Thursday, 30 January 2014

Doctor Of The Bride

Doctor Who
The Runaway Bride
2006 Christmas Special

Another year, another Christmas Special.  It's absolutely brilliant that they were able to make this a yearly thing, but some of the novelty is definitely starting to wear off.

I don't mind them re-using this shot, though.
That's not to say I don't like The Runaway Bride.  Surprise!  I do!  It's just that, where Russell T Davies has to Christmas things up a bit, and he has to, he does it all virtually the same as in The Christmas Invasion.  Once again we're dealing with robot Santas, killer Christmas trees and a spaceship blowing up over London.  There's even artificial snow at the end.  I mean, it's a lovely present, Gran, but you actually got me this last year...

Fortunately, there's more to it than Christmas.  Zip back to the end of Doomsday.  Having seen Rose off to a parallel universe, the Doctor is immediately interrupted by a bride, just popping into the TARDIS, mid-flight, right in front of him.  What?  And that's exactly how it should be.  Either the Doctor moves on, or life moves along for him.  Things don't stay still in Doctor Who.

Done poorly, this is a way of just not dealing with things.  At the end of The Parting Of The Ways, for example, Earth is bombed to oblivion, but we're too distracted by the Doctor's regeneration to stop and deal with it.  Done well, charging in the opposite direction right after tragedy strikes is a way into character development, not out of it.  And The Runaway Bride uses this sudden, shocking turn of events to bring the Doctor to terms with Rose's loss.  He hasn't got time to process it, and he's got a passenger who's not interested in hearing about it.  Nevertheless, it's constantly on his mind.  (And unlike Rose's actual departure, which I found emotionally muddled for all sorts of reasons, it makes perfect sense to me that he's sorry she's gone.  He knows she's miserable, and whether or not he was ready for her to go, he is now on his own.)

Skipping temporarily over his heartbreak, the Doctor tries to get the bride, Donna, to the church on time.  And this is hilarious.  It's great having a character who's not enraptured by everything the Doctor says and does, and Donna has every right to be suspicious of this strange bloke.  "The what?"  "The TARDIS!"  "That's not even a proper word!  You're just saying things!"  It probably goes without saying that Catherine Tate is funny, but Donna is an immediately refreshing and likeable character, partly because she's so pitiably unlikeable.  She's loud, got a short fuse, and her own family don't seem terribly fond of her (let's not get started on the groom) which singles her out and, cleverly, unites her with the Doctor, since they're both lonely.

It's undoubtedly a mark of Catherine Tate's brilliance that Donna sounds so teeth-pullingly irritating when you describe her, but isn't in practice.  (Although some people found her to be exactly that.)  With all her shouting, arguing and occasional slapping, she seems like exactly the worst person to pair the Doctor with in his time of crisis.  So in a weird way, she's just what he needs.

She's good.  They should bring her back and stuff.
Oh, hang on...
Donna's lack of enchantment cuts the Doctor down to size, which is again hilarious, and keeps him from dealing with the Rose situation.  This just keeps it right at the forefront of his mind, and David Tennant does an amazing job with it.  A raging glance when Donna grabs Rose's jacket, a sudden memory when he sees a blonde girl dancing, bittersweet references to Christmas dinner... these are little moments, all the more effective for not bashing us over the head.  I prefer all of this to the Doctor's silent tears at the end of Doomsday, and certainly to all that "I love you" fan-service.  At the very end, when we've just begun to put it out of our minds and Donna asks his friend's name, the way his voice cracks as he says "Her name's Rose" strikes just the right note.  Emotional, but not too much.  It's really well done.

Alas, we can't just have sixty minutes of wedding stress and the Doctor coming to terms with stuff.  There must be a plot.  And this one has its ups and downs.

Donna is dosed with Huon particles.  They attract her to the TARDIS, and a giant spider, the Empress of the Racnoss, hopes to use them to reawaken her species.  (They're buried at the centre of the Earth in an ancient spaceship, which for some reason isn't troubled by the planet's molten core.)  Assisting her are a bunch of robots, which are those killer Santas from last year.  It's fair enough as we don't know where they come from or where they went, but seriously, it's boring.  We've had them.  Think of something else.  (And seriously, they're all still dressed as Santa?  Do they only get work at Christmas?)  The same goes for the Christmas tree, which is notably less novel this time round (exploding baubles?), on top of how tired the thing is.

So what's new?  Well, the Racnoss, which is an amazing piece of prosthetic work, and that's about the nicest thing I can say.  The character's appallingly written: just why is an ancient megalomaniac spider so full of terrible marriage jokes, doctor jokes, and three-men-walk-into-a-bar jokes?  (Okay, maybe not the last one.)  Sarah Parish doesn't exactly have much to work with, but even so, I'm hoping it wasn't her idea to pole vault over the top with every single line.  Possibly the most horrifically exaggerated performance in all of Doctor Who, she comes close to transcending that old expression and actually eating the scenery.

And did we forget about the groom?  Oh, I wish.  In a regrettable twist, it turns out Donna's intended, Lance, is working for the Racnoss.  His motivation is to see the universe "I think you understand that, don't you, Doctor?" but if that's supposed to explain why he's prepared to drug, marry and sacrifice a random woman, well, it doesn't.  (And if it's supposed to provide some kind of commentary about the Doctor's relationship with his companions, god knows what it's actually trying to say.)  Lance just suddenly becomes a venomous bastard, not to mention a complete idiot, because "the evil monster promised me untold riches" is never going to end well.  Not exactly someone you could see clambering to explore the stars, is Lance.

The plot is all rather talky and boring, not to mention unconvincing on Lance's part, and it contains an absolutely abysmal amount of sonic screwdriver abuse.  It's supposedly there to get out of "boring" things like having to unlock a door, but the overuse of the screwdriver is ironically more boring than having to do things the hard way.  How will he get out of this one?  Oh, the screwdriver again, right.  Honestly, if you took it off him, what good is the Doctor?  (NB: The fabulous Who book A History Of The Universe In 100 Objects lists all uses of the sonic screwdriver, and the entry for The Runaway Bride is several inches longer than any other episode.  So there!)

On the plus side, there are some excellent set-pieces.  There's the astounding TARDIS car chase, which might be one of the coolest special effects I've seen in Doctor Who.  (Can you imagine anything like that in the Classic series?)  And there's the moment when the Doctor shows Donna the creation of the Earth.  This is a beautiful way to put Donna's (and the Doctor's) misery in perspective, to potentially cheer her (and himself) up, and to do that necessary culture-shock thing the Ninth Doctor did with Rose in The End Of The World.  But it's also stunning to look at.  Odd that it comes right in the middle of the villain showdown, and just goes to show how gripping that isn't, but I'd still rather be here than there.  As for the attack of the Racnoss spaceship, zapping random holes in London before a tank blows it up, it just feels like another dull echo of The Christmas Invasion.  Only this time, the Doctor doesn't complain.

The Runaway Bride seems a lot worse in hindsight.  It's easy to remember the stale Christmas gimmicks, the terribly hammy Racnoss, the blethering about Huon particles and Catherine Tate shouting a lot.  But look closer: there's a sensitive epilogue to Series Two, a moving performance from David Tennant, and a character who shouts a lot just to hide her lack of a place in the world, all lurking under last year's wrapping paper.  It's worth revisiting.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Goodbye, Get Lost, Get Out!

Doctor Who
Army Of Ghosts and Doomsday
Series Two, Episodes Twelve and Thirteen

As an obscure scribbler once observed, parting is such sweet sorrow.  It's also an inexhaustible source of drama, particularly in a show like Doctor Who, which in some ways is a lot of hellos and goodbyes punctuated by monsters.  The Doctor/companion relationship has been more vital than ever since 2005, so the departure of Rose was always going to be a big event.  Particularly if you don't like Rose, and were counting the days.

You may have guessed this already, but I've never quite "got" this character, and I've never understood the idea (in subsequent series) that the Doctor entirely regrets losing her.  Too much says otherwise.  She isn't just going.  It's time for her to go.

How they toy with us.
Evidence for the prosecution: in School Reunion, Rose was forcibly reminded that the Doctor has other friends, and told that he couldn't spend the rest of his life with her.  In The Girl In The Fireplace, the Doctor fell in love with another woman (hmm) and abandoned Rose to be with her.  In The Impossible Planet, the Doctor didn't want to share a mortgage with her.  In Fear Her, when Rose said they would never, ever part ways, the Doctor said "Never say never ever."  And look how Army Of Ghosts starts: in a cute flashback to an alien planet (before another episode set in London, thanks a bunch), the Doctor asks Rose how long she's going to stay with him.  Regardless of her answer (which is predictably, "Forever"), why would you even ask that question if you wanted to be BFFs for life?  The Doctor, like it or not, doesn't see this going on forever.

Never mind characters name-dropping "Torchwood".  This is what Series Two has been building up to.  But you can't spend two whole episodes getting rid of one character.  What's it all about?

Well, after moaning in my previous review that it'd be nice to start an episode part-way through the action, that's exactly what happens.  (Yay!)  The Doctor and Rose pop back to the Powell Estate and find that ghosts are turning up every day, and have been completely accepted by society.  This is thoroughly disconcerting, especially for the Doctor, who doesn't like being out of the loop and quickly "reduces it to science".  (A nice point from Jackie, and while this isn't quite what she means, it is rather boring always making ghosts, werewolves and vampires into aliens from planet Zog.  Still, it's better than slapping them all over TV screens, which is what happens here, including dully and improbably a ghost on Eastenders.)

The Doctor is sure there's something sinister at work, and suggests a lot of stuff about psychic links and people like Jackie "willing the ghosts into existence".  There's some lovely stuff when Jackie talks about her old dad, coupled with a twinkle of music from Father's Day (niiiice!), but then all the psychic link stuff turns out to be complete bollards.  Isn't it a bit unusual for the Doctor to make guesses this wide of the mark?  Why are people so convinced that they are ghosts?  I wonder if there was a previous draft where this actually went somewhere, or if it's simply meant to mislead us before the big reveal.  (Something that's doomed to failure, if you take into account Next Time trailers.)

Next Time: Army Of Ghosts.
Featuring... um.  Ghosts?
The ghosts are coming through a rift thanks to Torchwood, a shady organisation who pilfer alien technology to "protect the British Empire".  (With the increasing visibility of nasties like UKIP and the BNP, this seems less like a loopy conspiracy theory, more like a scary alternate future.)  Tracy-Ann Oberman is nicely overconfident as Yvonne Hartman, the head of Torchwood, and sells the fabulously disconcerting idea that they are A) thrilled to meet the Doctor and B) keeping him prisoner.  The scene where he arrives is wonderful: exiting the TARDIS with his arms in the air ("They can shoot me dead but the moral high-ground is mine!"), he is roundly applauded, and he introduces Jackie as his companion, in order to give Rose some time to sneak around and investigate.  This is deftly handled and very funny.  And ooh, look!  Props from old episodes!

There's more intriguing setup here, such as what Torchwood want with the Doctor, what the ghosts are all about, and what the mysterious sphere they're keeping an eye on has to do with any of it.  And the Doctor is brilliant throughout.  (Apart from singing the Ghostbusters theme.  CRINGE.)  There is, admittedly, yet another scene where he implores someone not to do something, only for them to ignore him I'm surprised that never caught on as a meme but then, joy of joys, Russell T Davies inverts it!  In one of his finest moments, Ten just lets Hartman get on with the ghost shift despite his warnings, pulls up a chair and smiles at her.  And it does the trick.  At last, the Doctor stops trying to get his way by just shouting louder.  It's quite a scene, taking a regular annoyance and making it brilliant.  Kudos.

Anyway, Torchwood are using the ghost energy as a reserve for Britain, to avoid depending on the Middle East.  Ho hum: the specifics are instantly forgotten when – dun-dun-DUN! the ghosts turn out to be Cybermen.  Funnily enough, once the cat's out of the bag the ghosts start doing the Cyberman Stomp.  Why weren't they before?  Do Cybermen tip-toe?  (And here's the real poser: there's an "advanced guard" of Cybermen sneaking around Torchwood Tower, converting people.  Setting aside how they've gone unnoticed, if all the other Cybermen are having to fade into our universe as "ghosts", how the hell did this lot get here?  And why don't the rest of them do the same?)

All the intriguing setup, with the ghosts and Torchwood, doesn't amount to much when the Cybermen get here.  And sadly, they are still terminally unimpressive.  With their choreographed stomping, Diet-Exterminate catchphrase and sorry-I-didn't-catch-that mumbly voices, they just don't do anything for me.  Fortunately, something better is on the way.  Although it does instantly make the Cybermen look even worse.

Fun fact: watching this episode is how Neil, and this blog, got its name.
Dalek Sec: "Kneel.  KNEEEEEEEL!"
One of us instinctively said: "YEEEEEEES?"
Remember that pesky sphere?  Well, it's a "void ship", and having broken through from the void between universes, it has allowed the Cybermen in as well.  (We later learn it, the Cybermen and anyone who travels inter-dimensionally is covered in "void stuff", which is just about the worst oxymoron I've ever heard.)  The void ship is carrying Daleks.  Dun-dun-DUN again!  In all seriousness, great cliff-hanger, and a timely reminder of Doctor Who's only A-List monsters.  We get a slightly embarrassing Yo Mamma So Fat contest between the two – "This is not war, this is pest control!" is delivered with that cute little angry-Dalek wobble – and then the answer to a question eight-year-olds like to ask, Who Would Win If Daleks And Cybermen Had A Fight?  Spoiler alert, the answer is Daleks.  Absolutely 100% all of the time, with no Dalek casualties whatsoever.  It actually gets kind of boring, fast, watching Daleks mowing down Cybermen.  I knew they were rubbish, but did we have to rub it in?

Like Torchwood and the ghosts, all the stuff about Cybermen then pales to insignificance when the Daleks turn up.  Sigh.  These episodes do a good job of escalating the threat, but it comes at the price of throwing away everything that came earlier.  Anyway, the Daleks have a Genesis Ark, which – gasp! – contains a lot of Daleks.  Cue Daleks whizzing around the skies, zapping people and mopping the floor with Cybermen.  It's all very spiffy-looking, but it's still not quite as bad as blowing up every country on Earth, which they did in last year's finale.  This one might have Daleks and Cybermen, but try as it might, the scale is nowhere near The Parting Of The Ways.  And as for this year's actual parting of the ways, well...

It's clear from the start that the Doctor is everything Ev.  Ree.  Thing. to Rose.  Narrating, she says: "For the first 19 years of my life, nothing happened.  Nothing at all.  Not ever.  And then I met a man called the Doctor!"  Cheerful, isn't she?  It's not inconceivable that someone would be completely obsessed with traveling with the Doctor, it would be brilliant after all, but other Doctor Who companions have been interesting people before they met him, and have actually gone on to lead lives.  (Although School Reunion places the second bit in some doubt.)  Not Rose.  Life without the Doctor means patiently eating chips until you die of old age.  No wonder she refers to their parting as "how I died".  (Okay, she's literally talking about a misunderstanding in the papers but, really?  Also, what a let-down, after two episodes and a Next Time trailer going on about how she's going to die!)  All this, combined with the little hints throughout the series that Rose is the only one who feels this way, makes me perfectly comfortable – and unfortunately, not sad – seeing her go.

"No, thanks.  Off you pop!"
The Doctor must seal the two universes, handily hoovering all the Daleks and Cybermen back into the void.  (Cancelling out all previous threats, again.  How many people got killed by Daleks and Cybermen?  Any survivors in Torchwood Tower?  Meh!  Throw the switch!)  Everyone (including Pete Tyler, who is now Rose's dad again, sort of) must pick a universe and stay there.  Rose's glassy-eyed, butterfly-net-crazy insistence on leaving Jackie forever, despite the Doctor telling her to go, is not endearing.  (And it's a bit self-involved.  "He does it alone, mum!"  Well, apart from the Sarah Janes of his past.)  He sneaks a dimensional transporter around her neck, and when Rose returns moments later, the Doctor snarls with irritation.  Do people really look at this stuff and think the Doctor wants to stay with her?  Yes, she's in considerable danger if she stays, but they've faced danger before.  He wouldn't send her packing unless he wanted to.

It's open to interpretation why he does this.  To protect her from danger, like in The Parting Of The Ways, or stop her getting too obsessed with him, or save himself the misery of losing her one day.  Perhaps he's thinking of Jackie, after accidentally stealing Rose for a year, and thinks taking her away forever is a step too far.  Whatever the reason, he still makes the choice, even if it doesn't stick right away.  The moments after Rose's return are hideously awkward, and then she has to make a life-or-death choice, and is ripped away from the Doctor forever anyway.  (Well, until the next trip to a parallel universe – something that's clearly not as impossible as he keeps saying.  Why do they bother using words like "impossible" in Doctor Who?)  This doesn't work all that well, as the Doctor is forced to do nothing to save her, which is a bit awkward.  But then Pete Tyler zips back and rescues her, possibly reminding us that there's only room for one father figure in Rose's life.  (Even if this Pete Tyler is a bit rubbish.)

We then settle in for The Big Goodbye, with Daleks and Cybermen long forgotten, and at this point if you're not a fan of Rose, it's just plain not for you.

"Same old life, last of the Time Lords."
"On your own?"
Not pictured: crossed fingers.
She can see the Doctor one last time, as a hologram, somewhere in Norway.  (It's less weird than it sounds.)  Rose convinces her family to drive her there, and they meet on a beach.  Feelings come way out into the open, and a lot of fans cry buckets watching this.  I personally could have done without Rose saying "I love you!"  Did it need vocalising?  Did any of it?  But, if anything, I find the Doctor's reaction even more awkward.

Firstly he tells her that "living a life, day after day" is "the one adventure I can never have."  Maybe underscoring why he and Rose have to part ways?  Except, well, oh no it isn't, you big fibber.  He might not want to settle down and eat chips, but that doesn't mean he can't do it.  Then there's a white lie, nodding when Rose asks if he'll continue traveling on his own.  Yeah, a quick glance at the TARDIS guestbook suggests that's another whopper.  And there's what he actually says to "I love you", which is "Quite right, too."  (Gee, thanks?)  He doesn't get a chance to say the L word back, since the power cuts out, for which I'm grateful.  Even if he did, though, on past form, it wouldn't be entirely honest.

There's so much going on here that I never know what to take away from it.  It bears some hallmarks of a tragic parting of the ways, complete with heroic (if illogical) sacrifice and "I love you".  But there are so many mixed messages underneath you mustn't leave home or you'll hurt your family; you must leave home or your life is meaningless; staying with the Doctor is wonderful; staying with the Doctor will make you "not even human" that Doomsday leaves me cold, even with Murray Gold blaring and oo-ee-ooing like mad.  Some things just don't work.

Still, some things do.  There's some stellar setup and some really neat ideas, even if none of it goes anywhere.  Some people probably really like Cybermen, and we all like Daleks.  It's just a shame that ramming them together makes them both a bit boring.  There's a resoundingly good guest cast (including the scrumptious Freema Agyeman as a doomed Torchwood-er), even though certain cameos – like Mickey and, uh, Jake – don't ultimately add very much.  And hey, some thumping good performances from the leads.  I may not get some of the writing here, but it's hard to fault the actors: Tennant and Piper give it their all.  Like most of Series Two, however, anything built on the Tenth Doctor and Rose is going to be a bit wobbly.  By the end of this, I should be in tears.  Instead, I'm checking my watch.  Fortunately, change is just around the corner.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Here's One We Made Earlier

Doctor Who
Fear Her
Series Two, Episode Eleven

Damn it!  We were that close to getting a Doctor Who episode by Stephen Fry.  When his script (presumably entitled Night Of The Dazzling Special Effects) was deemed too costly and complicated, it was shelved until Series Three.  (Fry never had time for a rewrite, so his episode went unmade.  Boo.)  A replacement was needed, preferably one that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg, so we got Fear Her instead.  Fair enough.  These things happen.

I only mention all this because frankly, it shows.  It doesn't matter that this script wasn't their first choice, and it doesn't matter that it was up against the budget.  What matters is that both of these things are apparent when watching it.

The matte paintings have really gone downhill.
Fear Her takes us to an unremarkable suburb in 2012.  (Back when it was the future.  Bless!)  The Olympic torch is due to pass the end of the street, so everyone's excited.  Also some children have disappeared, so everyone's worried.  The overall mood is pretty weird, especially since the police have apparently given up looking for the missing kids, one of whom goes missing as the episode progresses.  I know people are excited about the Olympics, but there are three missing kids in one street, all gone in one week.  There are Missing posters on a few lamp-posts, but where are the cops?  And the news vans?  Come to think of it, where are the parents?  Shouldn't they be front and centre, and tearing their hair out?  As it is, you could cut the tension with a foam finger.

The Doctor and Rose arrive, tediously clocking the Missing posters the moment they exit the TARDIS.  (It makes me yearn for episodes that begin part-way through.)  The Doctor is intrigued, if a little naive about who's behind it all.  ("What makes you think it's a person?"  You probably don't want to know, Doc.)  Anyway, he's right: the culprit is an alien working through a little girl.  Desperate not to be alone, the Isolus gives Chloe magic powers.  When she draws things she can see (such as children and animals) they are transported into pictures.  When she draws things from scratch (such as scribbles and nightmares), they come into the real world.  It's a bit like Penny Crayon with a split personality, and there's a lot of potential.  It's literally a creative idea.

And it works really well, sometimes.  Take the scribble monster.  Incredibly simple and utterly different.  I like it.  Then there's the drawings: you don't need very much budget for a bunch of doodles, and the sight of one coming to life is both creepy, and simple to animate.  All this is good, especially on a shoestring budget.  But then what?  Only one scribble monster, plus a drawing of Chloe's violent dad that comes to life off-screen.  There are references to drawings that move, but we mostly don't see them.  As for what goes on in the cartoon world, where at one point the Doctor is trapped, forget it.  We just don't go there.

Possibly the best and worst design ever.
There's potential for something genuinely unusual here, and it isn't realised.  What's left is suspiciously like something we've already had.  Do a quick Find-and-Replace, swap "2012" with "1953", "the Olympics" with "the Coronation", "monster that eats children" with "monster that eats faces", "the Doctor disappears" with "Rose disappears", and presto, you've got The Idiot's Lantern, except even less interesting.  Instead of the Wire, which is evil and wants to feed on everyone, we've got the Isolus, which is lonely and just wants to be loved.  Unintentional plagiarism mixed with a complete lack of threat or excitement and you say this episode wasn't their first choice?  Get away!

You might expect the characters to be well developed, given that there's almost nothing else here, but Chloe and her mum are a complete non-starter.  Little girls can be very creepy, a fact utilised by a lot of horror movies, but Chloe just sits there drawing things and talking in the third person.  For "alien menace", read "dodgy Batman impression".  Her mum's a fascinating masterclass in How Not To Be A Parent, as she knows Chloe's responsible for the missing children and does nothing about it, she's asked not to leave Chloe alone and instantly forgets, and she freely admits that when her abusive husband was still alive, "Chloe always got the worst of it".  Best Mum Ever!  As for the supporting cast, the neighbours all sound like extras in a car insurance advert.  No wonder I want to know where the missing kids have been going.  It's got to be more interesting than here.

Amazingly, Fear Her does actually get worse.  Left alone with some colouring pencils and Sky News (Best Mum Ever!), Chloe proceeds to draw everyone in the Olympic Stadium.  This would be shocking if it wasn't so hilariously executed: the tragedy hits home when Huw Edwards notices Newsreader Bob has gone.  "Bob?  Not you too, Bob!"  Later, with the Doctor gone, Rose realises two things are required to make the Isolus leave: heat and love.  Huw, moving on instantly from the 80,000 people who just disappeared, lets us know that the torch is "a beacon of hope, and fortitude and courage, and it's a beacon of love!"  So stop laughing! Rose chucks the pod in the Olympic torch, and that's that.

Let's face it, being in Doctor Who makes him this happy every week.
There's a last ditch attempt to scare the audience, with the unseen Dad Of Doom coming back to life, but the power of love is enough to sort that out as well.  (Oh, goodie.)  But then, disaster!  The torch bearer collapses, prompting Huw to ask "Does this mean the Olympic dream is dead?", but I said stop laughing! the Doctor turns up, grabs the Olympic torch and personally delivers it to the stadium.  Huw, continuing heroically with the worst dialogue in the episode, helpfully tells us "He's carrying the flame and no one wants to stop him!"  And then, "It's more than a flame now, Bob!  It's heat and light, and it's hope, and it's courage, and it's love!"  This is hilarious, mostly because it's the cherry on a cake of sheer saccharine awfulness, and partly because the Opening Ceremony unavoidably looks so much worse than it did in real life.  (If you can't afford monsters, you can't afford the Olympics.  What were they thinking?)  By the end of the episode, I'd sprained a cringe muscle.

Fear Her gets a lot of flak from Doctor Who fans, possibly even more than Love & Monsters.  (Which as we've established, really doesn't deserve it.)  This time, I can understand why: it's boring, unoriginal and cringe-worthy.  But there are plus points, which prevent it from being Worst Episode Ever material, despite its reputation.  Here there are.  Have a pad and pencil ready.

First, there's the scribble monster.  Good idea, well-executed.  Second, there's a (deliberately) hilarious bit where the TARDIS lands the wrong way round it's funny, and long overdue.  But the big plus, for me, is David Tennant.  The Doctor's the best thing here, for once.  He's funny ("I'm being facetious.  There's no call for it"), caring ("Can you help?"  "Yes I can!"), but best of all, slightly odd.  Fear Her's full of strange little Doctor moments, where he sniffs things, makes jokes to himself, starts eating other people's marmalade, or makes a throwaway reference to his family, all of which reminds us (albeit very gently) that the Doctor isn't quite normal.  It's not massively important, but it makes a difference to me, especially where this Doctor – who often blends too much into the background – is concerned.  I'd genuinely watch Fear Her again, just to watch what he's doing.

So there we go.  It's not much, but it's not all bad.  Honest.

Monday, 20 January 2014

And Now For Something Completely Different

Doctor Who
Love & Monsters
Series Two, Episode Ten

Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Coming right after two of the scariest, thinkiest episodes of Doctor Who ever, Love & Monsters was bound to jar a bit.  It's easily the oddest episode so far, with a comedic narrator, flashbacks, Peter Kay, humour that lampoons a few things and outright spoofs others, deaths that are played for laughs and deaths that aren't, and to top it all, almost no Doctor and Rose.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, many fans hate it with a passion.  Is it really that bad?

"Oh God, he's doing that one!
Yes it's that bad!  Quick, switch it off!"
- Many Fans
As the show's first Doctor-lite episode, it's an uphill struggle just to keep the audience interested.  Filling the Main Character's parking space is Elton, played by Marc Warren.  He's an average man, likeable if a bit pathetic, whose life is tangled up with the Doctor.  He's seen rampaging shop window dummies, a spaceship crashing into Big Ben, and been woken up by another one on Christmas Day (no doubt noticing a third of the population standing on the rooftops).  He even saw the Doctor once, when he was little.  When you think about it, Doctor Who has a cast of thousands all like Elton, and we never get to hear from them.  It's not such a bad idea to meet one of them.

Russell T Davies set up in his first episode that people have noticed the Doctor.  Elton's not alone, so he forms a group called LINDA to investigate the Doctor, the TARDIS and Rose.  This is an obvious allusion to Doctor Who fandom, and it's one of the main reasons people seem to hate Love & Monsters.  The Guardian called it "a parody of Doctor Who fans".  Okay, let's look at LINDA: three women and two men of varying ages, who get together to discuss sightings and theories.  So far, so internet forum.  But there's more to them.  They share other interests, discover things in common and become good friends, in some cases more than that.  The Doctor is what got them all together, but their lives don't begin and end on that one subject.  That's a positive image of fandom.  If anything, Davies has sugar-coated it.  (These guys don't argue half as much as the real thing.)

So, what about Elton?  Marc Warren's narration borders on a Nick-Hornby-epiphany at times (as Mitchell and Webb put it, "All this time that I thought my life was A, it was actually B!"), but it's creatively done, popping backwards and forwards and taking pot shots at narration in general.  It's different, and I like it; anything that'll shake up the Doctor Who formula ought to be worth trying once.  But Elton's story isn't all unreliable-narrator jokes.  He strikes up a lovely rapport with fellow Doctor-spotter Ursula (the wonderful Shirley Henderson), and the mystery of what happened when he was little, when the Doctor came to visit, is neatly and poignantly done.  The final reveal, coupled with a montage of his mum, is worth waiting for.

This bit's good, so I'm not doing a funny caption.
"You do funny captions?"
Shut up!
The good bits don't begin and end with Elton, either.  When LINDA is effortlessly taken over by Victor Kennedy, a man determined to find the Doctor, he encourages Elton to investigate Jackie Tyler.  We're treated to a few days in the life of Rose's stuck-at-home mum, and it's a tour de force for Camilla Coduri.  You'd expect her to flirt when a man pays her attention, and she does – and then some – but there are moments of quiet sadness and real determination peeking through Jackie's story, especially when she thinks Elton has sinister intentions for Rose and the Doctor.  Jackie isn't a lot of people's favourite character (she certainly isn't mine), but Love & Monsters shows how far she's come.  She's a three-dimensional person, another great example (besides Elton) of people who orbit around the Doctor, and the toll that takes.

When you really look, there's a great deal to like about Love & Monsters.  While we're being honest, I even like Peter Kay.  It's tempting to cry "Stunt casting!", something that's rarely helped Doctor Who in the past: Joan Sims, Richard Briers, Ken Dodd and Hale & Pace all appeared on the show in the late '80s, and all of them were rather conspicuous.  Nowadays they're synonymous with its decline.  But Victor Kennedy is a nicely judged character, sinister and funny, with a lot of witty lines such as "Oh, I could kiss you!  Except I can't, of course.  My exzeema."  Take a breather, fandom: it's okay for Doctor Who to be funny, or even silly, sometimes.

Where Love & Monsters falls down – and I admit, it falls down quite hard – is how funny and how silly.  Russell T Davies has an unusual grasp of tone, loving to juxtapose horrible moments against light-hearted ones.  He's been doing that since Day #1, as per my Rose review: "Davies obviously feels that silliness makes the horror more horrific.  He’s partly right.  Trouble is, it also makes the horror feel a bit random."  A good example is the way Victor murders members of LINDA.  Comically detaining one of them after the others have left, we follow the group outside and hear a scream.  (Curiously, they don't notice this.)  It later turns out they've been absorbed by Kennedy, in reality an alien, and they're doomed to exist as faces growing out of his body.  One of them protrudes from his bottom.

It's one thing to ask us to feel bad about this, another thing entirely to ask us to laugh about it afterwards.  When Ursula is absorbed, she begs Elton not to touch her lest he gets absorbed as well.  Then Elton begs Kennedy to let them go, but it's too late.  Shortly afterwards, with nothing left to live for, Elton is content to let Victor kill him.  All very grim and a bit upsetting, except ho, ho!  Remember, there's a face coming out of his bum!

There's no way around it.  The Abzorbaloff is horrible.  Scroll up to the top of the page and take a good, long look.  Designed by a nine-year-old for Blue Peter, it's actually a terrifying concept, and a good design, but oscillating between terrifying and ridiculous was never going to work.  The sight of a fat-suited Peter Kay snarling and rampaging after Elton is like seeing through the eyes of someone who hates Doctor Who.  It's heart-freezingly naff, and unlike Victor, utterly misjudged.  Switching Peter Kay into his natural Bolton accent makes it even sillier.  When the Doctor and Rose turn up (so Rose can chastise Elton for upsetting her mum – something Rose has never done, obviously), pointing out that he looks a bit like a Slitheen isn't just lazy. (Oh look, green!  Did I mention I invented the Slitheen?)  It also turns an already silly monster into a spoof of one we've already had.  I actually quite like the "What's the twin planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius?" joke, but that doesn't stop it sounding like part of a Comic Relief skit.

INT: Russell T Davies's writing room.
"Of course!  That's the perfect ending!
They'll LOVE it!"
And this isn't even the worst bit, though by itself the Abzorbaloff sequence is nearly enough to undo what works about the episode.  Capping it off is the fate of Ursula.  The Doctor, using his "magic wand" (which is a pretty solid nickname for the sonic screwdriver) manages to resurrect Ursula.  But only her face.  Elton scrapes her off the pavement and, we are told, lives happily ever after with a talking paving slab.  Thanks to the Doctor, Ursula gets to live as a disembodied face, Elton has a loved one he can never show to anyone, and – you knew this bit was coming – it's suggested the two of them "have a bit of a love life".  Incidentally, all this happens right after the sad montage about Elton's mum.  Uh, too soon maybe?

A better example of mixing something horrible with something ridiculous, you will not find in this episode.  In his summary at the end, Elton (quoting Stephen King) suggests that "salvation and damnation are the same thing".  Following that thread, Love & Monsters seems to think that you can jumble up any two emotions and just call it juxtaposition.  In reality, suggesting that Ursula's future as an oral-sex-paving-slab is a Happy Ending isn't quirky, it's wrong.

It's a shame when five terrible minutes threaten to overwrite forty good ones.  Love & Monsters really is worth recommending for the most part: a departure from the norm that says a few very thoughtful things about the people in the Doctor's life, or at least on his periphery, and it's funny, if trying a bit too hard sometimes, as well as emotional.  It's not a bad episode, it's just different.  And then you get to the clusterbomb ending which I can't defend at all.  What can I say?  Unfortunately for Love & Monsters, sometimes you can't help remembering the bad jokes better than the good ones.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Doctor Beats The Devil

Doctor Who
The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit
Series Two, Episodes Eight and Nine

Back in 2005, few would have guessed Doctor Who could be a runaway success.  (Not even Russell T Davies, who said he would have been happy just to get 13 new episodes made.)  With no desire to fix what ain't broke, Series Two does a lot the same as Series One: a silly first episode to ease you in, a trip to the past to meet a famous person, a trip to the future to go "Ooh!", a wacky two-parter with playground-friendly monsters, and later, an Actually Good Properly Scary Two-Parter.  The Empty Child had brilliant monsters, a memorable setting and neat writing.  Your move, Series Two.

The Impossible Planet aims to unsettle you right from the start.  We're on an alien planet, for real this time.  The TARDIS doesn't want to land.  The Doctor and Rose emerge in full smug mode, but they're out of their element.  There's spooky writing the TARDIS can't translate, odd-looking aliens who seem intent on murdering them as soon as they arrive (foreshadowing!), and they're on a planet perilously orbiting a black hole.  At any moment they could all be killed.  The whole setup radiates doom and hopelessness, perfect for wiping the smug grins off the Doctor and Rose's chops.  Before you know it, the TARDIS falls down a bottomless pit.  Even the sonic screwdriver won't get him out of this one.  (And he doesn't use it once!)

Okay, he points with it.  Once.  Happy now?
At every turn, the Doctor and Rose are taken out of their comfort zone.  This is a great way to let us know we're in serious trouble, and it puts an interesting strain on their relationship.  The Doctor says the TARDIS is "all I've got, literally the only thing!" we don't see Rose's reaction, but you can bet she's not happy to hear that.  Later, when he's faced with a normal life and getting a job, joking slightly, the Doctor recoils at the thought of sharing a mortgage with her.  A lot of fans like to rhapsodize about the Tenth Doctor's love for Rose, but take a look here.  It's obvious she's got it bad for him, as she's quite unfazed about being stranded with him.  ("Everyone leaves home in the end.")  And he doesn't mind in the slightest, but take away the TARDIS and he's not so sure.  Meanwhile, dangling over a precipice without Rose, he's comfortable making a semi-romantic declaration but then he's got a 50% chance of falling to his death, and he'll probably never see Rose again.  With no domestic nightmare ahead of him and no Rose to hear it, suddenly he can say what he likes.  (And he doesn't say he loves her.  "She knows" could refer to their friendship.  Or to him being the one who finished off the biscuits.)

This doesn't say anything nice about the Doctor, or specifically, this Doctor.  (And fair enough.  Doctor Who shouldn't only say nice things about its characters.)  But when the Third Doctor was exiled to Earth, losing his TARDIS didn't make him any less brilliant or interesting.  Minus his motor, the Tenth Doctor is just another bloke, with prospects amounting to a lift home and a job in the laundry.  Despite all that's good in this episode, and there is a lot, a few of the things I really don't like about the Tenth Doctor are here.  He's a hugger.  He can make Eastenders references.  On two occasions, he shouts for someone's attention and it doesn't work.  David Tennant does a lot of great work I'll get to that but this guy's not my Doctor.  He's just too normal.  (Although saying that, the mortgage scene nicely underscores the ways he isn't human.  Tennant and Piper get across all that intricate awkwardness fabulously.)

Looking on the bright side, it's good to see the Doctor vulnerable.  The situation is scarier if he's not in control, and for once his "SPEAK TO ME-AH!" routine fits the story.  He doesn't know what he's up against, and he's not calling the shots.  The Doctor (and Doctor Who) is generally atheist, so being faced with The Beast Commonly Known As Satan is terrifying more for what it implies than what the monster does.  The Doctor's understanding (and command) of the universe is shaken.  Though not that much.  Everyone in this ponders the Devil's existence.  No one asks about God...

"I told you, I don't do domestics!
Did you tape Eastenders?"
That's probably enough on character development and (blimey!) theology.  What about the scary?  Well as is often the case with two-parters, most of the really creepy stuff is in the first part, when we're setting up the threat.  Take the scene where archaeologist Toby is confronted with a voice just a voice, creeping up behind him, urging him not to turn around.  It's archetypal nightmare-fodder, and hooray, they don't over-do it.  (The voice is Gabriel Woolfe: Sutekh in fan-favourite, Pyramids Of Mars.  Insert fan-theories here!)  Even better is the bit where a possessed Toby stands on the planet's airless surface just stands, grinning, looking at someone through the glass.  There's something deeply wrong about that image, and that wrongness is scarier than any CGI critter.  It feels like a nightmare.  There are other disconcerting non sequiturs, like the writing that won't translate and a computer voice making random pronouncements, which constantly work at one's nerves.  The whole thing drips with atmosphere.

And then you've got the Ood, monsters that work on many levels.  Hideous but friendly, servile and happy to be exploited, they cause instant discomfort for Rose, who instinctively tries to help the oppressed.  (She's not the only one: there are apparently Friends Of The Ood, much to other people's annoyance.)  Is it right that they want to serve?  Is it our place to tell them it isn't?  Is it wrong to enjoy their services?  I don't know, and that's the point: there's food (or possibly, Ood?) for thought, something you rarely get with monsters in Doctor Who.  Still, happy slaves or not, they're an obvious time-bomb.  At some point, we know it will go off.

They add loads to the already uneasy atmosphere, subtly at first when their translators go wrong and they say evil things.  (This is scary and hilarious.)  When they're controlled by The Creature Sometimes Nicknamed Lucifer, they become slightly more conventional things-that-will-come-and-get-you, which is effective, if a bit standard.  (Using their translator balls as weapons is a bit desperate, and the crawling-through-air-vents stuff is a bit too much of an Aliens rip-off.)  But in the end the Doctor's sad that he can't save them, and quite right; they are accorded some respect in death.  Right to the end, the whole Ood situation is refreshingly complex.  (As for the Doctor failing to rescue them, "I didn't have time" seems a pretty lousy excuse when you have a time machine.  Just sayin'.)

"I told you, I can't go back and rescue people!
But I can rescue one person.
And tow spaceships."
The supporting cast are mostly well rounded, which is just as well as the episode often strays away from the Doctor.  (Hey ho.)  The highlight is probably Shaun Parkes (David Tennant's Casanova co-star) as the captain.  Lacking any confidence and quietly expecting he'll get everyone killed, he feels reassuringly real.  So does Ida, a scientist who's as keen as the Doctor to explore dangerous places (and makes a less irritating companion than Rose).  Will Thorpe is brilliant as the possessed-or-is-he? Toby Zed.  The rest vary from Ood-fodder to ever-so-slightly hammy Ronny Jhutti labours most of his lines but the deaths generally hit home.  (And unlike The Empty Child, they stay dead.)

It's probably an important episode for Rose, since she defeats The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (Of Darkness), but I really struggle to see past how much I don't like her.  Some of this is deliberate: her usual inappropriately-timed jokes fall on deaf ears, so she stops making them.  (More comfort-zone-removal.)  Some of it may not be deliberate: her various attempts to empathise with the Ood, all very companion-like and sweet in theory, but... doesn't quite work.  "We have nothing else in life."  "Yeah, well I used to think like that."  Really?  I know she prefers traveling in the TARDIS to working in a shop and eating chips, but that's taking the piss.  She's meant to be caring, but it comes across more like Everything Is About Me.  No wonder the Doctor would rather jump in a bottomless pit than share a mortgage.

Oh yeah, him.  David Tennant.  Not my Doctor as I've said, but he puts in his usual (enormous) effort and is utterly watchable at all times.  That's not something to sniff at: he spends a good five minutes talking to a green screen at the end, and manages to keep it genuinely exciting.  But he's even better when he lays off the shouty stuff.  His quiet ponderings about the universe and the Devil, sometimes talking to Ida and sometimes to no one, are among the most gripping moments here.  It's not often you see the Doctor really wonder about the world, and that's at the heart of these episodes, and what makes them excellent.  Enjoy it while it lasts: as much as I loved seeing Ten and Rose knocked off their pedestal, they're right back on it at the end.  "The stuff of legend", if they do say so themselves.

The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit do what's expected, i.e. scaring the pants off you.  But they don't stop there, sneaking in some interesting ideas on slavery, and a few genuinely interesting questions about the nature of evil.  Not bad for an old show about rubber monsters and cliff-hangers.  There are still a couple of hiccups, like why the Beast is imprisoned at all when chucking him in the black hole carries no consequences, and there's the hilarious scene where Ida says "How can this planet have a name?" and then tells us its name.  But, that's all nit-pickery.  In many ways, this is as good as it gets.