Monday, June 20, 2005

My, What A Big Budget You Have

Prefect SlogAll the better to dazzle you with, my dear. What the Big Bad Wolf really needed was a Big Bad Ending - where 'Bad' means good, kick-ass, plenty of pow and wow - and thankfully "The Parting of the Ways", grand finale of the new Doctor Who's first season, had all of that in spades. Unfortunately not quite enough spades to dig itself out of all the holes it made for itself, but on the other hand nowhere near enough to bury it either. The whole thing, it turns out, was a love story, both between the Doctor and Rose, and between the episode and the Paul McGann TV Movie; the former a resounding success, the latter a rather misguided affair that didn't do the story any favours. Way back when I saw the TVM for the first time, I remember being suitably impressed by the production values and the fx, but by no means sufficiently impressed to be blinded to the story's failings. And, for the record, I didn't mind the kiss at the end - I mean, it's all a bit Hollywood and unnecessary to have every hero go for the inevitable snog, but McGann's Doctor was a suitably romantic figure, so what the hell. No, what I objected to principally was the flimsy plot (as well as the flimsy Master) and the dreadful cop-out ending, with the TARDIS hitting a magical reset button to save the world and restore the dead people back to life so as to ensure a comforting zero dramatic cost and provide any subsequent adventures in the series with an all too easy Undo option on the Story menu. So if, out of some profound admiration for the TVM, you really feel the need to cut and paste elements from it, sure, borrow the kiss at the end, and have your Daleks mock the fans as they declare the infamous 'half-human' phrase to be blasphemy - but don't, please don't, give us a story that has more cops out (ahem) than The Blues Brothers. Cheap fx I can forgive - I used to watch Doctor Who, remember - but cheap storytelling is a little harder to overlook, I find. Before I get stuck on a thoroughly negative track though, let's be clear: I did, despite the various cheats and get-out clauses, manage to enjoy it all and there was a huge amount of really very very good stuff in there. It was, in point of fact, jam-packed with good bits. For starters, credit where it's due, it had answers to some of those questions that had been left hanging from the previous episode, and some of them were even satisfactory - e.g. what was happening to all the humans being transmatted from Satellite Five? Being turned into Daleks, mate, that's what. Ulp. On top of which, the whole thing was laced with brilliant drama as well as all the spectacle, backed up by a suitably epic score - once again resorting to a lot of choral overtones, as per "Dalek", building an effective sense of menace. The Dalek Emperor was appropriately chilling, and the additional religious aspect succeeds in rendering the Dalek race even more dangerous; and the scenes in the Dalek ship are enhanced wonderfully by noticing all the many Daleks scooting about in the background - there's attention to detail for you. The Doctor is driven inexorably into a corner, and we're treated to the superb and emotionally charged sequence where he tricks Rose into the TARDIS and packs her on her way, with a hologram message that turns to her and tells her to live a fantastic life. Wow. And the Dalek Emperor hails the Doctor as The Great Exterminator, something of a reprise of the individual Dalek's accusation in Episode Six that the Doctor "would make a good Dalek". Initially I wasn't sure when the action cut away to more domestic scenes with Rose, her Mum and Mickey (can we please be shot of him already?) on Earth, but they're played out so brilliantly that you can't help but be as involved in events there as much as at the forefront of the Dalek invasion. On the subject of which, well, it was all worth it (let's be honest and entirely superficial here) just to see those thousands of Daleks pouring out of the ships and being allowed to exterminate away to their hearts' content. Let a Dalek be a Dalek, I say, even more so when you've got an army of them. And Jack's death has genuine impact. (Lynda with a Y, not so much, since we saw that coming last week, all without the aid of a Next Week... BBC-brand spoiler-fest.) There's such a lot of outstanding character moments and cracking dialogue, there's such a lot of, quite simply, brilliance in evidence that I can't help feeling that it deserved a far better class of storytelling than it got, and as much as I enjoyed it, the niggles are more than mere niggles and they feel like they really let the side down. It starts with the Doctor whizzing over to the Dalek spaceship in the TARDIS, materialising around Rose in order to pull off the rescue, continues with a force field that appears to extend outside the TARDIS - even following the Doctor and companions around so that they can walk safely to greet the Emperor - and shield all concerned from the unwanted attentions of the Dalek death rays. Following that not so daring rescue, there's an unfortunate lull in the action as the Dalek ships advance, giving those on board Satellite Five plenty of time to prepare their defences. The force field that prevents the Daleks from just blowing the station away, well, I can just about forgive that, as we wouldn't have had much of an episode without the Dalek boarding action, but the fact that the boarding action is conducted so abysmally is particularly poor. The Daleks may be able to climb stairs but they aren't half slow. When they bumble up against the hastily erected barricades, they presumably endeavour to surprise the defenders by, well, sitting there and waiting for someone to hit an eyestalk and invoke the old "Vision is impaired" mantra from one of their brethren, before adopting the sounder military strategy of 'shooting the enemy'. Still, in their favour, they do blow away Anne Robinson - although technically, as far as I know, she was only transmatting them back to their own ship. Another slightly weak link there. The Doctor's Delta Wave, in itself a magic solution, is nonetheless one with a dreadful cost attached and therefore potentially loaded with drama, which does pay off in terms of that moment of choice - to press the lever or not to press the lever, that is the question, whether tis nobler - and all that. Such a shame then that the entire thing comes down to such a deus ex machina and ultimately, as if to echo one of the things that has been lacking in the majority of episode resolutions throughout the series, the Doctor does diddly. Fair enough, he doesn't want to commit mass murder - you have to admire the bloke for that - but effectively he's given up, he's Dalek fodder and at that point the Universe (which in this series amounts to dear old Earth) is there for the Daleks' taking. Lucky then that Rose is the Bad Wolf and, by the power vested in her by the TARDIS and the Vortex (courtesy of a bit of brute force - a truck - and ignorance - Mickey - to lever the console open), she turns back time. Cher would be so jealous. Ashes to ashes, Daleks to dust, there you go, Doctor, another solution handed to you on a plate, and by the way, for my next trick, I'll bring Jack back to life and so undermine the dramatic impact of that moment too. It's like the TVM all over again. Now how's about a kiss. Dear oh dear. Don't get me wrong - I'm glad Jack's survived, he's a great character, proactive and highly entertaining, he deserved to survive. Just not by being killed and then brought back to life. And I'm still left with questions about the whole Bad Wolf thing, not sure why Rose had to scatter the words everywhere along her timeline to quite that extent. For the record, I never guessed who Bad Wolf was - my theory was that it was the future Doctor, guiding his current incarnation; so the revelation came as a surprise, granted, but I have to wonder, at the end of it all, whether the future Doctor alternative might actually have been better. Briefly, on the subject of that future Doctor, I'm not in any position to offer any real opinions on the new fellow yet - I will say, he had a great opening line ("New teeth") and I just hope that, in contrast to the Eccleston Doctor who, with typical arrogance declares himself to have been "Fantastic!" when the sad truth is, Doctor, in the final analysis, you really didn't do very much at all, David Tennant proves himself a far more proactive Time Lord who resolves situations with more than a sonic screwdriver and someone else's last-minute heroics to save the day. So, DT, welcome aboard, and the world wants you to succeed. Thankfully the BBC have decided to back their new Doctor with a promise of Season 2 *and* 3, and I think that's the kind of support I'd like to see across the board for the Doctor Who brand. It inspires confidence and gives us something to look forward to, which is always nice and it's very reassuring that at the end of this fairy tale, this particular Bad Wolf doesn't get the axe.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Regeneration Game

Prefect SlogDidn't they do well? Okay, they didn't cover that particular game show in "Bad Wolf", the penultimate episode of the new series of Doctor Who, but it could qualify as a missed opportunity. I admit I cringed a bit when I saw the trailer for this one, because it smacked of more 80s Doctor Who silliness. According to the film, Candyman, if you repeat his name the requisite number of times he'll come and get you, but luckily the variant spelling must have kept the more lurid and farcical excesses of that particular Terra Alphan villain (surely an all-time DW low) at bay here because I didn't find anything in "Bad Wolf" nearly as painful as Bertie Bassett. It was all good fun, with enough of a nasty edge to keep things interesting (a sort of "Vengeance on Varos" for the 21st Century), and with a gripping and nicely paced tail end to the episode that might have been really stunning if the central revelation hadn't been blown in the previous week's Next Week... trailer. In fact this one might as well have been called "Bad Wolf... of the Daleks", as far as that goes. I do wonder how it all might date, given the incorporation of real contemporary game shows - and, to be honest, I hope it does date badly, because all it would take is for The Weakest Link and Big Brother to disappear from our screens within the next couple of years, yes please. On the other hand, using the genuine articles, including the brand music, is what makes the joke work. It's only unfortunate that, certainly on a second watch, you notice that they don't really do enough with it, in the case of the Big Brother gag, while they rather overplay the Weakest Link sketch, cycling through a few too many questions and even counting down to the commencement of play from as high as seventeen. There's a few other unnecessaries, what with the Trinny and Susannah bots revealing their cosmetic surgery tools twice - once for the audience, once for Jack - and the whole revelation about the Bad Wolf Corporation was needlessly duplicated too, once for Rose, once for the Doctor. Also, I was a little mystified as to why the Doctor, when one of the housemates is being evicted, should declare that it's all 'only a game show', when just the scene before he's arrived at the deduction that it's all 'more than just a game show'. Still, it's all very colourful and there's a decent streak of humour throughout (Cap'n Jack gets some great lines, although perhaps 'streak' of humour is too obviously the right word in his case), even if it does take pains to spell things out a bit overmuch at times (Lynda with a Y clarifying things for the Doctor: "She's been evicted - from life" and Rose's fellow contestant clarifying, in the wake of the runaway contestant's disintegration, that it's best not to try to escape and it's "Play or die". Well, d'uh.) Against the light-hearted vein, there's the gloom of the space station interior, and the stark imagery - calling to mind the Dalek Emperor and the Borg Queen - of the Controller, all hooked up to her cables at the centre of the proceedings. And of course the Daleks show up - dum dum dum!! All a little peeved no doubt at having the carpet pulled out from under their dramatic entrance by the BBC. And since I knew they were coming, I have to say that the ready way in which the Doctor formed an attachment to sweet Lynda with a Y, only made me think she was being groomed as a VICTIM with an I or two. Trust me, she's going to die. The sight of all the Dalek ships, with that choral score to back them up, was a great goosebump moment though and of course now we know the capabilities of a single Dalek, the prospect of half a million of the buggers is really something. So the sense of a formidable threat is well and truly established. Such a wasted opportunity then that, when the Doctor delivers a flat "No" to the Dalek ultimatum, they don't just turn around and gun Rose down. Don't get me wrong, I've nothing against Rose, but in the first place it begged the question right away why they didn't just do that, and in the second place it would have been just about the biggest shock the show could have delivered at that point. Possibly ever, in fact. But Billie's already signed her contract for Series Two, so no dice there, I suppose. Ah well. Unfortunately, other questions do crop up alongside that little "Why didn't they just shoot her?" one: a) if the contestants have all been transmatted instead of disintegrated, where have they all gone? (a factor which, incidentally, is something of a weak link in itself, potentially undermining the apparent nastiness in the TV shows on display) b) does the same hold true for the face-lifting Trinny and Susannah bit, and the Countdown with bombs, and Call My Bluff with real guns shows? c) if the Controller can transmat the Doctor et al out of the TARDIS, why did she go to the trouble of sowing all those Bad Wolf references throughout the Doctor's life as a means of drawing him in? d) if one Dalek can take out Salt Lake City (with a population of one million), what did they need to do for the fleet to 'be ready' before taking on an Earth full of humans who are media-brainwashed sheep? e) if one Dalek can take out Salt Lake City (with a population of one million) are we really going to see lots of bloodshed in next week's episode or are they going to go the Aliens route and have a lot of Daleks being blown away? f) given the apparent absence of any space-going navy around the Earth, surely all those Dalek ships could just blow Satellite Five away and be rid of the Doctor in somewhere a little under a jiffy? g) why did the Daleks transmat the Controller out of Satellite Five in order to exterminate her? Surely not the most expedient use of energy, and possibly therein lies the explanation as to why they've been taking such a long time to 'get ready'. All these questions and more may or may not be answered in the final thrilling (well, it looks like it will be) episode of this series of Doctor Who, so I'll wait and see if we get any answers to any of them. And even if we don't, from what I hear, it seems likely we'll get to see them do The Regeneration Game before too long in any case.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


Prefect Slog"Boomtown" may not be quite bad enough to have everyone singing 'I don't like Saturdays', but really, what a pile of rubbish, I wouldn't be surprised to find a few rats foraging around in there - in search of something, anything they can get there teeth into. Give it up, rodents, there's nothing. Now, fair enough, the episode was onto waste ground from my point of view anyway, in endeavouring to bring back the Slitheen. Doctor Who has been perennially knocked for its wobbly sets and men-in-rubber-suits monsters, so resurrecting a man-in-wobbly-rubber-suit monster seems like retrograde motion, especially given that the new series was allegedly setting out to distance itself from the poorer aspects of the old show's reputation. Still, even given a patch of waste ground, you ought to be able to build something on it, rather than just rearrange the mess into a bigger heap. It has all the silliness of the earlier two-part Slitheen outing, a modest fraction of the farting and, given the confines of a single 45-minute episode, a heavier concentration of stupidity. Stupidity which begins with the basic premise: an alien with the ability to disguise itself as any human being by slipping into a new skin escapes to become the mayor of Cardiff, but neglects to switch disguises and prefers instead to protect her identity merely by being a bit camera shy. And goes on from there. There must be something in the Cardiff air that dulls the Doctor's wits too, as the last time he was here, he was easily duped by the angelic appearance and pitiful appeals of the Gelth - he even mentions them and the rift here, some little while before delivering a surprised "I should have known" when the Slitheen Mayoress turns nasty in the TARDIS. This, after the Doctor has been goaded into taking her out to dinner. Although I suppose, relatively speaking, this is only comparable to Tom Baker's Doctor sharing a philosophical discussion with Davros as intellectual equals in "Genesis of the Daleks". Yeah, right. I suppose it doesn't help that I rarely go a bundle on the kind of bleeding heart sympathy vote that they were aiming for here, as this poor lonely Slitheen that had been prepared to reduce the entire Earth to radioactive slag - and who had murdered the woman whose skin she was wearing - did her best to appeal to the Doctor's soft side. I'd have hoped that at least one of the TARDIS crew had the backbone to look her in the eye - particularly a Doctor who could watch Cassandra shrivel up and explode at the end of "The End of the World". The other thought that occurred during that scene was that the TARDIS was a mite overcrowded, and it may (what do I mean, may!) have been a mistake to bring Mickey in, when we had only just recruited Cap'n Jack (who has precious little to do here, but he needn't feel left out as the others are only involved in the plot equivalent of make-work) and only had a single episode to play with. On the other hand, the plot is so flimsy, Mickey is much-needed padding, but unfortunately padding something out with Mickey is like padding it with vacuum. Ordinarily, I've been giving each story a second watch before writing any sort of review, but I honestly can't bring myself to waste a second 45 minutes on this one. There's not even enough story to merit the one watch, let alone a second. Okay, there's some stuff about the rift, cracks (appropriately enough) opening up in the scenery, and there's a danger of the Slitheen surfing away to freedom, leaving the entire planet to blow up in her wake. But luckily, she looks into the heart of the TARDIS and turns into an egg. Huh?! Bring back the reset switch of the McGann TV Movie, all is forgiven. Or better yet, roll on the Daleks, and if they get to exterminate Anne Robinson then maybe "Boomtown" will be a distant memory by next Saturday.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Doctor Strangelove

Prefect SlogIt's a metaphor, darlings. Not since the X Files has the truth been so out there. Yes, it's like the Doctor's been travelling around in a closet all his life instead of a police box and now it's official: the Doctor does indeed 'dance'. I'm really not sure what to make of that, since as with the X Files, I tended to prefer the Mulder-Scully relationship when there was a frissson of sexual chemistry, the suggestion of what might happen as opposed to when it was out there. But at least it gives us something to talk about, as I'm afraid "The Doctor Dances" was another of those episodes where there really isn't much to say about it other than 'that was great, that was" and go on to sing its praises some more. Which, as we've covered before, can get kind of dull. :) Suffice to say, what Steve Moffat gave us was a fitting conclusion to what started so brilliantly in "The Empty Child", and once again he demonstrates a firm understanding of what makes Doctor Who tick. Even to the extent that, if a 90-minute two-parter can broadly equate to an old 4-part story, he kicks it off splendidly with two episodes of mystery and menace, follows with a good deal of running around in part 3 and builds to a satisfactory and suitably dramatic conclusion in part 4. (And at last, although it's Nancy and the nanogenes that set everything to rights, the Doctor plays his part and crucially it feels like he's involved in that conclusion.) Inevitably, this one sheds some of the creepiness that laced "The Empty Child", but the nature of the story is bound to change, both as we learn more and as the need to pick up the pace dictates. If part one was a danse macabre, then part two is something of a gloomy polka: quick, with a curiously successful combination of light and dark. There's room for a few moments of genuine horror, as other victims sprout gas masks from their faces. The sequence with the typewriter typing by itself and the child's voice carrying on when the tape has run out do seem to be attempting the same scare twice, but generally it works. And there's all the wit and humour of the first part (Richard Wilson's answer to the woman who discovers she's grown back a leg: "Is it possible you miscounted?", Cap'n Jack riding a bomb in a heavily symbolic Doctor Strangelove homage) contrasted with the grit and stark reality of teenage motherhood and questions of sexual proclivities. Including those of the Doctor himself. He's nine hundred years old. He's been around. What makes us think he hasn't danced? And the word 'dance' is applied liberally throughout the episode with appropriate emphasis to make sure we get the metaphor. Okay, there's no on-screen testing of sonic bedsprings or anything, but the answer to the question many people have asked over the years is there for all to see, on the obvious side of implicit. So yes, the Doctor dances. My only complaint would be that I wish he hadn't done quite so much of it in the denoeuement, as that tail end of the story does seem to go on a bit. But it's a very minor point in such a terrific two-parter. And I don't intend to dwell on the question of the Doctor's past sexual activities. For one thing, it might undermine all my innocent childhood illusions about Sarah Jane Smith, and I wouldn't want that. For another, the Doctor has always been like a favourite-uncle figure and any contemplation of what relatives may or may not get up to in the bedroom is just plain unhealthy. (Shudder.)