Reviews

Review: Extremis

Warning: spoilers.

A few years ago, there was a Big Finish audio called ‘Omega’. In it the Doctor takes a time-travelling tour ship to the Sector of Forgotten Souls, in order to solve an ancient mystery. As events unfold and people start dying, it transpires that malevolent Time Lord Omega – last seen in ‘Arc of Infinity’ – may be responsible. The rug is yanked out from underneath the audience at the end of episode three, whereupon it transpires that we believed was the Doctor – and, indeed, who believed himself to be the Doctor – is actually Omega, still trapped in the Doctor’s form, and it is at that point that the real Doctor turns up.

Big Finish actually pulled this stunt twice within a matter of months – I’m not going to tell you about the other story, as I’ve already ruined one. It is the sort of thing that is very easy to do on audio, dealing as it does with the deliberate withholding of specific information (the other story, for example, neglects to mention that the person we believe is the Doctor actually has eight limbs). Audio dramas rob you of your sense of sight – curiously appropriate, given this week’s content – and consequently it is much easier to tell particular types of story. For a while I held the conviction that it’s the sort of thing that would be impossible to do on TV, although there are ways round it; it’s just a question of finding them. Instead, I lamented the fact that the ultimate test of faith – a Doctor who was, for whatever reason, either untrustworthy or Not What He Seemed – was something that had for the most part been untouched in New Who, with certain exceptions. Oh, subterfuge is fine. Constantly the Doctor works against our expectations. And we’d had the trickery of the Eleventh Doctor and his Ganger duplicate in ‘The Almost People’, a minor skirmish to expose one of Amy’s particularly irritating character flaws. But that was as far as it went, until this week.

‘Extremis’ is, to all intents and purposes, ‘The Android Invasion’ for the Matrix generation, with the added twist that the false reality is the final reveal, buried in an ancient text that has leaked onto the internet. This news is delivered by a collection of cardinals and the Pope himself (Joseph Long, who – while not reaching the dizzy heights of brilliance he achieved in ‘Turn Left’, nonetheless provides the episode’s comedic highlight). The Doctor’s blindness is an assailable obstacle, thanks to a pair of headphones and Nardole’s penchant for filling in the blanks that the Daredevil-esque sonic sunglasses can’t provide, conveniently picking out essential details like a subtle, always-on audio description.

It concludes – get this – with the Doctor sending an email to himself. That’s the dramatic climax. Still, the notion of a Doctor-who’s-not-the-Doctor is quietly wonderful, even if its denouement is a little too neat. Characters in this newly-created ‘shadow’ universe reach their moment of clarity with sudden, unilateral nihilistic desolation: it is strange, somehow, that everyone who reads the text experiences the exact same reaction, almost as if it were as pre-programmed as the numbers they spout in the CERN cafeteria in what is arguably the episode’s strongest sequence. One might argue that – as with many of the series 10 episodes – ‘Extremis’ might have benefited from a two-part narrative. Moffat has clearly worked hard at the dynamic this year, to the extent that the stories have suffered: for the most part it’s not a problem, as the Doctor and Bill have been so wonderful to watch, but we paid the price in ‘Knock Knock’ when they were split up for long periods. ‘Extremis’ is a joy from start to finish, but you wonder whether the surprise of the simulated universe might have benefited from a little padding, perhaps split over a cliffhanger and its resolution.

Or perhaps it will be. It’s no secret that ‘Extremis’ is the first part of a loose trilogy – with the Monks taking centre-stage in next week’s ‘The Pyramid At The End Of The World’. Their presence in ‘Extremis’ is light and insubstantial, in much the same way that the Silence played a comparatively small part in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, before the meat was grafted to the bones in the second installment. The Monks are underwhelming – “Imagine if a Silent had died while cosplaying as a member of the Sibylline Sisterhood”, says Doctor Who Magazine, in what is as good a description as any – but their role in things is yet to be fully defined, and it is entirely possible that we will see the knock-on effect of the simulated universe in other ways. Unilateral suicide sends a strong message, particularly in light of the episode’s tiptoeing around the nicer side of Catholicism, but it seems unusual that it was the only response. Surely there’s a place for people who reject the truth of the Veritas, or those who, having been presented with the harshness of reality, choose to accept the illusion – as Cypher did over his dinner with Agent Smith.

It’s bonkers. The action moves from the Vatican to the Pentagon to CERN for no reason other than it can, with a global conspiracy that is almost as needlessly elaborate as the Cyberman’s convoluted plot in ‘The Wheel In Space’. Everything is duplicated exactly, right down to Bill’s neurotic stepmother. The technology involved must be astronomical, but presumably it’s no more difficult to do than the computer simulations run by New Line when they were planning the battle of Helm’s Deep (legend has it that during one such simulation, the pre-programmed orcs took one look at the seemingly impenetrable fortress, and promptly did a runner). It makes you wonder why the Monks are spending their time and efforts playing sitting inside playing video games instead of actually getting on with the invasion – but while you never quite figure out the answer, at least you know why their skin is so pockmarked.

The fact that the secret of the vault is ostensibly revealed not in a single climactic moment but in a laboured sequence of drip-feeding flashbacks is undoubtedly going to be a disappointment to the thousands of viewers who’ve been pacing the floor for the last six weeks. Through a series of remembrances we learn that the Doctor was asked by an unknown body to execute Missy and guard her corpse – only to be interrupted by Nardole, sent as an ambassador for the conscience-pricking River Song, leading to Missy’s apparent incarceration. It’s neither a shock nor a surprise – the flashbacks aren’t particularly interesting, and by the time we get to the last of Missy’s pleas you’re practically begging for the Doctor to pull the trigger and open up ‘the Pandorica – and the manner in which events unfold indicates that this is not the end of the story, particularly as we do not see the vault actually open, nor do we learn unambiguously who is inside it. Put another way, Missy supposedly went in – but we do not see this happen, nor are we even sure that she is still in there, at least in a form we would recognise. It may yet turn out to be as simple as the the provided explanation – but that wouldn’t be very Moffat, somehow.

‘Extremis’ is likely to be divisive. Some people will love it, others will hate it. On its own, it does not easily stand up: as part of a trilogy, history may judge it more kindly. Some will rail against its supposed cleverness; others (like me) will see this as an example of Moffat pushing things as far as he can, and perhaps not quite as far as he wanted (how more daring might it have been had we discovered that every previous episode, and not just this one, had been a simulation, and that it turned out that David Bradley was guarding the vault?). Some will cheer at the audacity of actually killing the Doctor; others will produce a series six box set and cough gently. This is not one for the ‘generally good’ or ‘generally bad’ pile: it will tread the uneasy tightrope between the two, with fans and critics either side, anxious to give it a push one way or the other. In the grand scheme of things, it’s Marmite. But that’s OK. I happen to like Marmite.

 

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Review: Oxygen

“Oh look,” said Emily, as the credits ground to a halt. “Zombies again.”

We’d just finished ‘Knock Knock’, and were watching the trailer for episode 5, which appeared to show hordes of the undead in space, all mottled complexions and empty, soulless eyes. By and large it’s something the programme doesn’t touch. Transmogrification is fine. So is demonic possession. Even shuffling skeletons are OK, provided you don’t overdo it. Still, the last time Doctor Who did an outright zombie episode, it was ‘New Earth’, and it was a disaster. Before you start scrolling down to the comments box, I know they weren’t zombies. If anything they were the biological opposite. But they moved like zombies and they behaved like zombies, and that’s how I choose to remember them.

You have to watch out for the kids, and that’s what Jamie Mathieson was doing with ‘Oxygen’. The undead – murdered by company equipment in a cost-saving initiative, and then re-animated – are a big part of the story, but they are rather less gruesome than you suspect they were meant to be. That doesn’t mean the episode isn’t frightening enough without some of the cutting room floor stuff (and this isn’t speculation, Mathieson himself admits as much in Doctor Who Magazine). This is one of the outright creepiest episodes of Doctor Who in some time – I’d say since ‘Heaven Sent’, but that sort of yardstick doesn’t seem fair – and while not without its flaws it is, in terms of the atmosphere it creates, a massive improvement on its immediate predecessor.

Things start simply enough. There is a comical misunderstanding about a pregnancy revelation – Sienna Guillory trying and failing to impart the same news to Colin Firth in the Red Nose Day Love Actually sketch springs to mind – before the usual pre-credits death (Doctor Who is like The X-Files; appearing in the teaser is the equivalent to beaming down to a planet in a red shirt). Meanwhile, the Doctor has found his sea legs but Nardole is adamant that they should stay on Earth – hence a little subterfuge is in order, only the planned excursion backfires and before you know it the TARDIS has gone and its former occupants are stuck in a corridor with a horde of advancing zombies.

While this is going on the space station’s surviving astronauts are debating whether they should kill the Doctor, but I couldn’t tell you what’s said or who says it, because I can’t remember any of their names. There are always going to be problems when you have to establish a story and solution and pay lip service to the series arc within three quarters of an hour, but the price you pay is, once more, the notion of character development – or indeed any character at all beyond the three leads. It’s reminiscent of the Honest Trailer for Rogue One (a film I enjoyed, although we could have all done without the fanatically airbrushed Princess Leia), in which the voiceover mentions “K-2SO, a droid with more personality than any of the human characters”. Just about the only memorable character in ‘Oxygen’ is the one who is memorable precisely because he shouldn’t be: the blue-skinned Dahh-Ren, who exists solely to expose Bill’s own (and quite understandable) prejudice, thus appraising supposed 21st century enlightenment with an ironic, critical eye, shortly before he meets a grisly undeath.

Part of the problem these days is the general dearth of effective supporting characters: I’m having difficulty recalling the last base-under-siege narrative in which we met people I actually cared about. Gone are the likes of Clent and Penley in ‘The Ice Warriors’, or the upstairs / downstairs social commentary in ‘Fang Rock’. There are exceptions. ‘The God Complex’, for example, works because time is deliberately allocated in order to flesh out the characters in the hotel – essential for the narrative, as they are ultimately undone by who they are and the flaws and traits they possess. And ‘Voyage of the Damned’ features a band of misfits who manage to surprise just about everyone thanks to the order in which they die – or, in at least one case, the fact that they don’t.

But these simply prove the rule. For the most part, supporting characters in contemporary BUS stories are groups of miners, astronauts or soldiers with scarcely a distinguishing feature between them. There are usually two or three different accents and as many diversity boxes as the BBC can tick in a single sitting, but that’s about all you can say about them. With certain exceptions (Adelaide Brooke, step forward) they all melt into one generic, slightly grizzled man in his late thirties, usually with designer stubble and a complicated romantic history with the base’s leader. Names and titles are meaningless and we forget them within minutes of the closing credits. What’s the name of the gay chap in ’42’? It’s OK, I’ll wait. And you’re not allowed to use the internet.

When Wikipedia editors are summarising episodes like this the only way to actually write them up is to say “The TARDIS crew gather in the control room with the surviving astronauts”, and (eventually) that’s exactly what happens. There are chases and mishaps and the Doctor loses his eyesight, but when he begins waxing lyrical about ‘a good death’, in precisely the same manner that Miss Quill does in the opening episode of Class, you know something is about to happen: and sure enough, it’s a ruse in order to trick the omnipresent AI, which is always on standby and able to hear anything. Thus, at its conclusion, ‘Oxygen’ becomes less a critique of unchecked capitalism and corporate greed, and more a dig at the Xbox One.

We need to talk about this, actually. A couple of months ago Gareth Roberts tweeted, in response to someone’s earnest-but-dumb comment, “Yep. Historical analysis and a critique of social hierarchy. That’s what I took from The Time Meddler.” At least I think it was Gareth Roberts. It certainly ought to have been; it feels like the sort of thing he’d say. ‘Sort of’ is pretty apt here, because I’m paraphrasing; I can’t find the damn thing to quote verbatim. The point is that in 2017 it’s very easy to get caught up in worthiness. How much of the praise heaped on ‘The Zygon Inversion’ stems from its sense of intrigue and excitement, and how much from that wretched Black Archive monologue? The situation hasn’t improved: the other week the BBC aired ‘Thin Ice’, an episode I thoroughly enjoyed, but it damn well wasn’t because the Doctor punched a Nazi. It’s because it was two people walking around London and interacting in a way that I found genuinely interesting. And yes, my favourite scene was the one where the Doctor said he moved on because he had to, in a few lines of dialogue that are destined to make the Facebook groups for years to come. But I also liked the bit when Nicholas Burns did the splits and fell into the river and got eaten.

You see where we’re going. It’s nice that people care about things, but the earnestness with which these throwaway lines of dialogue are adopted as profile signatures and – just occasionally – life mantras is something that puzzles me immensely. It’s as if Doctor Who is no longer allowed to be important unless it means something. Robert Holmes showed you can be political, and thus this is something you ought to do at every conceivable opportunity, with episodes that say Important Things left on a pedestal, while the more superficial, disposable stories (sit down, ‘Planet of the Dead’, your chops and gravy are in the microwave) are critically lambasted for being disposable candy floss. ‘Planet of the Dead’ is crap, of course, but you get the idea. There is bugger all social commentary in ‘The Invasion’; it’s Cybermen running around London. It is also tremendous fun. That really ought to be enough.

Thankfully, ‘Oxygen’ has the fun factor in spades, whether it’s the Doctor effectively kidnapping Nardole in the opening scene, or the mesmerising, wordless spacewalk (when people say things like “You’re about to be exposed to the vacuum of space!” in Hollywood blockbusters it sounds corny as hell; Capaldi pulls it off); or the moment, just a short time later, when the Doctor abandons Bill in a corridor. We know he has something up his sleeve, but we don’t know what it is, or why he’s being so quiet about it – or, indeed, why Bill is so goddamned calm about the whole experience. This is obviously some sort of proving ground, some way of testing her mettle, but he did more or less the same thing with Clara (across a series and a half, but notably in another episode with spacesuits), and that ended with her dangling upside down out of the TARDIS, laughing like an idiot. I just hope you know what the hell you’re doing, Doctor. That’s all.

Things fall apart a little as the episode concludes. A quick glance at the synopsis for next week – along with the series trailer – should make it reasonably obvious where we’re going, and once more the BBC have revealed a little too much too early. The Doctor’s continuing blindness, while predictable, nonetheless makes for an effective cliffhanger: unfortunately it suffers in its implementation. The scene with Nardole borders on soap-style melodrama; it would have been better had Capaldi concluded his conversation and then risen from the desk and caught his leg on its corner, or perhaps stumbled at the rug. That would have got the message across in an understated manner, or at least got the fans talking.

But this is Doctor Who, and for the most part these days they don’t do subtle. You take what you can get, and that’s fine. “Space is the final frontier,” the Doctor muses in the episode’s opening, “because it’s trying to kill you.” Too often, space is the vast and beautiful starswept aura that’s the backdrop for the birth of planets, the delicate ballet of a dancing Time Lord and his almost-wife, and the reawakening of a middle-aged man sitting with a Thermos and a sandwich watching the world go by in the most literal sense. That makes this week anomalous, but in the best possible way – space, in Doctor Who, is usually not dangerous, and it’s a refreshing change when it is. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it turns out to be one of the most effective and frightening monsters we’ve seen in the show for quite some time.

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Review: Knock Knock

Seriously, why didn’t they run with this title years ago? Is it one of those things the BBC always vetoed, on the grounds that you wouldn’t be able to take it seriously? The sort of title that you embargo because it’s loaded with playground gags? Is that why they went with the horror angle, as if to suggest that yes, there’s an obvious joke, but this story is about sentient woodlice swarms and a woman who looks like the love child of Pinocchio and Medusa? And Poirot is guest-starring?

(As an aside, I should mention that Edward has clearly been watching too much Doctor Who, because the other day we had this:

EDWARD: Knock Knock.
EMILY: Who’s there?
EDWARD: Doctor.
EMILY: Doctor…what?
EDWARD: I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!

He’s three, for crying out loud. Three.)

‘Knock Knock’ opens with a montage. Bill and her friends are exploring properties for a house share – one of them, enthusiasts will note, is comically undersized and about half the height of its immediate neighbours, calling to mind the ‘transformed’ flat that appears briefly at the end of ‘The Lodger’. It seems that no six-bedroomed residence is big enough, so rather than do the sensible thing and siphon off a couple of the less desirable members of the group so they can afford to be less picky, the gang consigns itself to defeat – until salvation arrives in the form of the rather sinister Landlord, who apparently has no name to speak of. Alarm bells ought to be ringing, perhaps, except that one of the unwritten laws of Who states that week on week everyone is supposed to put their trust in a mysterious stranger who won’t tell anyone his name, so to a certain extent it’s business as usual.

The concept explored here is that of separation: the Doctor struggles to bridge the generation gap that suddenly appears when Bill spends time with her peer group. It’s not unlike the episode of Friends when Ross witnesses his student girlfriend caught up in a water balloon fight and realises the relationship isn’t going anywhere. Bill’s desire for a quiet night in is a hybrid of two different sorts of trepidation – her realisation that the Doctor is a magnet for trouble, fused with her need to be a whole and independent person in a way that Rose could never manage. It makes for some awkward moments (the sight of the Doctor dancing to Little Mix is amusing, but the episode would have worked better without it); nonetheless Bill’s desire to keep work and home separate is commendable in an always-on digital age, and it’s kind of sweet that she’s willing to keep the Doctor within grabbing distance but without letting him dominate it the way that Rose and Martha did. “This,” she tells him gently, “is the part of my life you’re not in.”

The central problem with ‘Knock Knock’ is that it simply isn’t very frightening. There’s nothing wrong with the setup: six people in an overly large house with dodgy electrics and a seemingly inaccessible tower, presided over by a sinister, seemingly omnipresent figure with the ability to suddenly pop into existence as if from nowhere, like a podgy Q from Star Trek. The contract is signed with nary a second glance at the small print – if anything, Bartlett has written a morality fable for the EULA generation that emphasises the importance of reading the terms and conditions. Only Bill remains wary – but even she is keen to avoid discussing the obvious problems lurking in the house, clearly seeing it as a means of escape. The students’ nonchalance is the sort of behaviour that usually has the audience screaming at the TV, but it’s very easy to do that when you’ve already heard the screams of the house’s first victim, and a seemingly blasé attitude is at least consistent with the jumping in feet first attitude that Doctor Who typically seems to espouse. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is – but how might we apply that logic to ‘the gateway to everything that ever was, or ever can be’?

Even before the credits have rolled the house has already claimed its first victim – Pavel, sucked into a wall as his record player catches in the background (a stylistic conceit that turns out to be a minor plot point) – but the students treat his apparent self-imposed isolation as a trademark characteristic, and it is left to the Doctor to point out, quite late on, that ‘no one does that’. What ‘Knock Knock’ needs is a little more of this and a little less of the mundanity that punctuates the earlier scenes: conversations about Bill’s sexuality spring to mind, as does the question of whether the Doctor is her father or grandfather…actually, can we just deal with that? Because it’s basically the sort of thing that gets shoehorned in to serve as workable fan theory, hearkening back as it does to the moment the Doctor glances both at the photograph of Susan and at his new pupil, as if to draw some sort of connection. It’s obvious where we’re supposed to think this is going, and while I wouldn’t want to hedge my bets as to whether it actually was, I did rather hope that it was the sort of thing they were leaving behind.

The episode improves. If the first half is a series of awkward social encounters, the second half is an old-fashioned ghost story, all shifting walls, banging shutters and things crawling out of the woodwork – in both a literal and metaphorical sense, as family revelations cast the horrific events of the last few minutes into a new light. It’s easy to scorn the Landlord’s behaviour until his relationship with Eliza is flipped on its head, and the new information we receive as a result of Bill’s deduction grants him unexpected sympathy. “There isn’t a little boy alive that wouldn’t tear the world apart to save his mummy,” the Doctor muses in ‘The Doctor Dances’, “and this little boy can.”

The set works well enough – Fields House in Newport, first seen in ‘Blink’, providing exactly the sort of gothic scare that ‘Knock Knock’ needs – and Bill Anderson brings the same sort of directorial flair he brought to ‘Thin Ice’, albeit with rather less success. The supporting cast really don’t have much to do except complain about the phone reception and then get eaten, but Suchet is reasonably watchable, alternating for the most part between Kindly Grandfather and Psychotic Bookshop Owner – at least until the final reveal, when his voice jumps an octave. Indeed, music figures prominently, from the Bach that opens the episode (stuttering and repeating odd bars, like a DJ’s loop) to the Beethoven that concludes it. Quite why the Master / Rani / Next Doctor / whoever the hell is in that vault decides to follow ‘Fur Elise’ with ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ is anyone’s guess, but even if it doesn’t mean anything yet, it will by the time the fans have finished with it.

It would be churlish to call ‘Knock Knock’ a bad story: rather it’s a good story with less-than-perfect execution, wobbly and uneven and occasionally tiresome. That it is somehow less than the sum of its parts is partly down to the writing, which is sub-par, and partly the BBC’s heavy emphasis on the horror angle – but without the gumption that, say, Robert Eggers (The Witch) might have mustered. This was clearly an experiment, and while the list of gripes (the fallback on conventional horror tropes; the Doctor’s effective relegation to sidekick status; the Freudian thing) is plentiful, they don’t make for an experience that is unilaterally bad, just one that feels like a disappointment after the last three weeks. But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the bubble has burst. If this is the first time in the series we’ve had call to say ‘Meh’, then that’s a surefire indication that on the whole, they’re getting it right.

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Review: Thin Ice

Warning: spoilers.

We’re three episodes in. In 2005, this would have been ‘The Unquiet Dead’ – a story which was received with far more excitement and appreciation than it arguably deserved, given that it was the first time New Who had attempted period drama, with the comparatively lavish production values and bombastic guest star glossing over the many problems in the script. The following week, we were back in London for the Slitheen, and a story which was unfairly maligned. Twelve years later, in this supposedly rebooted series, Doctor Who returns to the past, only this time Bill and the Doctor are strolling around ‘Regency’ London, where something nasty lurks beneath the Thames. Sadly the elephant from last week’s cliffhanger was nowhere to be seen, a money shot that had no bearing on the story, save an inconsequential line of dialogue.

Actually, the elephant is here. The fact of the matter is that even after twelve years, the stories are still rather less than brilliant. ‘The Pilot’ is twenty minutes of whimsy and fifteen minutes of planet hopping, with a less than thrilling denouement. ‘Smile’ ripped off every story in the canon, and the Doctor’s solution was so archaic it should have been in a museum. And ‘Thin Ice’ features an unnamed creature being bullied by a charmless, featureless villain who dies the most comedic of deaths. Oh, it looks lovely, but that’s kind of the point: it is far more about atmosphere than it is about narrative, and far more about relationships than it is about the story in which they grow and develop.

And perhaps – just perhaps – that’s why it succeeds. Because ‘Thin Ice’ is one of those episodes that might have been tedious had it occurred under the watch of another companion. Perhaps Clara would have managed – early Clara, travelling with the Eleventh, before the smugness kicked in. But this seems to be tailored for Bill, in the sense that it is its immediate predecessor’s binary opposite: cold, foggy and throbbing with life, as opposed to the warm, sterile whiteness of the off-world colony that was home to the Vardy. The Doctor spent some time in ‘The Pilot’ racing from one end of the universe to the other in order to throw off the advancing Heather; the two episodes that followed are a direct extension of that, establishing the same pattern that the show adopts for its new companions by quickly showing them both the future and the past, as well as opening their minds to the hidden layers of the contemporary world that they took for granted. “There is strangeness to be found, wherever you turn,” Sarah Jane Smith muses. “Life on Earth can be an adventure too… you just need to know where to look.”

Race plays a part in all this. Regency London is, as Bill describes it, “a bit more black than they show it in films”, and this was quite deliberate – Moffat stating that “History is always white washed…People all didn’t arrive in the twinkle of an eye. It is bending history slightly, but in a progressive and useful way.” There are times when the sense of worthiness becomes tiresome (it may be something the chief writer says he is anxious to avoid, but if you’re going to write about these things that’s how it’s going to come across, particularly if you give the Doctor a long speech about it). London – at least the microcosmic cross-section we’re allowed to see – is the gloomier side of BBC costume drama, all soft focus and poor lighting. The effect is rather like Witness For The Prosecution, which employed a similar conceit. None of this would count for anything were we not experiencing it through the eyes of an enthusiastic young woman of mixed race whose eyes widen at every wrestling match or local delicacy. We have fun, because Bill is having fun – and when she is upset, we cry with her.

But the genius in Mackie’s casting isn’t Bill’s layman accessibility, or her presence as a BBC box-ticking exercise in diversity – it’s the chemistry she has with the Doctor. She and Capaldi spark in a way that he never quite managed with Clara, even at her best. There is a scene a third of the way into ‘Thin Ice’ where the Doctor puts himself in jeopardy not to save a child whose number appears to be up, but rather to recover a screwdriver. Bill is furious, and cannot accept his apparent indifference. “I care, Bill, but I move on,” he assures her, quietly. “You know what happens if I don’t move on? More people die. Do you want to help me, or do you want to stand here stamping your foot? Because let me tell you something: I’m two thousand years old, and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage.”

It’s an electric scene. The dialogue helps, as does the fact that the Doctor is dressed rather like a Victorian funeral director, but Capaldi has possibly never been better than he is in this single moment: here, at once, we get a fusion; the fierce authoritarian we saw in ‘Deep Breath’, combined with the world-weary traveller in ‘Hell Bent’. We get a Doctor who has got over the mid-life crisis of his ‘difficult second series’, accepted the darkness within him and learned to live with it. He is reconciled, the same way that Forrest Gump reconciles the two approaches to life that he learns from those close to him. That Bill accepts this and moves on so quickly will be the cause of scorn to many viewers who’ve not realised that this is a long game, and something that will inevitably return later in the series.

The tension isn’t all above ground either: the Doctor’s solution is to ‘get eaten’, and we are, for just a moment, back in ‘Beast Below’ territory (to which we will return at the episode’s climax, and about which nothing more needs to be said). But the river bed is dark and silent and inhabited by a colossal leviathan observing the two explorers with a single, unblinking eye. It is mildly reminiscent of SOMA, a game I played just recently, which features an extended sequence upon the ocean floor, a tropical storm raging around you as you fight through caves of spider crabs, evading poisonous angler fish and trying desperately to stay in the lights. It is intense, claustrophobic and frightening. The floor of the Thames is never quite going to compare to that, but it works.

It helps, also, that Moffat has seemingly abandoned the big overarching mysteries, or at least relegated them to the sidelines. The vault is still a Rorschach: it contains whatever you want it to contain, although we can at least now surmise that its contents are conscious and quite possibly humanoid, given that whatever is inside apparently has the ability to knock. But the story is not about that: it does not linger, the way the crack did, or the way the mystery of Clara permeated every series 7 episode in which she featured (and even some of the ones where she was nowhere to be seen). If anything, the narratives we’ve seen unfold occur in spite of the vault, rather than because of them: the Doctor seeks adventure purely as a means of escaping his responsibilities, almost as if he were tired of having to maintain the sense of continuity and just wanted to tell stories. It’s tempting to believe that Moffat is projecting here, but the road to hell is paved with second guesses.

Still: perhaps the best thing about ‘Thin Ice’ is the wink it makes at the audience. It is not a story that pretends to be grand or significant. It is a story in which the Doctor rewrites Dickens and gets all fanboyish over a con artist. (It is difficult to watch the scenes with the pie man and not imagine a similar exchange between Capaldi and a persistent, autograph-hunting enthusiast.) It is a story in which an unreconstructed Nicholas Burns does the splits as the ground cracks beneath him. It is a story in which you wonder whether the thing in the Vault is actually John Simm, and whether the final ‘boom’ that accompanies the words ‘NEXT TIME’ is a simple sting for the episode 4 trailer or that crucial fourth knock.

But at its heart, it’s a story about the necessity of exploration: to scratch and forage, to find both the joys and the darkness therein, the frozen river serving as metaphor for Bill’s discovery of her mentor’s darker side. The path to enlightenment, it is implied, lies not in the certainty of tradition but the willingness to think sideways, whatever the risk. “Only idiots know the answers,” the Doctor insists, in the episode’s latter third. “But if your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?” Ultimately, ‘Thin Ice’ speaks to us of the dangers of venturing deeper – the perils that lurk in the darkness and the fear of the unknown – but also of the unexpected clarity that results when you come back up to the surface.

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Review: Smile

I didn’t want to do a straight review this week. For some reason it felt wrong. What follows is a succession of jottings, ordered by mood, in a rough sort of chronological order. I don’t know why. It just makes me happy.

Warning: spoilers follow.

 

“Did we just jump-start a new civilisation?”

“Gaah,” said the random Facebook person. “Emojibots. Yeah, ‘cos it’s all about being down with the kids.”
“In fairness,” I said, “this is a Frank Cottrell-Boyce episode, and he’s arguably best known as a children’s writer.”
“Yeah, but they’re still doing it for the kids.”
“You make that sound like it’s a bad thing. As if the concept of a TV programme deliberately doing something that targets a significant part of its core demographic was some sort of cardinal sin. Doctor Who was always supposed to be a kids’ show – the fact that it appeals to families and bigger kids and grown-up kids on a nostalgia kick is a bonus. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional child-friendly episode and I don’t get why it has to be such a turn-off for the adults.”
“Yeah, well. It’s just trying too hard. Kids won’t like it.”
“Can we at least wait until the episode has aired before we come to conclusions like that?” I said. “Because my kids looked at the trailer and said ‘Ooh! Robots with emojis, great!'”

 

“I’m not Scottish, I’m just cross.”

It’s not so much that Bill is a mystery, it’s more that people are determined to make her so. There is an issue with the photograph of Susan: “I noticed you,” the Doctor says last week, regarding Bill with one eye and the photograph with the other. It does not follow from this that Bill is a regenerated amnesiac time-travelled version of the Doctor’s granddaughter: such a pursuit seems laughable and there is nothing in this week’s episode to indicate that this is the way she’s headed. I write such theories as satire; it is both comic and disturbing that others are prepared to take them seriously.

This week the two of them have abandoned the vault, and thus the series arc is fully established. The vault is a Rorschach (a Room of Requirement, if you’re under thirty): you see what you want to see. It has the Rani. It has the Master. It has the masters for ‘Fury From The Deep’. It will be far less interesting than it currently is in my head. The Doctor has the travel bug; Nardole is evidently taking this more seriously than he is, which is something that will have repercussions later and lead to lecturing from Matt Lucas while Bill bites her lip. In the meantime, it is a thing of intrigue, to be dissected or ignored at will. There’s an old piano and they play it hot behind the green door.

“I’m having this really childish impulse to blow it up.”

Opening with a two-hander was risky. Following it with another was riskier still. Cold open aside, only two of the supporting characters have speaking parts, and neither are particularly interesting: thankfully their roles are minimised to allow plenty of time for the Doctor to chat to Bill. They do so in Spanish wheatfields; in the deserted halls of a deserted museum; in the bowels of a buried spacecraft, nestled at the centre of the colony like the one in ‘The Face of Evil’, only without the scene where the Doctor walks inside his own mouth. Bill asks to see the future because she wants ‘to see if it’s happy’. Be careful what you wish for, Bill.

I’ve still not worked out whether the Doctor’s “I don’t interfere” maxim is an exercise in retaining an air of mystery for his companions to unpack later, or classic denial. Either way, Bill has him sussed. “You don’t call the helpline,” she says. “You are the helpline.”

“Do you know what it means when someone chases you very slowly?”

That’s the wrong emoji, really. Awkwardly, there is nothing even remotely frightening about this week’s monster, which is too small and clumsy to pose any real threat; it is like an offshoot from a Ninja Turtles episode. The Doctor faces off against one in the engine room and dispatches it with almost clinical ease: it would have been more fun, perhaps, if they’d had rotatable implements built into their hands, or perhaps a deadly groin attachment like the ones Kryten used to wear when he was vacuuming. The rabid flesh-eating particles of doom are altogether more deadly, of course, but we hardly actually see them, bar the obligatory cannon fodder scenes.

All in all the threat level is low, and it’s odd that Cottrell-Boyce makes such a meal out of it. The McGuffin takes a while to find, giving time for the leads to chat, but the delays are head-scratching. The impression you get is of a Doctor who is getting back into the swing of things: it’s like series 1 all over again, which I suppose is part of the point. “I can’t stop it,” he grumbles to Bill, “because I don’t know what started it last time”. Meanwhile it is Bill herself who is poking around and discovering withering corpses and eulogy-laden iPads while the Doctor is getting himself into trouble. Tennant would have had this one licked in a couple of minutes flat, and if there’s one thing that comes across this week it’s that fifty years of lectures and formal dinners have slowed the Doctor’s mind.

 

“You don’t steer the TARDIS. You negotiate with it.”

Caress those panels all you want. Land on the head of a pin. Manoeuvre a short hop so it materialises around you. If the TARDIS doesn’t want you to go back to Bristol the moment you left, she won’t. Perhaps there was a road closure and she had to take a diversion via Chippenham; that sort of thing happens a lot when the tax year’s winding up and they still have a budget surplus.

But it’s strange that the episode concludes on a not-quite cliffhanger, almost as if they ran out of story. Certainly after half a series of the Doctor picking up and dropping off Clara it catches you off guard. It would have been very easy to turn this into several episodes of the two of them sneaking back into the Doctor’s study like errant schoolchildren, only to find Nardole looking at his watch: that would be a predictable sub-arc, although it echoes Clara’s duplicitous treatment of Danny Pink and it is to be hoped that it’s something they don’t explore further. Ultimately this is about deflating Bill’s adulation of her tutor by exploring one of his core fallibilities: the notion of a machine he can’t always fly as well as he’d like to believe. It’s not quite Tegan throwing a hissy fit over stopped clocks, but having spent most of the last decade building up the image of a skilled pilot – particularly after last week’s spot of planet hopping – it’s nice to see they can still sweep away the rug, like Patricia Arquette does in the closing scenes of Lost Highway.

Has it been easier to think of the TARDIS as a person – or at least a metaphysical presence – since The Doctor’s Wife? Or did all this start with Parting of the Ways, where we’re never entirely sure whether we’re addressing Rose or the TARDIS core, or something that somehow combines them both? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: perhaps it’s simply about the disestablishment of patriarchy. The Doctor is not exploring the universe in the TARDIS: she is exploring the universe and taking him along for the fun of it, and there’s something sweet about the fact that even after all these years, he still thinks he can control her.

“They’re the skeleton crew.”

Cottrell-Boyce has been brushing up on his Who since the last time. The emancipation of a former slave race given newfound sentience echoes both ‘Planet of the Ood’ and ‘New Earth’, while the memory wipe the Doctor implements in order to do it has echoes of the Zygon gambit in ‘Day of the Doctor’. The human compost is a throwback to Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker, and the Vardy are to all intents and purposes the nanobots from ‘The Doctor Dances’, with the appetite of the Vashta Nerada. And look, the whole thing is basically ‘The Happiness Patrol’ without the social commentary. It’s curious that this came from a writer who produced a story which – for better or worse – was unlike just about anything else in the canon; if there’s one thing ‘Smile’ could potentially have suffered from, it’s a tendency to stick a little too closely to the deserted base formula.

But niggles aside this is brilliant. Who by numbers – and that’s what it is, truth be told – isn’t always a bad thing, particularly if you precede it with an episode that can theoretically be watched by just about anyone, whether they were a seasoned veteran or a complete novice. It is what the show does; it is comfortable, and comfortable comes packaged with its own set of dangers. It is only a few letters away from complacent. But it says something when an established writer can load his episode with so many homages without losing the essence of a story, and without producing something that feels like a shameless rip-off. This new approach works for me: this Doctor who is given room to breathe and this companion who asks the right questions. It feels like good stories told with a freshness that hasn’t been here since Matt Smith first stepped out of his TARDIS demanding an apple. The smugness is gone – and, at least for the moment, Doctor Who is fun again.

Although it is disappointing that no one says “MY GOD, THEY’RE COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!” Seriously. Not once.

 

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Review: The Pilot

Warning: spoilers.

If you took ‘Terror of the Autons’, stirred in elements of ‘Shada’ and then sprinkled it with bits of Educating Rita, the gumbo you produced would probably be nothing like ‘The Pilot’.

But it’s a decent beginning. Because the keyword for this week is…well, not the much-anticipated ‘reboot’ that we’ve been going on about for months. You can see quite clearly what they were trying to do, but that oversells it. Have the BBC produced an episode that can be watched by someone experiencing the show for the first time? Perhaps, and by the skin of their teeth. Still, that’s not the vibe you take from it. This may be the most accessible companion-breaking story for some time, but it’s not ‘Rose’. Doctor Who has too much history – even within its last twelve years – to be able to pull a stunt like that.

No, the word you may be looking for is ‘grounded’. Because this is an episode that roots itself (to use Peter Capaldi’s own words) before you’re allowed to go anywhere. This is not a Doctor who turns up and comically integrates himself (or rather fails to) into a community, as we saw in ‘The Caretaker’ or ‘The Lodger’. This is a Doctor who’s already been on the scene a long time, who cannot possibly be as young as he looks, and who is visibly offended when people fail to point this out. But there’s more to it than that: this is not another ‘Snowmen’, in which the arriving companion breaks the Time Lord out of a funk overnight. It takes time. The Doctor’s tenure may be well-established but it still takes a good few months (read: minutes) for his new companion to discover what’s really going on.

It may interest you to know that they used to run teacher training courses in the same way. You would sit in the lecture theatre for six months of theory, and then at the halfway point they’d drop you into a classroom and leave you to get on with it. These days the process is far more integrated: practical experience begins on day one (all right, day thirteen) and is woven in with the theory as the year passes. But what happens in ‘The Pilot’ is that Bill spends a lot of time on the theory and finds her experience of the practical limited to the occasional tantalising glimpse, until the moment (a little over halfway through) that she peeks behind her shower curtain, whereupon the whole thing explodes. (That’s the plot, not the shower curtain.)

Not that this is in any way a bad thing. I was going to say that this was the most leisurely-paced episode of Doctor Who in years, but I was forgetting about ‘Face The Raven’ – a story in which nothing much happened for ages and which was horrifically boring as a result. In this instance what happens is a delicate dance between its two central characters – close and simultaneously at arm’s length – to the extent that by the time Bill finally sets foot in the TARDIS she knows the Doctor quite well, without actually knowing him at all. ‘You talk all the time,’ said Donna, one of the most perceptive of the NuWho companions, ‘but you don’t say anything’ – and while Capaldi’s Doctor is considerably less prone to the bouts of verbal diarrhoea for which Tennant’s incarnation was renowned, it’s not a bad comparison.

The first half of ‘The Pilot’ sees Bill Potts – a canteen worker with an apparent interest in quantum mechanics – becoming the Doctor’s private student, working under his tutelage while she fends off her stepmother’s casual acidity and inadvertently afflicts an unnamed crush with a heart condition. There are awkward conversations over Christmas dinner – a scene which is both touching and, in its own way, desperately sad – and Bill wanders the campus of the university until we know it almost as well as she does. The Doctor’s office features heavily: the plush, distinguished opulence of established academics, right down to the TARDIS in the corner and the collection of screwdrivers on the desk. Through it all, Bill approaches the broadening of her mind with a sense of wonder. “When most people don’t understand something, they frown,” the Doctor says to her early on. “But you smile.”

What is to all intents and purposes a two-hander turns into a three-hander the minute Nardole arrives on the scene properly (he appears briefly at the beginning merely to establish that he has a screw loose, in a quite literal sense). We’re told that he has a reason for hanging around but that’s clearly a card that Moffat is playing close to his chest for the moment, presumably having decided to throw it on the table just before he reveals the three aces he’s got stashed in his underwear. At least it’s fun to watch. Matt Lucas may have spent half of his first episode stuck on top of a Power Rangers Megazord and half his second running around in search of a lavatory, but it is here – despite the reduced screen time engineered to favour Mackie – that he more or less shows his true colours, as a cowardly but largely competent valet, deviating between dry sarcasm and quivering cowardice; half Jeeves, half Penfold.

There is a plot, of sorts, but you know that by now. It concerns a girl named Heather, who finds herself trapped in her own reflection, reforming to become the monster of the week: a dripping, frightening thing capable of clearing small pockets of the universe in a single bound. ‘Water always wins’, as the Tenth Doctor might have said, and while Heather lacks the cracked, jagged appearance of the Flood she is still reasonably sinister, if only by being so quick on the draw. It calls to mind the first Droopy cartoon, ‘Dumb-Hounded‘, in which the titular dog is sent in pursuit of a deadly criminal, who races from Chicago to Hollywood to the North Pole only to find Droopy waiting for him everywhere he goes.

It takes a Dalek to bring down the reconstructed Heather, and it’s the episode’s dullest moment (although it follows a blink-and-you’ll-miss it shot of the Movellans, fumbling with laser guns in one hand and trying to play rock-paper-scissors with the other). It’s all very well surrounding Bill by images of the cosmos so that her mind is almost literally blown; it’s just a shame it had to be the story’s climax. Bringing up the pace only to immediately drop it to play mind games is seldom interesting, even when it’s closely linked to the idea of escape, and it makes for a tedious, lacklustre finale.

But that almost feels like a minor quibble. This is an episode that works, largely because by and large it doesn’t try to do too much. The cast are a big help – Capaldi is comfortable and self-assured as the Doctor, and his support make the most of what they have – but the strength of ‘The Pilot’ lies in its concept of space, in a strictly terrestrial sense. It introduces new characters and gives them breathing room – hence the Doctor and Bill are flung together not by impossible forces, but by a sense of mutual loneliness and the driving need to explore. By the time the Doctor has temporarily abandoned his plans to guard whatever it is he’s guarding in that vault and whisk Bill away to the stars (tellingly with a line that echoes Christopher Lloyd’s reckless abandonment of responsibility at the end of Back to the Future), it feels like an inevitability – and we cheer with her.

Cast your minds back a year, and it’s no great secret that I was one of Bill’s fiercest critics. To be fair, all I had to go on was that the introductory scene they used to showcase her arrival. You remember, the one where she’s rude about the Daleks. To call it slightly asinine is like saying that The X-Factor occasionally plays with the truth. Within the context of ‘The Pilot’, we might think of it as her ‘Runaway Bride’ moment: a few people will laugh, while many more will simply roll their eyes.

But it took seeing her in action to change my mind. Because it’s early days, but Bill really seems to fit. After the build-up, the preliminary interviews and a bunch of trailers that didn’t exactly do her any favours, I approached ‘The Pilot’ with a certain amount of dread, but it seems that I worried over nothing. She takes longer to get the hang of the TARDIS (“Is this a knock-through?”) than many companions, but I’m now convinced she’s absolutely the right person to be in it – and I can’t wait to see where it takes her, both geographically and emotionally, as the series plays out.

And if I can manage that, so can you.

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Review: ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’

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There’s a thing that’s always bothered me about Superman. It’s not the disguise. Henry Cavill recently proved there was a lot of mileage in a pair of spectacles with his recent New York stunt. No, it’s the fact that Clark Kent is surrounded by a supposedly cracked team of journalists, all of whom enjoy a close working relationship with him, and none of them – at least at first – are able to work out what’s really going on. A reporter who showed up in town the same time Superman did, who disappears at the first sign of trouble but who manages to bag all the exclusives? It’s too much of a stretch to think that someone wouldn’t have put two and two together by now – whether that someone is Lois Lane, the self-absorbed A-lister who loves one man and who is loved in turn by both – or Perry White, who spends most of his time with his sleeves rolled up shouting, but who’s obviously never heard of facial recognition software.

It depends which version you’re watching. Christopher Reeve, in all four of his films – from the glorious first to the dismal fourth – is a revelation, and anyone who doubted his skills as an actor would do well to look at scenes where he’s playing first Clark Kent and then Superman and note the differences. Reeve fumbles with the thick frames, smearing the lenses and only just managing to avoid damaging them. The posture changes, the body language becomes awkward and fidgety, and the whole voice goes up half an octave. Then go and watch Dean Cain – who, in The New Adventures, plays basically the same character with and without his glasses – and marvel at the fact that he gets away with it for so long.

That Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne manage to maintain and separate their public / private personas so consistently and successfully is down to three things. First, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief – the same resource we have to tap in order to accept that neither character seems to have aged very much despite both having been around for the better part of a century. Second, at least one blind eye has been turned to the telescope – Commissioner Gordon could easily figure out Batman’s true identity, but has presumably seen enough torture scenes to have realised that it’s in his best interests not to know. Similarly, Perry White is too bold and experienced not to put two and two together, but has chosen not to. Journalistic integrity is still alive and well, even in the twenty-first century.

But fundamentally the disguise conundrum plays on Shakespearian conventions. It was a running joke that the true identity of a disguised character in a Shakespeare play should be obvious to everyone except the characters onstage – it’s bled over into pantomime, and in Doctor Who it happened every time Roger Delgado stepped onto the screen. And thus, when it happens in ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’, it’s done as a joke that’s glaringly transparent to all but the girl who’s caught in the middle of it, and on this occasion it’s the Doctor who’s rolling his eyes.

‘Mysterio’ is, in essence, a crossover episode – the closest Doctor Who is likely to delve into the worlds of Supergirl or The Flash – and the creative team have the sense to play on this. Origin stories are revealed in flashback (tellingly, and with some degree of appropriateness, said origin story features the Doctor himself). There are numerous shots of characters hovering outside windows. And a crucial conversation between the basso-inflected superhero and his would-be girlfriend – with the Doctor listening in – is rendered with a three-way frame split. The superhero in question, a caped wonder whose body armour resembles that of Nightwing, doubles as a mild-mannered nanny when he’s not wearing the costume, zooming from house fire to traffic accident to bedroom, a baby monitor permanently attached to his waist.

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The net result of all this is that the Doctor feels rather like a supporting character in his own story. Having unwittingly created the whole situation through a simple misunderstanding, just about the only thing Capaldi is able to do this week is react as the narrative unfolds around him. Not that much unfolding actually happens – in origami terms, ‘Mysterio’ is more a twice-folded letter than a concertina. The story is the sort of conventional secret invasion fluff that wouldn’t be out of place in either a series of Doctor Who or a Superman comic, and is perhaps the episode’s weakest element: a couple of expository monologues aside, we never really get to know or understand the brain-swapping aliens behind Harmony Shoals, nor do we much care what they’re up to. (And really, didn’t we milk the unzipped head thing to death last Christmas?)

Tellingly, that’s not a criticism. Regular visitors here will know that I’m the first one to complain when I watch an episode of Who without any tangible story, but as it turns out this matters far less when people are having fun (which is not something I could say for, say, ‘The Woman Who Lived’). That the episode concludes with a colossal spacecraft falling on New York is far less exciting than it ought to be, simply because ultimately that’s not what ‘Mysterio’ is about. There’s a far greater tension in the fact that in order to save the Earth, the Ghost must reveal his true identity to a single person – and while the image of Justin Chatwin holding up the spacecraft with a single outstretched hand is uproariously funny, there is a far greater sense of narrative satisfaction in the kiss that follows it.

It helps that both Grant and Lucy are fun and likeable, even though we’re given comparably little time to get to know them. There are all sorts of questions that could be asked about the fact that he repeatedly leaves a small child unattended, although it’s made apparent at the mid-point that he’s able to race from one side of the city to the other in about the same time it takes a parent to climb a staircase, and the Doctor is only able to get there first because he cheats. Grant’s mutual, unconsumated attraction to Lucy calls to mind the tale of Craig and Sophie, and while the love story here doesn’t hold the same sort of narrative credence that was there in ‘The Lodger’, there’s something very satisfying in the fact that Lucy prefers her heroes with their spectacles on.

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Elsewhere, pathos remains. There are references to River Song (whose name would have been better left unsaid, although you can’t blame Moffat for wanting to avoid an epidemic of tedious fan speculation and Twitter theory) and a sense of melancholy loneliness that bubbles under the surface without ever really breaking through the skin. The net result is a story that is accessible and satisfying but somehow sad, as befits the best Christmas entertainment, with everyone making the most of the limited screentime that 2016 has granted them. He may not have a great deal to do besides watch and eat sushi, but Capaldi’s clearly enjoying himself this week, even though the Doctor isn’t.

I’ve got nine paragraphs in without mentioning Nardole, but that’s largely because he works so well. Comic actors in semi-serious drama is a lottery – Frank Skinner was a roaring success, Rufus Hound a dismal failure – and the fact that the reassembled Nardole is far less irritating than he ought to have been is a testament both to Moffat’s writing and Lucas’ ability to reign it in. Discounting an anomalous, cringeworthy opening sequence, Nardole is inhabited with the sort of understated, bumbling charm that’s been greatly missing in the TARDIS since Rory was trapped in New York, and he has some enlightening conversations with the Doctor. It’s too early to tell how this will play out in series 10, in which Lucas is purported to make a series of appearances, but we might currently file it under ‘Well, that was a pleasant surprise’, perhaps alongside ‘Donna Noble’.

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There’s a much-quoted and not entirely accurate cliché suggesting that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When the announcement was made, back in January, that we’d have to wait for almost a full year without the Doctor, the sense of lamentation among fandom was so great that you could hear it on Mondas. But whatever else may have happened during the past year (it’s tempting to look back at 2016 as an annus horribalis, although I suspect history may be rather more generous) there were some of us who took it as an opportunity to take stock and look at exactly what it was we enjoyed about the show, and after a long period of soul-searching I concluded that if they’d decided to rest it completely, I wouldn’t mind. Perhaps we’re at the stage where it doesn’t matter whether Doctor Who is on or not, and where we can stop complaining about the number of episodes per year, and make the most of what we have. I don’t think it’s something that comes naturally, not to me, and not to fandom generally – when writing this one up, I stayed off Twitter, stayed away from Facebook, and didn’t read a single review, because I knew what many of the comments are going to say.

I’ve often wondered whether the concept of making the most of things is a reason we’re overly charitable to ‘Rose’, although to conclude thus probably does it a disservice. It’s no secret that the last forty-five seconds of the TV broadcast of ‘Mysterio’ consisted of a glib, action-filled trailer for series 10 that introduces an already irritating companion whom most of us have seen fit to judge before she even steps into the TARDIS. As someone who’s a willing advocate of that ‘God she’s irritating’ mindset I’d nonetheless suggest that I was wrong about Donna, wrong about Smith being too young and wrong (at least this week) about Nardole. And perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. If there’s one thing that a year without Doctor Who has taught me it’s to take it far less seriously than I have been, and treat at least some of its shortcomings as a by-product of a difficult production process. Perhaps all the show has to be, in the end, is enjoyable, rather than good, but perhaps that’s partly our responsibility, rather than simply the writer’s. Perhaps this is what happens when you allow obsession to dissolve into apathy, but I wonder whether we’d enjoy the experience far more if we’re willing to occasionally put a blind eye up to the telescope.

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Review: ‘The Husbands of River Song’

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Spoilers follow.

I’ve thought for a while now that River Song is a little like Marmite. You either want to absorb her entirely, lusciously spread on toast, or burn her alive. You love or hate her and there is comparatively little middle ground.

While taste is always subjective, it’s a thing that doesn’t happen often. Few fans would argue, for example, against general conviction that Melanie Bush is an irritating carrot-obsessed fitness freak, at least on TV (Big Finish tells a different story, of course), or that Adric was a general twerp. On the other hand most people love Ian and Barbara. Still, River’s apparently ubiquitous presence in the seven years we’ve known her – and particularly in the last five – has generated as many detractors as it has fans, which is presumably why last night’s Christmas special, ‘The Husbands of River Song’, while actually being quite good, presumably had a good number of people pulling their paper cracker hats down in front of their eyes even before the opening credits. There is no middle ground with River, just as there is no middle ground with processed yeast extract. You either eat it by the jarful or you involuntarily gag as soon as it swims into view.

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But upon reflection, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s possible to have your toast and eat it too. I’d had more than enough of River by the time we’d wrapped up ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, but getting her out again for ‘Husbands’ seems to have paid off. The plot – such as it is – revolves around an attempt to rob the despotic, disembodied King Hydroflax, who happens to be carrying a priceless diamond in his brain. It’s the excuse for the ridiculous sight gag of a head in a bag – almost as ridiculous as River’s sonic trowel (although it is a nice plant, if you’ll excuse the pun, for the inevitability of the Doctor’s Christmas gift). The honour of playing the head of Hydroflax goes to Greg Davies, who is almost as uptight as he was in Cuckoo, and just as much fun to watch.

Essentially ‘Husbands’ is exactly the sort of romp that you need after a heavy series; the sort of story that ‘Last Christmas’ really ought to have been, and wasn’t. Neatly compartmentalised into three locations, with differing moods in each, it calls upon Moffat’s stock trade of sinister, nondescript monsters (this particular one has a head that unzips), pathos-drenched love scenes and general wibbly wobbliness. There is a crashing starship. River and the Doctor have dinner (twice) and argue over who gets to drive. It’s like one of those middle-aged romcoms that are vehicles for Robert De Niro or Barbra Streisand. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

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The central conceit is that of poor communication – something (to paraphrase Verne the turtle in Over The Hedge) that families do very well, and perhaps rendering this more appropriate for Christmas than it would be at any other time of the year. River doesn’t recognise the Doctor simply because she’s never met this version, and the Doctor’s irregular attempts at telling her the truth are met by interrupting sidekicks, sudden explosions or knocks on the door of the TARDIS. There’s a kind of arrogance to her assumption that there would be no loophole to the Doctor’s twelve-regeneration limit, but the real problem River faces in ‘Husbands’ is that she stopped buying breakfast cereal in 2013, and the free ‘collect all twelve’ fact cards that she’s been accumulating are from an older set that’s now two years out of date. Or perhaps it’s headcanon in action: there are, I’m sure, various Who fans who gave up on the show after ‘The Time of the Doctor’ (or significantly before that) because they couldn’t accept the idea of new regeneration cycles. Why can’t River be one of those?

Moffat teases this out for as long as he possibly can, largely to milk its dramatic / comedic potential to saturation point. This is equivalent to a disguised Shakespearian protagonist wandering about the stage in a dodgy false beard observing the outrageous behaviour of allies or enemies: the jokes come thick and fast (even if they don’t always work) and the dramatic irony goes up to eleven. The Doctor visibly blanches as he reflects on River’s apparent bigamy, callous disregard for life and financial ruthlessness (all qualities we already knew she had, so the bigger mystery is surely why he’s so surprised?). Twenty minutes in, the Doctor has to pretend he’s seeing the inside of the TARDIS for the very first time, which gives Capaldi the opportunity to ham it up like a loon. “OH MY GOD!” he shouts. “MY ENTIRE UNDERSTANDING OF PHYSICAL SPACE HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED! THREE-DIMENSIONAL EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY HAS BEEN TORN UP, THROWN IN THE AIR AND SNOGGED TO DEATH!”

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Such big speeches work well when they’re played for laughs, but like many of River’s other episodes, ‘Husbands’ suffers when it’s trying to be too serious. The story has its share of misfires, but the monologue that precedes River’s realisation that the Doctor is standing right next to her is simply embarrassing. I’ve never really bothered to find out whether Kingston can’t do dramatic speeches, or whether she simply can’t do dramatic speeches while playing this character, but either way it’s a low point. As low points go it’s not quite up there with the one at the end of ‘Wedding’, but it’s a top three.

Things are a little less clunky – although only just – come the end of the story, and it’s here that we realise that ‘Husbands’ is essentially a fifty minute build-up to get the Doctor and River to the Singing Towers. It’s Moffat finally writing the story he alluded to in ‘Forest of the Dead’, his own procrastination, perhaps, finding its way into the script when Kingston mentions that when it comes to the Doctor taking her to dinner, “You always cancel”. Or perhaps procrastination had nothing to do with it, and perhaps Moffat had always planned it this way. We’ll probably never know. Nonetheless, chronologically this is their last encounter before the Library, although the fact that a night on Darillium is twenty-four years long does rather sweeten the deal.

Indeed, the assumption here is that River will be back, either on Dirillium (which must have a Wyrmm’s nest somewhere, or at the very least a cave system containing frozen Ice Warriors). If Moffat had a theme song, it would be ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ (or, if you like, ‘It’s My Plotting And You’ll Cry If I Want You To’). Or, as Gareth puts it, “If this ‘last night’ is 24 years long, I assume that there’s no need for it to be their final meeting or final night together. As they can go off and meet lots and get back still during the same night.”

But given the manner in which it concludes, this is a story that couldn’t have happened before ‘Hell Bent’, and the lesson the Doctor learned about going too far resonates throughout his final speech. For all Kingston’s blustering about finding a way out, it’s a touching scene, expertly lit, the romance bubbling beneath the surface while being kept at bay by some pleasant, almost understated performances – particularly from Capaldi, who is always at his best when he’s turning it down. It helps that the two leads have a chemistry that Kingston never managed with Smith – perhaps it’s an age thing, but this feels far more natural than it ever did when the Doctor wore tweed. These are two people who give the appearance of being in their twilight years (the fact that the Doctor is clearly not is, for the moment, irrelevant) and this lends their love scenes a sensibility that grounds them even in the more overwrought moments. On balance, it works. ‘The Husbands of River Song’ lacks the accessibility of ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe’ and the narrative oomph of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, but it substitutes an emotional core that winds up – just for a change – being far more than the sum of its parts. Of all the available Doctors that could have taken River to the Singing Towers, I’m glad it turned out to be this one.

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Review: ‘Hell Bent’

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There’s this bit towards the end of the first Bottom live show where Rik Mayall is about to commit suicide. Adrian Edmondson has wired up a makeshift electric chair. He pulls the lever: there is a colossal build-up, a wheezing and whining of unseen machinery, alarms, flashing lights. And then there is a fart, and the bang of a cheap firecracker, accompanied by a microscopic shower of sparks.

“Yes,” says Mayall, sighing. “Sort of a bit like having it off with Bonnie Langford, this really, isn’t it?”

It says something about the state of Doctor Who when your verdict of a series finale is “Not as dreadful as some of the others”. Might we say that we’ve sat through worse? Well, yes. ‘The Wedding of River Song’ was a low point, until we reached ‘Death In Heaven’, which had me throwing my Tenth Doctor action figure at the cat. The site of a resurrected Brigadier saluting at the Doctor across a graveyard seemed to vomit on the legacy of Nicholas Courtney and the Doctor who worked for him at UNIT, and those of you who were reading this will remember that I got very cross.

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There’s none of that this time. None of the grandiose, universe-shattering finales to which we’ve become accustomed. Oh, there’s a story about a prophecy that comes to nothing (more on that later). There are threats and recriminations and things that will probably come back to haunt the Doctor later, and a heap of unanswered questions (just where exactly is Gallifrey these days, given that they’ve moved it?) As a finale, it was empty and not terribly satisfying, but it could have been worse. With notable exceptions, that seems to be the best I can say for Doctor Who these days, which is something of a shame, but there it is.

To give credit where it’s due, ‘Hell Bent’ starts brilliantly. After a suitably enigmatic opening in a Nevada diner that – as is now customary with Moffat – will eventually subvert all our expectations, we move to Gallifrey, and a glorious, eight minute sequence in which the Doctor utters not a single word. It contains some of the best acting from Capaldi since he first complained about his kidneys, with the Doctor saying more with the simple act of picking up a spoon or dropping his confession dial in the dust than he could with the sort of monologue he got at the end of ‘The Zygon Inversion’, as good as that was.

Even after the Doctor starts talking, and the plot unfolds and the logic machine breaks beyond repair in a shower of cheap sparks, the acting remains impeccable – particularly from Donald Sumpter, who excels as the Time Lord President, a figure finally and unambiguously revealed to be the resurrected Rassilon. Sumpter plays Rassilon like a battle-hardened East End kingpin in a low-budget, independent gangster flick (something that Clara deliberately points out), chewing up the scenery and stealing every scene that he’s in. It’s a mesmerising performance, and it’s a great shame that there isn’t more of it.

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Instead we get a lot of back and forth about prophecy as the narrative twists in all sorts of directions. The Hybrid is the Doctor! No, that was an obvious joke and it’s Maisie Williams! No, it’s the Doctor! No, it’s the Doctor and Clara! It’s Missy! It’s Keyser Soze! Actually, it doesn’t matter because we’re going to leave this unsolved until Capaldi’s final episode! That’s a writer’s prerogative, but everything about ‘Hell Bent’ smacks of something that hasn’t been thought through. It’s like buying a washing machine when you live in a third floor flat with no lifts. It’s the same problem that dogs The Deathly Hallows, in which Harry, having spent most of book six looking for a set of objects, decides in book seven that there’s another set of objects he ought to be looking for instead. Similarly, the question of the Hybrid is teased throughout and then conveniently confined to the sidelines, another ball the Moff’s thrown in the air, teasing out his reign for as long as possible until all these questions are answered. He did precisely the same thing during Smith’s run, and I think most of us are wise to it by now.

This is, of course, an episode all about Clara, and having spent last week keeping her out of shot, Moffat places her firmly back into the limelight come the story’s second act. While I don’t dispute the unavoidably autobiographical nature of writing it seems ridiculous that Capaldi’s Doctor has become, to all intents and purposes, an extension of Moffat himself. He clearly can’t bring himself to kill Clara permanently, so the Doctor finds a way to save her. Perhaps I’m being churlish, but it says a lot about the way Doctor Who is written these days that the Doctor is prepared to move heaven and earth and break every law of time to save people he likes. You get the feeling that if ‘Doomsday’ had been a 2015 episode instead of a 2006 one, Rose’s separation from the Doctor would have been at the end of episode eleven and he’d have found a way to pop into the parallel universe to retrieve her almost immediately.

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I didn’t like ‘Face The Raven’. That’s no secret. But if nothing else, it did at least kill off a character in one fell swoop, even if it took longer than it should have done. The act of undoing that – simply because there’s a loophole – basically cheapens death. I have talked about this before and am reluctant to retread old ground because no one is listening anyway, but to see the writers take us this far and then pull a Davies (I think that’s what we call it now, isn’t it?) is seriously lame. If Doctor Who were action movies, we’d be in Taken 3 territory: losing your daughter once is unfortunate, two is frankly careless and three is just taking the piss.

On the other hand, ‘Hell Bent’ is crammed absolutely full of Things To Annoy The Fanboys; the sort of thing that sparks ferocious debate and keeps Twitter chugging over over Christmas until the turkey (no, I don’t mean ‘Before The Flood’) is a distant memory. The Doctor’s much-disputed half-human origins are teased. The head of security regenerates onscreen from a middle-aged white man into a younger black woman, ticking two equality boxes in one fell swoop. And it’s revealed that the Doctor left Gallifrey because he was told a scary story when he was a kid. There’s a bit more to it than that, but it’s the Whovian equivalent of Kevin from Home Alone coming face to face with the old man who carries the shovel, running out of the 7-11 and jumping on a bus bound for Nevada. Simultaneously, this isn’t Moffat re-establishing the canon, this is Moffat deliberately toying with us, and I’m not rising to the bait.

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Something else I’m still scratching my head about: we were told, through a variety of press releases, that we were going to be left “a tiny bit devastated”, and after watching an episode in which the Doctor sort-of-but-not-quite loses bits of his memory, takes over Gallifrey and regains his means of transportation, while a not-quite dead companion gets to wander the universe in a stolen TARDIS with an immortal eighteen-year-old…after all this, I’m still trying to work out where exactly I’m supposed to be devastated. Is it the memory loss, which counted for nothing the moment the Doctor saw Clara’s picture on the side of the TARDIS? Is it the fact that Clara is still destined to die on that trap street, presumably after a long and happy life of zooming around the galaxy in a floating restaurant? Is it the moment when the Doctor walks into his darkened TARDIS alone, just before he goes to spend Christmas with Alex Kingston and pick up another soap actress?

I mean, I’m always a tiny bit devastated at the end of ‘Earthshock’. Or ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’. Or Attack of the Cybermen’. Actually, most of Eric Saward’s stuff would do. There was a man who loved killing off supporting characters. I’m not saying I wanted the corpses piling up the way they do in ‘Warriors of the Deep’. I don’t even mind the fact that there wasn’t a single death this episode; it’s kind of par for the course when you’re doing a story about a species with a marvellous talent for self-healing, accompanied by a woman who is functionally immortal and another who was already dead. I’d just like to point out that for all the spiel about getting upset, the body count for this week is actually minus one.

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But there are elements of goodness. Gallifrey is pleasantly minimal, considering that in a decade of New Who we’ve never actually been there properly; it feels like a throwback to ‘The Five Doctors’. The retro TARDIS interior in which the final third of the episode takes place is a crowd pleaser; likewise the shattered corridor in which the end of the universe takes place is nicely realised. Even Maisie Williams throws in something that might almost be called a decent performance this week, which is a refreshing change after two hours of sulking.

Still, it’s not quite enough to save the story from mediocrity, largely because the story itself isn’t particularly interesting. The structure is as uneven as a toddler’s brick tower; it’s as if Moffat decided at the last minute to postpone his grand plan for another year and had nothing else to go in its place. I can’t say that I hated this episode as much as I did last year’s finale, or even ‘The Woman Who Lived’, but there must be, somewhere, the sort of finale that neatly straddles the road between Everything Happening, and Nothing Happening. If it sounds like I’m one of those impossible-to-please fans, I’d just point out that the crucial, series-defining moment in ‘Hell Bent’ is two characters debating whether or not they should press down on a piece of plastic. Honestly, it doesn’t get much more Bonnie Langford than that.

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Review: ‘Heaven Sent’

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Warning: spoiler heavy.

In 1976, right after he’d dropped off Sarah Jane in Croydon (by way of Aberdeen), the Doctor found himself back on Gallifrey. There was a sinister plot to assassinate the President – perhaps unsurprisingly, the Master is behind it all – with the Doctor caught very firmly in the frame. But there are a couple of things I remember about ‘The Deadly Assassin’: one is the tense, dialogue-light episode three, which we’ll come to later, while the other is the very first part of the story, in which the Doctor wanders around the TARDIS and the Gallifrey Citadel, talking to himself.

Tom Baker’s mid-70s assertion that he could carry the show without a companion was quickly shot down by the producers, and it’s easy to see why. ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is a great story, but the early scenes are frankly excruciating. Baker is always at his best when he is bouncing off someone else, even if it’s John Leeson on the other end of a radio link. The rest of the story more than makes up for it, but it was, you felt, the sort of thing that should never be repeated. And yet this evening the BBC broadcast an entire episode that featured Peter Capaldi running round a castle for an hour with only a bedsheet for company – and amazingly, it works.

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Bedsheets are frightening, of course. ‘Listen’ was an episode of two halves, but the half that worked – the first half – was as tense and chilling as anything the programme had done in years, and certainly since ‘The God Complex’. The monster-of-the-week here is a wordless, faceless phantasm that stalks the corridors of the castle, always present and prone, like Ridley Scott’s Alien, to jumping out at any given moment. We get to see the devastating effects of its touch late in the story: it kills the Doctor, and not just once. The castle, too, is an enemy, shifting and rotating like the stairways at Hogwarts, with doors opening onto blank walls and corridors leading nowhere. The surroundings themselves are as important as the stunning New Zealand backdrop that made Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies work so well, and if they get a generation of children interested in English Heritage properties, so much the better.

It helps that even though the Doctor is usually alone this week, he’s never just talking to himself. When he’s not addressing the Veil, he’s monologuing to Clara – seen, for the most part, with her back to the audience as she scratches questions on one of the TARDIS blackboards. Moffat’s decision to eventually show her (albeit for a moment) is slightly cheap, and the interchange between the two that results is one of the episode’s weaker moments, but it does at least answer the question of whether it was Jenna Coleman or her stand-in (and truth be told, it was probably both). Is it churlish to say that this silent, visually obscured Clara is Coleman’s finest performance in quite some time? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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But it’s Capaldi who’s the real star, here, breezing effortlessly through a script that requires him to be angry, smug, weary and frightened, often within the same scene. The Doctor stalks the corridors of the castle with wariness and scientific curiosity and a sense of genuine sadness – it seems anomalous somehow, given that he’s lost companions before, and Moffat really is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but Capaldi is never less than absolutely compelling, whether he’s examining a skull on the castle battlements (a clear nod to the first and last acts of Hamlet) or chatting up a tree, for the second time in a decade. The TARDIS segments are less effective, capturing frozen moments in time with the same smugness that pervades Sherlock, but thankfully they are comparatively brief, allowing Capaldi to shine where he needs to. We all knew he could act, but it’s always nice when he gets to prove it.

It all threatens to go south as the plot unfolds proper. This is not a mind trip: it serves a purpose. If the Fourth Doctor entered the Matrix in order to find the Master, the Twelfth Doctor is dumped inside a prison of his making so that the Time Lords can eke the truth out of him, one nugget of information at a time. Once it becomes apparent that the Doctor we see is not the first one to arrive, nor will he be the last, the story threatens to unravel: the fact that every single narrative unfolds in precisely the same way, with the same outcome, seems alarmingly fatalist, while the Doctor’s two-billion year wall punch echoes a particular scene from Kill Bill. Oh, and we’ve not even discussed the metaphysical implications of the guy working with constant backups of himself from a hard drive, but I’m not touching that one with a three foot pole.

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Besides…look, to be honest, ‘Heaven Sent’ is one of those stories that works better if you discard its surrounding mythology. I don’t care what’s in the Doctor’s confession dial. I don’t care why he left Gallifrey. I’m not interested in what the Time Lords are up to. The episode’s final punch line – “The hybrid is me” – is an obvious internet talking point, pitting those who think it refers to the Doctor’s much-disputed half-human origins against those who’ve worked out that it’s almost certainly Maisie Williams. It’s dull and unnecessary and, like the scene it follows, sets things up for a finale that I fear will be an absolute trainwreck.

But for the moment, absolutely none of that matters. Murray Gold’s innovative-but-intrusive score doesn’t matter. Even the wider implications of the tedious series arc don’t matter. This was an episode that dared to think outside the box a little: a risk-taking episode, simultaneously grand and claustrophobic, telling a story that succeeded on its own terms, irrespective of where it sits in the grand scheme of things. It echoed ‘The Mind Robber’ and ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and ‘Castrovalva’ and ‘Scherzo’. It echoed 2001. It even echoed The Stanley Parable, which I was by an uncanny coincidence playing this very evening. It was beautifully realised, impeccably acted, and thought-provoking and contained several genuine scares. Whatever happens next, for once I really can’t complain.

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Categories: New Who, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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