Friday, 6 August 2010

Doctor Who: Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Silence in the Library

“I try to keep you away from major plot developments…”

This one’s by Steven Moffat, so let there be no attempt at suspense here. This is heading for a 5/5. You knew that. What surprised me, though, was that it’s better than that. I came back to this expecting it to be merely superb, the sort of casual excellence exuded even by the Moff’s lesser scripts. But it’s much deeper than I remembered, and it goes straight into the top ten.

Even the pre-titles sequence is a little work of art on its own. The scenes with the little girl add so much, not just mystery but a nice bit of Sapphire and Steel style philosophical musing on the nature of reality.

Then it’s off to Moffat’s beloved 51st century, and some nice fourth wall-damaging banter between the Doctor and Donna. This isn’t really an “arc” episode (well, not as far as this season’s concerned) but they’re both continuing to enjoy both the travelling and each other’s company and really getting on; I love their simultaneous tearing up of Lux’s proffered contracts! Clearly, nothing bad’s going to happen.

The sudden reveal that this apparently deserted world is hiding great danger, and that the danger lies in the shadows, is inspired, and the way it’s built up is masterly. And very scary. Also, very funny in the way it builds up (“It doesn’t do wood?!!!”). The Doctor’s exposition bit about the Vashta Nerada even manages to be scary in itself; you should be afraid of the dark because there really are monsters out to get you. Great stuff. I’m sure the young kids loved it!

And yes, River Song. I try to watch in the spirit of the Marathon without any extra-curricular viewing, but new episodes are impossible to resist. And it’s particularly interesting to see River’s “first” appearance. We get our first “Hello sweetie”. We get a squareness gun, of course. And it’s interesting seeing the Doctor working out just who the hell she is. Then again, only Steven Moffat knows that.

The rest of the “others” are cleverly given the illusion of depth through a few nice lines (love the “Proper Dave” and “Other Dave” stuff). Steve Pemberton is a surprising yet good choice for Lux, apparently an arrogant corporate sod at this stage. The later reveal of his true motives is nicely foreshadowed by River, nicely undercutting the Doctor’s typically declamatory “I don’t want everyone in this room to die because some idiot thinks his pride is more important,” with a simple “Then why didn’t you sign his contract?” But she then undercuts that by admitting she’s as bad as he is. I love her already. The new Romana?

Probably the centrepiece of the episode is Miss Evangelista’s death and “ghosting”. This is so brilliant I’ll even forgive the fact that the threat from the Vashta Nerada seems to be on pause for the duration. And then things get even better with Doctor Moon’s private chat to the little girl, telling her that “The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real!” This story delivers on scares, wit, and conceptual brilliance. And there’s another episode to go.

Forest of the Dead

“And then you remembered…”

Well, resolution by squareness gun is a bit disappointing, but since everything else about this episode is great I’m not quibbling too much. Especially as we get some great fourth wall-injuring stuff here with Donna noticing that her Family of Blood-style “life”, wherever she is, seems to follow the conventions of television camerawork, cutting straight from one scene to another. I really am a total sucker for this kind of thing, but it’s particularly well done here. It also shows us that this is going to be a very different episode from its predecessor.

All of the “others” are killed off, one by one here; everybody lives, but first, everybody dies. This is very well handled, both maintaining the sense of threat and giving us a bit of pathos. I liked Anita too.

The gradual reveals are great: the “doctor moon”, the spores of the Vashta Nerada arriving with the books by accident (again, no real sense of evil or even agency for the threat in a Moffat script), CAL, Lux not in fact being an arse at all. (One problem, though; if it’s the 51st century, and Charlotte Lux lived only a couple of generations ago, why does her “world” seem to be the early twenty-first century?) And of course the revelation that everyone who died was “saved”. Of course, they all did in fact die; they just got copied. But I suppose that applies to all teleportation as much as this one. In The Seeds of Death, everybody dies, including the regulars. Several times.

Donna suffers real heartbreak here, and it’s a shame there are no real long-term consequences; Moffat scripts are never quite plugged in to the series arcs. Yet. She loses what are, emotionally, a real husband and two real children. The moment where the children recognise that they only exist when Donna can see them is fantastically awful.

Of course, River dies. Sort of. And knows the Doctor’s name. And they squabble like an “old married couple”. Hmm.

As I said, superlative. 5/5 and top ten.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp

“I say! What are you doing with that lead piping?”

For the second story in a row I’m very pleasantly surprised. From my vague recollections I was expecting this story to be a fun but inconsequential bit of fluff. In fact, it’s brilliant, one of the very best comedy episodes the series has ever produced. It helps that Catherine Tate, who has a lot to do here, is such a brilliant comic actress, but the script is superb.

There’s little in the way of overt season arc stuff here (although Donna and the Doctor continue to relate to each other as they have been doing and Donna gets a quick line about the bees), so we have a standalone episode which reminds me very much of Gareth Roberts’ Missing Adventures novels, particularly The English Way of Death; a superbly realised historical pastiche, this time of course based on the Agatha Christie-style Whodunit. Actually, the whole thing feels very Season Seventeen in the best possible way, and Catherine Tate has never seemed more like Lalla Ward. Yes, I know how weird that reads.

The pre-titles teaser gives us a pretty clear example of both the tone we can expect and the kind of tropes we’ll be playing with. We’re immersed in the genre through overdosing on the trappings of the genre and period- flapper gear, gramophones, a very Twenties soundtrack, a vicar, a colonel, a professor. I love the blatantly excessive number of Cluedo in-jokes!

This feels nothing like Black Orchid, though. Aside from the nicely handled personal stuff regarding Agatha- her prickliness about her philandering husband, the chat with Donna, her very Victoria-esque admonition of the Doctor for enjoying himself as people die- the tone is quite rightly kept firmly tongue in cheek. There are a lot of postmodern in-jokes, of course (“I mean, that’s like meeting Charles Dickens. And he’s surrounded by Ghosts. At Christmas.”), and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. And the story is able to use our familiarity with the trappings of the genre to have a bit of fun; I love the wibbly-wobbly flashback scenes which contrast with what everyone is claiming to have been doing.

The whole think climaxes in the Poirot moment as Agatha and the Doctor take turns in revealing everyone’s secrets. Colonel Curbishley’s is the best, of course, as is Agatha’s surprised reaction. Of course, claiming that Agatha Christie is the greatest novelist of all time is a bit much. I devoured dozens upon dozens of her novels when I was about twelve but these days I find the prose and casual class stereotyping makes it hard not to hurl said novel across the room and reach instead for the nearest Margery Allingham. Still, her plots are rather clever and so is this. 5/5.