Sunday, July 28, 2013

Six Sided Die

If there was a BAFTA category for Best Doctor Who Episode Written By Chris Chibnall then The Power Of Three would win it. All his other scripts would just have to clap and smile politely to hide their disappointment. But there’s no use arguing with the facts and they’d best just get over it.

Of course, it all comes apart at the end and the rivals may take some comfort from that. But up to a certain point it is a veritable box of delights. Nay, numerous little boxes of delights.

Millions of the little beggars turn up one morning on Earth. The seeds are sown for a terrific mystery. Even better, the boxes – or cubes, since we don’t know that they contain anything – do nothing. Absolutely nothing. For ages. It’s spectacularly confounding and you’d almost like to see the human race facing the unprecedented threat of just being driven out of their minds with frustration as they try and fail to figure it all out.

Suspense and intrigue mount while the story also shines a light on the three-way relationship between the Doctor, Amy and Rory. The dilemmas they face, pulling them in different directions – to travel with the Doctor, to enjoy normal lives and (for the Doctor) the need for their company versus the ability to let them go. It’s deftly handled and engagingly written – and played out. The domestics are right at the heart of this episode and don’t detract from the cubic mystery at all.

Plus it features the Return Of Brian.

Mark Williams is great, once again. As are all the leads – they’re fired up, clearly having the time of their lives. And then we’re introduced to Jemma Redgrave as Kate (Lethbridge) Stewart who heads up UNIT and swiftly becomes an understated star of the show.

Part of me is often inclined to cringe when a series decides to populate itself with the offspring of favourite characters – too often they’re painful to watch and hard to believe they sprang from the same DNA. But here, Chibnall and Redgrave have combined their talents to create a thoroughly convincing Brigadier’s daughter. Add to that mix all the underlying history for a life-long fan like me and, well, let’s just say you get a few moments that bring a tear to the eye and that even manage to emotionally upstage all the heartfelt stuff between Doctor, Amy and Rory.

More Kate Stewart, please.

And if all this sounds too good to be true and you’re wondering if I’ve lost my critical faculties, don’t worry. As anyone who has thrown dice in Vegas will tell you, there is always a danger of crapping out. And this story does so on a scale to match its promise.

All that simple brilliance deserves a simply brilliant explanation. Quite early on, Brian lists a dozen possibilities presented by the overnight appearance of the cubes and they are all better than what we find when the metaphorical box is opened.

We are given clues to prepare us for the disappointment: there are some random goings-on with creepy medical orderlies and a weird girl in the hospital where Rory works. They strike as very ordinary Doctor Who fare in contrast to the novelty of the faceless cube invasion, perhaps some misguided attempt to manifest the menace in some more obvious form because, you know, modern audiences might not get it otherwise. Whatever their purpose in the writer’s mind, they are a bridge between all that’s fascinating and magical about the premise and the ultimate pulling away of the curtains to reveal that it’s all the work of some demented old nutter.

Yes, folks. All that intrigue, not to mention the tension and suspense when the cubes activate in all manner of freakish ways and then commence their ominous countdown, well, it’s all because this strange old dude wants to cull humanity before they spread out to colonise space. So naturally he needed the super-advanced all-singing all-dancing miraculous wundercubes to study them to determine their Achilles Heel and wipe them out. And even more naturally that’s going to require months of analysis and observation. To find out that the answer to the Question – you know, the Question Of Life, the Universe and Wiping Out Humanity – is to give them all heart attacks. Hmm, methinks you guys need to go away and build a bigger, more powerful computer.

It’s disastrously stupid.

Chibnall compounds this by inventing some mystical mumbo-jumbo for his alien wizard to spout. Some guff about the Tally which is supposed to make us nod and say, “Oh, it all makes perfect sense now.” Then the Doctor (in effect) rubs his ruby slippers together, says “There’s no place like home” and millions of cardiac arrest victims all over the globe are brought back to life.

The mass defibrillations are unfortunately carried out after the Doctor and Amy have travelled from an underground base beneath the Tower Of London to Rory’s hospital and had a lengthy chat with the hologram of the alien fanatic, so all those people picking themselves up off the pavements are probably brain dead. But don’t concern yourself with that because what matters is that the writer has convinced himself that he’s wrapped everything up neatly. Whereas it seems more like he boxed himself up too completely with a premise that was so good it really demanded something very special to tie it all together.

The more exciting the package, I guess, the more expectation of something exciting contained within. This is kind of like opening up your biggest present on Christmas Day and finding batteries included – because there’s plenty of energy to this tale – but no toy. Or at best a cheap plastic thing that you’ll play with once or twice then throw away and forget.

Still, I’ll clap and smile as Chibnall collects that award. He will doubtless collect a few more for Broadchurch and fingers crossed he’ll be too busy with a second series of that to write any more Doctor Who. I’ve read that he’s keen to do more and he has been asked, so may try to squeeze a script in between his busy Broadchurch schedule. Alas, I can’t say I find the prospect of a rushed Chibnall script any more encouraging than seeing his name in the credits in a quieter year.

This is his best. It might be better to quit while he’s ahead.

Next Time...

Angels Take Manhattan.


Sunday, July 21, 2013


A week ago if you’d told me I would be sitting front row at a performance of Macbeth starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston I’m not sure I would have believed you. Except for the fact that as soon as I’d seen Sir Ken on BBC Breakfast announcing that the National Theatre were broadcasting the play to cinemas all around the country (and on my birthday weekend no less), I went straight online to hunt out some tickets.

That’s the thing about predictions, isn’t it? You can either disbelieve them, or sit back and see if fate arranges things for you or you can take charge and make them happen for yourself.

That’s one of the aspects I love most about ‘The Scottish Play’. (Aside from the language and the insights into mental health issues.) Macbeth’s initial attitude to the Weird Sisters in contrast with that of his wife on reading the news and the collisions between fears and doubts and murderous ambition and guilty conscience. It’s compelling stuff.

And when you have a chance to see a live production featuring two such compelling leads (always been a fan of Ken and loved Alex since her days as Dr Elisabeth Corday in ER), well, it’s not to be missed. By all accounts, when tickets went on sale back in February the show’s full run sold out in 9 minutes, so it seems many people agreed on that score. Robbing me of the opportunity to see it on site, but to be fair I wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway.

And yes, watching something like this in a cinema is never going to be the same as being there. But you do get a real sense of the liveness of it all and it’s an immersive step further than watching a movie up on a cinema screen. There’s a convincing danger to the opening battle scene that immediately electrifies and that persists throughout. And for a live production it has fewer flaws than many a slick and polished Hollywood multi-gazillion-dollar blockbuster.

Of course, it does have an advantage in the writing department.

In terms of delivery of the material, for a play about ambition there is plenty of ambition in evidence. The setting and staging are superb. We couldn’t smell the mud and (probable) damp of the deconsecrated church in which the drama was played out, but imagination bridged that gap. And the company exploit their prize piece of theatrical real estate to the fullest. The audience, lucky bastards, are right there in the action, lining the pews on either side. They get it all: the rain, the mud and the blood and the occasional murder is carried out right in their faces as the likes of poor Banquo gets thrust up against the front row as he’s cruelly slain. There’s even a (slightly worrying) moment when Macbeth thrusts Lady Macbeth up against the front row as he prepares to take care of her in more amorous fashion.

Thankfully we’re spared that particular graphic detail as they take it off stage and, as they say in popular parlance, ‘get a room’.

Still, it’s illustrative of the energetic interpretation given to most of the roles. Sir Ken has tremendous presence as you’d expect and he humanises Macbeth to an extent I’d not seen before. Alex Kingston is scarily good, especially in her ‘unsexing’ solilioquy and when exhorting her husband to do the bloody deed on Duncan (John Shrapnel). Lady Macbeth’s final disintegration into insanity was, for my money, a bit over the top – over-theatrical, if you like - but it’s a minor hiccup in a superlative experience. If I had to cite other quibbles, I found Alexander Vlahos a bit weak as Malcolm and perhaps Charlie Cameron overcooked the freakishness for the First Witch. Potentially tricky elements were handled really well: such as the floating phantasmal dagger, casting a striking cross of light on the muddy church floor; and the ‘leafy shields’ borne by Malcolm’s advancing army as Burnham Wood did come to Dunsinane. Special mention must go to Ray Fearon who poured his heart and soul into Macduff – no easy thing because he then allows both to be torn apart as he hears news of the slaughter of his wife and children, crafting a moment that turns you cold in the best (and worst, if you see what I mean) way possible. Outstanding and deeply affecting.

It was a highly memorable experience all round, with an intensity that doesn’t let up and doesn’t allow a restful sleep afterwards, even following a 40-minute drive home. (I admit I’m an insomniac in any case, but I tend to know when there are additional forces at work keeping me awake.)

The whole notion of broadcasting live theatre to cinemas wasn’t something I’d encountered before, but it is a brilliant development which I applauded internally even before the play started. Anything that brings such things within my geographical and financial reach is very welcome, thanks.

As birthday treats go, it’s somewhat darker than your average cake, say, (although there were about as many candles as I ought to have on mine) but it’s fuelled my appetite for more.

Luckily, my wife enjoyed it too so I have every confidence she will encourage me in my pursuit of this ambition. But I promise we won’t actually kill for tickets.


Monday, July 15, 2013

The Mild Mild West

When judges on talent shows open their comments with “Let me just start by saying, you look great!” I tend to take the cynical view that they really don’t have much worthwhile to say about the contestant’s rendition of a pop classic.

So, following my rewatch of Doctor Who’s Western entry for Series 7, A Town Called Mercy, let me just start by saying, it looks great. No, it really does, I’m not just saying that. The production team in days of yore could never have afforded all that location work in Spain. Visually, it captures the Western well and primes the viewer for some terrific rootin-tootin adventure.

But essentially all we really get is a passable rendition of a popular classic.

Just as DinosaursOn A Spaceship riffs on daft Hollywood actioners, this riffs on classic Westerns – High Noon, Rio Bravo, El Dorado spring immediately to mind – and many a Star Trek level morality play. Unfortunately, to go with the convincing Western visuals, they choose to confirm these sci-fi roots by featuring a very Star Trek alien (human with token cosmetic feature) and a Star Trek Borg gunslinger. They then go on to incorporate a fairly typical Star Trek feeble ploy into the Doctor’s cunning resolution. Although in fairness to Star Trek I don’t recall an episode where people stuck crinkle-cut chips on their noses and wore dangly ear-rings to pass as Bajorans. But I stand by to be corrected on that score.

In short, it’s all too familiar and like many a talent show performer it’s really not bringing much that’s new to the borrowed material. There are strings of entertaining and amusing notes (the Doctor’s relationship with his equine companion, Susan, for one thing; “anyone who’s not an American, throw down your gun” etc) but it lacks the depth and emotion that a morality tale of this (potential) complexity deserves.

A shame, because there are touches of brilliance. It’s beautifully framed as a legend of the West, narrated in part by the great granddaughter of the young girl we see momentarily during the tale. There’s a dramatic start with the cyborg hunting down one victim and declaring there is only one more to be terminated: the Doctor. Even if the cyborg does look A Bit Rubbish (TM).

It’s when the Doctor shows up in town and reveals he’s an alien that it all starts to unravel a bit. The residents turn on him and cart him off to the town limits, despite the fact that he’s obviously not the alien doctor with whom they’re familiar. The one who’s been with them for weeks and has given them ‘lectrics’ and saved them from a cholera epidemic. The one with the snakey green tattoo on his face. That one.

It’s an easy mistake to make. After all, the cyborg – developed as an advanced weapon by said alien doctor – makes a similar error later on.

You know how it is: you’re a cyborg out for revenge on your creators, you’ve made it your mission to hunt down these men and your computerised brain has only sufficient processing power to cope with one identifying mark to single out your targets. Well, except for when the sheriff dons the garb of the alien doctor to act as a decoy. Then you’ll lock onto that instead.

But you don’t want to hurt innocents. Which is why you set up the perimeter around the town and are laying siege to the good folks of Mercy, coming for anyone who steps over the line and (probably) starving them to death until they hand over your sworn enemy.

Actually, it’s kind of a ridiculous setup when you think about it, isn’t it? But never mind. You’re a deranged cyborg, your programming’s faulty, you can be excused.

Other characters meanwhile are obliged to act rashly simply to inject drama into the proceedings. The writer (Toby Whithouse) hamstrings himself somewhat with the scenario. He’s written himself into a corner of a jail cell. In a siege nothing much happens unless the besieged take action. So naturally the Doctor has to throw a wobbly, march alien war criminal Kahler Jex to his execution and hold a gun on him. So close on the heels of his execution of Solomon (in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship) we really have to worry about the Doctor’s mental health. And we have to have the strange situation where Amy is having to remind the Doctor (at gunpoint) that he doesn’t just go around killing people.

At which point, Sheriff Isaac gives his life to save the alien war criminal. This is a waste, not just because Ben Browder is the only convincing American in the cast (not to mention great – but forgive my bias, I’m a Farscape fan.) But primarily because his death isn’t dwelt on nearly sufficiently. It should be the cog on which the whole plot turns and while it probably is the trigger which eventually persuades Jex to sacrifice his own life not enough is made of it to properly underpin Jex’s subsequent actions.

There’s a very familiar scene where the townsfolk gather outside the jail to try to coerce the Doctor into handing his ‘prisoner’ over, followed by a semi-interesting discussion between the Doctor and Jex, lending some insight into the Kahler views on the afterlife. But it’s all a little ‘lite’ and questions of alien war criminals and justice and general Star Trek level morality have all been addressed more proficiently and substantially by the likes of Babylon 5. (See Passing Through Gethsemane or Deathstalker.) It’s possible they’ve also been done better in Star Trek.

Whithouse is a better writer than this would have you believe. While the alien invasion plot of School Reunion was weak, his ability to write a moving and affecting emotional story was never in doubt. Here, likewise, the human moments are the strongpoints but they’re not nearly strong enough.

There’s some great dialogue, Smith is in his element, clearly having lots of fun and there are plenty of highlights that add up to a better episode than the impression given by this short review.

But even at its brightest and best, I was left with the feeling that more could have been done at every turn. Like I said, it hits some decent notes but finished, for me, as that most difficult of standards on which to comment: the distinctly average.

In a sense it’s a bit like Phil Collins’ Another Day In Paradise: it raises profound issues but rarely rises above the superficial. And it’s a karaoke version at that.

Maybe that’s the right depth for a Saturday evening sci-fi adventure show, for an audience expected to tune into The Voice or The X Factor after Doctor Who.

But I wanted more. What can I say, some of the judges on this Doctor Who panel are really demanding.

Next Time...

The Power Of Three.


Sunday, July 07, 2013

Dinosaurs Not On A Spaceship

(In a slight change of schedule for this week: after reviewing Dinosaurs On A Spaceship recently, it seemed like a good time to take a look at Doctor Who's previous dinosaur extravaganza, Invasion Of The Dinosaurs. So without further ado, let's wind the clock back to the Golden Age...)

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Sentiments that Joni M so ably expressed in song, the fanatics of Operation Golden Age set out to address using the medium of temporal manipulation. Their actions are extreme and the exact physics lie beyond the understanding of mere mortals, but you can appreciate where they’re coming from. In a similar way, I haven’t a clue how Joni wrote most of her songs – I’m guessing drugs – but that one in particular is a theme that still resonates today. And by the same token that’s true of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, a story as lyrical as any you might find in the history of Doctor Who and one that carries even greater resonance with the passage of time.

As the Doctor points out: progress isn’t the problem. The problem is greed. And when is that ever going to go away? Seems to me it’s more prevalent than ever. If not, it’s more blatant and we inhabit a world constantly reeling from its debilitating and damaging side-effects.

Writer Malcolm Hulke does a beautiful job of highlighting the issue by using time as a device for exaggeration, his extremist antagonists hell-bent on driving the world back to the extremes of prehistory. Not the extremes as in as far back as we can go, no – rather, to a period when the most dangerous predators roamed the Earth. The irony being, of course, that even a ferocious Tyrannosaur is not half as terrifying as the misery and harm a handful of money-grabbing, power-hungry politicians or corporate vultures can inflict on millions of lives.

God, it’s depressing. And there’s not really a lot we can do about it. Except write protest songs.

And protest stories.

Of course, the Tyrannosaur might have been a bit more terrifying had it and its fellow dinosaurs been better realised. They are rubbish. There’s no beating about the prehistoric bush, no chance of sugar-coating the pill here. While some old Doctor Who fx will make you cringe, these may well induce weeping. They also made me wish the production budget – not to mention the schedule – could have allowed for the late, great Ray Harryhausen to bring these creatures to life. But if wishes were horses the triceratops and stegosaurs would have been joined on screen by an eohippus like the one in The Valley Of Gwangi.

The show’s ambitions are often to be applauded but they really do bite off more than they can chew here. The dinos are disastrously rubbery and don’t have a fraction of the character that Harryhausen used to invest in his creations. And yet the story tries to include a scene in which a T Rex and brontosaur (as we used to call them back then) battle it out in a London street.

Ah, if only in this day and age of digital restorations on DVD the powers that be had poured some money into CGI dinos for this instead of extra Daleks for the Day Of The Daleks Special Edition.

It’s harder to look past the visual shortcomings of this one but at the same time it is the greater adventure by far. Director PaddyRussell works wonders where she can and shots of the evacuated capital are haunting and effective, a stark illustration of the kind of world that will be left after the misguided fanatics have had their way. And the actors throw themselves into the action with the fullest conviction. When Pertwee and LisSladen battle a less than believable puppet pterousaur or a CSO saurus of any breed, they believe it for us and do everything they can to sell such sequences despite the technical deficiencies.

They’re an engaging team and they do a great deal to draw us into the adventure as they become embroiled in the harsh realities of a London plagued by looters and by soldiers enforcing martial law. It’s a relief when they reunite with the friendly faces of UNIT, but while it’s something of a homecoming for the Doctor their troubles are far from over.

This is a welcome antidote to the pitiful UNIT swan-song that was The Android Invasion.

Ironically, nothing throws the UNIT family into sharper focus than when that family is falling apart. Captain Mike Yates is the black sheep of the family and this tale makes good use of his experiences in The Green Death as a foundation for his betrayal. The Brigadier’s and Benton’s reluctance to believe Mike’s involvement with the bad guys and the emotional fallout is nicely underplayed – as it should be. But you can feel the wrench without having it hammered home.

The Brigadier pulls strings to cushion Mike’s downfall as best he can, a nice balance to Mike’s underlying principles – his refusal to harm the Doctor, for instance, in the face of demands from his new employers. Naturally enough, those employers take matters into their own hands behind his back but you can appreciate that he tried.

They’re a nasty, unscrupulous bunch, these hippies.

They’re a decent mix of characters though, which just happens to include a terrific triumvirate of Doctor Who semi-regulars – JohnBennett, Martin Jarvis and Peter Miles as General Finch, Butler and Professor Whitaker respectively. Heading them up is Charles Grover, a well-mannered malefactor, played with charm by Noel Johnson. Senior civil servants are a frequently occurring feature of 70s Who and it’s only fitting that one of them crops up as the villainous mastermind behind the whole scheme.

Except, of course, he’s neither villain nor mastermind. Technically, Whitaker is the brains of Operation Golden Age and you get the impression he’s in this purely to see his dreams of creating a time machine reach fruition. The rest are idealists with dreams of a purer, cleaner Earth. A new beginning. A new Eden.

The dinosaurs are incidental, a ruse to clear London so that only true believers – safely hidden away on a fake spaceship under the capital – may be saved when the rest of the world is wiped clean. Much is made of how horrible the modern world has become (little argument there) and the film that Sarah is shown as part of her rehabilitation has echoes of a scene in Colony In Space when the Doctor is left to watch a similar movie on the (equally depressing) state of the world.

It’s clear that Hulke cares about the future. And he uses that to craft a story we care about.
Never mind that the idealists’ plans are a bit mental. And ‘far-fetched’ is not ‘where no TARDIS has gone before’ by any stretch of the imagination. While the notion that a bunch of intelligent people could be duped into believing they are on a spaceship bound for a new Earth does exactly that – stretches the imagination – it’s not a million light years from the kind of stunts Derren Brown pulls for the purposes of entertainment. So it’s my contention that Operation Golden Age likely employed someone like Derren. I’ve thought for some years that Derren would make a great Who villain anyway.

Indeed, those on the ‘spaceship’ – including Carmen Silvera as Ruth – are earnest want-to-believers of the sort that would be receptive and susceptible to the hypnotic techniques practiced by the likes of Mr Brown.

Overall, I find the runaround given the Doctor in the late middle section of the story to be the greater flaw. It’s mitigated by the fact that there’s plenty of other stuff going on elsewhere, but I do wish there could have been something weightier and more substantive to occupy the Doctor – and us – for that period.

But there we are – back to those wishes. And not a horse – or Eohippus – in sight.
There is, however, a little black cat in a shop window very near the end. As a giant T Rex roars nearby, the cat shows a feline fearlessness and merely seems curious as to what the Doctor and the Brigadier are doing outside its window. It’s a special moment.

This is an adventure that really begs you to forgive its production values and it’s no easy task – those dinosaurs are truly rubbish, as I may have mentioned – but if you can then the story will reward your patience and understanding.

Doctor Who’s ‘Golden Age’ is not nearly as shiny and polished as we sometimes like to remember it. When we turn back the clock by watching it on DVD things might not work out as we’d hoped. But when the stories are this good – with such a rich and compelling theme at its core – then it’s worth sealing off a corner of your imagination where the magic can be preserved.

The fx are poor, but the magic is no illusion.