Sunday, September 28, 2014

Strange Hill

“Good old fashioned Doctor Who fun,” somebody said to me on Twitter last night. They were responding to my less than enthusiastic reaction to the latest episode, The Caretaker.

‘Good’ and ‘fun’ are subjective, so fair play to anyone who got that much enjoyment out of it. Me, I got bored. Tedious fluff, I thought. But I’ve racked my brains and can only guess that by ‘old-fashioned’ the Twitterer meant circa 2006.

Soap opera first crept into Doctor Who during the Davison years, I’d say, with the dysfunctional TARDIS family and small chunks of an average 4-parter given over to whingeing and bickering. Used to annoy me, particularly Adric’s whining which probably would have driven K9 away if he hadn’t already left for E-space by the time Nyssa and Tegan joined. Later, Ace to some extent seemed like a weird Grange Hill graduate and brought some soapish baggage with her which was woven into a number of stories.

But it was only really with the return of the show in 2005 that companions brought their families, boyfriends and kitchen sinks with them for large stretches of the adventures on offer. Where they didn’t bring all that along, they’d be popping back to see them all the time and the stories were often built around the baggage.

Sitcoms started to creep in a little later. And The Caretaker fits that mould, unsurprisingly similar to The Lodger aka The One With James Corden. In a decent run of stories, that sort of thing is passably amusing and Roberts (and Moffat) can certainly write wit. Unfortunately, he can also write a great deal of stuff that rhymes with wit.

In this case, Roberts shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. This Ozzie 4 The Squaddie, Clara loves Danny Pink story arc has been imposed from on high and I guess if you’re at all invested in that, then this episode would be a corker. Sadly, it lost my interest before their first date. As I’ve said before, I had high hopes the writers would be building Clara as a character after a season of using her as a plot device.

High hopes were the opposite of what I had coming into this episode. Expectations were lowered by five preceding substandard tales. So it’s even more remarkable that it still managed to disappoint. But I do suffer from chronic optimism when it comes to Who – I keep watching in hope that it will get better.

Sadly, this kind of soap-sitcom fare is part of the new standard, with a plot flimsier than a routine instalment of Friends (which runs for about half the length). Here, we have the Doctor going ‘deep undercover’ as a school caretaker in order to ferret out a sort of malicious Metal Mickey, ‘one of the deadliest killing machines ever built’. Well, sure, I mean it kills a whole policeman. A low body count in a comedy is fair enough, but my main objection with the thing is that it looks bloody stupid. Contemporary US drones look meaner and deadlier and while they might have a spot of trouble negotiating school corridors you could do worse than borrow a little from the military design mindset. Monster design has been generally poorer than in the ‘good old days’.

The rest largely boils down to farce, centring around the comic exploits of the new caretaker (teehee), Clara trying to juggle her stressful sci-fi adventure lifestyle with a job and her new beau (hoho), and the Doctor butting heads with Danny Pink like a jealous ex or a father vetting his daughter’s boyfriend or a child acting out when his mum has a new boyfriend on the scene (somebody fix my cracked ribs). His refusal to accept Pink as anything but a PE teacher goes beyond stubborn to dense. We see the same petty and infantile side of the Doctor we witnessed to excess in Robot Of Sherwood and further allusions to his absurd soldierphobia. Yawn.

Honestly, I struggled a bit to see the episode through to the end. What I struggled with afterwards was how this Twitterer could see it as old-fashioned Doctor Who. Each to their own and all, but still. I don’t know, I only faithfully watched the show since the early Pertwee era and caught up on the Troughton and Hartnell years a little later in life.

Unless it was a reference to having two teachers and a young pupil on board the TARDIS, just like back in the day the show began. But, strange, I don’t remember Ian and Barbara having any trouble juggling ordinary life with life on the TARDIS...

Oh yes, that’s right, they were whisked off on adventures in time and space and weren’t dropped off back home every week.

As such, I recklessly replied to the above tweet thus: “There was nothing old fashioned about it and very little good. Ymmv.”

Which sounded fair enough in my own head and normally I’m not one to diss and tell but for the purposes of making a point here I will share the answer that earned me from the Twitterer in question:

“oh god, you’re not one of those ‘it was only good in the 60s when the Doctor forgot his lines every ten minutes’ people are you?”

This seemed at odds with their previous views of ‘old-fashioned Doctor Who’. So again, I had to assume that to them ‘old-fashioned’ meant rather more recent. My inability to recognise the striking similarities between The Caretaker and pretty much anything from An Unearthly Child to Survival was apparently my failing as a viewer and a fan just too darned nostalgic for the days of William Hartnell’s increasing illness.

For the record, no, I’m not ‘one of those people’. Indeed, I’ve always endeavoured to be balanced in my reviews, be it a modern or ‘classic’ DW. Even though Hartnell and Troughton were both before my time I gained a tremendous appreciation for their respective takes on the role as well as for the achievements of the production teams working under the extraordinary pressures and limitations of technology and budget of the time.

If today I detect a laziness in the writing and/or a growing drought of good ideas, a degree of repetition or any other aspect I’ve found lacking, if that’s born of any comparison at all it’s as measured against other more recent and contemporary TV shows that have been created in comparable environments. And on that gauge, Doctor Who is currently falling short by quite some distance. Orphan Black, for example, was not everything a friend of mine cracked it up to be, but it (the first season anyway) made for much more compelling viewing than DW.

If compared directly with immediately its own preceding seasons, the shortfall is less marked but the problem for me there is that it’s nowhere near different enough. In Capaldi we have a great new Doctor and we had a great new opportunity which, to my mind, is being frittered away week by week. Meanwhile, Clara is being wasted on weak sub-soap rom-com material.

The Caretaker did everything its title promised. It removed my inclination to care. The X Factor's borderline sadistic six-chair challenge has more drama

YMMV. Your mileage may vary. For me, Doctor Who seems to have run out of gas.

All of this, of course, is opinion. Not fact. There's really nothing more complex to be read into it than that. Disagree, argue passionately against it. But if Twittering fans do feel the need to level their own pet theories as to why I have those opinions, well, that's what the Block option is for.

SAF 2014

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Cop-Outs And Robbers

Despite the fantastic work done by this season's previous four episodes of Doctor Who to try to lower my expectations, this year's fifth instalment, Time Heist, managed to fall a bit flat. It was all a bit like Hustle, without the really ingenious, cleverly constructed plots.

There are probably some people, mostly including the writers, who believed the cons featured in Hustle represented the absolute pinnacle of devious plotting. Alas, I was not among them. They were generally obvious, contrived and successful by virtue of the mark's stupidity. Time Heist suffers somewhat in comparison by being more full of holes than a standard tea bag.

It's something we've come to expect from Steve Thompson, writer of such pedestrian logic-deficient works as Curse Of The Black Spot. But in this case it's not all his fault. For one thing, Steve Moffat take the credit of co-collaborator. For another, we now live in an era of Who in which the TARDIS and/or sonic screwdriver are used for everything. So if you're in the business of creating a good temporal bank job plot you first have to come up with a convincing reason why the TARDIS can't be the obvious solution.


Solar flares were offered up as the excuse, because obviously they would have rendered navigation impossible. Erm, yes, like they always do. Clearly. Of course, that begs the question why, when staging a Time Heist, you wouldn't just set your TARDIS to pop into the private vault to rescue the two alien lovers a little before or after the solar flare activity. No, thanks, as a 2000-year old super-smart Time Lord I'd much rather set up this convoluted break-in plan that makes no sense whatsoever, exploiting the unique talents of my trusted companion and two really dull additions to the supporting cast canon. Cos, you know, that'd be more fun.

And it was fun. In the sense that it was driven along by some witty dialogue and some great moments, much like any other Who episode, but those moments failed to hold together as any kind of convincing whole. Jason Statham routinely delivers more ingenious crime capers.

In addition to Capaldi continuing to be awesome, we had Keeley Hawes in cool ice-maiden mode and an interesting telepathic creature in the form of the Teller. But rather like the nice CGI high-tech cityscape was let down by the bank interiors - bland corridors and some basement full of pipes - it all ultimately adds up to wasted material. The Doctor's 'brilliant' plan is to use memory-wiping worms so that he and his friends are guilt-free right up to the point they've opened the case and walk into the bank. Whereupon the incredible guilt-detecting telepath skips right past the four prospective bank robbers to some random suspect who's only there to have his head caved in for demonstration purposes.

Just as last week's astoundingly clever Listen was a sub-par exercise in time-travel 101, this episode's main surprise will be in the number of people who turn out to have been surprised to discover that the Doctor turns out to have been the architect of the whole mission. The main unexpected twist for me was that it all emerged as a rescue mission to bust out the Teller's bug-eyed lover, but largely because I didn't expect them to pull quite such a similar so soon after Hide.

If only the greatest bank in the galaxy was as riddled with holes as this episode, the Doctor and Clara could have walked right in. Then again, they pretty much did just that from being hauled into Keeley's office to clambering through the vents into the amazingly ultra-secure private vault.

The thing is, in order to construct a genuinely clever heist plot (particularly with a time-travel angle), you'd ideally have to be pretty clever. And I don't get the impression that any single Who writer is up to the task. Or possibly in this case any two Who writers together.

To be fair, it's possible - and even probable - that Moffat only wrote the tiresome earthbound Clara dating scenes that kicked this escapade off. And if every episode this season is going to be bound up in that soapy tedium, the future doesn't look particularly bright.

On the other hand, if Time Heist is an example of what occurs between Clara's domestic lifestyle, maybe we'd best just focus on the soap opera.

SAF 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bed, Barn & Beyond

Listen. That wheezing, groaning sound you hear could be the TARDIS materialising in time for another adventure. On the other hand, it could be the sound of this week’s episode straining for effect. It really, really wants to be scary.

Listen does manage to struggle its way up from disposable fluff to atmospheric and, at times, creepy run-of-the-mill Doctor Who fare. Of course, whereas in the old days the show might set out to scare us kids, here in the 21st century we get treated to a 45-minute counseling session.

It’s okay to be scared. And anyway there’s nothing there.

A Doctor Who story with a purely imagined menace. That’s new. Although come to think of it, it does vaguely resemble Hide, the most atmospheric and creepy episode in recent memory that turned out to be a love story. But this was cleverly interwoven with one of Moffat’s ‘timey-wimey’ (yegads, I hate that term) masterpieces. So more like Blink then, without the monsters.

Blink. Listen. The Silence. Whatever you do, don’t blink, cos those Angels only move when you can’t see them. And the Silence, well, keep looking at them because the moment you turn around you forget they were ever there. This notion of some mystery creature that has perfected the art of hiding appears to be riffing on a familiar Moffat theme.

The thinking seems to be, What can I scare the young viewers with next? Superficially it’s a clever approach – because who hasn’t woken up in the night as a kid and felt there was something lurking in the dark or under the bed? I know I have, not least because Doctor Who used to give me such terrific nightmares. Nothing ever grabbed my ankles, mind you, but still it preys upon a feeling with which most of us will be familiar. Smart move and we kick off here with an intriguing premise – the notion of a creature that has so perfected the art of concealment it might never be seen by anyone. So how would anyone – even the Doctor – ever know it was there?

Unfortunately, this speculative premise is far more interesting than the explanation eventually provided. It's a rare but chronic condition shared by a few other stories in the past. (See very early Hartnell vehicle, Edge Of Destruction, and initially fascinating, ultimately god-awful Matt Smith Chibnall-scripted dumbfest Power Of Three.) Invariably fatal.

The twist here is it’s nothing. A phantom menace, if you will.  A term which could have applied to about 90% of the preceding season’s tales. This is a non-threat born of the Doctor’s paranoia and the fact that hauling Clara along on a hunt for a creature that only might be there when you’re alone strikes him as a smart ploy.

But then, he’s stupid enough to believe that this same master of concealment could be the figure on the bed with a blanket over its head. And he’s stupid enough to believe that the best move when perhaps confronted with the very thing he’s seeking is to stand with his back to it and tell everyone, whatever they do, don’t look round.

And frankly, when you have to make your ostensibly smart characters behave stupidly to make your story work that’s when you’ve lost. Lost my attention, at any rate. As though Clara’s (albeit endearingly naive) historical ignorance in last week’s Robin Hood outing wasn’t enough.

For an extra helping of dumbness on the side this week, because she’s dating an ex-soldier we have her blurting another idiotic joke about killing. Okay, we can attribute this second blunder to nerves, but Clara is smart, intelligent and confident. She exhibits no nervousness whatsoever when she first corrals Danny into a date back in Into The Dalek.

As in that episode, we kick off with a strong pre-titles hook only to return to soap-opera territory as Clara dines out with Danny ‘Interesting’ Pink. Makes you long for the days when the Doctor couldn’t steer his TARDIS with any accuracy, obliging the companion to stick around for a perilous life of adventure rather than take a taxi to a weekly escapade between real-life dramas. And by real-life I mean contrived Hollyoaks-level situations, of course. Now it’s just difficult first dates, but next thing you know it’ll be a disastrous wedding and a major annual fire at the local pub.

There were some nice touches and stand-out moments in this one (e.g. Clara posting out the toy soldiers around Rupert ‘Interesting’ Pink’s bed, the Doctor pinching the caretaker’s coffee – saw it coming,  but still nicely done etc). And I suppose the identity of the boy in the barn comes as a surprise, even if chiefly because the Gallifrey of the Doctor’s youth that lived in my imagination rarely involved barns as an accommodation option. Still, it was also nice to have a reminder of the fabulous John Hurt Doctor and Day Of The Doctor, what I consider Moffat’s most recent triumph. But my biggest fear is that this is another tale leading to some resolution concerning the Doctor’s ‘trouble with soldiers’, which to my mind should have been a non-issue in the first place.

On the whole this story was like a piece of cheap jewellery you might see being flogged on a shopping channel. The presenters are all hyped up, trying to convince you how wonderful it is, but it’s really just a necklace of pretty beads strung together, not nearly as exquisitely crafted as they’re making out. And there’s the sense you’ve seen a dozen others like it.

Moffat’s clear love of cyclic stories has extended to bring us a series that seems stuck in a chronic hysteresis-style rut, content to repeat itself because of some paranoid fear that any deviation from the formula may result in a ratings dip. It’s a particular shame because when you have two leads as engaging and so damn near perfect as Capaldi’s Doctor and Jenna’s Clara, these letdowns amount to a greater waste of opportunity.

Never mind, instead of watching from behind the sofa the new trend is to watch from the therapist’s couch. So hopefully, now that we’ve dealt with our nightmares and fear issues, future episodes will address these dreams I keep having.

See, Doctor, I keep imagining there might be something there, a decent story lurking just at the edges of my vision, but I turn on my TV every Saturday evening and there's nothing of substance there. Only shadows.

SAF 2014

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sherwood Bobbins

Ah, that Simpsons episode with Shary Bobbins always makes me laugh. I especially love the song ‘Half-Assed Job’ which so beautifully celebrates one of the core principles of Homer Simpson’s lifestyle. And, as it turns out, a guide to the writing of many a Doctor Who episode.

Take, for example, Robot Of Sherwood.

In fairness, I was not expecting greatness. At most I was expecting an amusing swashbuckling  barely-historical romp, so it can’t be said to have disappointed but it fell some distance short of greatness. The  episode struck its target better than the preceding two and there were a number of laugh-out-loud gems in the dialogue, but ultimately it split more arrows than sides.

In part, I suspect its failure to impress was down to context. A bit of comedy fluff would not have gone amiss following a couple of blindingly good DW adventures. But after the third piece of fluff I start thinking it’s time to remove the lint.

It seems like we have a meatier (and creepier) story to look forward to next time and if that measures up to the trailer’s promise that can’t come soon enough. Let’s hope.
Meanwhile, Robot Of Sherwood plies its merrye trade. The trick appears to be to cut and paste every other Robin Hood production you’ve seen (too many, in all probability) and add some robot knights and a spaceship disguised as a castle. State Of Decay and Time Warrior take your bows for your respective contributions.

I guess I wouldn’t have minded if it had done something dazzlingly clever with all that borrowed material, but in a 45-minute tale of olde I might not have frittered away so much time introducing all the Merry Men prior to not really using them again. That’s kind of like having the whole of the first Hobbit movie dedicated to the Dwarves coming to dinner – and then only having Thorin along for the two sequels. Also, in a swashbuckler, I might have injected a bit more, I don’t know, movement and action – you know, adventure – rather than waste what felt like ten minutes with Clara dining with the Sheriff while Robin and the Doctor bickered like children in a prison cell.

You can tell it went on too long, because it was well before that when Clara tells the two of them to shut up and you’re thinking, god, yes, I’m with you on that, Clara. Please, someone send in the torturer to get them to stop speaking. At points like this the episode dragged and that’s a fairly crucial failing in a story that aims only as high as romp.

Alas, since Hal the Archer first fought Irongron, bows and arrows have not fared well in Doctor Who. After Silver Nemesis, you would think a golden arrow represented some sort of upgrade, but this story is about on a par with that 25th anniversary 'special'.
Ben Miller, clearly reveling in his role as the evil Sheriff – the Alan Rickmansworth of this Prince Of Thieves, if you will – has been gathering up all the gold in the land in order to repair the space-castle’s drives and relaunch it to conquer Alle Of Englande. And even if his designs are a bit mad, his knights are nicely designed. Unfortunately, the ship’s engines only climb to 83% but somehow a golden arrow striking its hull is sufficient to inject the remaining power necessary to lift it into orbit where it can explode safely.

WTF? Even Silver Nemesis made more sense. Not a statement I would ever make lightly.

To round the whole thing off, we had more jokes about the Doctor being old. And grey. He has grey hair! Haha (fake Merry Men laughter). A strong indication there of the tremendous thought the writers and production team put into the direction they were going to go with Capaldi’s first season.

All in all, witty, dumb as a tree-stump and eminently disposable. But as a scathing indictment of modern educational standards, outstanding in the way it portrayed Clara, a teacher, as someone who so thoroughly believes Robin Hood to be a bona fide historical figure.

Fingers crossed this season arc’s Promised Land will be all it’s cracked up to be – hopefully a land flowing with milk, honey and better Doctor Who stories.

On the plus side, Clara looked absolutely gorgeous in her medieval get-up. Nice that the TARDIS wardrobe includes hair extensions. And if that seems a shallow note to conclude on, well, I apologise. But I have to be careful lest I invest greater depth in a review than there was in the episode.

SAF 2014