Tuesday, 29 July 2014


Doctor Who
Silence In The Library and Forest Of The Dead
Series Four, Episodes Eight and Nine

When you watch something like Doctor Who, which usually has some element of mystery, it's inevitably going to lose something on repeat viewings.  Silence In The Library is no exception: the plot has a couple of big surprises and on the second go, they're blown, so the rest of it has to keep your interest.  But that's just telly for you (or rather, DVDs), so I try to approach each episode with a fresh(ish) perspective, forgetting my old opinions as best I can and pretending it's all new.  When the "Tada!" moments roll around, I can vaguely recall any surprise I felt the first time, even if I can't quite repeat it.


It begins.
This isn't just a story about monsters invading a library.  It's the first appearance of River Song, a time-traveller the Doctor hasn't met yet, who subsequently appeared in twelve episodes, spanning four years.  Circa 2013 she's an integral part of who the Doctor is, but with her story running in (vaguely) reverse order, it ends here, where it started.  There's no way to "forget" the emotional context they added later, which of course was the plan.  This story worked great in 2008, but after watching River's (not to mention the Doctor's) story play out over years, it's on another level entirely.  Talk about planning ahead.

It's fitting that these episodes aired just after Steven Moffat was named as the next showrunner.  On the one hand you've got River, a walking statement of intent (full of references to adventures that hadn't been written yet), and on the other, there's a bunch of ideas you've already heard, acutely remixed.  It's Moffat's Greatest Hits – coming soon, all this and more!

First and foremost, a monster that taps into a fundamental childhood fear: the dark.  The Vashta Nerada are swarms of little things that hunt in shadows.  (They're also "the dust in sunbeams".  Sweet dreams.)  Cross shadows and die, basically.  This is a superb idea on paper which, let's face it, recalls the Weeping Angels.  (Blinking is still not recommended.)  But they suffer in execution, because do you have any idea how many shadows there are around you at all times?  Never mind on TV, where lighting is a full-time profession, and in a story set in a predominantly dark building.  "Count the shadows," says the Doctor, but I advise you not to bother.  The characters cross shadows.  They're covered in shadows.  They stand in shadows, looking in terror at other shadows.  The whole thing is hilariously unworkable.

The script does its best to wriggle around their limitations, but those are never exactly clear.  Since they're not really shadows (you heard the bit about sunbeams, right?), why can't they just swarm all over everybody?  Soon, they start getting into people's spacesuits, ergo Vashta Nerada zombies.  Okay, bring on the toy sales, but why bother doing the easy-to-run-away-from Shaun Of The Dead shuffle?  Why not just shadow the hell out of every room they're in?  Nothing stops them in the long run – for instance, space helmets, but people keep using them anyway, while the Vashta Nerada dither arbitrarily over how long to wait for dinner.  Again they are like Moffat's Angels: Unstoppable, But Thankfully Not Trying Too Hard.

It's a bloody good thing they're so easy to reason with.  The Doctor only has to mention his name (and accompanying rep) to earn a day's escape time for everyone on the planet.  Problem (instantly) solved, shame he didn't come up with it earlier.  I wonder if they will regret it when they realise there's nothing left to eat.  (Then again, what have they been eating for the past hundred years?)

The nodes should be creepy, but honestly, they're just funny.
They look like Haribo eggs.  Also Catherine Tate looks like
she's about to corpse.  And hang on, how's her face on there?
She's still got it at the end.
But wait, back up: I've missed a Moffat's-Greatest-Hit!  When a space-suited person dies, their consciousness lingers, or "ghosts", which gives the monsters another trope to frighten us with, the repetitive catchphrase.  "Are you my mummy?"  Er, better make that: "Who turned out the lights?"  This works reasonably well (although it is a bit annoying and seriously, I saw The Empty Child already), but then, it's more melancholy than scary.  It's a sign that someone has died, regardless of whether they've also turned into something scary, and Moffat lets that sink in.  Which brings us back to the Library, and the general tone of the story, which is one of loss.

The Library covers an entire planet, and it's empty.  The Doctor receives a "cry for help" on the psychic paper.  (We know it does text messages, god knows how.)  A team of archaeologists arrives, including the mysterious River Song.  (She sent the message – with a kiss!)  Soon it's a case of dodge-the-Vashta-Nerada (and we know how well that works), but there's more going on here.  Somewhere, a little girl watches the Library in her dreams, and on television.  There's a world out there, and it has something to do with the 4,000 mysteriously missing book-lovers, who've all been "saved" somehow.  Then, in a terrifying moment where a companion actually screams (they never proper scream any more), Donna is teleported to the TARDIS... but it goes wrong, and she vanishes.  "Donna Noble has been saved," says the little girl.

All that little-girl stuff is fabulously disconcerting, especially the way it's slightly out of sequence with the rest of the episode.  Moffat plays with time here, and it's fun to keep up.  Of course, that's nothing to Forest Of The Dead when we catch up with Donna.  Marooned in a suburban existence somewhere, she's cared for by Dr Moon (the benevolent Colin Salmon) and meets a man, Lee.  But she can't help noticing how time keeps skipping.  Almost like it's being edited together.  This is a brilliant way to evoke a dream-world, and it's downright ingenious to use editing, which we mostly take for granted, as a part of the story.

On the surface, all of this is just something to keep Donna busy while the Doctor gets on with the (more pivotal) River Song plot.  But it's a great window into Donna's mind.  She wants a normal life and a family, and she's happy, but she instinctively knows something's wrong.  (Shades of The Matrix here, thankfully no bullet time.)  Still, even when she finds out the truth, she doesn't want to lose her "children".  The moment she does – they vanish in a well-edited instant – is a brutal, nightmarish horror.  We don't know these kids, and we know they're not "real", but Catherine Tate still makes their loss feel genuine.  (And once again, can she scream!)

The Library was built by this guy's grandfather for his youngest daughter,
to house her dying mind and give her books to read.  But the Library
was abandoned 100 years ago.  How old is this guy?
Of course, it turns out the little girl is the Library's central computer.  This returns us to the issue of "Tada" moments and how they work in hindsight; I can't remember how obvious this one was, but seeing the girl double as a floating security camera is a pretty big hint, and that's fairly early on.  Similarly, "saved" is pretty easy to work out.  We're a computer savvy bunch, are we not?  What does "saved" usually mean, if not something to do with hard drives?  If you've seen an episode or two of Star Trek – and we know they have, what with mind melds and warp drives – you'll probably figure out what that's got to do with teleporters as well.  (Divert all power to the pattern buffer, Cap'n!)

Some of the story's "big" reveals seem a little dragged out, especially when you're ahead of the game.  See also the Vashta Nerada telling the Doctor their forests are located in the Library, to his utter bewilderment.  You'll be screaming "BOOKS ARE MADE OF PAPER YOU MORON" for ages before he finally gets the message.  (Incidentally, stop shouting at the TV, he can't hear you.  Weirdo.)

Once the cat's out of the bag about the Library "saving" people, the plot really begins to wobble.  The Vashta Nerada must have been losing Steven Moffat's interest, because he tosses in a 20-minute countdown-to-self-destruct, pretty much for the hell of it.  (Seriously?  A self-destructing library?)  With the Vashta Nerada sent packing ("Please stop."  "No."  "I'm the Doctor."  "Okay then."), it's now just an issue of hoiking people out of the computer.  Cue DavidTennanttalkingreallyfastbecauseplot, and the revelation that there isn't enough memory to make this happen, so the Doctor must plug himself into the machine to add another brainsworth of RAM, all before the place explodes (which they can't stop because um).  River can't let him do this – it would cancel out all their subsequent adventures – so she takes his place.

This is somewhat undermined by not making any sense.  If a computer the size of a planet's core does not have enough memory to do the job, what difference can a brain make?  But that doesn't stop it being an incredible, horrible moment.  This is River Song, a character I've known for years, killing herself to save a Doctor who doesn't know her.  From a 2008 perspective, it's a powerful reminder that the Doctor has a future he is powerless to prevent.  Literally – he's handcuffed in place.  We don't see River's death, but the Doctor's reaction is enough to hit home the tragedy of what just happened.  From a 2014 perspective, there's an extra emotional layer, and Alex Kingston plays it all just ambiguous enough that it totally fits.  It's a gut-punching conclusion to the story they went on to tell, woolly and all-over-the-place as that was.  It's one of Steven Moffat's best time travel ideas, and it's just getting better with age.

River is, of course, another Moffat trope: he toyed with "meeting people in the wrong order" back in Blink, but it's the whole show this time, and it's a dazzling reminder that the Doctor is a time traveller, and time travel is complicated.  It's great to actually think about that once in a while, rather than just using the TARDIS as a taxi to this week's plot.  Kingston makes us believe she knows him.  David Tennant sells the horror of an omniscient man not knowing how it ends, particularly in the moment where she whispers his name.  It's a brilliant performance from both of them.

I'm often underwhelmed by Ten, but this whole sequence
is made of wow.
And of course, the Doctor loses somebody he's only just met – big whoop, happens all the time, but this time it works.  It's not a direct callback to The Girl In The Fireplace, where he met a woman in the wrong order and then bittersweetly lost her, but there are similarities.  Frankly, I didn't care when Reinette died.  Who?  This time, not knowing what he's lost is part of the tragedy.

Donna has a similar, gruelling experience.  When both characters stand around at the end watching the happy survivors teleport to safety, it feels as if something real and meaningful has been gained and lost in the space of these episodes.  That's a big deal for Doctor Who, which often has to rush its emotional journeys.  While Moffat cannot ultimately resist bringing back River and her co-workers in the Library world – "Everybody lives!", which just so happens to be another of his little storytelling habits – it doesn't make much difference to the Doctor or Donna.  It's a Happy Ending, but the emotional thud is left reassuringly in place.  Phew.  (And it's not that happy for River, though this may not have occurred to Moffat: she's spending eternity with her not-so-scintillating colleagues, including the one nobody liked.  Oh well, at least their boss isn't invited.)

There's a lot of familiar stuff here, and not all of it works, but more important are the big ideas: there's change and heartbreak.  And let's not forget the usual witty, Moffaty dialogue, subsequently batted into the stratosphere by Tennant, Tate and everyone else.  I can't pick a favourite.  There's: "Oh, you're not, are you?  Tell me you're not archaeologists."  "Got a problem with archaeologists?"  "I'm a time traveller, I point and laugh at archaeologists."  And there's: "Sonic it!  Use the thingy!"  "I CAN'T, IT'S WOOD."  "What, it doesn't do WOOD?"  And also: "Oh, I'm Pretty Boy?"  "YES.  Ooh, that came out a bit quick."  But then: "Doctor, we haven't got any helmets."  "Yeah, but we're safe anyway."  "How are we safe?"  "We're not, that was a clever lie to shut you up."  The cast is small, and the story very melancholy, but they all have their funny moments.  Despite the buckets of Time Traveler's Wife pathos, River is foremost among them.  "Professor Song, why am I the only one wearing my helmet?"  "I don't fancy you."

It's a bit of a mixed bag.  Nonetheless, where it's good, it's amazing.  Coming soon...

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Pluck Tales

Doctor Who
The Unicorn And The Wasp
Series Four, Episode Seven

I say, what's this?  A trip back in time to meet a famous person, written by Gareth Roberts?  Goodness me.  What will they think of next?

Working title:
The Two Unconnected Plot Elements.
Stop me if you've heard this one.  The Doctor and Rose Martha Donna arrive in Victorian England Victorian Scotland Elizabethan England 1920s England, where they immediately meet Charles Dickens Queen Victoria William Shakespeare Agatha Christie.  Rose Martha Donna says things like "och aye" "verily, forsooth" "top hole", the Doctor says "Don't do that".  He then tells Charles Dickens William Shakespeare Agatha Christie how great he she is, because he's a massive fan and coincidentally he she is having a crisis, so cheers for that.  William Agatha overhears a few references to his her later works, and of course he she will end up using those.  But there's a famous mystery looming: Queen Victoria kept refining the Koh-i-Noor William Shakespeare wrote an unperformed play called Love's Labours Won Agatha Christie went missing for a week.  This is inexorably tied to the sudden appearance of ghosts werewolves witches a giant wasp, for which there is a scientific explanation.  Sure enough, the witches the giant wasp is directly inspired by the work of Shakespeare Christie, because he she is the most human human who ever lived the greatest mind ever.  To prove the point, our heroes tell Dickens Shakespeare Christie his her work will live on forever.

The Unicorn And The Wasp takes unoriginality to very nearly impressive lengths.  Everything is as knowingly expected as in one of those audience-participation Sound Of Music things; they even joke about the likelihood of meeting Charles Dickens and some ghosts at Christmas.  Not content with a homage, the plot plainly revolves around the seen-it-all-before-ness of a Cluedo murder mystery.  (As for the monster's fixation on Christie's books, could this be the J.K. Rowling episode that never was?)  Granted, there is a certain amount of fun to be had waiting for the inevitable references and "Don't do that"s, but all of that's a poor substitute for something new.  This is Doctor Who.  They could do "something new" every week.  Why don't they?

And yet...

Maybe I'm just punch-drunk from the universe-bending weight of derivativeness on display (derivativity?), but The Unicorn And The Wasp works.  It's so aware of its trappings that, mostly free from the burden of making anything up, all its energy goes on the delivery.  The cast, the direction and the writing all add tons of pluck; the thing zips along like a ruthlessly-targeted spoof.

A fair amount of its success rests on the TARDIS crew.  We all know Catherine Tate is a naturally funny person, and that frequently peeks out of her performance as Donna, but it's by no means all there is to her – and quite right, since she's a proper actress and everything.  But The Unicorn And The Wasp finally allows her to go straight for laughs and, bouncing off David Tennant who's happily at home here, it's like The David and Catherine Show.  I'd watch that!

Totally settled into her TARDIS life, Donna is on appallingly good form from the start.  "You can tell what year it is just by smelling?"  "Oh yeah."  "Or, maybe that big vintage car coming up the drive gave it away?"  She also offers pithy put-downs under her breath.  "He snatched Lady Babbington's pearls right from under her nose!"  "Funny place to wear pearls."  And she makes wry comments on the events around her, such as when she notices a clandestine love affair between two men.  "Typical.  All the decent men are on the other bus."  The dialogue is just sublime.  That's one of the pluses of comedy, and one of the reasons it's underrated in Doctor Who: in comedy it is often more important not to put a word out of place.  And Donna's reactions throughout – spotting the giant wasp, "I don't mean it's big!", and munching food excitedly as the Doctor and Agatha make their accusations – make the whole episode that much funnier.

"So the killer does all the murders with what's to hand?  Pipes, statues, knives?"
"Yep.  They're all totally Agatha Christie references.  Go me."
"Okay.  So... why make the killer a giant wasp, then?"
Donna also makes the Tenth Doctor more enjoyable by proxy, as ever, but Tennant's no slacker at comedy.  His dialogue's just as spiffy: "Inspector Smith, Scotland Yard.  Miss Noble is the plucky young girl who helps me out."  And he has a bundle of really funny inflections, like coming across a clue and shouting "MAIDEN!" excitedly, but still having no idea what it means.  The scene where he gets poisoned might be a direct yoink from Young Frankenstein ("HARVEY WALLBANGER?"), but they both sell it.  It's a good episode for the Doctor overall, as he's simultaneously humbled (because it's a murder mystery and he's no Agatha Christie, even with the psychic paper), and clever (because he's the Doctor and he knows what kind of alien we're dealing with).  He plays off of Fenella Woolgar's Christie beautifully.  (More on her in a minute.)

The supporting cast have plenty of moments to shine.  In particular, the alibis scene with all the flashbacks: a moment where the Colonel gets distracted and has a flashback within a flashback is a particular highlight.  But then, this is an episode about Agatha Christie, and much rests on getting her right.  Although I've seen lots of things inspired by her work, I've never read or seen any of her actual stuff – so all the references to "sparkling cyanide," "the moving finger points", "this crooked house" and so forth made as much sense to me as accidentally switching channels.  However, Fenella Woolgar gives a delicately troubled-yet-excitable performance as Christie.  She radiates intelligence and she seems real.  Dean Lennox Kelly's cartoony William Shakespeare is all but forgotten.

Agatha's story is reasonably well handled (albeit with requisite David-Tennant-gabbling-to-fill-the-gaps at the end), but it's not much of a murder mystery.  Let's face it, you're never going to guess that someone once had a love affair with a giant wasp.  Just by virtue of being Doctor Who this flunks the rules of a proper whodunit – which Agatha seems to recognise, as she is flummoxed by the sci-fi elements.  But hey, I've read some Sherlock Holmes stories that relied on somewhat random (and very detailed) character histories being divulged right at the end, so there's some precedent here.  Arguably.  The whole "accusing parlor" scene is a total showstopper, regardless, and I enjoyed the sad story lovingly unspooled at the end of it.  Like the rest of the episode, it's all sumptuously directed and pretty to look at.

I should probably mention the giant wasp.  So: that's a bit random, isn't it?  I'm guessing it has something to do with Agatha Christie?  (The book cover at the end.)  The CGI's very good and, though your mileage may vary, I thought the transformations of the human character into their wasp form (I won't say who it is!), complete with going "zzz" at the end of certain words, though risky, totally worked.  It's not as if it's the silliest thing here.  Wasps don't exactly follow on from the likes of ghosts, werewolves and witches (were zombies unavailable?), but I'd be barking mad to complain about something being different for once, however picked-out-of-a-hat it feels.

I'm not sure how many more times Doctor Who can get away with plots that resemble Madlibs, especially with this one scraping the wallpaper from the (now crumbling) fourth wall.  For now, it only matters that the formula is put entertainingly to work.  It's how you tell 'em, and The Unicorn And The Wasp ought to elicit no complaints in that department.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

I Was Born Yesterday

Doctor Who
The Doctor's Daughter
Series Four, Episode Six

The Doctor's Daughter.  There's no ignoring that title: it's like a workplace-water-cooler-seeking-missile, and it's a shrewd way to get people to tune in next week.  Of course it's one thing to slap a sensationalist title on an episode, and another to actually deliver what it's offering.  The Doctor's Daughter, for pete's sake, and all that implies?  Is that what this is?  Have a guess.

In fairness, this was never meant to be about the Doctor's past.  To explain further (and give a good idea why it doesn't work), here's Russell T Davies discussing it in his and Benjamin Cook's fabulous book, The Writer's Tale:

They later got married and had babies.  Besides the ick factor,
that's David Tennant, marrying Peter Davison's
(and his own on-screen) daughter.
Top that, other Doctor Who fans!
"Wouldn't it be brilliant to ask Stephen [Greenhorn] to write a story in which, well, the Doctor really changes?  We haven't got a Madame du Pompadour or Human Nature-type story in Series Four yet, so let's have something that really stretches David's limitless acting.  What can that be?  Well, let's really go for broke...  A child!  Give the Doctor a child!  Pre-titles sequence: the Doctor and [Donna] are trapped underground.  Door explodes open.  Smoke clears.  Great big sexy Amazon of a woman standing there, loaded with guns, and says... 'Hello, dad!'"

A window into Russell's unique thought processes, there: it's a story that "changes" the Doctor, and "stretches David's limitless acting" by introducing (before the opening titles) a "child", which actually-why-not turns out to be a buxom gun-toting cartoon character.  You what?  I don't know, guys; Human Nature this ain't.

Jenny (short for Generated Anomaly, ho, ho – hang on, isn't that a Red Dwarf gag?) is itty-bitty Georgia Moffett, real-life daughter of Doctor #5.  She's cute as a button, and obviously she's got the life experience, but she doesn't sell the idea at all.  It's probably not her fault; the concept's too weird, too rushed, it was just never going to work in the first place.  As for the episode, it's already clear this isn't going to work when the titles roll.  Then there's 43 more minutes of it.

Following last week's cliff-hanger, the TARDIS rockets off by itself with Martha in tow.  They arrive on the planet Messaline, where humans battle the fish-like Hath in a war spanning generations.  They immediately take a bio-sample from the Doctor – that's how they repopulate, and it's where his "daughter" comes from.  Jenny is born fully-grown, smart and ready to fight.  The Doctor does not take to her, despite Donna's wearisome, companion-ey insistence that she is his daughter.

Oddly enough, the Doctor said it first, and there's a ton of techno-babble to back it up.  All I could think was, isn't this more like cloning?  You don't see any other soldiers claiming to be mummies and daddies and sons and daughters.  It's only Jenny saying things like "Hello, dad" and going on about how similar they are, because the Doctor is rather like a soldier, apparently.  Great idea, picking something he's vehemently against as one of his main identifying features.  I mean, just because you've only got one episode to sell this utterly bizarre relationship, why make it easy?

Okay, how is Jenny like the Doctor?  She's anti-killing.  Or rather, she's pro-killing at the start, but later (after much Fourth-Doctor-and-Leela-esque nagging) she changes her mind, so yay not killing after all.  Next?  She has two hearts; be fair, so does the Master.  Next?  She's awesome at gymnastics.  (!)  Oh, I know: she's selfless.  She jumps in front of the Doctor when he's about to get shot, and he'd totally do something like that.  (But only if no one else was around to do it for him.)  And at the end, she zooms off to space to fight evil.  That's quite like him – but then, it's also like Rose Tyler (joined Torchwood), Captain Jack (rebooted Torchwood), Sarah Jane Smith (investigates things) and Martha Jones (joined UNIT).  Living by the Doctor's example is pretty much the done thing now, and it doesn't make you related.  None of this rings true, but they gamely hammer this circular peg into a square hole for the rest of the episode.

"Jenny was the reason for the TARDIS bringing us here.
It just got here too soon.  Which then created Jenny in the first place.  Paradox."
Gee, guys, careful you don't overdo it with the "explanations".
The dodgy daughter thing might not matter so much if she was an interesting character, but they fumble that as well.  With her perfect features, weapon skills, random gymnastic talents and feminine wiles (she really used the old seduce-the-guard trick?), she falls somewhere between a Mary Sue and a cardboard cut-out.  I didn't care when she died.  (The minute she signs up to TARDIS-travelling, you know it's on the cards.)  I didn't cheer when she got better.  As for the conspicuous absence of a return episode, or her own cute-as-a-button spin-off series, I'm smirking with relief just thinking about it.

As for David's limitless acting, he gets to shout her down when she wants to shoot people (which he would have done even if she wasn't his "daughter"), and he gets to replay that embarrassing "Don't you die on me!" scene from Last Of The Time Lords, with the crying and the rocking and the we've-got-so-much-to-do-you-and-me.  Yuck.  But there are moments, like when he recalls his real family and the pain of losing them, where Russell T Davies gets his wish.  Okay, it's still bang-your-head-on-the-desk boring to hear him go on about the Time War for the squillionth time, but he does it well.  He's generally a better actor when he's not trying to be heard from next door – and yet, some of the big stuff works.  A bit where it seems like he's going to shoot someone is genuine edge-of-your-seat stuff, despite the outcome being totally obvious.  That's no mean feat.

Anyway, there's (slightly) more to this episode than the Doctor and his "daughter", so: what about the war?  None of the people fighting it knows what it's actually about.  (I've got a team of specialists working on this, but I think it might be satire.)  Donna, who is an amazing temp, spots a lot of numbers all over the place and realises they are dates, and OMG, the war has only been going on for seven days!  This is a great piece of deduction for Donna and it makes sense that she'd spot it, but it does raise some odd questions.  Like what difference it actually makes to any of them, seeing as everybody's dead just the same as if it had taken countless years.

Their history is corrupted because so many generations get mowed down every day, and with each person starting as an adult the process of passing things on and getting it wrong happens much faster.  But just being born and getting killed at a ridiculous speed doesn't stop them keeping records.  Doesn't anybody write anything down?  Don't those reproducing machines have logs, or something?  How did they actually lose the information in the first place, if it's only been a week?  General Cobb looks older than any of them, and there's no hint that they age faster than we do – is it fair to assume he's been here for at least some of the week?  Wouldn't he know what's going on, or at least have a better sense of the time-scale, if he has?  (He mentions his "whole life" at one point.  What, you mean since Wednesday?)  And never mind all that: where are all the bodies?  It ought to be immediately obvious that they're not decaying very much for being centuries-old, just by looking at them!  Screw it: this is clearly the standard Plot That Can Only Advance If The Characters Are Idiots.  Nothing to see here.

Ah yes, Martha's elusive "fiancĂ©".  Anyone else imagining her running home
to a stuffed body pillow with a face drawn on it?
It's a goodish episode for Donna, at least, who gets to show off her office skills once again and be generally hilarious.  Then again, the "she's your daughter" stuff is heavy-handed, and it's a shame about the "I want to travel with the Doctor forever" bit at the end.  It didn't take long to get her to Rose-level-obsession, did it?  And speaking of repeats, we get another tiresome "We're not a couple" gag.  Yes, I know it's inconceivable that someone could stand next to David Tennant and not want to boff him, but let's just pretend , eh?  Not everybody is Team David.

It's an okayish episode for the Doctor, despite all that damp squib family stuff.  It's wonderfully Doctorly to distract a guard with a clockwork mouse he keeps in his pocket.  It's not very Doctorly to be such an arse towards Jenny for most of the episode, even if she is an off-brand Gallifreyan.  Oh well: he sets out his stall on violence at the end, i.e. "he never would", which is all very big and dramatic and T-shirt-ready if you like that sort of thing.  (Just don't remind him that he incinerated a spaceship full of Sontarans last week, and erupted Vesuvius all over 20,000 Pompeiians the week before.  He never would, except when he has to, which is virtually every week.)  Also, shoot, wasn't Martha in this?

Alas, Martha, as ever.  In an accidental (and yet absolutely sodding typical) twist, she's relegated to the B-plot, hanging with the Hath and talking to herself.  The Hath are great aliens, and talk about brilliant practical effects, but none of that makes any difference to the story.  The scene where her Hath buddy drowns is quite sad, if confusing.  (He is a fish.)  Opinions differ on Freema's "crying", but I feel sorry for her, so shut up, it's fine.  She gets at least one line of semi-meaningful dialogue, but unfortunately it's awful.  "All those things you've been ready to die for.  I thought for a minute there, you'd finally found something worth living for."  Gah, make it stop!  She returns home afterwards, no better off for having gone anywhere in the first place.  Beats sitting around the house, I guess?  Seriously, what was the point bringing her back at all?

There are a couple of nice moments in this, but they're buried under a fatally flawed premise, hopelessly executed.  File it under "Never should have made it off the blackboard", or quite simply, "What were they thinking?"

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Attack Of The Killer Potatoes

Doctor Who
The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky
Series Four, Episodes Four and Five

It's two-parter time again, and not the mid-series actually-good-one, or the bombastic-finale-one.  This is the early slot, previously filled by Aliens Of London, Rise Of The Cybermen and (oh dear) Daleks In Manhattan.  Zere is, 'ow you say, a pattern emerging?  But just because the previous double-headers went from wobbly to bad to excruciating, doesn't mean The Sontaran Stratagem will follow suit.  It has the same writer as Daleks In Manhattan, but still, anything could happen, right?

Stand down red alert: it's not bad.  It's not a particularly brilliant slice of Doctor Who and I'm not sure it breaks the apparent Curse Of The Dodgy Two-Parter, but it's no Daleks In Manhattan either.

Above: how every shot is lit.
Of course, you've heard almost all of it before.  There's aliens invading Earth, satirical undertones, plot points relayed to us via TV news, the companion seeing her family again, an old companion seeing the Doctor again, Classic monsters returning and UNIT soldiers everywhere.  Obviously some shades of the Pertwee era in all that, and certainly a few references, but then it's a pretty traditional Russell T Davies story (that happens to be written by somebody else) as well.  It has a sense of fun that comes with the territory, especially after two very serious (or trying-to-be-serious) episodes.  Even the lighting seems zanier than usual; there's a bizarre preoccupation with pink.  Some of the sets look like 1960s Batman.

Sadly, "fun" often equates with "dumb" in Doctor Who, and there's plenty of that here as well.  There's gigantic dumb stuff like the ending, when a poison cloud covering the entire planet is set alight, thus magically clearing it away... but not burning anything or leaving any smoke behind or sucking out all the oxygen despite the giant tidal wave of fire.  There's the usual plotty flim-flam over the sonic screwdriver, and increasingly, deadlocks.  Why would you deadlock a car, or a SatNav (?!), or a teleporter if you weren't even expecting the Doctor to show up?  What are deadlocks for, besides counteracting the Doctor's magic wand?  (And why hasn't he come up with a deadlock setting by now, since it can do everything else?)  Using flim-flam to combat other flim-flam is a lot of tedious effort for nothing.  As a bonus, we have a scene with someone trapped inside a deadlocked car, where the sonic screwdriver would actually have worked (shattering the window), but for once, the Doctor doesn't think to use it!

There's plenty of dumbness in the writing, and how characters act.  Take the (obviously doomed) investigative journalist, who not only tells a shady bad guy that his products are dangerous (bye bye!) but helpfully phrases it as "I'm telling you!"  (Thanks for clearing that up.)  There's an overly cocky UNIT soldier who pokes his nose into things believing it will earn him a promotion (how does that work?), and tells somebody "We can do this the easy way... or the hard way."  (And there I was hoping for "We can do this the easy way, or we can just forget about it and I'm sorry to have bothered you.")  And of course there's the intermediate bad guy, working for the aliens, who genuinely believes they're going to repay him for selling out the human race.  Genius alert!  (And yikes, that accent.  American, via the West Country?)

But it would be unfair to file this one next to hopeless, billy-no-brain episodes like Planet Of The Ood and Last Of The Time Lords, just because there are lots of stupid bits.  There's plenty of good stuff too, including good writing.

Take the scene where Donna decides to pop home.  The Doctor rolls out an enormous speech about how great she is and how he'll miss her, and in a hilarious pin-pricking of a modern Who trope, it's all for nothing.  Gotcha!  There's a similar moment where he gives her a TARDIS key, which all seems terribly momentous and important until she says "Maybe we'll get sentimental after the world's finished choking to death."  Ouch!  The Doctor is (occasionally) on good form, particularly his snarky one-upmanship with nauseating boy genius Luke Rattigan, but I especially love the bit where he meets Staal The Undefeated.  "That's not a very good nickname.  What if you do get defeated?  Staal The Not Quite So Undefeated Any More But Never Mind?"  Zing!

Also noteworthy, a clever scene with the Doctor running away from a car that'll surely explode, but instead it just lets off a wimpy little spark.  And there's a rewarding, funny moment where Donna's mum and granddad both recognise the Doctor one after another, tying together previous episodes in a hilarious car-crash of continuity.  There's a whole bunch of witty moments dotted about.

"Oh, it's you!  I loved you in the Dalek Invasion Of Earth movie!"
And of course, there's the Sontarans.  One of the few recurring Doctor Who nuisances left after Daleks, Cybermen and the Master, they're a clone race, they're obsessed with war and they have no fear of death.  Generally around five feet tall and resembling mouldy potatoes, their only weakness (besides monumental stubbornness and an inability to dunk) is a "probic vent" at the back of the neck, which remains whimsically unguarded.  Add that lot up and they're unlikely to send anyone scurrying behind the sofa.

Nonetheless, these episodes do a good job with them.  Since it wouldn't do to redesign them, and they unavoidably look silly as heck, they throw in a few pre-emptive digs at how short and silly they look.  Go ahead and laugh: their outlook is their best feature, a death-or-glory glee that makes them (in some ways) more of a handful than Daleks and Cybermen.  At least you can count on those guys having a "stay alive" preference, whereas however silly you think they are, you can't threaten a Sontaran and win.  All of which works, crazily enough.  They even address the duh-obvious "Why don't they cover up the probic vent" conundrum.  It's so they always have to face their enemies.  (I'd rather they dropped it altogether, but I quite like this explanation.  It speaks to their arrogance.)  Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey are the only Sontarans "characters", and they're both fantastic – although curiously for a couple of clones, they don't look alike.

You could say a villain is only as good as their Evil Plan, so here's what they're working with: not unlike those Daleks in Manhattan (uh oh...), the Sontarans are more interested in raising their numbers than picking a fight.  Keeping out of sight and using specially-treated car exhausts (ATMOS), they're flooding the Earth with a gas to make it ideal for breeding clones.  This is a fun, if heavy handed play on our obsession with pollution and carbon footprints, and it makes a lot more sense than Daleks turning into humans.  (Sorry, I'll stop comparing them.  Stopping... now!)  I'm not sure why they picked Earth for the job, but I suppose having millions of car exhausts is better than not.  It's a bit disappointing to have the whole world in peril, again, but what can you do?

As you can probably tell, the car stuff is a mixed bag.  It raises a clever point about zero-carbon, which is really cool.  The Doctor, as in David Tennant's generally quite thick Doctor (see sonic screwdriver/windows), says: "ATMOS means more people driving.  More cars, more petrol, end result the oil's gonna run out faster than ever.  The ATMOS system could make things worse."  My God!  It thinks!  And of course the zero-carbon is really a cover for the smelly clouds of doom, which is mega topical etc., but there's no particular reason to pump the stuff on the inside as well, is there?  It's a handy way to kill people – although why bother, pretty soon they're going to suffocate the whole world – but doesn't it draw unwanted attention to the whole gas thing?  (Clearly it does, since that's why the Doctor is here.)  They also throw in an Evil SatNav, again for assassination purposes, but that idea gets quietly dropped before Episode Two.  And quite right: when you can fill a car with poison gas on command, why bother driving them into rivers?  It sounds like something left over from a previous draft.

Meanwhile, the Best Hypnotised Acting Award goes to...
Also a mixed bag, the companion stuff.  Donna's obviously awesome (taking out a Sontaran, sassing the Doctor), but as for the family?  Bernard Cribbins is lovely, and he provides a hopeful counterpoint to all the "How could you leave home?" prattle from Donna's mum, but sheesh, yet again with the prattling.  It was a stretch treating Martha like this back in Series Three, and while Donna might have a somewhat tenuous grasp on her own life, she's still a bona fide grown up.  At what point do companions stop being treated like 19-year-old Rose Tyler?

Sadly, Martha is shovelling it on as well.  She tells Donna what happened to her family and ominously warns that It Could Happen To You, but that's somewhat of an exaggeration, isn't it?  The Master's dead and Donna doesn't fancy the Doctor, so she hasn't got any of that to worry about.  Besides, at what point are Doctor Who companions going to stop having an inexorable date with doom?  But perhaps I'm just miffed at the way Martha puts her ideas across: "He's like fire.  Stand too close and people get burnt."  Wince!  Straight onto the dodgy writing pile with that one.  (Also, plenty of people have stood next to him unsinged, FYI.)

It's nice having Martha back, but she does spend most of it replaced by a clone.  Hey, at least the Doctor noticed.  (David Tennant does a great job of making it clear, but not too clear that he's spotted it.)  It's a pretty good story for the Doctor despite some notable lapses, like a plan that involves getting himself killed – lucky for him, somebody else takes the plunge.  (Oh, so that's what Rattigan is for!)  Plus there's his rigid grumpiness towards anyone with a gun, anyone who salutes and anyone who calls him "Sir".  Moral ambiguity about the armed forces is one thing, and it's a solid position, not to mention a Pertwee reference; outright calling them bad guys just because they're armed is silly.  Those "bad guys" are stopping the Sontarans from killing everybody, and you helped Martha sign up, so shut yer yap.

Add it all up and it falls somewhere between "Well that was a bit rubbish" and "Well that wasn't nearly as rubbish as it could have been".  When it comes to The First Two-Parter Of The Year, that could be written on the tin.  Despite my reservations, I had plenty of fun.

Thursday, 17 July 2014


Doctor Who
Planet Of The Ood
Series Four, Episode Three

Ah, the Ood.  One of the more puzzling (and interesting) Doctor Who aliens, they're creepy to look at, but also totally servile; they would "pine away and die" without orders to follow.  So they're the flesh equivalent of Every Robot Ever, except that nobody made them this way.  And that's an uncomfortable prospect.  So many of us believe that slavery is wrong, which it obviously is, but if a being honestly wanted to live like that, is it wrong to let them?  Is freedom automatically what everyone, and everything in the universe wants?  But then, perhaps this is exactly what evil people want you to think.

There's a lot of interesting debate to be had about the Ood, but unfortunately all of it concerns their first appearance.  Cut to their follow-up episode and it turns out slavery is wrong and the Ood are miserable.  All of which you would have routinely assumed in the first place.  Yes, there's a chance all that "pine away and die" stuff was propaganda, but at least it gave conventional morality a run for its money.  As for the alternative, an episode about slavery being – come closer, let me whisper it – wrong is like an episode about night being dark, or water being wet.  It's sadly not the first time Doctor Who has come up with a one-sentence moral argument, painted it on the back of a frying pan and attempted to smash you in the face with it.  It's one big "duh"!

I think what they might be saying is, this is a bad thing.
With such an unbelievably obvious point to make, there's very little story to tell.  The Doctor and Donna visit the Ood Sphere and infiltrate a sales conference (full of Russell T Davies's beloved Evil Capitalists).  They notice the Ood, who are getting "red eye" and going crazy.  And they've got form: last time The Creature Calling Himself The Devil possessed them and turned them into his foot soldiers.  This time something else is lashing out, seemingly in the Ood's interests.  Revolution can't be far off, and despite moral hand-wringing from both of them, neither the Doctor nor Donna make much of a difference to the ensuing events.  The Ood have their plans; they've even got people on the inside.  Our heroes are only there so they can point out how ghastly it all is.  For some reason, they imagine it needs spelling out.  CLANG! goes the frying pan, and CRACK! goes a security guard's whip, because apparently they whip the Ood on top of everything else and oh god could it be any less subtle.

But they're absolutely relentless about it.  Not only is the Doctor making his righteous-indignation face at all times, with Donna snarling at the unfairness of it all, but there's a telepathic "song of captivity" coming from each Ood.  We hear it – of course we do – and it's a chance for Murray Gold to rub the point in until it begins to bruise.  If there's a less subtle way to make a point than one of Murray's "ooh-ee-oohs", I don't want to hear about it.  There's a song of freedom at the end, equally clumsy, just in case we needed reminding that freedom is conversely a good thing.

The episode rumbles on, pausing for us to hiss at Tim McInnerny as the villainous Mr Halpern, tut at the PR girl who won't help even though she knows what she's doing is wrong, and gasp at the psychotic security guard who suddenly relishes the chance to squash an intruder with a giant remote control claw.  (Such an extravagant piece of CGI really ought to serve a purpose, but it only makes the episode three minutes longer, and presumably weighs down the budget.)  Because this is not just about slavery being wrong, oh no: it's about how the people who do slavery are bad.  Surprise!  Or rather, CLANG!

Now let's get back to the Ood.  The thing controlling them is a giant brain.  That's how the Ood work: an enormous brain connects all the individual Ood, and each Ood had two more brains, one in their head and one in their hands.  (Insert writer-had-his-brain-in-his-hands joke here.)  Those translator balls replace the hand-brain, which is cruelly removed by humans.  Said humans are keeping the giant brain in captivity, its telepathy restrained, in order to keep the Ood passive.

"Ten years infiltrating this company all to rescue you,
and you eat me anyway.
Thanks a lot, you inexplicable giant pink jerk!"
Hmm.  Now, I say "that's how the Ood work", but really it just seems like a random string of nonsense punctuated with brains.  The idea of a hive mind has mileage, but why on Earth it would need to manifest in an actual brain, and how it could possibly do that, I don't know, especially since every Ood already has a whole other brain apparently to spare.  You might expect the Doctor to make sense of it for us, and he does at least shoot down the idea of a naturally servile Ood: "A species born to serve could never evolve in the first place".  Oh my, he went there.  I really wish he hadn't brought evolution into it, since Doctor Who generally has no idea how that works.  Planet Of The Ood might be the absolute nadir of Doctor Who Doesn't Do Evolution.

Okay, Doc: how could a species of bipeds evolve all linked to a giant exposed brain?  Which came first, and where did the brain come from – is there a giant heart and some giant lungs out there, too?  How can it, or any of the Ood for that matter, survive on an ice planet?  Answers are not forthcoming in the episode, but at least Donna makes a game attempt to explain their friendly nature.  "They're born with their brains in their hands.  That makes them peaceful.  They've got to be because a creature like that would have to trust anyone it meets."  Yeah, and we all know how well "trust" works in the animal kingdom.  It's like how hedgehogs famously wander around with their bellies in the air.  You know, so they can make friends?

The idea of a creature that enjoys serving others is far-fetched.  (Although not that much, since cleaning symbiosis exists among birds, fish and marine animals, and clearly nobody tells them to do it.)  However, a creature that wanders around an ice planet with its brain in its hands, depending upon a giant brain stuck under a glacier somewhere, is a Darwin Award even a dodo would laugh at.  None of it makes any sense whatsoever.  Only a complete absence of other animal life on the Ood Sphere could possibly keep these yutzes alive, and even then, what would they eat?  It's not as if they can pick anything up with both hands.

Planet Of The Ood wants so badly to be a serious piece of television, but it's so earnestly stupid that it's impossible to take seriously.  Take the fate of devious Mr Halpern, whose forebears started this company.  He doesn't care about the Ood, and will gladly execute the lot of them to stop contamination.  He's A Bad Man, but it turns out Ood Sigma (his faithful servant, mystifyingly kept by his side during all this) has been drugging him with "Ood graft", which gives him the ultimate ironic punishment of becoming an Ood.  Setting aside the "Huh?"ness of turning someone into an Ood, there might have been a smidgen of poetic justice in it if the transformation weren't a mixture of revolting practical effects and sheer unintentional hilarity.  He sneezes a brain into his hands!  It's less moving catharsis, more Red Dwarf.  And that's being rather unfair to Red Dwarf.

Is there anything to like?  Well, it's set on an alien planet, hooray for that.  The CGI landscapes look amazing.  The bit with the giant claw looks great, even if it's a complete waste of time.  And as the script asks David and Catherine to emote up to 11, they both turn in dutifully relentless performances, all broad strokes and tears.  Yikes, though, that script.  The average IQ is summed up when the Doctor must think of a way to stop the Ood murdering him and Donna.  He bravely bellows, "Doctor, Donna, friends!  Friends-friends-friends!"  I love it when a plan comes together.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Fixed That For You

Doctor Who
The Fires Of Pompeii
Series Four, Episode Two

Try as they might, the writers of Doctor Who can't seem to keep a straight line on time travel.  Can you change history or not?  The Unquiet Dead said yes.  Father's Day said no.  And then The Shakespeare Code said yes again, with the caveat that it works exactly like in Back To The Future.  At this point, I just want them to pick one and stick to it.  (And hey, I love Back To The Future, I'll have that one.)

There appears to be an elephant in the room.
Now they have.  Faced with the horror of ancient Pompeii and Vesuvius, the Doctor announces that there are "fixed points" in history, they happen, deal with it.  The rest of history is "in flux".  Okay.  To be just a wee bit cynical, Doctor Who is set in a rough approximation of our world, which we might not recognise if they went and changed gobs of history.  In other words, we secretly already know they can't change major historical events, so heck, they might as well put it in writing.

This doesn't make total sense for the Doctor, of course.  Logically, he must change history on Planet Insert-Name-Here every time he lands on it.  (Because this is time travel, and it's always the past somewhere.)  But then, we hardly know anything about Time Lords, so there's a lot of blanks like this that you can quite fairly fill in.  He just... um... hasn't come across any alien fixed points yet.  Okay?  Anyway, it doesn't have to make total sense to us.  It doesn't as far as Donna's concerned.  The whole awful otherworldliness of "fixed points", and their consequences for the unwary time traveller, form the conflict at the heart of the episode.  That's good work.

So, Pompeii is a fixed point.  Donna is understandably horrified, and with the TARDIS gone (wouldn't you know it!) she wants to help.  The Fires Of Pompeii is already the requisite "show her the ropes" episode, cue jokes about how foreign languages work in the TARDIS, but the fixed point dilemma keeps the "Can you change history?" debate (which happens every time) over on the interesting side.  And things get even more prickly when it turns out some renegade Pyroviles have mucked about with Vesuvius, and at this rate, Volcano Day won't happen.

Wait, what?  So if the Doctor doesn't intercede, Vesuvius won't explode, the baddies will win, and the timelines will change.  But doesn't that turn the fixed point into a fluxed point?  There's a choice now – the Doctor could not do it.  He could walk away or get killed or anything, and bam, no volcano.  (Cue vague doom and gloom for the timelines, all of which is apparently worse than Pyroviles conquering the Earth two millennia ago.)  The Pyroviles are here because their planet unexpectedly went missing – has this changed the timeline from what it was originally?  Wouldn't that bugger up the whole "fixed" thing, if you can do that?  Frankly, the episode would make a lot more sense without the Pyroviles.

Anyway, the Doctor now has an awful choice between 20,000 Pompeiians and the rest of the world/human history (well when you put it like that, it's not much of a choice), but it's a choice he and Donna ultimately make together.  Doctor Who often comes out with moral dilemmas, most of which take the easy way out, but here's one that actually works: there is no easy way out.  It's incredibly bleak for Doctor Who, especially the sight of Donna futilely trying to usher people away from the devastation, and yet it ties right back to the Doctor's established past – and Gallifrey's unfortunate kapputal.  The whole sequence, with the Doctor admitting they probably won't survive and all that eye-candy CGI, is top notch.  (It's just a shame the dilemma has nothing to do with fixed points.  If it were fixed at all, there wouldn't be a dilemma.)

I'm not sure what it is.
Hang on, it'll come to me.
It's not all doom and gloom: the Doctor does rescue somebody, but then only after Donna begs him to make a difference, however small.  (Amazing acting from Tate and Tennant here – it's run-out-of-superlatives stuff.)  On the one hand, this offers a nice, sweet, sort-of happy ending to a story that's utterly depressing.  Oh, here they go, pandering to their fragile audience, right?  Er, not really.  Mr Copper said in Voyage Of The Damned that choosing who lives and who dies makes you a monster, and we see a bit of that here.  The Doctor rescues Caecilius and family because (apart from Donna's insistence) he's met them, and he likes them.  There's no big reason why they get to survive and everyone else has to roast.  Hey, it's great that somebody got rescued, and it's entirely understandable (if annoying) that they immediately set the Doctor and Donna up as gods.  (What's the difference, from their point of view?)  But the decision underlines what a powerful, mythical, alien being the Doctor is, and how important it is to get on his good side.  (Still, I wonder how much history would really suffer if the ruin of Pompeii didn't have any corpses in it.  The Doctor could just keep taking the TARDIS back and scooping up people, as long as he didn't mind catching sight of himself.)

Brrr.  Sounds like an incredibly serious episode, doesn't it?  But it's not, or not entirely.  The Fires Of Pompeii has plenty of light and shade, especially when it comes to sitting the audience down and reassuring them that ancient Pompeii is exactly the same as their living room.  "Won't our clothes look a bit odd?" says Donna.  "Naa," says the Doctor.  "Ancient Rome, anything goes.  Just like Soho, but bigger."  Sigh.  Apart from the depressing Shakespeare Code repeat, which is what that is, we've got a street vendor with Del Boy's catchphrase, and Caecilius's family: the dad's worried about his daughter going out in a short skirt, and he takes the piss out of his son for having a hangover.  They even flog the "speaking Latin makes you sound Welsh" joke until it's just a running gag about Welsh stereotypes.  It's all very broad and patronising, not to mention a waste of very good actors like Peter Capaldi.  As I said in my Shakespeare Code review (since they get to repeat themselves), guys, relax: the audience won't run away just because you set an episode in a different time.

But they might run away if there aren't any monsters (sigh again), so what about the Pyroviles?  Well, they are a mix of great CGI (big rock monsters) and amazing prosthetics (scary rock people), so they're awesome to look at.  It's a bit dull that they're fleeing from a mysteriously gobbled up planet, just like the Adipose last week, but that's arcs for you.  It's a brilliant wheeze having Pompeii full of prognosticators who all accurately predict the future, but somehow haven't noticed the eruption of Vesuvius the following day.  And it's an acceptable excuse, I suppose, for that ghastly routine of "external characters tell the main characters about their inner turmoil" – they're bona fide mind readers, and this shows it.  Phil Davis oozes menace as the prognosticator-in-chief, and as for the fully-stoneyfied High Priestess of the Sisterhood (because there's a Brotherhood and a Sisterhood, sort of like competing supermarkets I guess), she's like something out of Evil Dead.  On the downside, the actual Sisterhood are a pretty anonymous Cult Of Doom, and there aren't a lot of peripheral characters in Pompeii at all, probably to make it easier to accept the ending.  We never see anyone official besides Phil Davis.

Of course!  That's Karen Gillan!
It's funny when actors come back, innit?
It's a very good episode for the Doctor and Donna, although the moral dilemma does have its clumsy moments.  At one point they boil it down to "Well I might just have summit to say about that, Spaceman!"  "Oh, I bet you will!", which is bite-sized enough for a Chihuahua to understand.  Still, Donna gets to ask all the questions we want answered (it's the job of the companion, innit?) in a way that neatly marks her out from her predecessors.  "I don't know what sort of kids you've been flying around with in outer space, but you're not telling me to shut up" is an awesome line, if equally Chihuahua-sized.

Meanwhile, the Doctor gets to agonise over an impossible choice, which is when he's at his most dramatic and some would say, best.  The argument in the TARDIS is a truly powerful moment.  But then, he also takes down a Pyrovile using a water pistol (whilst making an adorable one-eye-screwed-shut face), so there's something for everyone David Tennant-wise, including all that naff running-about-and-shouting stuff that, presumably, someone out there likes.  "TELL ME YOUR NAME-AHH!"

For the most part, this one is reasonably witty and quite interesting, but it doesn't add up to much.  It tries to make sense of time travel, and just raises further questions.  Undoubtedly, The Fires Of Pompeii is all about the ending.  Despite some seriously wobbly foundations, it packs a memorable punch.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Fat Friends

Doctor Who
Partners In Crime
Series Four, Episode One

Okay, Series Four.  New year, new start, new companion.

Just kidding!  Despite initial plans to introduce a cute blonde the Doctor could fall in love with (see The Writer's Tale, and count your blessings), Partners In Crime brings back Donna Noble.  Last seen politely declining an offer to travel in the TARDIS, she's thought it over and wants to say yes.  The difficult bit is finding the Doctor, and that's mostly what Partners In Crime is: a bubbly, well-orchestrated comedy about friends finding each other.

Judging from polls and online chatter, not many fans like this one.  General reasons for disliking it include the comedy (spit, spit!), the silly aliens (silly?  Argh!) and the comedienne companion (are those laughs she's getting?  Shoot me in the face!).  Now, there's stuff I don't like in here – gee, there's a surprise – but on the whole I think it's underrated.

Seriously, though, this is brilliant.
Imagine the Classic series doing this,
as a throwaway joke!
For starters, good comedy is hard to pull off.  All that literal near-missing is really well choreographed, and adds to the momentum of the episode: you're totally willing these guys to meet up.  It's even seeded into the story, as both Donna and the Doctor investigate Adipose Industries, both going about it in their own way and hence, they're just out of reach.  Then they finally do meet, during a show-stopping sequence where both of them have to mime their reactions through a window.  David Tennant and Catherine Tate are both hilarious throughout, but this is just perfect.  So, so funny.  What's not to like?

And once they're together, all that effort is totally justified.  This Doctor shows off a lot but is, ultimately, sort of winging it; Donna, unlike a few other companions, sees right through it.  She's the perfect Tenth Doctor companion, full of excitement about space travel but noticeably short on awe and longing for the Doctor.  (Although she is, understandably, quite excited to see him.)  They've cracked it.

There's also some solid characterisation at work.  I was pretty miffed that the Doctor barely mentioned Martha in the Christmas Special, but he brings her up here, and totally admits fault.  (About time, buster.)  Not for the first time, we gain an understanding of why the Doctor needs somebody with him (let's face it, Russell T Davies can do that in his sleep now), which comes across best during an amazing scene with him alone in the TARDIS.  It's not big or showy, and there's no music.  He just talks, realises no one's there, and stops.  I love small moments.  This, along with the fantastic window mime, makes two perfect moments in one episode.

What else is great?  Well, the bad news first.  We're once again stuck with the companion's family, which means Jacqueline King as Donna's doubting mum... but also – yay! – Bernard Cribbins as her open-minded granddad!  And why not bring him back from his scene-stealing cameo?  He makes a refreshing change from the usual family woes, and although some of his and Donna's dialogue is on the corny side ("You shout for me, Gramps, oh, you just shout" – who says that?), he's a delight in every scene.

And then there's the Adipose.  Here's another alien (not "another" like "oh god here we go again") that's not actually evil.  They're not even capitalists!  (Although Adipose Industries is.  Sigh.)  They're made out of people's fat, and they're completely innocent.  It's a bit iffy to do this without the people's full consent, but since they want to lose the fat anyway, everybody wins.  It's an original, potentially harmless alien story, on top of which the Adipose look like genuine, adorable little stress toys.  (And thanks to the BBC's toy department, they are.)  Moral complexity comes in many forms; you can make things more interesting just by making the bad guys less monstrous.  They're great.

But, falling from the sky like a bag full of Thor's hammers, there's no getting around the stuff that's obviously wrong with this episode.  Starting, funnily enough, with the Adipose.

You want to lose weight.  The Adipose want to be born.  Everyone's happy.  So what's the problem?  Thanks to the Doctor's (and Donna's) intervention, the Adiposes' guardian decides to "fully convert" the million subscribers she's already got, which means killing them.  If the Doctor hadn't waded in with the old "This is your one chance" routine, a lot of people would have lost weight and a lot of harmless blobs would have been born.  Of course, all this depends on the devious Miss Foster promising not to kill anyone and not forcing anyone to take Adipose pills who doesn't want to – and it's made boringly clear that she's amoral, so anything's possible – but there is certainly room for discussion.  Alas, not for the first time, the Doctor gets on his high horse, pronounces all of it "wrong" and ignores the grey areas.  All that stuff about moral complexity?  It kind of doesn't amount to much.

Just for laughs, the Doctor later concedes that "Actually,
as a diet plan, it sort of works."  Oh, you've noticed that, have you?
"Boringly amoral" is the best way to sum up Miss Foster.  Despite no real reason for her to be evil, Sarah Lancashire has a pretty standard Evil Diva on her hands, complete with posturing and excruciating puns.  ("Foster!  As in foster mother!"  Oh yes, very clever, have a biscuit.)  Most of the plot surrounding her is equally witless, particularly her battle to outsmart the Doctor.  He needs to get into a building, so she "triple deadlocks" it.  (What does that even mean?  Was she really expecting a sonic burglar?)  They have a contest of sonic devices (urgh) and he nicks her sonic pen.  (Why would she have a sonic pen?)  When he accesses her mega-computer, she simply "doubles the power".  (Why does extra electricity make things work better in sci-fi?)  It's techno-babble-a-go-go, and not the kind that's based on any actual techno'.  All of which is a pity, as reading The Writer's Tale shows just how much effort went into moving the plot along.  (The scene where the Doctor rams some wires together to knock out the guards, for example – well, what would you do with them?)

Also dragging Partners In Crime away from my Favourite Episodes list is our old friend, the tone.  People get unashamedly killed in this, which is fair enough if that's what's at stake, but as often happens, it's treated with exactly the same zaniness as the comedy.  Pity poor there's-an-Adipose-in-my-pants Stacy (who only dies because Donna fiddles with an Adipose bracelet, it is literally Donna's fault she's dead), and Miss Foster, who falls to her doom just like Wile E. Coyote, but with an extra just-audible splat.  The episode's probably too silly overall to get away with genuine horror, so rather just not doing that, it treats everything as silly.  It's misjudged.

Plus Rose is mentioned again, not to mention she's actually in it for one scene.  Yeah, that's not going in my plus column.  Since it was largely the ghost of Rose that scuppered Martha, isn't it a teeny bit soon to bring her back?  Really, guys?  If you never entirely shut up about her, is she ever truly gone?

Hey ho.  Partners In Crime is one of those episodes that unabashedly has a job to do – get Donna back to the Doctor – and all those bits are a triumph.  Their conversation at the end, side-stepping the usual "Bigger on the inside" bit and dealing (nice and briefly) with the "It's dangerous" bit, almost makes it seem like we haven't done all this guff at least twice before.  I like it.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Poseidon Infringement

Doctor Who
Voyage Of The Damned
2007 Christmas Special 

Well, at least it makes a change from robot Santas and killer Christmas trees.

You know how certain movies are on every Christmas?  I never understood the festive appeal of The Great Escape, but there it always was, Christmas or Boxing Day.  I suspect the same applied to The Poseidon Adventure (although I don't know, I never watched that much TV at Christmas), so I guess it's sort of Christmassy to painstakingly recreate it in this year's (well, 2007's) Doctor Who Christmas Special.  It's like changing the channel to find the action movie du jour is, by magic, also Doctor Who.  Anyway, Russell T Davies is (per The Writer's Tale) an encyclopaedic Poseidon Adventure fan, so he probably jumped at the chance to apply tracing paper to it.

I know Russell wrote the cliff-hanger way before the resolution,
but how does this work?  What does it look like on the outside?
Didn't anybody on board notice crashing into a weird big/little box?
The trouble is, a lot of other people have seen The Poseidon Adventure as well.  It's sufficiently iconic and oft-imitated that, although I haven't seen it, I could still tell you how it goes.  If the intention was to avoid boring the fans with something they've already seen (and we still get fake snow at the end), all they've really done is switch one rerun for another.

Let's get the plot over with: we've got the good (space)ship Titanic, coming all the way from the planet Sto to Earth on Christmas Eve.  The captain, paid off by persons unknown, wrecks the ship and dooms everyone on it.  Those that survive the meteor strike are picked off by the seemingly helpful robot Hosts – which look like angels, aka this year's Santas – and it all has something to do with slithery capitalist Max Capricorn.  You know to set your brain to Relaxation Mode pretty much the moment you notice a capitalist called Max.

Anyway, the crash is really a ropey old insurance-scam-meets-revenge plot.  Calling the ship Titanic (groan) is a practical joke courtesy of the villain (oh, un-groan then).  As for the Hosts, oy: besides the hilarious pointlessness of filling a soon-to-be-shipwreck with murderous robots, they're boringly reminiscent of the Ood (spouting death threats in a monotone), the Robots Of Death (crap title, good story) and, entirely by accident, those smashingly successful Weeping Angels from four episodes ago.  (Whoops.)  Add to that the Doctor's inability to sonic them because their heads are double deadlocked, and Russell T Davies may as well have sent his brain out for pizza.

Oh well.  Sometimes it's not what you've got, it's what you do with it.  (Ahem.)  Voyage Of The Damned comes fully equipped (ahem) with a dazzling guest cast, ooh-inducing special effects and lots of extra minutes.  (Making a grand total of 71.)  Reassuringly there is quite a bit to like.

The cast are the highlight, which helps as not many of the characters have much meat on them.  Geoffrey Palmer is outstanding during his two minutes as the guilt-ridden captain.  Russell Tovey is sweet as you'd expect as fresh-out-of-the-academy Midshipman Frame, but it's his agonised gunshot-wound acting that really sells the character.  Bernard Cribbins has a hilarious cameo as the only newsie brave enough to still be in London on Christmas (after what happened in previous years, which is a fun way to reuse old continuity).  Even the doomed Terribly Nice Steward, who goes to check on an airlock with space-themed consequences, makes his scenes count.

Surprise!  Max was stowed aboard in a box that can "survive a supernova,
or a shipwreck".  Um... why, though?  Why be at the scene of the
crime at all?  And if he's just going to retire somewhere else
afterwards, why not just do that?
But then there's the Ragtag Team Of Survivors (TM) of whom the Doctor finds himself in charge, who are pretty much one-sentence gags.  (Albeit funny ones.)  We have Mr Copper, a befuddled "Earth historian" who doesn't know anything about Earth; Bannakaffalatta, a red spiky-headed dwarf who's controversially also a cyborg (!); Morvin and Foon, two poor but eccentric Fat People; and Rickson, a greedy, self-serving capitalist.  (What, another one?)  There isn't time to develop any of them, although everyone except Rickson gets some sort of heart-to-heart, especially as three of them die in the same scene.  This means three separate versions of "Oh no, he's dead!", all pretty much on top of each other.  Eek.  But, there are 71 minutes to fill, and deaths are one way to move a scene along.  ("It's been ten minutes with no one dying!  Fall off of something!")

All the character development is saved for this year's one-shot companion, Astrid the space waitress.  (Is it too late to trademark that?)  Kylie Minogue is reassuringly more than just stunt casting.  She's great as the doe-eyed, slightly disillusioned nobody, and her reaction to London ("It stinks!  Thank you!") is genuinely adorable.  Unfortunately, since she's Kylie Minogue, you know she's not going to be back for Series Four, so when she agrees to be the Doctor's new companion, things can only go pear-shaped.  Dun-dun-DUN, they do.  This brings us to the Doctor, who promises to save everybody in the previous paragraph, including Astrid, and all but two of them get killed anyway.  Including Astrid.

I know I bang on about this a lot, but the Tenth Doctor is absolutely useless here.  Voyage Of The Damned has him urging the captain to raise the shields (he won't), begging the stewards to listen to him (they don't) or at least listen to somebody else (still no), trying to console Foon (doesn't work), pleading with Foon and Astrid not to kill themselves to save others (they both do), and asking killer robots not to kill him (which actually works, but only because he guessed the override code – which is 1, incidentally).  I feel like I'm staring at the Emporer's new clothes asking this, but how is it that such a famed, heroic incarnation of the character is also a complete blundering whelp?

David Tennant is effervescent as ever, and some effort is generally made so that he'll seem grand and impressive, but I'm not convinced.  There's the (silly) bit where he's lifted in the air by Hosts (who "revert to the next authority", which for some reason isn't the only crewman left on board), and the oft-quoted "I'm a Time Lord from Gallifrey!" speech, aka another handy way to fill 71 minutes.  (Did we really need his home address?)  However, when he heroically declares "No more!", as in people-getting-killed, more people die afterwards anyway.  Astrid calls him a "Time King from Gallyboo", which is cute and everything, but it's also a lot closer to the mark.  I mean, he manages to avoid crashing the Titanic, thus saving the Earth and, y'know, Christmas, so that's a pretty big win.  But by that point, virtually everyone on the ship is dead.

Who could not love Midshipman Frame?  Not only is he sweet,
loyal and heroic, but he recovers from a bullet wound
using sheer willpower.  Presumably.
The aforementioned special effects are excellent, at least.  The ship looks great, the firey "storm drive" is pretty to look at (albeit weirdly easy to fall into and die), the Hosts are simple but effective, the meteors look cool, and the direction is uber snazzy.  It's a blockbuster production, with gobs of big-sounding music.  (Including a new version of the themetune, which I hate.  It sounds like an orchestra banging pots and pans together while Riverdancing for their lives.)

Unfortunately, Voyage Of The Damned seems content to aim for empty spectacle.  The aforementioned plot (and title) could not be creakier.  (Come to think of it, 42 already took a whack at some of it.  Spaceship crashing, TARDIS lost, killers aboard?  Tick.)  This year, we haven't even got the emotional kick that infused The Runaway Bride, with the Doctor suffering the loss of a companion – although he should be, after what happened with Martha, he still spends the end of this one mourning the girl he's just met.  Which is absolutely bloody typical, isn't it?

It's an example of what a great show Doctor Who can put on, in terms of how it looks and how it sounds.  But this Christmas, or whenever curiosity moves you to watch it again, it seems there's sadly nowt going on underneath.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Bookcase Of Fear #8: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Quick note to my scant number of readers.  (Ah, lost, are you?  The loo's over there...)  Having finally sorted out my laptop's DVD player, I'll shortly be returning to some DVD reviews.  By which I mean, largely, Doctor Who reviews.  Just thought I should mention it.

Right then!  Have at you, bookcase!

The Last Dragonslayer
By Jasper Fforde

Knowing very little about Jasper Fforde, my first reaction to The Last Dragonslayer (other than “Thanks for the birthday present, Robert”) was being slightly underwhelmed.  A novel about dragons, magic and wizards?  All of that’s been done.  Well, I needn’t have worried.  The Last Dragonslayer takes admittedly very familiar elements and puts them to work in a sharp, charming plot.  Against the odds, it actually feels very original.

It’s set in a parallel world, roughly contemporary, but with magic and dragons as a part of daily life.  I enjoyed the lived-in, clapped-out-ness of magic and the way people deal with it: they use magic to do their plumbing, and have to fill out endless forms to make sure it’s all accounted for, because magic is limited.  I’m sometimes put off by parallel world stories, as I feel at a conscious distance from the worlds they create, but this one very quickly, very skilfully set out its world and made it feel familiar.  I was reminded of Harry Potter, specifically the way those books never really reconciled how magical and non-magical people could co-exist.  I think this one does it better.

It’s the story of Jennifer Strange, a nearly-sixteen-year-old orphan who finds herself running a magical odd-jobs company and looking after its assortment of wizards and witches, all of whom have varying talents and sensitive egos.  Jennifer is a wonderful creation, believably young yet wearisomely mature.  The plot revolves around a prophecy.  (I know, they’re overdone as well, but this one is well handled and isn’t dragged out for half a dozen books.)  The prophecy concerns the last dragon known to exist and Jennifer’s part in its death.  And really, I don’t want to go into it too much – the plot is very tidy and it keeps moving and you should discover it all for yourself.  The book’s short; I don’t want to spoil it.

Fforde’s book is funny without hitting you over the head about it, thoughtful without feeling like a soapbox, and has an endearingly fresh perspective on its fantasy tropes.  I enjoyed it, am glad there are more books in the series, and encourage you to investigate.  Race you!

The Green Mile
By Stephen King

Another Stephen King book bites the dust.  Written as a serial in 1996, The Green Mile is the memoir of Paul Edgecomb – once the head guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, E Wing, home of the electric chair.  (And a grim, lime-coloured floor.)  It concerns John Coffey, a mysterious black man convicted of murdering two young girls, and it’s as grim as a Death Row story ought to be, but with some magic and humour mixed in as well.

Being six volumes rather than one, the book has an episodic and repetitive nature, sprinkling recaps throughout just in case you’re joining mid-way.  (In an omnibus, however, this is no longer a problem.)  On the plus side, the repetition (unintentionally?) chimes with the advanced age of the narrator.  King’s usual habit of casually dipping into the future also genuinely seems like something you’d find in a memoir.  However, the framing device – Paul writing his recollections in a rest home, as he avoids a transparently evil orderly – doesn’t add much to the story.  I was generally keen to get back to the events of 1932.

As for the main cut-and-thrust of the book, it’s compelling and has plenty of momentum.  The chapters are short; you can almost feel Stephen King hammering them out to meet his deadlines.  He mentions in the Foreword and Afterword that he enjoyed the challenge, and the change of pace.  It felt like a quick read.

If there’s a major criticism, it’s a lack of depth.  I saw the (excellent) Frank Darabont movie before reading this, and there’s really not a great deal more to be found on the page, besides a more downbeat conclusion.  The characters are all suitably good or evil, and while some are a bit of both, a few border on archetypal.  John Coffey, besides his obvious and deliberate Jesus Christ initials, seems like a textbook example of Spike Lee’s patented “magic negro” character.  Paul’s rest home nemesis, meanwhile, comes from a noticeably dry well marked “evil orderlies”.

It’s an equally sweet and grisly yarn, but it didn’t leave much of an impression.  The green mile (between the cells and the electric chair) might be long, but the shadow of King’s earlier work, Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption, seems a little longer.

The Vampire’s Holiday
By Willis Hall

Willis Hall wrote a lot of children’s books about Henry Hollins, a boy seemingly forever on holiday with his parents.  They’ve encountered all sorts of oddities, including a dinosaur and an inflatable shop, but there’s a series within the series about Count Alucard – Dracula’s harmless, vegetarian descendant.  (Not to be confused with Count Duckula, who springs suddenly to mind.)

The Vampire’s Holiday is the second book in the series, and it’s a lot like the first.  Alucard must contend with the prejudices and fears of a small town, before ultimately fleeing.  Henry rallies to help him – he’s the only person with the common sense to give him a chance – while the townspeople, in particular the mayor, use the vampire business to their own ends.  One of the things I loved about The Last Vampire (and Hall’s other books) is the way every character has a point of view, even the animals.  They all have their own individual (and usually light-hearted) dramas going on, and that makes the story a lot more colourful.

Unfortunately there’s very little plot.  Alucard winds up in England (after his coffin is thrown overboard, although he seemed to be heading in that direction anyway), and he never says exactly why he went there.  I’m assuming it’s a holiday, re the title, but Henry asks him why at one point and he never gets around to answering.  He spends the rest of the book trying to get away, while the people of Scarcombe variously panic, overreact and take advantage of the situation.  (Well, wasn’t it obvious that was going to happen?)  In the middle of all this is Alucard, who’s terribly nice but scarcely interacts with anyone, and Henry, who despite being the hero of Hall’s books has no particular personality.  I can only assume younger readers were encouraged to project themselves onto him, because he’s the least interesting character in every scene, including the ones with his parents.

Still, it’s a funny, friendly story, with a lovely attitude to pre-judging others; there’s some great stuff from the point of view of some captive wolves.  The locals are all suitably amusing, if rather familiar; Hall can’t resist working in a bit of political satire with the mayor.  It’s a nice read, but after two books it’s a shame Henry didn’t try to change a few minds, rather than simply helping Alucard to run away until his next instalment.  Also, the story ignores the end of the last book, where Alucard had some intention of living with Henry.  His only friend in the world, you’d think that would remain his Plan A.

Doctor Who
Book One: Shock Tactic
By Lawrence Miles

This is pretty ambitious for a Doctor Who novel.  It’s spread over two books, features two Doctors (Paul McGann and Jon Pertwee), and wraps up the complicated story of Sam Jones, a companion invented just for the BBC books range.  I’ve only read Book One so far.  How’s it going?

Put it this way: if I didn’t already own Book Two, I wouldn’t be buying it.  Heck, if that were the case, I wouldn’t have finished reading Book One.

So far (and since this is a full-priced book, it’s fair to pause and reflect), Interference is a mess, decorated with smug window-dressing.  This bit’s in italics!  This bit’s in script!  The chapter titles have funny sub-headings!  Ho, ho.  The prose is often thoughtful, but it’s an absolute headache keeping up with the various plot strands – and being only Book One of Two, surprise!  None of them go anywhere.

Let’s see: there’s an international arms conference in London, where aliens are selling black goo called “Cold” which can teleport and/or harm you depending on the plot.  (NB: This isn't the "real" Cold.)  The aliens are “the Remote”, which means they make decisions based on television signals.  (I don’t know if I’ve understood that correctly.)  Sam investigates this, while the Doctor’s other companion, Fitz, is lost in time somewhere.  He’s trying to get to know the Faction Paradox, a group of evil Time Lord somethings who are behind everything, ever.

One of the Doctor’s previous companions is here to help: it’s Sarah Jane Smith!  (And K9!  Yay!)  Alas, the Doctor is in a Saudi Arabian prison being tortured, talking to himself across time and writing maths equations in blood.  Meanwhile, Sam is spirited away to the Remote home-world (I think?), and Sarah meets a helpful Ogron – those muscle-for-hire aliens from the Classic series.  This is the best bit, by light years.  Then cut randomly to the Third Doctor (and a younger, far less interesting Sarah Jane) trapped in humanity’s final resting place: a Wild West parody called Dust, where there’s a freak-show possibly involving Time Lords.  Meanwhile, the Doctor – the main one, Paul McGann – recounts this entire story later to someone, somewhere, for some reason.  Eventually things grind to a halt because that’s all the pages you’re getting, buster.

As the first part of a story, this is just awful.  The characters are mysterious to the point where they’re barely even there.  The plot is overly busy, but it doesn’t coalesce into an actual story at any point.  I don’t know what “Cold” has to do with anything, or why “the Remote” are worth so much exposition, or what the blithery feck is so interesting about Faction Paradox – no, please, devote another dozen paragraphs to how their cult operates, it’s all gold.  I don’t know where Fitz is, and I don’t know what’s going on with Sam.  (If you haven’t read all the Eighth Doctor books up to this point, worse luck.  And welcome to my world.)  After 309 pages, I don’t care, Book Two or no Book Two, your story should have come together already.  We should know what’s at stake.  By the end of Book One, however, Interference is still total spaghetti.

I loved Miles’s earlier book, Alien Bodies.  A gem of a Doctor Who story, it had bags of imagination and wit.  There’s little in here I even recognise as Doctor Who.  An arms conference?  A Saudi Arabian prison cell?  Even the Doctor, both of him heavily featured on the front and back covers, barely registers.  It’s 309 pages of punishingly dull non-story.  After that, Part Two had better be the best book ever written.  No pressure.