Posts Tagged With: nardole

Review: The Pyramid at the End of the World

It’s Friday, and I’m in the park with Edward. It is a weekly ritual: this odyssey of library books and shopping and sausage rolls and then going on a bear hunt on the back of a Wicksteed rocking horse. Later I will drop him at nursery and then go to the cafe and write. I am half thinking about the details, in between chanted verses about swamps and coal mines and radioactive wastelands, when the messenger app pings.

“So you’ve seen it, then?” said Phil. “What’s it like?”
“It’s shit,” I said.
“Oh dear.”
“Well, it’s not ‘Kill The Moon’ shit,” I added. “More ‘Into The Dalek’ shit. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, more that it’s just interminably dull.”

Peter Harness has never been one to shy away from a good moral argument. His Who writing speaks volumes (at least the bits Steven Moffat didn’t do himself). ‘Kill The Moon’ turned from a Hinchliffe-esque horror story into an abortion debate that immediately went south faster than Ronnie Biggs in 1966. The Zygon episodes were better, if also rather worthy in places – a reputation they’ve largely gained retrospectively, being perhaps the last Doctor Who stories to hold a strong political subtext until…well, this one. Harness is not afraid to tackle the big themes, even if (as it turns out this week) he appears to have not a great deal to actually say about them.

If anything, ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ suffers from Difficult Second Album Syndrome, or at least second act fatigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, except to say that nothing very much happens. That’s something we’ve got used to this series, but that it’s suddenly a problem is less a hallmark of collective boredom and more the fact that a ponderous narrative like this does not sit well with the alien invasion badge the episode wears at its heart. This is the middle part of a trilogy, a fact that we’re never really allowed to forget.

The Doctor’s blindness is part of it. Reduced to a shell of the man he once was, he’s left stumbling both figuratively and literally, relying solely on Nardole to supply descriptive narrative of the details the sunglasses miss: as a way of instilling dramatic tension between the Doctor and Bill it works, but it was already tiresome last week and another dip in the pool doesn’t do the writing any favours. It doesn’t help that it now takes the Doctor twice as long to do anything, given both his visual impairment and a newfound despondency that places Capaldi at the episode’s dramatic centre – making the story more about him than it usually is.

This sort of personal journey approach works fine when you’re watching a character piece – as we did with, say, ‘The Pilot’ – but it’s less successful when large chunks of the story revolve around the Doctor travelling from one place to another, interacting with supporting characters who are presumably baffled as to why they’re having to contend with a cantankerous retired prog rock guitarist, and wondering when the real hero’s going to show up. “Coordinate your attacks,” the Doctor says with stunning nonchalance when the military commanders suggest a show of force (although it’s enough to wipe the smug expression from Nardole’s face; too bad we’re the only ones who got to see it). “If you demonstrate strength and unity, they might choose to step away.”

This is deliberate. The whole thing is less an act of purposeful deception (as it was when he opened the door to the space zombies, for example) and more a Doctor who’s feeling his way in the dark literally as well as metaphorically – something that makes sense given that this is the first time we’ve actually seen him in action properly since the events of ‘Oxygen’. Capaldi comes to the part with a new sense of weariness this week – perhaps even more overt than the melancholy figure who wandered into the camouflaged TARDIS at the beginning of ‘Hell Bent’ – staring through a glass darkly, brooding on the end of the world to the extent that he inadvertently causes it. As self-fulfilling prophecies go, this is as nihilistic and bleak as we’ve seen for some time, a clear forerunner to the next episode, in which the decrepit have inherited the earth.

But things get cluttered when the characters don’t really have time to breathe. The Monks appear, and then reappear, and then there’s a scene in the pyramid that looks like a modern art exhibition and then an imagined apocalypse, and then a bit more talking and then, finally, a bit of tension, and the problem is that none of it is very interesting. I said earlier that nothing happens: this is, perhaps, not entirely true. It is more accurate to say that it feels like nothing happens. The potentially interesting military leaders (at last, supporting characters I could almost get behind) are reduced to a series of military cliches and, in one scene, an excruciatingly tepid display of artificial comradeship, before being zapped into the ether.

Certainly casting has rarely seemed as diverse at it is this week. The international flavour is part of that, but it feels like the middle of ‘Four To Doomsday’, with a dwarf thrown in for good measure. That’s not to do Rachel Denning a disservice – of all the supporting cast she’s easily the most likeable, and it’s a shame that her appearance within the context of the story consists largely of babysitting a hungover colleague. (And for the record, Steven, we know that the world ends with the slamming of a door. We got it the first time. There’s no need to show it to us on multiple occasions. That’s the sort of thing your predecessor did, and we didn’t like it then either.)

If anything, it is the Doctor’s obstinacy that causes his (and the world’s) eventual undoing, something that was foreshadowed last week in a now-defunct conversation with Nardole (of course it is happening in your head, Doctor, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?). Nardole – at his best when he makes sudden, astute observations that crystallise the thoughts we’ve been having for years – is the one who tells the Doctor that “The moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it.” Far from the dashing, tedious hero we’ve encountered, this is a man who tactically misjudges an elementary problem and is doomed as a result. It’s the sort of character flaw you expect to see in superhero movies – we saw it in Iron Man, we saw it in Spider-Man, we saw it in The Avengers. Heck, we even saw it in Lego Batman.

And in itself, that’s not a bad thing. It’s worked before. ‘The Caves of Androzani’ employed a similar conceit: it is the one that tops the polls, and yet it is the one where the Doctor loses. ‘Midnight’ saw the Doctor snatched from the jaws of death by the grace of a nameless, unbelievably unselfish airline stewardess, and showed why it’s always a bad idea for a socially dysfunctional genius to travel without an entourage of middlemen to smooth over the bruised egos. This sort of thing goes right back to ‘The Daleks’, by way of ‘Warriors of the Deep’. Stories in which the Doctor blunders into a bad situation and makes it worse can be marvellous. Unfortunately, this week’s wasn’t one of them.

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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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Here’s who’s really in the vault

Legend says that close to the end of things, the reassembled humanoid known as Nardole shall speak to the inhabitant of a heavily secured vault located beneath a British university. And lo, the dialogue shall be hidden from the audience, until the other half of the conversation is leaked, and the occupant of the vault is finally revealed.

Would you like to know who it is?

Are you sure?

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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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