Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sketchy At Best

Prefect SlogBetter. From last week's Blue Peter competition winner, Doctor Who has improved its game to bring it in line with the standard of entry for Tony Hart's Vision On gallery, apparently choosing to draw (ha!)inspiration from Paperhouse(1988) - a movie I've only seen bits of, but one I now want to watch in order to see if it's any more creepy and effective than Fear Her.
It's not that Fear Her was bad. It's just that it was such a huge improvement on last week's Love & Monsters that it achieved the distinction of being remarkably average. Not just ordinary, but extra ordinary. And the trouble with anything that average is that it doesn't penetrate nearly as deeply as anything excellent (The Empty Child, say) or dreadful (take your pick) and leaves you with not much you can say about it.
So there we have it. Fear Her.
Oh, all right then, I'll make an effort.
Somewhere in there was a good story. A kid has the power to capture people and things in her drawings (cool) and to bring her drawings to life (also cool, but not a flip side that's explored to any satisfactory degree in the episode). It's because the girl's been possessed by an alien (so-so) that's out to secure as many friends for itself as possible because it's lonely (awww - actually a nice and fairly novel bit of motivation for an alien 'menace'.) (And I use the word 'menace' loosely, because there's actually very little of it in evidence here.)
With that to play with, the episode does manage a steady build-up, with a mystery that's allowed to develop at a well-judged pace - not something we get to see a lot of in Doctor Who these days - and even delivers some sense of menace from the drawing in the cupboard, the fact that it's a portrait of the girl's father leading the imagination along genuinely and uncomfortably creepy lines.
Working against it, all the time, is the pedestrian setting and, not just that, the pedestrian approach to shooting that setting. There's a complete absence of atmosphere. And the menace fails to materialise, in part because the only real monster on offer stays in the cupboard.
Okay, it does break out towards the end, but by then it's all a bit too late and we've been lulled into the belief we've been watching an especially sleepy episode of some X-Files/Eastenders crossover. An impression reinforced by the inclusion of Frank Butcher's Mum from the UK's number one soap. I wonder, if the producers more time working on Doctor Who stories instead of struggling so hard for all this relevance to contemporary audiences, might we begin to see something better and something more like, well, Doctor Who. And making it a bit more Eastenders doesn't ground it in reality, it just grounds it in Wolford.
For some reason, there's also this whole Olympic Games thread running (ha) throughout and we're left to wonder why, until the end, when the Doctor takes up the torch (torch - Torchwood?) and yours truly starts hunting around for a sick bag. Far too lame for track and field.
There were nice comic moments - the TARDIS materialising the wrong way around, with the Doctor unable to get out - and there were nice character moments - "I was a dad once", the Doctor says. But there's nothing, least of all the Olympic torch, that can possibly make this episode shine. Even the nicely judged (relative to what we've seen in this series) story development falls down like a - like a paper house (haha) when we fall once more into explanation territory, somewhere in the middle. There's nowhere near enough story here for two parts, but the Doctor has to know all about the aliens in order for this to meet its 45 minute deadline, and sitting in a bedroom talking about aliens might be what Doctor Who fans do when their show isn't on, but it doesn't make for great viewing or storytelling.
At which point, I'm sorry, I get tired and I'm sure there's more I could say, but I just don't have the energy or inclination. Fear Her is an instruction and obviously that's what we're meant to do, but it's about what you'd expect from the tell-don't-show approach. Which is especially ironic in an episode that, to begin with, at least made efforts in the other direction.
In the end it all boils down to one word: 'meh'. Or, as we say these days, it's all a bit Idiots' Lantern.
As something of an epilogue, the trailer for next week's would have excited some interest but for the fact that I'm a little tired of Doctor Who being used as a promotional vehicle for its own spinoff series (they're making this thing called Torchwood, by the way, did you know?) and the return of the Cybermen just manages to rub salt in the two-part wound that was Rise Of The Cybermen and Age Of Steel. They set that bloody thing on an *alternative Earth*. They could have had the Cybermen *win*, for crying out loud. Then, when they return, they're actually a bona fide, all-conquering menace, and we've a real reason to fear them. As it is, I'll just have to hope someone manages to override my emotional inhibitor chip so that I can be induced to care.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Stuff & Nonsense

Prefect SlogOh dear. I'd been so looking forward to sitting down and watching Doctor Who this week, but for some reason it wasn't on. Instead, they showed this episode called Love & Monsters from some other series I'd not seen before and hoped we would all keep watching anyway. I did, as it happens, but only under duress and it was a very close run thing. I was, for the first time in forever, on the point of giving up and going in the other room to do something - anything - more interesting when, in about the 15th minute, Peter Kay made his entrance. Peter Kay is not normally an inducement to continue watching anything, if you ask me - quite the opposite - but it was coincidentally the same moment when it looked like something of note might actually happen.
It didn't. But I rode out the wave of disappointment all the way to the end anyway. I can't say it was downhill from there exactly - it's hard to discern any kind of gradient when you start out so close to rock bottom - but it wasn't an experience I'll be repeating any time soon.
But I'm being unfair. The opening was at least a novel one and there was the hint of a story to follow. It's just that none materialised, and in its place we were subjected to what was esssentially a parody of fandom and part 'clip show', which was all very well and perhaps in another series might have made for a reasonable sitcom. And by 'reasonable sitcom', I'd put it in the Two Pints Of Lager bracket - i.e. the sort of thing that seems acceptable to BBC3 these days - if I was being charitable. To distinguish from such sitcoms, this did have its fair share of witty moments - although the early recourse to Scooby Doo antics was an ominous sign that did the whole thing no favours - but in the context of this latest series of Doctor Who - because, it's no use, I can't really kid myself otherwise, it was officially an episode of Doctor Who - it was nothing remotely like what I was looking or hoping for. What this series needed that Saturday was a decent, well-written, gripping Doctor Who adventure. As it was, in light of this farcical bit of fluff, we might easily kid ourselves that, despite the gaping plot holes and sloppy writing in the previous two-parter, we'd already seen such a thing in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. But the truth is we haven't - and we are long overdue. This is a flagship series for the BBC, with huge resources thrown at it and, allegedly, written by the best in the business - and yet I've seen entirely average - or lesser - American TV shows that have been consistently put together better.
People will no doubt applaud this outing for being brave and experimental, and of course I'd have to agree. But the thing about bravery is that it's easily confused with foolhardiness, and the thing about experiments is that they are often apt to fail. Experimental episodes, really, are for the shows that have achieved a comfortable and consistent high standard, not series which even in their best episodes (this year, Tooth & Claw, School Reunion) are riddled with flaws that we're sufficiently engaged to overlook.
This one, you know the outlook is poor when they're resorting to a montage so close to the beginning. No matter how much you like ELO - and I do - it's a telltale sign that there's a lack of story here.
(The montage, of course, is an increasingly frequent staple of Doctor Who: Confidential these days, used to flimsily disguise the fact that they're running out of material to fill a 30 minute instalment each week. And by a curious coincidence it was only when watching Confidential, after the show, that this week's episode made sense. This was the first I discovered that the Absorbaloff (sp?) was in fact a monster designed by a Blue Peter competition winner - a 9-year old kid. Yes, suddenly it all became clear. Although I then wondered when we were going to be introduced to the 7-year old who'd written the script. Which was, I confess, very uncharitable of me, but hey, I had just been cheated out of my weekly helping of Doctor Who and, perhaps more to the point, in amongst some of the sharper wit, I have detected too much in this latest brand of Doctor Who that is puerile and infantile, as though the show is often playing down to its younger audience, something that I don't believe the 'classic series' did, at least until its later pantomime years. Aka the Winter Years, because winter is the season of pantomime, after all.)
Just as things aren't helped by the presence of Peter Kay as the most ludicrous monster since the Slitheen (passing similarities to which I noticed with a groan, before the episode acknowledged said similarities itself), they aren't helped either by the inclusion of the guy from Hustle - for one thing he looks too much like Gordon Ramsay for my liking, and for another he was in Hustle, another of the BBC's proud series which suffers a bad case of style over substance; the only successful scam it ever depicted being the one where it ripped off every con-artist movie in history and passed it off to an unwitting public as original and entertaining. Things were moderately helped by Shirley Henderson, who was such a scream in the BBC's recent modern re-telling of Taming Of The Shrew. But against that, the same things weren't at all helped by Jackie who, despite contributing a sometimes humorous and emotional performance, just serves as a reminder that this is all about 'the people left behind'. Both in her case and - in more of a Girl In The Fireplace Doctor-just-occasionally-passing-through sort of way - in the case of Elton, the 'hero' of this 'brave experiment'. I mean, fine, go ahead and explore this aspect of the companions' travels with the Doctor - but explore it once, thanks, and be done with it. Then get on with telling us some cracking Doctor Who stories. Please. I am BORED with 'the people left behind'. Doctor Who is NOT about them. That's for another show that, let's be honest, really doesn't deserve to be made anyway.
Rather like Love & Monsters, in fact.
It's all a bit like one of those experimental short stories you encounter from time to time in a Doctor Who anthology, and in that kind of context it might have amused and entertained, while registering as a fun bit of speculative Who-related fiction. But, at the risk of repeating myself, in the context of a series that has been sadly wanting when it comes to good, solidly told Doctor Who stories, it just comes across as a wasted episode and a huge disappointment - and given that there are only thirteen of these per year and that they're all hideously expensive (apparently), that sense of waste is magnified.
Next week, I notice, we are back on Earth. Woo bloody hoo. This, in a series that allegedly promised to take us further than before and visit more alien worlds - a promise that has, as far as I can see, only managed to set us up for further disappointment. Surely there's enough space in the TARDIS interior to accommodate a kitchen sink, so we don't have to keep returning to Earth for that? I don't really see a great deal of evidence to suggest that the series has come any great distance from its flawed beginnings or learnt from any of its key mistakes. It seems content to hover in what it perceives as safe territory and troll out the same substandard goods, when it has already shown itself to be capable of so much better.
This was the week I officially grew tired of Doctor Who - as I said, some 15 minutes into the episode (I was even SMSed and have been 'accosted' since by friends and family who wondered what it was all about, who thought it had to be 'the worst storyline EVER', and who thought it should have been called Doctor Where? - like I had something to do with it! I disagreed with the latter, arguing that they might have called it Doctor WTF?.) Three worthwhile episodes so far out of thirteen, with the rest ranging from meh to blech, is a poor showing in my book.
Doctor Who is a wide-ranging and flexible show and one which can accommodate experimental episodes with ease, but I think this series needs to focus on getting the 'standard' ones right before it has another go at one of these. Come back in, say, seven years maybe, and while we're about it can we make sure that 'the people left behind' are left behind?
Thanks to the way things have played out, I'm now actively looking forward to Rose's departure at the end of this series. Not through any fault of her own - she's been great. But getting rid of her should in theory see the series shedding all the baggage that came with her and, maybe - just maybe - with the TARDIS thus unburdened, we might get to travel a little further.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Prefect SlogWhat a ride. I mean, only last week Doctor Who left us gasping with a three-way cliffhanger, which - after a shabby piece of expositionary storytelling - showed a real knack for drama and heightened tension.
So what went wrong?
If you're so good at blowing up all those dramatic balloons, surely the thing to do is let them loose and see where they fly. Not pop them all in quick succession and spend the rest of the time desperately trying to keep them up in the air. At the end of The Impossible Planet the possessed Ood are on the march, the planet's hurtling into the black hole and something's rising out of the pit. At the beginning of The Satan Pit, Jefferson decides to open fire on the Ood, begging the question why he didn't get around to doing that last week, the planet decides to stop heading for the black hole, and all that rose out of the pit, it turns out, was the camera. And unfortunately, from there on in, too much of this episode was just like that - throwing away good dramatic potential like it was going out of fashion.
Thankfully, while this shameless waste was going on, there were saving graces. It was hugely spectacular, for one. I'm not usually one to be easily impressed by spectacle alone, but credit where it's due, this one was dazzling and cinematic for most of its screentime. So much so, that the big-budget fx made the cast look too much like low-budget actors. Yes, I'm afraid to say it, but there was little sign of that elusive charisma from the previous week, but again I'm disposed to be charitable and put that down to the failings of the script. There are, after all, moments when the script is working - and the actors work with it. Too much of the time though, they are toiling against script inadequacies: each of the crew has backstory, it emerges, but it's only something that we're made aware of as Satan dishes out token character sketches like helpings of Protein 3, or whatever slop they were serving in the Sanctuary Base kicthens last week. It's a perfunctory, shorthand form of storytelling that's best reserved for a synopsis, and doesn't belong in a completed and, we would hope, finely polished TV episode. Of them all, only Toby really comes alive to any significant degree, and that's largely because he becomes the Devil and is voiced by the mighty Gabriel Woolf, the man who gave us Sutekh and the man who, if the truth be known, inspired us to do our best Sutekh impersonations in the playground all those years ago.
Setting the crew aside, there are further problems with the storytelling that grate a little more and jumped me out of the action just a little too frequently. Immediately after the multiple-deflation of the cliffhangers, things revert to exposition and explanation territory, as the Doctor engages the Ood legions in a little conversation and gets the Beast to oblige us all with a little information about itself. There's no attempt to learn or uncover the truth in the proper manner of an epic tale of archaeological discovery, which, come on people, this should have been. And even the Doctor at one point postpones the action by backing away. It's a fair attempt at a twist, but dramatically speaking it does the story no favours. It's another deflated balloon and also feels very un-Doctorish. Or, to put it another way, very Ninth Doctor.
The tension and drama are given a welcome shot in the arm with a chase through the ducts, but this feels a bit like it's been shoehorned in simply because chases through ducts are requisite scenes in stories of this nature. It's undermined too by the fact that the action follows an entirely predictable path: we knew Jefferson was going to sacrifice himself, and we knew there would be Ood waiting for them behind Door 9.2. It wasn't helped either by an oddly placed lull in the middle, where we are even given a fart gag to relieve the tension, when being relieved was the last thing the tension needed.
There are all manner of other niggles along the way, most of which are sprinkled in for convenience: how did the Doctor hear the rocket taking off when he was, what, ten miles or more down? how did the TARDIS end up all the way down there (which we knew it was going to) when the Pit was closed at the time it fell? when did the TARDIS acquire a tractor beam device? The answer to that last one, of course, is 'When the writer realised the story required it to have one.' (Grounds for a rejected book proposal, right there, if you'd ever care to try your luck.) But there were alternatives that were not only more expedient but potentially more satisfying, dramatically speaking. The TARDIS could have materialised in the rocket and the Doctor rescued everybody while the air was still being sucked out into space and the rocket being dragged into the black hole. But no, Rose shatters the windscreen and - ooh, look, the Emergency Shield slides up. That's handy.
Unfortunately, that scene in itself illustrates perhaps the biggest pitfall of the lot. And this is a key lesson that all would-be supreme forces of evil really ought to take on board: don't go manifesting yourself in human form or possessing a human body. Most especially if you're an inexorable elemental force or, say, a fifty-foot tall Horned Beast. Word to the wise: in human form, you are surprisingly vulnerable to quite mundane and predictable forms of attack and generally a good deal easier to kill. The Beast himself was, frankly, a supremely impressive piece of CGI - a veritable Balrog of a creation - but when you know it's just a dumb brute helplessly chained to a cavern wall, it kind of loses something. Especially when you happen to have worked out a while back that Satanic Toby was going to be finished off by Miss Tyler, in the rocketship, with the bolt gun. At that point, and an unfortunate number of points throughout, it's a competition between me and the black hole to see who can yawn the widest.
Against that, you do have some solid conflict in the Doctor's dilemma, and his struggle against his own belief system offers some good material, particularly when he's hanging suspended and alone in the darkness of the Pit, but really, it's not given a sufficient foundation earlier on to ensure that we all know that this is what this story is about and it lacks a certain potency. If we'd seen a story that was more apparently built around that core from the beginning, we might have been onto something better. And in the end, smashing a few vases to bring about the Beast's destruction, is not all it's (haha) cracked up to be.
In the end, what we're left with is a two-parter that had a great scenario, given the full cinematic treatment - and that's a rarity and something of note for Saturday night telly. There's energy and pace to a lot of it and a good deal between the two episodes that's worthy of applause. It's a rollercoaster ride, with some good ups, a few too many downs and a lot of minor bumps along the way. What it needed was a good script doctor and, sadly, come the concluding part, instead of having all that dramatic potential come spilling out of the Pit, it just unearthed a convenient hole in which to dispose of it all.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Have TARDIS Will Travel (Eventually)

Prefect SlogWhat do you know, we finally broke away from Earth's orbit. So where, in last Saturday's episode, The Impossible Planet, did we end up? On a remote frontier base on a, well, an impossible planet, in orbit around a black hole - one of those impressive, swirling cinematic jobs too, that's sucking everything into its dark heart: light, entire star systems, time and apparently the charisma of the Sanctuary Base crew.
But let's be clear on this: it's not their fault. In the early stages of this otherwise really pretty good sf/horror outing, they're all handed such dull explanatory dialogue that even the cast of Alien would have trouble standing out from the scenery. Of course, I say Alien, but really this was all more reminiscent of Event Horizon, and a fairly decent homage too, with the added advantage that this one has a second part and could actually amount to something in the end. Unfortunately, it's fair to say that in the case of The Impossible Planet, it's the early stages that let it down. Not the beginning, that was a good little opener, with some effectively scary critters (reminded me a lot of some B5 aliens) and a nice twist with their translation devices where they turn out not to be scary at all (except, see later). No, what kept me from really getting involved in the action very early on was, well, the fact that there was no action. Presumably feeling constrained - yet again - by the 45-minute episode format, the writer adopts an almost painful tell-don't-show approach. Lifeless exposition is bad enough, worse when it's repeated, as though we the audience need the details drummed into us. And instead of introducing us to the station crew as part of a developing story, they just go ahead and make a round of introductions. Jeez, I think I'd have preferred the Reservoir Dogs approach: slo-mo stroll, freeze frame and add a tag to identify each of the station personnel in turn. For this slow, early explanatory third, I really was thinking of Event Horizon, not so much for the horror or suspense elements, more for the fact that we always felt on the brink of events, rather than actually have something happening.
But, when all that's said, somewhere along the way, this episode actually comes alive and becomes a bit of a doozy. I'm not really sure when it happens, I'd have to watch it again to pin the moment down, if that's at all possible. But the main thing is, it does happen and thankfully we're treated to a superbly handled gallop towards a three-way cliffhanger, wherein the Ood return to being scary (although they are still somewhat hampered by a bloody silly name), the eponymous planet is being sucked into the black hole (where we can hope that the crew might be reuinited with their charisma) and the Doctor and, er, that woman (see, despite the functional introductions, I can't remember her name) are confronted with Satan emerging from the pit. Ooer.
It's also worth noting that the woman's face, when seen through her lighted spacesuit visor during the descent in the elevator, looks incredibly like a skull which, whether by design or accident - surely the former - is a great and wonderfully creepy bit of foreshadowing. Ironic, isn't it, that for the first episode of New Series Doctor Who away from Earth or (allowing for New Earth) an Earthalike, that they filmed the subterranean sequences in a quarry. And those sequences were amazing - a real sense of scale and something epic, and a momentous, forbidding archaeological discovery.
Given how successful the later stages were, I could have wished for an opening fifteeen-to-twenty minutes with much better crafted story development, but in the end, the impressive elements were impressive enough to save it - although of course a lot now hangs on the ability of the second episode to deliver a worthy payoff. So overall, I'm erring on the side of positive on this one, but as with all two-parters, holding off until the closing stretch. The TARDIS has finally travelled, now it just needs to go the extra mile.