Sunday, 23 November 2014

Practically Perfect In Every Way

Doctor Who
The Eleventh Hour
Series Five, Episode One

Woo!  All change!

The Eleventh Hour is an explosion of newness.  New Doctor, new companion, new TARDIS, new showrunner, new look, new sound.  Frankly, in 2010, Doctor Who needed the shot in the arm.  No doubt it works really well as a jumping-on point for brand new fans.  But we can get to all that in a minute.  Let's deal with the most important thing in the episode, the most important thing in Doctor Who.  The New Guy.

Matt.  Smith.  Is.  Perfect.

"I know he's an alien, but the mask is a bit much."
*awkward silence*
We each have our own take on what the Doctor should be like, and some actors will hover closer to it than others.  This time, I lucked out: Matt Smith just feels like the Doctor to me.  Stuff like otherworldly genius, impossible old age and "alien-ness" is tough to convey, especially for an actor as fresh-faced as Smith, but he manages all of the above in a way that, for me, David Tennant rarely did.  His was a charming, funny, sometimes imposing Doctor, but often he just seemed like the loudest guy in the room.  People generally ignored him.

Smith gives the impression that his mind is working on several things at once; he buzzes with ideas in a way that singles him out from everyone else.  And it's not just how he delivers the dialogue.  It's a tremendously physical performance, bouncing and tumbling around like a force of nature, but always with a certain precision in the way he moves, and the way he speaks, that suggests he's got it under control – just.  Smith's accent oscillates between a prim British cleverness and his usual (affected) Londoner's cadence, which I find quite thrilling: he sounds like he's just burst into existence and is going in several directions at once, but always lands on just the right spot.

Despite all that, and gallons of whimsy and eccentricity in the script, he still seems like a genuine person – he even makes "Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey" sound like something you might say.  There's an unselfconsciousness to his actions, especially when he seems to be in his own little world, or when he's spitting.  (There's a whole scene of this and it's brilliant, but I'm also thinking of the bit in The End Of Time when he spits on the TARDIS for no reason.)  There are moments when the very consciously witty script backs him into a more mannered corner – like the opening when he's hanging off the TARDIS, or yelling "And stay out!" to a plate of bread and butter – but mostly he gives the already excellent material that extra push into sheer, fizzing genius.  I'd never seen Matt Smith in anything before this, so on some level I was even more ready to believe that David Tennant had regenerated into a brand new person, and that he was quite probably the Doctor.  A star is born.

I could praise his performance all day, but there is an actual episode attached to it, and it's only fair to go into that as well.  So: hooray!  The episode is brilliant as well!

New Doctor stories have novelty value by default – surprisingly often, this is the only thing going for them.  But The Eleventh Hour doesn't take that for granted.  The episode is designed to show off this version of the Doctor, marooning him without an established costume, a TARDIS or (for most of it) a sonic screwdriver.  He's given a fairly simple problem: the Atraxi will boil the Earth if they don't get their hands on the shape-shifter, Prisoner Zero.  He solves it with whatever's to hand, plus heaps of Doctorly cleverness, leaving the audience in no doubt that this guy is on the case.  Now, I'm well aware that I'm being frogmarched into thinking the Eleventh Doctor is brilliant, but I don't care, he genuinely is – see Why I Love Matt Smith, above – and with the plot so focussed on its goals, there isn't room for any of the usual bollocks.  Hooray!

Start to finish, this is one of the smartest and funniest scripts in Doctor Who.  Of course it's the episode's mission to win you over, so it's loaded with jokes.  (My favourite: "Do I just have a face that nobody listens to, again?", which is the Tenth Doctor gag I've been waiting years for.)  But there's more to it than wit and charm.  Steven Moffat is laying the groundwork for his version of the show, so he revisits one of his favourite themes: time travel working at different speeds.

I wish kids didn't age so fast, just so we could have kept Amelia.
And also because life's too short childhood is precious blah blah.
Crashing in her garden, the new Doctor meets a little girl called Amelia Pond.  He soon pops back into the TARDIS, then emerges to find her grown up.  An encounter that lasts minutes for him has repercussions on Amelia's (now Amy's) entire life.  I don't even know where to start with this stuff.  The episode runs fifteen minutes longer to accommodate it, but it's time well spent developing the Doctor, who explains the very complicated situation of a new body via what foods he likes.  (Hence all the spitting.)  It's time well spent showing how time travel works, and how it can get complicated, as succinctly as possible.  It's time well spent developing Amelia, who immediately strikes a rapport and trust with the Doctor – of course the same will happen, by extension, with the audience, especially the young'uns.  These scenes are chock full of groundwork and narrative all essential to the series, but it's such bliss to watch Matt Smith and Caitlin Blackwood work that you'd hardly notice.  It's very skilfully done.

Of course, Amelia cannot be our companion.  (Alas.)  Zip forward 12 years and we meet Amy, a girl with a lifetime of annoyance that the Doctor didn't come back.  Karen Gillan instantly strikes her own rapport with Smith, building on what Caitlin did.  The episode is about her to a large extent, and it's cleverly set in a small town where everybody knows what she's like.  It's an immediately interesting dynamic: she's obsessed with the Doctor, as anyone would be after what happened, but it's a cause of psychological bother and embarrassment.  Parallels are drawn with meeting your imaginary friend, and all the awkwardness that entails, which is a great way to communicate the show's appeal to younger viewers, and a valid way to reimagine it for the rest of us.  It's an instantly relateable and unique Doctor/companion relationship, which helps define them both.

There are some perhaps less impressive details on the periphery.  Grown-up Amy works as a Kissogram, which on the one hand is a creepy, lecherous, possibly euphemistic fate for a (typically sexy) Doctor Who companion, but on the other hand it fits with her obvious predilection for a fantasy life.  So, cautiously: shrug.

Gillan is as hilariously watchable as Smith.  The same goes for Arthur Darvill as Amy's long-suffering boyfriend Rory, now faced with (and horrified by) Amy's imaginary fancy-man.  The three of them became firm friends in real life, and their on-screen chemistry is immediate and infectious.  It just works.

Doctor?  Tick.  Companion?  Tick.  That's pretty much mission accomplished before we even get to the villain, who (let's face it) is not the important bit.  Still, Prisoner Zero works really well.  He's a mix of CGI (it looks awesome) and various "multi-form" disguises, including a man and his dog, with the clever tip-off that he gets the voice wrong.  (It's usually the dog that barks.)  It's pleasantly sneaky for a post-regeneration story to have a bad-guy that changes what he looks like, and it allows for some sly external character development when he takes the form of Amelia, who tells the Doctor what a disappointment he's been.  (I usually hate this sort of thing, but for once it actually works, because Zero-Amelia isn't pulling this stuff out of a hat.)  One of the disguises is Olivia Colman, easily one of the show's quickest and best cameo roles, oozing menace for a few short minutes.  This is another natty way to show off the new Doctor: he's good at villain showdowns.

Obligatory title/theme comment: it's not the best.
Space and time are made of grey candyfloss?  Meh.
Plus the "sting" sounds like someone swizzling their milkshake straw.
Okay, so the whole Prisoner Zero thing borrows from Smith And Jones: alien hides from other aliens, takes human disguise, lurks in a hospital, Doctor tricks it into revealing itself.  But it's given such a dazzling coat of Steven Moffaty paint that it's not very noticeable.  Meanwhile the Atraxi borrow from the Sycorax and the Juddoon, but also the Vashta Nerada when they "look the Doctor up" and run away.  But hey, that idea works really well in establishing a new Doctor, so why not give it another go?  The Eleventh Hour is so good, I honestly don't care that I've seen bits of it before.  (And some of it's entirely appropriate: the Doctor nicking his outfit from a hospital is straight out of Jon Pertwee's first story.)  Besides, there's a constant starburst of new stuff surrounding it.

Production-wise, this is a seriously impressive piece of telly.  It looks stylish, the direction is slick, and the music is some of Murray's most sumptuous.  The guest cast is an utter winner, peppered with comedy names like Colman, Annette Crosbie and Nina Wadia.  It's an all-out charm offensive, which isn't to say it's only interested in being funny.  (See Colman.)  It's just very, very good at it.

Of course it's Matt and Karen's episode first and foremost, and on that score it's a roaring success.  But to my surprise every time I see it (and I've seen it many times), the rest of it holds up.  It's 60 minutes long, and without a dull or misplaced second.  Confident, funny, clever, comprehensible, utterly loveable on every level, and frosted (as a bonus) with New Doctor Novelty, The Eleventh Hour is so good, all other New Doctor episodes might as well take the day off.  This is how it's done.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Cloudy With A Chance Of Cybermen

Doctor Who
Dark Water and Death In Heaven
Series Eight, Episodes Eleven and Twelve

Somewhere out there, perhaps in a parallel universe where we've all got evil beards and eye-patches, it is okay to make a TV series without arc plots or finales.  "What's wrong with arc plots and finales?" you ask.  Well, nothing on the face of it, but you try doing them nine years in a row.  After Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, Time Lords, the Silence, the Great Intelligence and assorted collections of all of the above, we're through the bottom of the barrel and bothering the earthworms.  Do we have to keep doing it like this?

Bearing that in mind – and my tendency on seeing an arc hint to hum The Magic Roundabout and contemplate what's for dinner – Series Eight does have an interesting hook.  Not Missy, the mysterious figure whose identity most of us guessed within minutes; nor the ongoing story of Clara and Danny, too much of which takes place off-screen for me to really invest; also not the Doctor's ongoing quest to find out what kind of man he is.  We'll get to all that in a minute, but it's generally a mix of the obvious and the who-cares-anyway.  No: the interesting bit is that people keep dying, and we're going to find out where they go when that happens.

Just kidding.  The real arc is Is It Me, Or Does His Hair Keep Changing?
This one's guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers.  Steven Moffat loves a bit of shock value, and doing stuff that hasn't been done before, but it was really only a matter of time before the Doctor wondered what the Afterlife was all about.  When Danny Pink dies, his refusal to change history makes perfect sense; his decision to rescue him from wherever he's gone, though fantastical, feels like a very creative compromise.

Sorry, I should probably emphasise that bit: Danny's dead.  And he doesn't go out saving the Earth or doing anything exciting.  He gets hit by a car while on the phone to Clara.  Steven Moffat has a tendency to avoid death in Doctor Who, preferring to couch the subject in fairy dust and timey-wimeys, so this is real progress: not just death, but ordinary, real, tragically dull death at that.  Clara's reaction, dead-eyed fugue followed by psychotic determination to force the Doctor to help, feels very real as well.

Yes, Clara, you have got my attention.  The bit where she threatens to destroy the TARDIS keys if the Doctor doesn't help is a masterclass for both of them.  She's been called a control freak before, and it's nice to actually see it in action, even if my first instinct would have been to boot her out of the TARDIS pronto.  The Doctor is more sympathetic: though coldly analytical about why he can't change Danny's timeline, and ferociously determined to wrench back control of the situation, he ultimately wants to help.  Even she's surprised at that.  (You would think that puts an end to the "Am I a good man?" debate, but no, there's more of that to come.)  Then it's back to the telepathic TARDIS controls, and off we go to find Danny.  Barely ten minutes in, Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi are doing some of their best work this year.  Capaldi in particular is striking just the right balance between alien coldness and Doctorly charm.

We arrive at a funeral parlour run by Missy.  (More on her in a minute, but suffice to say, Michelle Gomez is very funny and plays vivaciously off Capaldi.)  There's something odd about the place, not least that the dead are sitting in water tanks, surrounded by "dark water" that only shows organic material.  (If it sounds oddly pointless, that's because it's only there for a big reveal later on.  They will never mention it again after that.)  It turns out the dead have been sending us messages, most notably: "Don't cremate me."  Cue angry letters to the BBC.  Yes, they went there: the dead remain conscious.  Sweet dreams.

This unsettled me enormously the first time I saw it, just as it was meant to.  I've had loved ones cremated, chances are so have you.  Still, it's a fictional show with the aim of scaring people, and this fits the bill.  Despite what the writing suggests, it's hardly an idea "that has never occurred to anyone throughout human history".  (Very few of Steven Moffat's ideas are.)  And it's not even true within the episode.  Dying people's minds are being downloaded by Missy.  If there's a real Afterlife, they haven't got there yet.  Creepy and upsetting as it is, there are enough disclaimers for them to get away with it.

How can we lose lovely, gender-irrelevant Osgood, but not the naff Paternosters?
Is it too late to kill them instead?
As for Missy's "Afterlife", Danny finds himself in an office block with Chris Addison, doing his insurance advert schtick with added creep factor, trying to convince him to delete his emotions.  Danny's own little arc plot comes to fruition here, as he meets the civilian he killed, and promptly wants to check out of The Emotions Hotel.  I've never been hugely enamoured with Danny, whose relationship with Clara mostly involved bossiness at his end and lying at hers, but Samuel Anderson is really great here.  I tend to roll my eyes when he and Clara exchange "I love you"s – what do you love about each other? – but when he has to say "I love you" because it's dull and obvious and will convince her to stop trying to find him, he plays it beautifully.

It's around here that the penny drops – specifically, the moment the dark water starts to drain.  (Very slowly, I might add.)  Dun-dun-DUN: the dead bodies are actually Cybermen!

The BBC didn't do a very good job of keeping this secret, but even so, how disappointing.  The Cybermen just aren't all that interesting.  They tend to behave like more boring, standy-uppy Daleks that are easier to kill, and they've got a nasty habit of making up the rules as they go.  They've acquired random superpowers, like super-speed and detachable body-parts, and subsequently ditched them; they've gone from scooping out your brain to stapling themselves together over your body, to infecting you like the Borg; now they can fly like Iron Man, and touching one particle of a Cyberman is enough to make you fully convert.  Having to scream "CHANGE PLACES!" every time they show up is not exactly a good sign.  And it hardly seems worth it, as they're still bloody tedious, even with that jaunty, hilarious little walk of theirs.

This week, as well as rocket feet and "Cyber-pollen", there's an emotional element: they are the dead, stumbling out of their graves and struggling to make sense of things.  Or they're really sleepy.  (Well, do you know why they're not doing anything?)  Danny is a Cyberman now, with his emotions in check – nobody forced him to lose them, and it's not clear how many other Cybermen did the same, which is a bit of a flaw in the plan to be honest.  Bewildered, listless and pretty much harmless, these new Cybermen are a good deal more sympathetic, which is one way to handle them, I suppose.  If they were ever frightening, they're not any more.  The sense of threat in the episode is a bit nebulous because of this.

And once again, they're only the foot soldiers.  (Which is frankly another bullet point on the Why They're Rubbish list.)  Missy is the brains of the operation, and dun-dun-DUN, she's really the Master!  Missy, Mistress, Master... yeah, that'll be another Steven Moffat Mystery That Isn't All That Mysterious, then.  But anyway.  The Master is back.

I'm in two minds about this.  Michelle Gomez is very entertaining, and she's more frightening than John Simm, though with all due respect to adorable little Simmypoos, who resembles a child's drawing of a teddybear, that's not hard.  She completely sells the idea that the Master has swapped genders, and there's actually a bit of Simm in the performance, that same over-the-top villainous glee which I, er, loved so much last time.

"I'll give him an army of Cybermen, and then we'll be friends again!"
"Is that before, or after you throw him out of a plane?"
She's better at balancing the scary and the silly, but do we really have to do the silly bit as well?  I've seen plenty of villains who are over-the-top doolally – most of them, in fact.  I've seen plenty of villains who can be tied up and still take control of the situation – almost all of them, in fact.  And as for the bit where she tells the Doctor "we're not so different", you gotta be kidding me.  See every hero/villain relationship ever for other examples of this.

The Master, much like the Cybermen, just isn't my cup of tea (especially when they're determined to keep writing him as the Joker), and doing a Buy One Get One Free in the same episode doesn't do either of them any favours.  Still, their plot is just window-dressing for what the episode is really about: the real arc plot is the character stuff, the Doctor, Clara and Danny.  Is he a good man?  Can she make her relationship work?  Is there more to a soldier than killing people?

This stuff has left me cold throughout Series Eight, and its importance is largely why this run of episodes hasn't been my favourite.  Danny's not a bad character, but he's a bit obvious.  We learn nothing about his war guilt here, via flashback and interview with the victim, that wasn't painfully clear when he blubbed over it in Episode Two.  Even worse, I was never sold on his relationship with Clara.  It just won't work: she likes travelling, but he doesn't think it's necessary.  She keeps lying to him and he (understandably) doesn't like that.  As for their great attraction, the bit that presumably overcomes that other stuff, it just isn't on the screen.  They like each other – sorry, love each other because the writers say so.  Shrug.

And unfortunately, their great love is what saves the day.  After Danny deletes his emotions (but still mysteriously gets to keep them), it's love that makes him encourage all the other Cybermen to disperse the clouds of Cyber-pollen by exploding in the sky (because they had nothing better to do?).  Just when Steven Moffat starts killing people off for realsies, including Osgood who I really liked, god damn it, it's disappointing to end on something as fairytale as the power of love.  Again.  (If I had my way, only Back To The Future would be allowed.)  It also undoes the tragic ordinariness of Danny's original death.  What with all the goalpost-shifting on the subject of the Afterlife, and Danny and Clara's descendent we met in Episode 4, it doesn't even seem likely he's going to stay dead.  Once again, shrug.

As for Clara, she's made great strides this series: she's finally got reasons to like or dislike the Doctor, reasons to want to stay at home as well as travel the universe (instead of just doing both because um), but I'd still be perfectly happy if she didn't come back for Series Nine.  They keep ramping up her importance and her apparent Doctorliness, reaching a head in the puzzingly unconvincing "I'm the Doctor" teaser, but a lot of the time I just don't believe she's a real person.  Crucially, I'm more than ready for a series of Doctor Who that isn't all about her.

Funny gag and everything, but was it worth it?
Her "brilliant ruse" didn't even fool the Cybermen, let alone us.
And that last point goes double for the Doctor.  I'm all for reappraising the character when he regenerates, but it's tedious to make the entire Doctor Who universe revolve around him personally, and questioning basic tenets of his personality that we know will not change.  There's nothing to gain from asking us whether we know him at all.  Steven?  We do.  Kind of got fifty years of evidence there.  Nonetheless, Series Eight has redundantly asked: is the Doctor a good man?

Blimey, that's a tough one.  I'm going to stick my neck out and guess yes, since his desire to combat evil and encourage good is the premise of the fucking series.  He may not be very nice since Peter Capaldi showed up, but you'd need to have a brain the size of a walnut to think he wasn't a force for good any more.  What he's doing every single week?  Zipping around and helping people?  Well then.  And wouldn't you know it, that's the conclusion he reaches here.  Duh.  Why even ask?

It's like threatening to kill him off at the end of the season, or teasing us with his real name.  We're not idiots; we know you won't do it.  All this time spent examining the Doctor has taught us precisely sod all that we didn't already know.  Death In Heaven builds and builds to this, complete with soul-searching flashbacks, but it's a damp squib when we get there.

(I should probably mention the plot, and how both UNIT and the Master randomly want to give the Doctor ultimate control over life and death, and how that leads into the episode's theme of whether absolute power would corrupt him absolutely.  And now I have.  They don't really go into it in either case – he doesn't need to make any presidential decisions and he immediately hands the Cyber army over to Danny – but yeah, I could have told you whether he'd go nuts before you even asked.  So could any Doctor Who fan.  Fingers crossed, we can move on now and stop the redundant Doctorly navel-gazing.)

His morality is decided, at least temporarily; the Master still needs disposing of.  To save Clara's soul, the Doctor volunteers.  It's a bit of a "whatever" moment, however, as someone else immediately steps in and does it for him.  Again.  (The chances of it being an actual death, rather than some sort of cheaty teleport, are hilariously slim.  This is the Master, after all.)  As for her killer, much has already been said about the Cyber-Brigadier, and how that's not the fate many of us wanted for one of Doctor Who's enduringly beloved characters, especially as Steven Moffat only tossed it in there to mop up one lingering plot strand and presumably, as is his wont, make another grubby, permanent mark on Doctor Who fandom.  I don't have much to add, because I'm still too angry to articulate, but wouldn't it be nice if showrunners had really stringent script editors?  Just in case any of their ideas were, you know, complete and utter shit.

Death In Heaven is pretty much all downhill from the moral quandaries of Dark Water – really, we begin tobogganing as soon as the Stompymen arrive.  It's silly, a bit fuzzy-headed and disappointing.  But it does end well.  In a piece of really nice writing, the Doctor and Clara ostensibly part ways, both by lying to each other.  She says she's happy with Danny, who has successfully returned from the dead (although that wasn't what she meant to say); he says he's found Gallifrey and is going home (although the Master lied and it isn't where she said it was).  It's not the end for these two – the comedy coda makes that clear – but it's brilliantly played by both of them.  Capaldi's reaction to "Gallifrey", via flashback, is terrifying.

"How's the episode coming, Steven?  All dark and deathy?"
"Yes!  It'll upset a few people.  But it's time we went darker."
"Okay  Send?"
In fact, while we're on the subject, Peter Capaldi is pretty bloody fantastic in this.  He always is – it's just the curious emphasis on ramming home his unpleasantness that gets in the way of me appreciating his Doctor.  Well, touch wood, I think I get him now.  I appreciate the darker edges, because they allow for a certain macabre edge to the storytelling.  You probably couldn't do that Afterlife stuff as well with Matt Smith, love and miss him as I do.  (And he appears in a flashback!  Ahhh!  But it's from the rubbish series.)  Capaldi radiates the Doctor's warmth when he needs to, and that's enough for me.  Maybe I'll appreciate him even more when he's not cluttered in histrionics, companion issues, boyfriends and other such nonsense.

So.  Series Eight.  Not good enough, really.  Peter Capaldi (and to a lesser extent Jenna Coleman) is carrying it, which is precisely what I was expecting.  The bad, or heavily flawed episodes outnumber the good ones.  Actually, there wasn't a single one I'd recommend at the top of my lungs, although Flatline and Mummy On The Orient Express had much to admire.  It's all been too introspective, too much time wasted asking the wrong questions, and good god, that's enough with the arc plots.  With any luck, Series Nine will put the stories first, and there'll be more than just a fantastic lead actor to write home about.  Frankly, Matt Smith put up with enough of that already.