make the perfect Victor Frankenstein if Hammer or someone were to make it into a film in the future. It’s just that his brilliant performance tends to distract from the fact that all the guest characters here are pretty much just a load of stock character types- the callous mad scientist dreaming of fame, the gold-digging wife, and… well, that’s pretty much the whole guest cast. And who’d have thunk it- a chap called Lazarus turns out to have the secret of eternal life?

One thing that’s great, though- and probably by RTD rather than new writer Stephen Greenhorn- is the plot strand with Martha’s mother (brrr!). Brilliantly, as much as the audience might not like her she’s being perfectly rational from her own perspective. The situation, and the way the Doctor says exactly the wrong things to her, make it more than believable that she acts as she does and believes what she’s told by that mysterious man. I like the Eliot references too.

I’m a bit on the fence about the two long philosophical chats between the Doctor and Lazarus, on the roof and in the cathedral, which are undeniably cool but hardly possible, happening not because of the characters’ motivations but because that’s the sort of scene that seems to be expected. Still, I love the Doctor’s speech about long life and the tiredness, pain and loneliness it leads to.

Nice final scene, though. Martha finally gets the Doctor to accept her as a permanent TARDISeer and not just someone who’s there on sufferance. Again it’s interesting what’s motivating the Doctor’s ambiguous behaviour here. And then we get the answerphone message from Martha’s mother, and a mention of the mysterious Harold Saxon…


Saturday, 10 April 2010

Doctor Who: Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks

Daleks in Manhattan

“I know some guys are just pigs, but not my Laszlo.”

This story just brilliantly evokes the New York of 1930, from the soundtrack to the show tunes to the men working on girders hundreds of feet up. It’s a fantastic setting, with iconic sights and loads of atmosphere, and the Depression setting is powerful, in fact much more so given the events which have happened in the years since this was broadcast. It’s not just Hooverville, the poverty, and the appalling pay and conditions the desperate need to accept if they want work; Tallulah’s words to Martha on having to soldier on and perform every day, even with a broken heart, just to pay the rent and keep going gives a horrifying sense of the abyss that lies beneath ordinary people.

Oh, and I just adore the Bugs Bunny accents. I have no idea how accurate they are but how could you possibly dislike anyone who talks like that?

The Cult of Skaro is back, of course, and their straitened circumstances have made them somewhat more philosophical than usual. The Dalek’s musings to Diagoras as they look out over the city hint at a slight resentfulness for the human capacity for growth and survival, but this also implies an acceptance of Dalek failures. This is something the story goes on to develop at great length. These Daleks are interesting, already showing signs of dissent against Sec from quite early on.

Solomon’s a great, charismatic, dignified character who manages to earn the Doctor’s respect as few guest characters do, actually getting an apology from the Doctor after being given a glib response. Tallulah’s wonderful, too. I love the line about musical theatre. I’m not sure about the portrayal of the Doctor, though. He says of the Daleks that “They survive. They always survive, while I lose everything.” This kind of self-centred bitterness is one of this otherwise great Doctor’s less appealing qualities.

The cliffhanger should in theory be great, and certainly has potential for exploring some interesting ideas, but visually I’m not sure that a human Dalek quite works.

Evolution of the Daleks

“New York City… If aliens had to come to Earth- oh, no wonder they came here.”

This story’s title suggests a homage to a certain story from the ‘60s I could mention, even to the point of involving the “Human Factor”. I don’t think the parallel quite works, though; the Daleks’ motivation here is desperation rather than power and they’re acting far more reluctantly, and the Doctor’s role is entirely different. It’s sort of exploring the same concepts, though, and concludes in a kind of civil war between Daleks with the “Human Factor” and without.

All this has knock on effects, of course. By far the funniest thing about this episode is the gossiping Daleks sharing their doubts over their leader, one of them even looking around with its eyestalk to make sure it’s not overheard! But these concepts are not always handled well or consistently, and there’s a certain lack of focus about themes and characterisation here.

Solomon’s speech to the Dalek before being exterminated is a powerful scene and the centrepiece of the episode, but the Doctor angrily goading the Daleks to kill him feels awkward and wrong. There’s nothing which suggests to me that the Doctor is in any way bluffing, so I have to conclude that the Doctor does indeed have a momentary death wish here. This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. If for no other reason, what about Martha, potentially trapped in 1930? For the second story in succession the Doctor’s being horribly cavalier about her fate. And Martha even has to prompt the Doctor to ensure the lives of the people of Hooverville are spared. All of this is terribly misjudged.

Oh, and the atom had been split before 1930.

All that aside, though, it’s not a bad episode, albeit lacking in a certain polish. Martha gets some good scenes, doing a bit of Doctoring, flashing the psychic paper and coming up with a clever plan to use lightning against the pig slaves. The humanised Dalek Sec is great, too; his gradual move away from Dalek thinking and the growing rebellion against him are well developed throughout, and his insistence that Davros, in relation to removing certain emotions from the Daleks, “was wrong” is genuinely shocking. Unfortunately, this prompts the other Daleks to go all Nyder on him, but in the meantime it’s fascinating that the Doctor agrees to help. His dialogue to Laszlo indicates he doesn’t really expect any of this to happen but he has to try.

The genocide of the human Daleks would have made for a downbeat ending, so it’s appropriate that we end with the Doctor’s saving of Laszlo.

I was quite impressed with this, although the problems with the Doctor’s characterisation and a certain lack of polish mean it only gets a 3/5. A promising start on Who proper for Helen Raynor, though.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Doctor Who: Gridlock

“This Martha- she must mean a lot to you.”

“Hardly know her. I was too busy showing off. And I lied to her.”

We’ve had the introductory story for the new companion, we’ve had the celebrity historical- must be time for a story set in the year five billion then. The RTD era has been around long enough now to have established their own traditions, and in this case that’s a significant part of the narrative; Martha notices that the Doctor’s taking her to places where he took Rose.

This is where the Doctor’s cavalier treatment of Martha goes horribly wrong; after a few minutes in rather grotty surroundings she’s quickly kidnapped, ultimately ending up in great danger, and the Doctor spends the rest of the episode trying to hide her and regretting his behaviour.

This is another example of RTD’s 2000 AD style aesthetic for the more futuristic stories, this time even with an appearance by Max Normal from Judge Dredd. But it’s more than the aesthetic that’s taken from 2000 AD, it’s also the blackly humorous political allegory elevated above realism. If you try to analyse this world in realistic terms it doesn’t make sense- how can a traffic jam possibly continue spontaneously for 24 years? But realism isn’t the point; this is absurdist punk sci-fi, Mega City One style. And I love it.

There’s real thematic depth, too; at the very moment the Doctor suggests to Brannigan and Valerie that they may be on their own, there could be no one in charge, and the hopes they’ve been clinging to are deluded, the whole motorway stops to sing a hymn. This is a nice moment to showcase the power of faith (not necessarily of the religious kind), and hope, and togetherness.

Bizarrely, 39 years after The Macra Terror was shown and probably about 35 years after the prints were destroyed, it gets a sequel. It’s a nice touch, although I hate the line about their having “devolved”. Even I know that’s not how evolution works!

There’s a nice scene where Martha, waiting in the car without power, stops to reflect on the enormity of her decision to travel with this total stranger to times and places so very far away. But crucially she doesn’t fall to pieces, keeps her confidence in the Doctor, and takes charge of the situation. And even the story’s big moment- the dying Face of Boe telling the Doctor that “You are not alone” is as much about her as it is about him; she hears that the Doctor is the last of his people, which isn’t what he told her earlier.

The final scene is wonderful. At last the Doctor opens himself to Martha instead of showing off, talking movingly about the world he grew up on in similar words to Susan back in The Sensorites when the Marathon was young.

Well, that’ll be the third consecutive 5/5 of the season then.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Code

“Do you have to pass a test to fly this thing?”

“Yes. And I failed.”

The first thing we notice is that the London of 1599 is brilliantly realised, managing to look both convincingly real and beautiful at the same time. The pre-titles sequence is great, introducing the witches immediately. It’s important to get the witches in early and often; the kids watching are not necessarily going to be as fascinated by the Shakespeare stuff as ex-English students like myself.

Oh, and there’s Christina Cole. Mmm…

Last episode Deadly Lampshade mentioned the mixed messages the Doctor is sending out to Martha, and this time round that’s basically the whole basis of their relationship. The Doctor is taking Martha out on the mother of all dates on the one hand and reminding her that she’s getting one trip only on the other. He even sighs at one point and says they might as well stay for a bit longer. All this comes to head in the bedroom scene, of course, which symbolises everything that’s going on between them very neatly, possibly too much so. It’s left ambiguous whether the Doctor’s apparent obliviousness to the one way sexual tension here is genuine or assumed. He certainly mentions Rose at the worst possible moment.

Martha’s sci-fi literate take on time travel is great, though, and so is the Doctor’s undercutting of such things as butterflies and killing one’s own grandfather. And I love the Back to the Future element to the story’s “The world didn’t end in 1980” moment. There’s good handling of the issues surrounding Martha’s ethnicity in the European past, too; it’s acknowledged, but not made too much of. The right balance, I think.

Martha’s fantastic on her first trip- enthusiastic, resourceful, not afraid to tell William Shakespeare that his breath stinks. She’s very different from Rose; more mature and confident and less prickly because of it. And Freema Agyeman’s still lovely.

Anyway, Shakespeare. He’s a fascinating character here- witty, a very perceptive judge of character, hiding emotional depths behind a glib, rock star exterior, and enough of a genius that psychic paper doesn’t work on him. He’s very Doctorish, in fact. No wonder the two of them get on so well. It’s a great moment when Shakespeare casually explains that he’s worked out that they’re time and space travellers.

I like the stuff about words and magic, too. It’s almost like reading an interview of Alan Moore. And then there’s the Shakespeare fanwank bits- Love’s Labour’s Won, Martha being the Dark Lady of the sonnets. I wonder if one day we’ll get a sequel where the Carrionites try again with Cardenio?

Best of all, though, the script is just so witty. Another 5/5.