Friday, May 27, 2005

Jumpin Flash Jack, It's Aghast Gas Mask

Prefect SlogYeah, okay, I'm reeling in agony from that subject header myself. But you know, pleasure often has to come at the cost of a little pain, and boy "The Empty Child" was such a pleasure to watch. In a being scared but enjoying it, honest guv, sort of way. And no, it was actually nothing to do with the prospect of the Eurovision Song Contest hitting our screens shortly afterwards, it was all down to this one Doctor Who episode. Nicely creepy, a terrific sense of setting, an intriguing and involving mystery, beautifully realised and well paced, and convincing child actors. And with the sort of enduring imagery - scary child in gas mask - that used to stick in the mind years after the old classics had aired and helped warp my impressionable childhood imagination so darned well. Back when I saw "The Curse Of Fatal Death", the Doctor Who skit for Comic Relief, I recognised that Steve Moffat had a really good grasp of what Doctor Who was all about, and he demonstrated it tenfold in this one. Even managing to season the whole thing with some sparkling comic dialogue, in the pauses between dishing out cases of the creeps all over the nation. Of course, since we know nothing's perfect, there had to be something wrong with it, right? Um, okay, on first watch I did find the opening a bit rushed to the extent that I missed snatches of the dialogue and, er, I did wonder about the wisdom of Jack Harkness in decloaking his spaceship and lighting up Big Ben in the middle of an air raid. But heck, wisdom shmisdom, it was a bit of romantic fantasy, and worth doing for the imagery. And so nice to get the whole Time Agent thing being threaded into it as a nod to "Talons of Weng Chiang" (although I guess I would say that, being the writer of Emotional Chemistry and all :) ) (And for those who don't get that joke, go out and buy the book :) ) And Rose gets to hang from a barrage balloon, screaming helplessly for the Doctor like a traditional companion, and gets to swoon in the face of Jack's charms and, you know what, I don't think it undermined her feminine strengths one jot. All good fun, and lord knows we needed some of that, as we were never sure when the child was going to come stalking out of the shadows again, calling for his "Mummy" and giving us the jitters. *Maybe* the Doctor's speech about Britain in the Blitz sounded a bit overly patriotic for a non-national, but against that the episode scores serious points for being a wartime Doctor Who that doesn't feature the Nazis. It also scores even more points for the BBC's ability to treat a cliffhanger right and include an advanced warning that the next week's preview was coming up *after* the credits. Well done, people. I knew they'd get the hang of a cliffhanger eventually. Which is what you want at the end of part one of a truly 'Weird Tale'. And now all part two has to do is deliver on all that promise. Hmm. On top of the anticipation for this weekend's episode, I'm a little bit nervous. Are you? Well, whatever happens if an air raid warden shouts "Put that light out", don't listen to him. In the first place, he's probably one of the strange victims sporting a sinister gas mask, and in the second place, you really don't wanna be watching this kind of stuff in the dark.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

A Tissue! A Tissue! We All Fall Down

Prefect SlogThe day "Father's Day" was due to air, my sisters happened to air one complaint about the new series of "Doctor Who" which, when I thought about it, unfortunately felt entirely valid. Contrary to their habit of knocking the old series when I used to enjoy it, they'd been watching the new one pretty avidly, but they'd started to get a bit ticked off with the fact that the TARDIS hadn't really gone anywhere other than dear old Earth. And they're right. Even "The End Of The World", with its procession of colourful aliens, occurs in orbit around our blue-green planet. So, if anyone's paying attention, guys, please, let's see some alien worlds. I haven't asked my sisters yet what they thought of "Father's Day" but I can only imagine that there was some disappointment on that score at least as they sat down to watch that night's episode. Still, none of that is Paul Cornell's fault, and in the context of the new series, he produces a strong piece of emotional human drama. More of a tear-jerker than a thought-provoker, mainly because if I'd allowed myself to think too hard about the temporal aspects of the story, I was afraid the whole thing would fall apart. E.g. why do the first Doctor and Rose wink out of existence once Rose Two saves her dear old pa? At that point, I knew I was going to enjoy the episode more if I didn't ask too many questions like that, and luckily a few tears, for the most part, adequately obscure the vision. Setting aside the time travel theory, the supporting cast do a grand job - most notably Rose's Dad, and since he's fairly crucial to the whole thing, that scores high points - and the Reapers are effective, not only in the way they look, but also in the way they see - through a filter of blood red - as they stalk their victims even before we get to see them. There are certain less than satisfying aspects that are difficult to ignore. One related to the episode in question, in that its resolution is all too inevitable and therefore predictable from the outset. While the others are more symptomatic of the series as a whole, and include the Doctor's lack of involvement in the resolution (in the context of an individual episode, and this one, it could be argued, in particular, not a fault, but in the context of the series, again dissatisfying); as well as the fact that, once the Reapers make their appearance, the action effectively stops and the episode goes largely nowhere for too long, as the creatures circle the church and everyone holes up inside (again, not necessarily a fault when the episode is taken individually, but when we've been treated to sequences in other episodes in which the plot fails to advance, you can't help thinking something needs to be done). And on a more minor note, I'm still utterly mystified as to the significance of the voice of Alexander Graham Bell coming through on the various phones in the episode, but it's possible I'm being thick - or it's possible the explanation got lost in the edits. Ultimately, it's the human story and not some of the more traditional elements of Doctor Who (temporal science in this case) that are the most successful in this one and given that shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer proved more popular for the teen-soap aspects than for the weekly monster, I guess that's no bad thing. So, on the whole, with my subject heading, I'm just being clever and the story is an emotionally involving one that does hold together - although I'm still refusing to examine the time travel theory too closely. Just in case. :)


Prefect SlogIn the Doctor Who Confidential following "The Long Game", Russell T Davies says something to the effect that if it didn't have Simon Pegg in it, the whole thing might have been rather dull. Not the most inspiring thing a writer could say about his own episode and while I think he might have been a little unfair on the whole thing, he might also have a point. The overall impression I was left with at the end was that it had been reasonably fun, reasonably entertaining, with a reasonable central premise (based on manipulation of human society by an alien-controlled media) and considerably livened by the likes of Simon Pegg and Tamsin Greig. As in "Dalek" I wasn't that impressed with the character of Adam, although it was faintly amusing to see him as a TV version of Hex (the audio companion), as he looked like he was on loan from Hollyoaks (Brookside's younger cousin) and went about saying "Oh my god" just often enough for the comparison to stick. But I couldn't quite put my finger on why it felt, well, a bit ordinary and not very satisfying. Someone pointed out that it was very 80s Doctor Who, and that *might* be the only explanation needed. But I didn't need to think too hard to realise I also had problems with some aspects of the story that went a little further than that. For one, there really wasn't much of a story at all. The episode seemed a curious combination of being too simple to be very involving for us grown-ups, and based on what was probably too high-brow a concept for the kids. Worse - and perhaps out of a need to explain it to the kids - that concept, of social manipulation by the media (surely inspired by Fox), was delivered almost entirely according to a policy of tell-don't-show, something that went completely against the grain of the storyteller in me. On the plus side, it did have some memorable imagery (people's heads opening up to download data), some colourful moments and a degree of atmosphere (characters having a nose around the chilly regions of the top floor). But very much on the down side, it also suffered from what is probably the most disappointing trend of the new series overall: the persistent return of Doctor DoLittle. In this one, he and Rose are rendered inactive, helpless and shackled together, and while he does goad a guest character into action, it's a) an action we saw coming a long time ago (i.e. turn up the heat) and b) a resolution that we'd rather, after too many episodes of seeing the Doctor do not very much, see our 'hero' being a little more actively involved in. On aggregate then, the various pluses and minuses left this one, for me, somewhere very much in the middle of the road. A bit like the alien behind it all (I'm not even going to attempt writing out it's full name), it could have done with a little more creative thought put into it, so it didn't end up being quite so much a shapeless blob (too much like the Nestene in the first episode, for my liking) with a few teeth.

Positively Dull

Prefect SlogReflecting on "Dalek", episode six of the new series of Doctor Who, I begin to appreciate the perspective of the critic, many of whom apparently feel an obligation to be negative most of the time for fear they won't come across as sufficiently witty and entertaining. But in the face of my own overwhelmingly positive reaction to Rob Shearman's new series contribution, I'm not going to succumb to the same urge, and I'm just going to have to be completely at ease with the fact that this review of mine is going to be dull. Admittedly, with my current efforts to avoid use of the F word (by which I mean, "Fantastic!" - a word now doomed to be forever heard in my mind in a Christopher Eccleston voice) I'm going to be more limited than I'd like when it comes to appropriate superlatives, but for simplicity's sake, I'll just say: I loved it. Unreservedly. Yes, it had its flaws. Such as...what on earth is the Dalek thinking, showing off its nifty ability to levitate, then electing to follow the course of the stairs all the way around? Er, had it really not come across the concept of 'straight up' in its intensive download of the entire internet? What was the Doctor thinking, accusing Van Statten that he'd 'set it loose'? Scuse me, Doc, but the blame for that lies squarely with Rose. Van Statten was the one keeping it locked away, deep in the deepest vault and if Rose hadn't stuck her (admittedly touching) oar in, the thing would have been tortured to death and the Earth would never have been so endangered. Get your facts straight, Doctor. A friend of mine also observed that a billion combinations on the lock to the Dalek's cage was really not that great, and if I really thought about it I'd have certain questions about the abilities of the Dalek to regenerate itself merely by the acquisition of a little Rose DNA. But, really, when it comes down to it, who cares! It was great. They reinvented the Dalek, but retained the design. They made it intelligent, scary, bloody dangerous *and* sympathetic. (Just please, guys, when you bring them back in numbers make sure they're just as intelligent, scary and bloody dangerous - whole worlds must quake in their metaphorical boots. Don't do an "Aliens", please, and have lots of them just to have lots of them blown away, and then have to introduce a Queen Dalek just to up the ante again. That's all I ask.) The setting was nicely confined, and there was a real sense of them being trapped in there with the rampaging Dalek. The key characters were great - with the exception of Adam, and why oh why did they need to take him along at the end - I mean, if the Doctor had wanted a spare limb, there was a perfectly serviceable Slitheen arm in Van Statten's collection. And the character moments were nothing short of terrific: I wasn't a hundred percent sure about the Doctor's childish taunting of the Dalek when he discovers it's defenceless, but then I've not been convinced of this Doctor's childish behaviour on other occasions either. But lines like the Dalek accusing the Doctor, "You would make a good Dalek", the little moment in front of the Cyberman exhibit, the Doctor's evident fear and hatred of the Dalek race and his desperate scrambling to deal with this lone survivor, Rose's apparent death, and the genuinely tear-jerking stuff towards the end all - along with other moments that will no doubt jump out at me when I revisit the episode again (and I got the sense the episode had a greater re-watchability than any of the others thus far) - make for a magic 45-minutes. So, in summary, apologies for a positively dull review, but it's not my fault if Rob Shearman and the production team come up with an episode quite the opposite.