Friday, May 21, 2010
Star Trek: The Next Generation. DS9. Star Trek: Voyager. Stargate SG1. Heck, probably Andromeda for all I know. Name one of my least favourite sci-fi shows ever and they've probably done a scenario similar to Amy's Choice. Whether it's down to a holodeck malfunction, the empathic emissions of some overly amorous space cloud attempting to hump the Enterprise or a Gou'ahoohahould mussing with your head, you can rely on these is-it-real-or-is-it-a-dream situations being largely pointless at best. For one thing it's usually obvious which is which, so you're left waiting for the characters to wake up and snap out of it – assuming you haven't fallen asleep yourself.
In that regard, it's the same here. Amy's living in a quiet English village with a pony-tailed Rory and she's heavily preggers. And I mean not just a bun in the oven, but an entire Mr Kipling delivery truck. This is such a bizarre set of circumstances and such a big jump from last week, while the alternative situation – on board the TARDIS – slots comfortably in as a continuation, that there's never any doubt that the village setup is a dream. The only guessing game left for the viewer to play concerns the identity of the Dream Lord. For fans that means lots of potential for excited speculation: could it be the Master, an impish Omega, the Celestial Toymaker, a more twisted incarnation of Romana than we encountered in The Ancestor Cell, or Adric taking out his abandonment issues on the current TARDIS crew?
For my part, I only considered one of those possibilities seriously. Despite the absence of a chess set or Monopoly board (although I suppose these days most of his recreational entertainments would come in the form of apps on a Celestial iPhone) something about the Dream Lord's apparent nature and the rules of the game suggested the Toymaker to me. The notion seemed a bit of a random out-of-the-blue return, but even a relatively modest experience of Doctor Who will teach you there's no real telling what might strike a given showrunner as a good idea. Regardless, it soon became clear from the little clues (e.g. “There's only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” and the focus on Amy) that there was something more personal about this – more personal than any of the possible enemies from the Doctor's past could account for. And I'm glad to say, I twigged to the twist a nice few minutes ahead of the reveal. I don't know about you, but I like it when that happens. That way the viewer gets the satisfaction of a story that kept them guessing and the satisfaction of being right. Always a good combination.
It's brilliantly judged, in fact. Simon Nye's script appears to be consciously playing on all that fan speculation and ultimately delivers an adversary who is 'none of the above' – no matter where our imaginations have run. And yet he gave us the big clue right up front, with the mysterious intruder dressed as the Doctor. If it had turned out to be any of the usual suspects I'd have been disappointed. As it is, it's entirely right for the story and it lends a fascinating insight into a darker and highly self-judgmental side of the Doctor's character. (Without it having to be the Valeyard putting him on trial.)
Next to that, the story's other big twist is, sadly, Star Trek-level poor. One aspect of it not being the Toymaker or whoever is that you need a root cause for the schism. No holodeck malfunctions here. No, in this one it's all down to a hansful of space pollen getting into the multiphasic plot generator. It's so weak that it's very rightly treated as a throwaway – literally, as the Doctor tosses it out the TARDIS doorway – and that saves it really. It's almost as if the script is saying, what does the cause matter when the effect has been this much fun? And I have to say, it makes a good case.
Although I'm not completely letting the episode off the hook for that, there's so much more to the story that leaves an enduring impression.
The comedy is priceless. Like The Vampires Of Venice this is laced with hilarious gags, but for my money it has something greater going for it in the darkness and substance department. The frantic and frequently funny scenes in zombie-pensioner land contrast beautifully with the dying TARDIS drifting in icy silence. More than that, the goings-on in the village are as sinister as you'd expect from Doctor Who, with eyestalks sprouting out of mouths making for seriously gross monster material and kids, no less, being reduced to piles of sand. And it all culminates in a powerfully emotional decision – the eponymous choice – that might be counted among the grimmest moments in the series.
This damaged young woman who grew up with Rory as a friend and has grown too accustomed to having him around, finally wakes up to her true feelings for him and realises, dream or no, she doesn't want to go on living without him. Cripes, that's heavy. If it wasn't couched in the midst of all the scenes of zimmer-frame chases and old grannies being whacked off of rooftops, it'd be too heavy for Saturday teatime viewing. As it is, it strikes a perfect counterpoint to the sinister-seniors slapstick.
Space pollen aside then, there's bold, deft writing here conspiring with some top-notch performances and great direction to breathe plenty of new life into this familiar scenario. (They even manage to get Murray Gold to keep quiet where it counts.) Toby Jones' coldly comic portrayal makes you wish he was a recurring villain. Matt Smith continues to be a delight to watch as the Doctor, from the subtler touches to the out-and-out clowning (on which, highlights have to include his drunken stagger as he tries to stay awake and cupping his hands ready to catch Amy's baby). Likewise, Gillan does it all, giving us a quirky, quippy Amy who's both gutsy and vulnerable, sensitive and fiery-tempered. You can believe the bitterness she aims at the Doctor cuts him deep. Meanwhile Arthur Darvill sells Rory as a genuinely sympathetic likeable character as well as a grade-A buffoon – he's the Roy Castle of New Who.
Arguably, there's one other weak point in the way the Doctor blows up the TARDIS, convinced that too is a dream based on the idea of a cold star being nonsense. The concept is not at all un-Who and one can imagine an alternative ending to Planet Of The Daleks, to name one example, where the scientific improbability of a tropical jungle planet with a core of molten ice prompts the Doctor to end it all for himself and Jo Grant. I'm guessing now the series will have to exercise caution when incorporating some of the more fantastical concepts.
But the tongue is firmly in the cheek at that point. When you enjoy something this much, it's impossible to pick serious holes. I think this fits that old rule of thumb of mine about the recipe for good Doctor Who: old, new, borrowed, blue. Which, I guess, goes double for pre-wedding adventures in time and space.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Only a week or two ago I was browsing in the local bookshop and was dismayed to see a whole shelf full of vampire novels from different authors, different publishers, all with similarly styled covers. Like clones they were. Spawn of Twilight, we'll call them, although I'm not sure if Twilight was the first so much as the one that just happened to soar higher than the rest. It's a tad depressing for authors who are constantly striving to break into the publishing world with something a little more creative and original. Fair dues to those vampire authors, for all I know, many of them had put a brilliantly fresh and different spin on their bloodsucking creatures of the night, but the fact is I wasn't remotely tempted to pick up any of the books and read because their publishers (a breed of people often known to express concerns that they 'don't know how to make [insert name of original work here] stand out in a competitive market') had made them *all look the same*.
But I'll climb down off my soap box because I'm meant to be here reviewing The Vampires Of Venice and soap and canals just don't mix. Too many bubbles. Curiously enough though, bubbly is exactly what this latest Doctor Who story manages to be. For all that I'd reached the stage where I thought if I saw another vampire I'd scream, this histhorrorical romp was never short of entertaining.
Perhaps in recognition of the perennial surfeit of haemovores, the story works a little too hard at giving them their sci-fi twist. But it deserves points for trying and the creature design (more fish-headed lobster-thing than 'fish from space') is an interesting one, with even the traditional vampiric fangs lent a more piranha-like look. The perception filter is a familiar concept to fans, of course, many of whom have one of their own – and they are apt to malfunction at the slightest knock. Joking aside though, it's a decent enough Doctor Who plot device and works well here up to the point where Rosanna (played superbly by Helen McCrory) removes it and slips into the water while retaining her human form. It's possible she fiddles with it beforehand to ensure that it somehow maintains her appearance remotely – thus facilitating her suicide – but it's not clear.
Similarly on first viewing I had some initial concerns that the effects of daylight on the Venetian vamps were too selective, but second time around I realise it's all a matter of brightness and in that respect the story is reasonably consistent. When they're out parading the streets and piazzas there's generally some cloud cover or they're shaded from direct sunlight by the buildings and/or lacey parasols or veils. That said, timing seems to have been fudged during the attempted rescue of Isabella, as our heroes venture into House Calvieri in the dead of night and don't appear to spend long enough inside for it to be morning when they emerge. Still, if it's for the convenience of the plot it's also for Isabella's inconvenience and the closing of that door in the Doctor's face (never mind the added electrocution) has genuine dramatic punch as well as investing Guido (Lucian Msamati) with convincing motivation for his own ultimate self-sacrifice.
It's one of a handful of moments that keep this from being entirely light and superficial. Which is not to underestimate the appeal of the superficial. The combination of a gorgeous setting and that almost Merchant Ivory sumptuousness you tend to get with BBC period drama is a visual treat. (And if we're permitted to be a little shallower for a moment, so are the vampire belles of the Calvieri school.)
What this story really thrives on is its humour. The Doctor's - and Amy's - sheer delight at the prospect of facing vampires sets the tone (and both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are clearly revelling in their roles), succeeding in pushing the scare potential firmly into the background. The story does have a reasonable go at generating a dose or two of fear, notably with Amy's experience in the 'green room'. And once again they strike the right balance for a companion, allowing her to be brave enough to get herself in trouble, gutsy and defiant when she's in it but also allowing her to be genuinely frightened when she's helpless, strapped in the chair and at the mercy of Rosella's fangs. (Isabella's death would have been scarier if she hadn't been narrating so much - “I'm Venetian, we can all swim. Something's touched my leg. They're all around me. Glug.” etc.) Laughs are the main order of the day though. It has a lively wit coursing through its veins and the jokes keep coming, from the Doctor bursting out of the cake (saw that coming, but it's not so much that he does it, it's what he says afterwards) to his finding the off switch on the alien weather control device. Even the simple visual gag of having Guido in the stag party sweat shirt is comic genius. Ninety percent of Rory's scenes are hilarious and those that aren't are because he's meant to be serious, levelling some heavy accusations at the Doctor. As misguided as I thought adding a boyfriend to the TARDIS crew was, I think he'll be a welcome addition.
There's just enough real drama to keep it meaningful and the contrast drawn between the Doctor as last of his race and Rosanna trying to save hers underlines it all effectively without over-egging the point. Their face-to-face chat is, unfortunately, one of those largely expositional conversations too common in Who, but it's played well and it calls to mind the similar meeting of two quality actors – David Tennant and Anthony Stewart Head - in Toby Whithouse's previous offering, School Reunion. I would have preferred a greater sense of the alien culture, some better idea of what the universe was losing, before Rosanna throws herself to the fishes and seals her race's fate, but it's just a feature of these 45-minute episodes that there's rarely room to make as much of certain elements as would be ideal.
Along the way there are some nice directorial touches: Rosanna and son describing different orbits around Isabella at the beginning, as though emulating the orrery-like device the Doctor has to disarm at the end; the shot of mummy's-boy Francesco sprawled in his mother's lap after she's done hydrating, evocative of Shakespearian tragedy; and Francesco, again, frozen in mid-dive as the camera cuts away before he strikes the water. A few artistic flourishes that show considerable thought and attention to detail.
They also make up for the slightly dodgy shot of the Doctor climbing the steeple at the end. Maybe the CGI wasn't quite up to it, maybe it's that the framing of the shot that reminds me of Batman and Robin scaling buildings in the old Adam West TV series, but something about it fails to convince. It's a small enough thing and I think there are bigger problems that aren't really to do with this story per se but are an issue of context.
The Doctor telling Rosanna that time can't be changed strikes a distinctly odd note, after making such a big deal of his conclusion, that time can be rewritten, the previous week. (In a musical scale that odd note would go something like, Doh! Ray! Me! Fah! So! La! Te! Huh?) Fair enough that Doctor Who has never really established a firm set of rules for time travel - generally it's 'whatever suits the story at any given time'. But if the stories are right next to each other and you're (apparently) building your arc around one particular principle, then you might expect some effort to have them vaguely agree. I'm sure it can be rationalised away, but for the moment it makes little sense. Which would bring us back to D'oh! I suppose. I've heard Who fans before complaining about magic in Who, but to my mind we may as well have spellcraft - and the purely supernatural - as variable internal logic. But then, I'm completely at a loss as to how the urgent mission to fix Amy - by playing matchmaker to her and Rory - will translate into repairing time and space, restoring Amy's memories of previous Dalek invasions and returning ducks to the village pond. So that's probably my perception filter going wonky. That or I'm a bit thick.
By episode end, it's fair to say that, as much as I am tired of creatures that you would think must have been sucked dry by now, I'm persuaded there was probably a better story that could have been told under the same title. The words The Vampires Of Venice incline me towards a darker tale, for instance, but here they opted for a romp that, minor niggles aside, was a lot of fun. And on that level it delivers very satisfactorily.
Not completely solid then. But firm, with just enough bite to keep it interesting.
Saturday, May 08, 2010
My love for any Doctor Who story is rarely unconditional. There's generally something that could have been done better, be it in the writing, the production, the acting, whatever. Of all the 21st-century Who we've seen so far, the Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone two-parter came pretty damned close to winning my unqualified admiration and affection. In fact, taken on its own, the first episode was there. I could have confined my review to something like “I absolutely love this”, those who didn't like it could have said, “Why don't you marry it then” and that would have been that.
But you know how these Doctor Who romances can be. There's the honeymoon period where you can't keep your eyes off the episode. Then you start to notice their annoying little habits and the whole thing falls apart. There's nothing quite like a two-parter to highlight this, since – with few exceptions – the second episode fails to deliver on the promise of the first. And as with two-headed beings and self-marriage, divorce can be messy.
The Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone is something of an oddity in that it does reveal some annoying habits and lets the side down in the second part, but somehow still managed to leave me on a high. If I could draw a graph of the highs and lows, the good and bad, then average out the peaks and troughs, I'd end up with a very impressive peak. It's an imperfect gem.
It's the sort of thing a jeweller might appraise, pointing out its serious flaws, and tell me it's only worth fifty quid, but ultimately it doesn't matter because for me it has a great deal of sentimental value.
Did it dazzle me? Definitely. Did it blind me to its faults? Far from it.
That said, we have already established that I loved the first episode unconditionally. I mean, really. The buzz of excitement at end of part one was palpable and as far as I'm aware I hadn't inadvertently electrified my sofa. It was a great mix of sci-fi action-adventure and archaeological mystery/horror laced with creepy atmosphere and suspense. River Song (Alex Kingston) kicks off in fine Jane Bond mode before trading her gown for camo and becoming a sort of thinking man's Lara Croft, Iain Glen blends empathy and authority as Bishop of the Church Of Ghost Recon, a Weeping Angel pays supremely chilling homage to Ringu, and sparkling dialogue keeps flowing in a script that gallops along but isn't afraid to ease up on the accelerator where it counts, allowing us to properly enjoy those suspenseful turns. And it all culminates in a singular, exceptional cliffhanger.
Loved it, loved it, loved it.
The challenge then was to contain myself for a week and the following Saturday, mixed in with the anticipation, was the question: had it set the bar too high for itself?
Are you on the edge of your seat yet? Then we'll begin.
Part Two came out of the gates running, with a great flip side to the cliffhanger. To be fair, at first I wasn't sure about the sudden jump cut but in retrospect it's obvious that any attempt to show the transition from floor to ceiling would have robbed us of what is a terrific reveal of everyone standing upside down on the ship's hull. What follows, with the chase through the interior is a Weeping Angels riff on Aliens. It's so good I would have welcomed a bit more of it: run for it, break through a bulkhead, seal it behind, run, bulkhead, seal it behind. (While Amy continues her mysterious and troubling countdown.) But no matter, because it soon emerges – in another 'blinding' reveal – that the Angels are not the major threat. Ooooooo-er.
Yes, the crack is back.
It's clear we're in crucial arc storyline territory and it's nice to see it playing such a key factor at this stage in the series, rather than just another hint. Something to make us sit up and pay closer attention, not that our attention is in danger of flagging in this story.
Pace does drop off a little here and there, primarily for the conversations between the Doctor and Angel Bob. It's a by-product of Moffat's having created an enemy whose motives are not easily shown to the audience and have to be communicated/explained. I think I would have opted for more deduction as opposed to the sit-down chats, but in its favour it does build in the Angels' need for the bodies – or part thereof – of their victims and their previous MO – that of zapping victims back in time – might not have constituted a sufficient threat for the purposes of this scenario. To say nothing of the fact that it could have led to a more complicated cat's-cradle plot where even the Grand Moff, with all his love of wibbly wobbly timey wimey, might have had trouble keeping track of all the threads.
As it stands, there's enough in this to make you go, 'Hmm...' as you wonder if it all quite works. It's a potent menace, the crack, with its power to erase everyone in its path from existence, but there are instances where it prompts the question of whether the consequences have been properly followed through. If, say, troopers 'Bill' and 'Ted' are wiped from existence, wouldn't the Church Of Ghost Recon have still fielded the same number of men on the mission and so 'replacements' would miraculously appear? Similarly if the guy who handed Amy the spare communicator never existed, how could he have given her the communicator? And if the Angels never existed, then wouldn't all their victims – apart from the ones who also never existed – reappear, although presumably elsewhere because clearly there would have been no need to dispatch the mission in the first place...
But why risk brain meltdown as long as you're enjoying the show, right? Best just to accept that the crack – since it is a fracture in time and space – does a very messy job of erasing. Rubs out the portrait of the individual but still leaves those smudgy pencil marks around it.
None of the timey wimey stuff even registers on my critical radar next to the two (count them) problems relating to the Weeping Angels themselves.
Now, this story gives us everything a returning monster story should: brings everything to the table that made them a great monster in the first place and adds things to the mix, changes things up so that we're not just doing a retread. All well and bloody fantastic.
But Part Two features one change up too many for my tastes. “Whatever you do, don't blink” was pretty much the tag line for Blink and the Doctor gives Amy the same warning in Part One of this story. In the second episode that's revised to “Make them think you can see them.” Which, on top of making no sense, makes a nonsense of that original 'tag line'. Presumably the Angels previously knew when you were blinking, so - if their awareness plays any part - why oh why oh why would they be unable to detect when your eyes were closed for a prolonged period? Also the Angels ought to be aware that Amy's keeping her eyes closed – they're very aware of what's going on with her, to the point of making her speak her countdown (“for fun”) to the moment when the Angel within took over. The Doctor throws in some half-assed explanation that the Angels are confused and scared and not especially interested in Amy, but it's unconvincing at best. Sorry, but this was, to my mind, as weak and feeble a plot contrivance as any employed by Rusty. I rather fear that Moffat was so in love with the fairytale imagery of Amy fumbling through the dark forest, unable to see, surrounded by Angels that he had to come up with a fudge to make it work. Well, it doesn't.
I'm not sure what would. And usually when you hit a stumbling block like that in your plotting, it's better to stop being so precious about a scene and sacrifice it in favour of something that works. In Blink the Angels can't look at each other, so what if Amy's last line of defence was to open her eyes? Some sort of stalemate could be achieved, but at the risk of Amy succumbing to Angelhood. So we see her start to turn to stone... but she's teleported out by River just in time. Or something like that.
Ah. but alas, Amy used up her full countdown, didn't she. And then some. In a useless bit of editing/direction, when she can only open her eyes for a second she stands there staring at the crack for (in TV terms) ages. What the hell was the director thinking? It says a second right there in the script, did he think no-one would notice the disparity? More ham-fisted than a space pig.
The good news is that there I've exhausted my reservoir of criticisms. Well, it's more of a pool really. A puddle. The word count I've spent on them is disproportionate and probably paints a more negative picture than intended. In a bad story such problems might amount to no more than a couple of beans in a hill (of beans). But here, after such a startlingly brilliant beginning it seems incredibly sloppy.
Ultimately though, for all their significance relative to the surrounding quality, they are only glitches and to its credit the story still comes out on top. I could easily spend another page or more rattling on about this shining line or that magical moment. (In fact, I started to cite some favourites, then I realised I was going on too long.) The two episodes are absolutely loaded with them. To the extent that to list them would be tantamount to reproducing the script right here.
It's true that Alex Kingston must take her share of the blame for my enthusiasm, but River's return is handled at least as well as that of the Angels. Same character, with more added to the mix and a few more pieces of the puzzle – of her past/future with the Doctor – are revealed. Those revelations are fed to us in nice bite-sized pieces throughout – from Amy's questions about her being the Doctor's wife, through to the Bishop's asides to River and his parting warning to the Doctor, to River's final admission. Of course, I can't help feeling that 'hints' like “A good man. A hero to many” from the Bishop and “The best man I ever knew” from River are too blatantly meant to make us think 'Doctor' (it's hardly Derren-Brown-level power of suggestion) that there has to be more to it than that. There's plenty of emotion behind the look River gives the Doctor at that point, but it doesn't strike me as quite the confession of a murderess to her victim. If it does turn out to be that she kills the Doctor, that wouldn't be a twist and one thing I am confident of is that Mr Moffat does like his twists. I'm partial to them myself and it adds a further note of fascination to an impressive double helping of Doctor Who.
My only other concerns pertain to the potential impact on future episodes. “Time can be rewritten” comes dangerously close to an attempt to justify some sort of reset switch at season's end. Please, no. There's a clue that there's something clever at work (a surely intentional continuity error involving the Doctor's jacket) and I just hope the Doctor turns out to have something more than a big 'Undo' up his sleeve.
And then there's the romance issue. I was worried this might surface after Amy's talk of “fancying someone you know you shouldn't” in Victory Of The Daleks. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with the idea of a Doctor-companion romance in itself; it's just that I feel that goose has been well and truly killed, plucked, cooked and served up too often already. It's tired and old and a platonic, best-pals relationship will feel like a refreshing change.
So, within this story, Amy throwing herself at the Doctor is fine. (And, after all, the girl has been dreaming about this guy for years then when he shows up, in the midst of all that exhilaration of saving the world, she gets to check out his arse.) What it leads to is a cracking, hilarious scene and the Doctor's reaction is priceless. At this stage it appears to suggest an intention to get those urges out of the system and move on past it. Amy's damaged and the Doctor aims to fix her – without a quick servicing. Which works for me, because I really felt that the Doctor and Amy dynamic was developing nicely as it was and with the best will in the world to do things differently I think there are a limited number of spins you can put on the Doctor-companion lurve cycle.
As you can probably tell, I'm enjoying my current romance with Doctor Who and it'd be too ironic if love was the thing that got in the way.
Saturday, May 01, 2010
The Second World War. Cabinet War Room. Bombers incoming. Winston Churchill gives the order to roll out the new secret weapon. Someone pushes a little model Dalek into play on the map. Cue vortex and titles.
It's a great opening. But while the Daleks conquered stairs a long while ago, what they really need to tackle next is the troubling tendency for their stories to go downhill.
Ironically, Victory Of The Daleks improves on a rewatch. With expectations removed from the equation, the scale of disappointment is no longer measured against promise and we stand a better chance of assessing it on its own merits. Unfortunately, it's impossible to set aside the story's potential entirely and the basic ingredients should have added up to utter, dazzling blow-you-away brilliance. Indeed, everything in the first ten or fifteen minutes is fine and there's no reason to believe it's not going to live up to that potential.
Ian McNeice turns in a wonderful Winston and it's great to see Bill Paterson (Bracewell). The Ironsides' entrance on the rooftops is a terrific moment considering that we know exactly what it is before it's emerged from behind the sandbags. The Daleks look good too, all khaki-ed up, sporting kit bags and a Union Jack. Smith and Gillan are a pleasure to watch, although I am left with a feeling they're doing their best with a script that's sometimes working too hard at keeping the Doctor-Companion dialogue buzzing. It's lacking much of the natural spark of Moffat's scripts so far this series. That said, there are flashes of brilliance (Amy: “I love a squaddie.”) and I absolutely love the scene where the Doctor is poring over those blueprints, when we get a close-up on Matt Smith as an Ironsides Dalek glides quietly by in the background.
But that is really the height of the menace we're treated to in this story and, similarly, we're shown the beginnings of a connection between Amy and an anxious WAAF officer but nothing comes of it beyond a truly odd “oh dear, she's lost her fella” moment near the end. I'm all for a subtler touch, but this feels like the most token of nods to the fact that, yes, this is all good fun but people also died in the war, don't you know.
Perhaps it will all be revealed as crucial arc material, like the cracks, and then I will look a fool. Right now though it just looks like a crack. Maybe some leftover from a lengthier script that had to be cut down? I do think this story could have benefited from being longer – a two-parter would have given its setting and its ideas more room to breathe. More could have been made of the Daleks' menace and the Doctor's efforts to get at their true purpose.
As things are, those scenes are reduced to some (somewhat repetitious) declarations on the Doctor's part and Smith's hatred for the Daleks is more subdued than Eccleston's when he was faced with his old foe in Dalek. It only really comes alive when he starts to bash the Dalek with a giant spanner, but that is, for me, a magically insane desperate Doctorish thing to do and as he tries to provoke the thing into killing him you know he hasn't thought this through. Even Amy starts to worry at this point that the Daleks might be dangerous.
The Doctor wants to know what the Daleks want. We do too. Careful what you wish for. The revelation that this has all been to secure the Doctor's testimony still strikes me as weak. No two-part expansion would alter that. Fair enough that the Daleks would lay a trap for the Doctor, but I think they ought to have been after something more than a reference.
That's not where the story falls down. Just sort of stumbles and keeps on going. No, what trips it up more effectively than a scarf in the path of a rampaging Kastrian, is that we then have the Doctor racing off to an expository conversation with the Daleks on board their ship. It's almost worth it for the sheer unadulterated joy of the sight of him keeping his enemy at bay with a Jammy Dodger. Like it says in the Mastercard ads, priceless. But at the end of the day, it is just talking and explaining the plot. For a fair proportion of the episode's 45-minute runtime. And biscuity self-destruct device aside, that's not very satisfying.
But wait, it's all building to something. Something BIG.
The door opens. Smoke pours forth and through it something is set to emerge...
Yes, tonight, Matthew, I am going to be a Dalek! Try to ignore the fact that I look like a new model Renault Megane. (As soon as more footage is available, expect YouTube videos to the tune of I See You Baby (Shakin That Ass)) Focus instead on my pals and delight in the news that we're available in a range of exciting colours. There's a certain retro-chunkiness to them that reminds me of the Cushing-movie Daleks, there are also shades of the Apple design school. They're big, but you're more likely to be tempted to take them out for a test drive than consider them a convincing threat. This is what Hate looks like. Would sir like his Hate in Colgate white, Post Office red or canary custard yellow?
Questions arise as to why these new Daleks don't simply gun the Doctor down (once they've seen through his Jammy Dodger ruse), but that kind of basic failure is nothing unusual for a Doctor Who monster and this lot do at least take some pot shots at the Time Lord as he runs for his TARDIS. It's not remotely a factor next to the credibility-stretch that's awaiting us.
Spitfires in space, I have no problem with. It's a great slice of spectacle. I also love the fact that it's Amy who is once again instrumental in the resolution. But I'm left with only one hand to applaud all that, since the other one is needed for scratching my head as I wonder how the hell they got three WWII fighters spaceworthy and kitted out with laser cannons in ten minutes.
All right the time frame is not precisely pinned down. But the enemy bombers' ETA is clearly given as ten minutes, Amy and Churchill race to Bracewell to discuss options, we're given no indication that the Professor has anything more than blueprints at this stage. Let's allow that the weapons are Dalek guns (which we know he has available), that he does in fact have (three?) gravity bubble generator prototypes and that the bombers are reported to be dealing damage to the capital, hence the interval has been perhaps a bit more than ten minutes. But seriously, even then, how long would it take to fit that tech to the three Spitfires, launch them and for the planes to complete their climb into space?
I'm all for switching off my brain and just enjoying some mindless entertainment, but this kind of fudge switches my brain back on and jumps me right out of the action. So by the time we're dealing with the oblivion continuum device, aka the walking talking bomb, I'm unfortunately in a more cynical frame of mind. Despite that, it's not the logic of the disarming process that bothers me - convincing Bracewell of his humanity might make no sense but it is a very Doctor Who-ish way to disarm a bomb. It's the way the scene is realised, with poor Bill Paterson reduced to blubbing feebly on the floor while a game of Simon (no relation of mine) plays out on his chest. Subsequently letting him head off in search of his beloved (invented?) Dorabella, with all those Dalek tech secrets in his head, is weak and just highlights the loose end without properly tying it up.
In the midst of it all there are, on top of the positives already cited, other nice touches – Daleks serving tea, Churchill's “Keep Buggering On”, and use of the call sign “Broadsword to Danny Boy”, from Where Eagles Dare, which serves as a nod to all war movies. It's not all bad and it's by no means the first Doctor Who story to have a big dumb ending.
Casting my mind back to 2005, it was at this point – the third episode in the new series – that I felt that Doctor Who had properly arrived. Impressions of The Unquiet Dead faded somewhat on a rewatch, to be honest, but there were qualities to it that made it feel like a step up from Rose and The End Of The World. As a side note, it troubled me slightly that this series appeared to be subscribing to a pattern – contemporary Earth introductory story, far future spaceship-based adventure, pseudo-historical penned by Mark Gatiss. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is fine, but falling into formula would be dreadful. But formula is not the problem here.
I'm not anti-Gatiss the way some Who fans seem to be and although his second story for New Who, The Idiot's Lantern, struck me as distinctly average, I was looking forward to this one. And as much as we try to set them aside, expectations do play a part. But on a second viewing, it's a simple case of the whole thing failing to add up to sum of its parts. For all that a lot of Dalek stories aren't very good, the opportunity to write for them is a gift, as far as I'm concerned. Then when you throw in Churchill and, yes, even Spitfires in space, you really do owe it to yourself and your audience to deliver something really special.
At the end of the day, this is shiny but, overall, only okay.
This, I guess, is what disappointment looks like. At least it comes in a range of exciting colours.