Sunday, August 25, 2013

World-Wide Web Of Fear

To introduce the same companion twice might be considered fortunate. To introduce her three times seems like a carefully orchestrated masterplan. As I’m sure I’ve stated before, I have no quarrel with being re-introduced to Clara Oswald, however many times are needed is fine by me. And on a rewatch we get to meet her for the first time over and over again.

Obviously, the mystery surrounding her loses much of its draw the second time around – that’s the thing with mysteries – and I have concerns about the future of the character after the revelations concerning her nature, but for now Jenna Louise Coleman is a treat to watch and she does a great deal to liven up even the lacklustre episodes.

So when we get a clever, energetic little gem of a story like The Bells Of St John there’s plenty to celebrate.

It doesn’t begin especially auspiciously. The pre-credits teaser amounts to a big show and tell, effectively establishing the situation the Doctor’s going to be up against and helpfully spelling it all out up front. Naturally, this clears the path for the core matter which is the Doctor-Clara relationship and it’s an ergonomic approach but it didn’t strike me as great storytelling on first viewing and it still doesn’t. We learn and discover what’s going on through the course of the episode anyway, so it’s not necessary and could have made way for a more artful opening.

But that’s a lesser quibble than it sounds because once the opening titles have stormed by on our screens, we’re right into a contemporary domestic thriller. The kind of thing that only Doctor Who really excels at.

Moffat has a proven talent for picking something mundane and making it scary – gas masks, statues, shadows, silence, fireplaces. Okay, not so much that last one, but here he’s taking something everyday that’s all around us and having a go at turning it against us. Yes, Wi-Fi. The world-wide web. And spoons. Let’s not forget spoons.

(And McCoy’s Doctor used to play the spoons. Significant? Could be...)

Written down like that it sounds silly. But it’s handled highly effectively and while the Wi-Fi is not in itself scary, I think the episode does successfully play on the particularly modern and adult fear of clicking on the wrong thing online. Most of all with regard to children freely exploring the internet. There are horrors out there, never mind the threat of having your consciousness uploaded into a database to feed the GreatIntelligence. We’re generally more worried about what might be downloaded into our consciousness, but flipping it and examining it in reverse works just as well.

Weaving the Great Intelligence into proceedings makes Great Sense and (as we now know) serves Moffat’s gameplan for the series. It also grants us another appearance by Richard E Grant, always thoroughly welcome.

And this time he’s aided and abetted by Celia Imrie. She oozes ice and the way her character reduces human emotion to numbers, manipulated on sliders on an iPad is a superlative touch. The moment when we discover she is merely a puppet, evidently recruited by the Great Intelligence when only a child provides for a note-perfect sting, superbly played.

Everyone else on the staff and the rest of the supporting staff are okay, nothing spectacular, nothing too memorable, but that’s fine as Jenna-Louise and Matt Smith are the stars of this show. Matt seems fired up, like he’s just come back from a fantastic holiday, and that fits because we’re seeing a Doctor (currently living a solitary existence as a ‘Mad Monk’ (but not meddling) in 1207 AD) brought back to life by the sudden unexpected return of (another) Clara. Moffat’s wit is on overdrive and the adrenaline seems to fuel the cleverness, with the whole scenario of Clara (thinking she’s) calling a tech support helpline across the timezones and her hooking the Doctor’s undivided attention with her mnemonic (‘thing’) of ‘run you clever boy and remember me’ being a joy to watch from start to finish.

Then the Doctor’s rushing to Clara’s rescue in the present day and the joy continues with the Doctor meeting this new companion with all his pre-existing affections (and obsession) with her, while Clara, for her part, wonders why this nutter has come knocking on her door.

There’s no attempt to explain the ‘woman at the shop’ who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number to call. We have to assume it’s River. Explanations aren’t important at this stage. It’s just another little piece of the puzzle hinting of Clara’s  ties to the Doctor’s life, like the book written by one Amy Williams. Nice touch.

This brims with nice touches. Along with big, bold action sequences – house lights used to mark out the Doctor and Clara as a target for a plane crash (played for pure Hollywood but with underlying hints of 9/11); and in the closing stages, the Doctor’s motorcycle ride up the Shard.

Fab stuff, but honestly the final straw in Moffat’s habit of pinching my ideas. Kleptomania, I guess, be like that: starts with something small like intelligent snow from Drift, you move on to instances of the same girl scattered through time from EmotionalChemistry and before you know it you’re fancying the look of the Vertibike in Evil UnLtd Vol 2. Well, I’m watching you, Steven. At least, I’m watching Doctor Who anyway.

I have to if it continues to be this good.

The flaws here are sufficiently minor to be inconsequential. For example, the Doctor sending in the spoonhead substitute is fair enough but it only acts at all robotic once the audience is in on the trick. Clearly, he has to act Doctorish in order for the trick to succeed, but why lapse into full roboticness once the cat’s out of the bag? A bit more hmmworthy is the way everyone turns to useless jelly while the spoonheads’ necks are doing their 180-turn. It’s the sort of thing that goes on in video games – some enemy gets busy mutating into a bigger, badder boss but the main characters are left standing there, trapped in a cut scene with only the power to observe in awe at what they’re going to have to fight. When, really, the smart choice would be to run or start shooting, pronto.

But if that’s the level of gripe we’re reduced to, then we can safely conclude that this is quite simply the best introductory story for a companion since Clara’s last one.
Next Time...
The Rings Of Akhaten


Monday, August 19, 2013


So a funny thing happened when our Series 7 rewatchathon arrived at the Christmas Special, The Snowmen. For one thing, it wasn't Christmas. It was a rainy Sunday morning in August. But I'm happy to report that neither the timing nor the weather significantly affected my viewing pleasure.

Aware that I'd reviewed the episode before, I popped back for a re-read and I can pretty much stand by everything I said before. So I can take the lazy option and just post the link to the original review.

It holds up wonderfully well on a second watch.

I think I found the whole one-word interview situation a bit more of a silly contrivance on this occasion and taken altogether with my impression of generally weak endings for too many of this year's episodes the resolution isn't quite the cracker it could - or should - have been. But I want to save further comment on that until I've completed my rewatch in case that overall impression changes. In any case it's probably entirely natural to be more forgiving at Christmas than at the height of a British summer.

It's still my favourite of the Christmas specials to date. And trust me, there aren't many Christmassy things you could induce me to watch in August.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Statues At Liberty

(Intended to post this last week, but then they went ahead and announced a new Doctor Who. Call it a mid-season break.)

Whatever you do, don’t Blink. That could be Steven Moffat’s mantra to himself whenever he sits down and writes another story featuring the Weeping Angels. There’s a devious simplicity to Blink that to some extent, I’d thought at the time, rendered the Angels a one-trick pony. Statues of limitations, if you will. Quite a challenge to repeat their initial success, not least because the last thing you want to do is repeat. If you want to keep bringing those ponies back, you need to get them performing new tricks.

So far, Moffat’s done a pretty good job with his creatures. He’s had to tweak their rules each time and Flesh And Stone/Time OfAngels showed a few cracks, but remains a stand-out story of its year for my money. In The Angels Take Manhattan he’s modded their operandi again, but the result is a tale that feels at once new and familiar, which is the best of both worlds.

The Angels don’t really take Manhattan. Nor do they need to, because they feel perfectly at home. Like they belong. New York plus Angels is a great marriage. Lace it with 30s noir detective ingredients and Manhattan is a perfect cocktail.

Of course, ‘perfect’ would be overstating it somewhat. This is Doctor Who which, like even the most mature cheeses, can be full of holes.

Luckily, this isn’t riddled with them. Indeed, the only one that rankled (a bit) for me was how the Statue Of Liberty could move at all in ‘the city that never sleeps’. Surely someone somewhere would be looking at it ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time and how far could it reasonably move in the remaining point one percent? And yet the lady seems pretty nifty here. For no good reason, as far as I can see, other than the spectacle of having her loom menacingly over the apartment building where her fellow Angels feed. But I guess once you have NYC as your location and the Angels are involved, well, the temptation of having Liberty move and bare her fangs must have been irresistible.

It’s a forgivable indulgence and I’m sure if Moffat hadn’t given into it there would have been people wondering why he hadn’t made Liberty an Angel too.

It’s another of those stories where you get the sense Moffat is inspired and going where that inspiration takes him. His hallmark temporal weaving meshes well with the idea of the pulp detective novel underpinning and informing events.

There’s a tiny glitch with that when Amy has the inspired idea of looking at chapter titles in the book, then the Doctor uses a device to track the missing Rory to a mysterious place named Winter Quay. Completely overlooking the chapter heading there in black and white on the contents page: Death At Winter Quay. D’oh! Still, it’s a nice concept and hangs together pretty neatly for the most part, bringing into play questions of fate and foreknowledge. And not once does anyone utter the phrase ‘wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’. Nicely played.

River Song slips readily into the Melody Malone detective role as easily as slipping into something more stereotypical of the genre. The dialogue and emotional interplay between Doctor and River, Doctor and Amy, Amy and Rory etc is electric.(Before we even get to discussing the ending, I should mention how much I love the scene where River pretends to have broken free of the Angel without breaking her wrist. Of course there was no way she was going to conceal that from the Doctor but there’s something affecting in the fact that she tries.) It tingles and it stings in all the right places.

It’s perhaps a minor shame the tale doesn’t make more of its hard-boiled pulp fiction overtones and Garner, the private dick in the prologue, is wet enough to need that mac of his. Against him though we have Michael McShane as a collector named Grayle who’s insane enough to want to keep deadly time-eating statuary in his collection – including some especially creepy cherubim in his cellar. It’s only ever going to end badly for him, but that’s the nature of femme fatales – even when they’re made of stone.

Talking of ending badly...

Well, this doesn’t. I mean, it does. Rory and Amy both die. But it’s beautiful. And horrible. And sad. And exquisite. And – okay, okay, I cried, all right. Is that what you want to hear? Second time around there were no actual tears but still a lump in the old throat and a moistening in the eyes.

Amy Pond is/was one of the best elements in 21st century Who, so naturally I was bound to be sad to see her go. There was a lot riding on getting her departure right. And Moffat – and Karen Gillan and all others concerned – do that. It’s as close to note perfect as Doctor Who gets. (And as fond as I am of the Pond I can only hope and trust that when she says to the Doctor ‘you’ll never be able to see me again’ the series holds to that.) Moffat even cleverly arranges things with his mastery of time – and a deft touch involving a last page torn from the book – so that we end on a beginning and the young Amy looks up on hearing the TARDIS in a freeze-frame that harks back to Sarah Jane’s departure in TheHand Of Fear.


This story almost entirely makes up for Daleks In Manhattan. Personally, I’d longed to write a 30s noir DW set in Manhattan for some years and that abysmal effort was enough to make angels weep. This, while not exploiting its period setting much beyond atmosphere and aesthetics, excels with a healthy measure of that same devious simplicity that characterised Blink.

So, yes, whatever you do, don’t blink. But you may want to wipe that tear from your eye.
Next Time...

The Snowmen


Monday, August 05, 2013

Paging Doctor Capaldi

What do I think of Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor Who?

Not much.

Which is only to say, I've not seen him as the Doctor yet. But the difference with when they announced Matt Smith as the 11th is that back then I hadn't a clue who this fellow was (and then he went on to become the best Doctor since Davison - IMHO, as they say.) This time round, I'm familiar with Peter Capaldi's work and I have an idea what he can do with the role. And he still has the capacity to surprise - it's that kind of role, after all.

In an ideal world, I would have preferred not to know who the 12th Doctor was going to be and they'd just regenerate him on screen and pow, there you are, that's your new Doctor. But since that wasn't going to happen, this is good news.

Capaldi - all due respect, mate - qualifies as an older Doctor and that feels like a welcome departure. A change, m'dear. And, in one sense at least, not a moment too soon.

For one thing, I feel confident this should put a stop to any more Doctor-companion snogging. That was, like Sutekh in a time corridor, getting really old really fast.

So, welcome  to the TARDIS, Mr Capaldi. Eleven careful owners. (Okay, maybe twelve, since it was stolen in the first place.)

We know who is the Doctor. Now I'm very much looking forward to what kind of Doctor he gives us.