Monday, October 28, 2013

Game Of Drones

Neil Gaiman’s peculiar brand of fantasy and Doctor Who made for the perfect marriage in last year’s episode, The Doctor’s Wife. So when I first heard he was turning his imaginative attentions on the Cybermen, I anticipated great things.

Wind time on a few months and as I embarked on my rewatch of the season I was altogether too conscious that I’d have to face Nightmare In Silver again. The prospect excited me about as much as other Cybermen stories with Silver in the title.

First time around, it was the biggest disappointment of the season. NB Not the worst episode – that honour belongs to others, but those were largely unburdened by expectations. Second time around, the expectations are no longer a factor and it’s not quite as big a failure as it appeared. But it’s still a bit of a mess.

It’s like the haul on offer in a Gadget Show competition: an expensive lot of kit, a mixture of real goodies and toys and stuff to get excited about – and other bits and bobs that you really have no use for that is probably best sold on through ebay.

The setting – a spooky old planetwide fairground fallen into decay – is rich with potential. But a lot of that potential goes untapped. The Doctor and Clara bring the kids along so we might experience the Cybermen through their eyes, perhaps be reminded of how scary we found them when we were young. But they begin by acting bored by the universe’s wonders and then spend most of the episode roboticised and (mercifully) quiet. A similar fate waits for Hedgewick, an interesting and colourful character ably played by James Watkins – quite a typical Gaiman creation –, who is reduced to a mannequin standing on the edge of the scene modelling the latest in cybernetic eyewear.

Senseless waste.

It’s something of a theme.

Take Porridge. He’s the story’s real strongpoint, around whom everything else is built. An Emperor adopting a disguise to venture out and see the universe – and temporarily step out from under the weight of responsibilities that come with the job. An inspired character played with sensitivity by Warwick Davis – not too much, not too little, just right. As he directs Clara’s gaze to the remains of a galaxy, he confesses to feeling sorry for the man – the previous Emperor – who had to press the button to destroy it, rather than for all those who lost their lives. It’s a potent moment (as well as a big clue as to his identity) and offers much food for thought.

Indeed, this whole notion of humanity being forced to destroy whole worlds – whole galaxies, for crying out loud – just to stem the Cyber threat is a powerful idea and a clear outlining of the story’s mission statement: i.e. the Cybermen are a force to be reckoned with. A terrifying mega-threat for which the only answer is sacrifice on a massive scale.

Whoa. Now there’s a concept to get people cowering behind sofas.

Bit of a pity then that the price of this victory is no more than a rusty old theme park and the standard quota of hapless troops. Because when Emperor Porridge activates the Desolator, the 80-second countdown is ample time for his flagship to come transmat everyone safely away and pick up the TARDIS after a gentle request from the Doctor.

And, despite the captain of the troops pointing out that the device will implode the planet, it goes and explodes. Presumably the director figured an explosion would be more spectacular, which is fair enough, but why leave the earlier line in? It’s a trifling thing but in a way it echoes the mockery that the transmat makes of all that contemplation about sacrifice.

Similarly, we are given a slightly redesigned, more streamlined model of Cyberman only to have them clunk around like the actors have studied extensively from Robotic Movement For Dummies. 21st century robotics has made greater strides, if you’ll pardon the pun, in getting machines to emulate a more natural walking motion. Various tricks and ploys are used in an attempt to render these silver giants formidable. There’s the scene where it first attacks, moving like something out of The Matrix (the film, not the Gallifreyan computer), which we only see the once. There’s the detachment of hands, the revolving of heads and a rapid cyber-conversion process triggered by electronic creepie-crawlies. And then there’s the overtly Borg-like ability to adapt and upgrade to all manner of attacks.

Except. Well, where do we start? There are too many excepts. Except they have to report “Upgrade in progress” every time like there’s a Windows popup flashing up on some internal screen. Except when thousands of them amass to attack the theme-park castle they trudge along like toy soldiers. Except old code (left over from Cyberiad XP) like the bit that renders them vulnerable to gold is still existent.

What’s more, the scarily fast conversion process is ridiculously easily reversed. Obviously we couldn’t leave the kids cyberneticised without serious consequences. I mean, really serious. Like worse than a babysitter having to explain to their dad how his little darlings went out and got tattoos on her watch. But surely the legendary Gaiman imagination could have come up with something better than the Cyber-planner relinquishing control.

Then again, surely he could have come up with something better than the whole externalising the internal struggle as a chess match. In fact that entire struggle between the Doctor and the painfully-named ‘Mr Clever’ goes on wayyyyyy too long, squandering runtime the way some story aspects fritter away substance and potential. Comic highlights vie with tiresome repetition and Matt Smith flounders as he bravely endeavours to do what he can with the material. Although in the midst of it I did enjoy the part where Clara slaps him.

There are at least nice touches like that. Those creepie-crawlies, for example – the Cyber Mites - are exactly as the Doctor says, beautiful – an exquisite little design. And totally at odds with a master race whose constant upgrading has refined walking to a clanking clockwork lurch.

Inventiveness vies with the clumsy and pedestrian and the plain hammy. There's too little here to earn anyone the title of Mr Clever and although colourful, its attractions are, like the galactic theme park, likely to slide into neglect after the first couple of visits.

Only, instead of folks talking about how great it once was, they'll probably reflect on how fantastic it could and should have been.


Monday, October 14, 2013

A Study In Crimson

It’s a measure of the success of the Doctor Who episode The Crimson Horror that I can’t see the factories in the Left-Twix Right-Twix ad campaign without thinking of Sweetville and, somewhere behind those gates, Mrs Gillyflower preserving only the best specimens of humanity for her New Jerusalem.

On the one side they cover beautiful people with bell jars and stick them in their own cottage. On the other they coat rejects in deadly red dye and bung them in the canal. But of course they’re all the product of the same process.

It’s never made abundantly clear why the preservative rejects some specimens and not others. Mrs Gillyflower wants only perfect, morally upstanding human beings for her brave new world, but whether the deadly red goo undergoes a chemical reaction when coming into contact with ugliness or moral turpitude is uncertain. In the Doctor’s case it’s down to his alien biology that he’s rejected and survives - and that’s fair enough. Not least because it provides an intriguing kick-off to this highly entertaining tale.

In some respects it’s a shame this isn’t a Doctorless adventure, as the investigative talents of Lady Vastra, Jenny and Strax are more than able to sustain a story, but the image of an imperilled Doctor captured in the eye of a crimson victim is an irresistible lead-in and there is a greater audience investment when it’s the Doctor’s life at stake.

For the portion of the episode they’re in charge they’re a delight and even when it’s back to business as usual, with the Doctor and Clara recovered, they’re generally given enough to do. It’s Jenny who benefits from the lion’s share of the action – including an all-too brief stint as a Black Widow/Emma Peel kick-ass heroine type. Vastra appears in a bit more of a supporting role and Strax principally provides comic relief (of course). (Side note: I wonder if the Sontarans can ever be fielded as a convincing alien threat with Strax in play. There’s potential interest to be mined in having him confront his warmongering brethren but whether it would work is another question.) Strax does get to put some of that gung-ho militarism into practice at last. Lady Vastra especially could have been given more to do, but not a bad balance is struck between allowing the Doctor to take the lead and at least creating an impression of the other characters being sufficiently involved where it counts.

Ultimately, their involvement is a sign to brace yourself for plenty of comedy and Mark Gatiss delivers a script choc-full of wit. As striking a condition as the Crimson Horror is, it’s not something that can be taken too seriously and even the macabre mortuary scenes with the (rather stereotypical) grim-humoured mortician are unlikely to be too traumatic for young viewers. The most horrific element is Mrs Gillyflower.

What a truly horrible creation. Wonderfully horrible.

Gatiss writes a terrific villain here and Dame Diana Rigg renders her utterly fearsome. The fact that Doctor Who can attract stars of her calibre is something to celebrate and whether it’s preaching sermons or launching her rocket to poison the Earth like a true megalomaniac she really sinks her teeth into the role. Her ruthless and even sadistic treatment of her daughter is the most chilling facet of her character and she’s one of those rare villains in modern DW who – thankfully – has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. When she lies dying and begs her daughter’s forgiveness, Ada tells her, “Never!” and she answers with maternal pride, “That’s my girl.” It’s a perfectly judged end for a masterfully portrayed villainess.

The sinister Mr Sweet comes to an equally fitting end, thrashed to a pulp by Ada’s cane. He’s one of the few disappointing aspects in this episode, a rather pitiful little creation that, if voiced with a suitably comic Northern accent, might have found a career opportunity on That Puppet Game Show. Still, a cartoonish mini-monster is in keeping with the general tone of the piece and it’s all the more credit to Diana Rigg that she plays scenes with no less conviction while she has this ridiculous thing clinging to her chest.

A more significant letdown is the epilogue with Clara and the kids she looks after. It feels tacked on and an unnecessary detraction from the adventure that precedes it. As predictable as it might have been, I’d have been happier if they’d closed out on the running gag of the fellow fainting at every strange sight he encounters throughout. Instead we jump to this weak excuse to shoehorn the kids into tagging along for the next episode. (Which felt like a bad decision the first time I watched Nightmare In Silver, in any case.) But it’s an imposition courtesy of the season’s arc rather than a fault with Gatiss’ script and the episode itself is brimming over with wonderful memorable moments that more than outweigh this stingless tail end.

Relatively simple tricks like the flickering projector effect with which the Doctor’s recap is handled add to the sense of invention and novelty, helping transform what is an essentially uncomplicated plot into something special.

Light and nothing too substantial, it may not be a long-lasting snack but it’s a treat you can certainly enjoy between mealtimes which, far from spoiling your appetite, ought to leave you wanting more.

Next Time...

Nightmare In Silver