Sunday, April 24, 2005

Two Nil Down In The Second Half

Prefect SlogIt's not something you'd ever expect to hear yourself say about World War Three, but to be honest I found it a little... disappointing. And it's not as if I had a great many expectations riding on it. I was just hoping for an improvement on the last one. By which, of course, I mean not World War Two but "Aliens of London", the previous episode of Doctor Who, with its none too cleverly undermined cliffhanger. Unfortunately, it is like coming back to the second half when your team is one nil down, it's always going to be that much more of a struggle. First of all, one of the main things that struck me as the credits rolled was, frankly, how bloody good next week's episode looks. But after that, it did occur to me that, at last, with WW3, they seemed to have addressed the problem of the long-drawn out 'action' finale where nothing much happens, which has plagued pretty much all of the episodes so far to one extent or another. Here, instead, they have a long drawn out 'action' second part where nothing much happens. Fair enough there's a lot going on on the screen, superficially, but it feels more like something out of World War One - lots of cost and effort for very little ground gained. It begins with ten minutes of running around, followed by thirty minutes of the Doctor stuck in one room, and there was something 'the wrong way round' about that. The Slitheen, sorry, I found as unconvincing as before, if anything undermined some more by the contrast between their CGI versions and their wobbly headed man-on-a-suit versions. And what with all their getting dressed and undressed in between all the running around from room to room, you might have thought you'd tuned in to one of the rarer *sci-fi* Brian Rix farces. Okay the Slitheen, still looking like the stars of an extraterrestrial Huggies commercial, are dropping their skins instead of their trousers, but in the midst of all this there's still room for more fart gags. Including the good old farting in the elevator gag - taking the show ("Going up!") to new heights of sophistication. And after taking what seemed like hours to clamber out of their skins last week, these aliens seem to climb back into them with remarkable speed as the Doctor brings the troops running. I'm not averse to a bit of nonsense and daftness - I enjoyed "The End of the World" - but for too many reasons, including more poorly paced action, this one wasn't working. It's all, I think, a bit too much of a panto, not a quality I admired in the original series in its latter years, and not one I can admire now. As the female alien corners Rose and Harriet in one room and sing-songs, "Where are you?" they *might* have been aiming to evoke the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (one of the scariest things from my childhood), but here it just came across as a troll or something out of one of those big budget pantomimes, of the sort that usually star Jim Davidson as Buttons. Still, it all gallops - in so far as an episode in which the Doctor and co are stuck in one room for the greater part can gallop - to a conclusion, in which the Doctor gets Mickey to summon up a sub-launched Harpoon to take out 10 Downing Street. Setting aside the effective range of Harpoon missiles (no, really, it is possible to be *too* picky :) ), this kind of indirect action seems at least as weak as some of the solutions to previous episodes. I know dear old "Seeds of Doom"gets criticised for its weak ending, having the Doctor call in the RAF, and every week I hear some feeble justification for new series flaws in the form of some lambasting of the original series: e.g. "Well, it's no worse than they did in {insert name of episode here}". And I'm sorry, that doesn't wash. It's like the current government fending off criticisms by pointing out all the problems we had under the previous administration. Or rather, especially given the timespan involved, it's more like them saying, "But look at how bad things were when we were last in Number 10." Making the same mistakes on a bigger budget is not the most persuasive policy to put in your manifesto. Still, political analogies are entirely apt here, because amongst all the rest there is the biting and blatant bit of satire and there are other more mature and highly successful elements. Penelope Wilton is great as Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North, and there's a nice sense of closure to the story with which this whole thing began - the 'domestic' side of Rose's decision to go time travelling. Mickey snapping a photo of the Slitheen on his mobile, and the Doctor's "You kiss this man?" line to Rose when they're going through the contents of his kitchen cupboards has to be the funniest line in the whole two episodes. And there's a genuine sense of walled up emotion and maybe even a few dark secrets when the Doctor is confronted with the question of whether Rose is safe in his company, and later, when he faces risking Rose's life to save the world - albeit from one of the most ludicrous schemes for global destruction in the history of Who, but surprisingly and thankfully that doesn't detract from the potency of the scene. With some more convincing aliens, it might have worked. With some better pacing, it might have worked. And with a little less silliness, it might have worked. As it is, between the two parts, the story earns the first genuine thumbs down from me. No great shame in the scheme of things, and perfectly in keeping with a season of Doctor Who, to have a let down or two along the way. But overall, I was reminded that when watching "Rose" I could have wished it had been a two-parter, to allow for more of a story, and so a major chunk of the disappointment in the "Aliens of London" and "World War Three" combo is down to wondering why this flimsy little romp couldn't have been limited to a single episode, while "Rose" got the full attention it surely merited. Sadly, if these were being named in similar fashion to episodes of Friends, I can't help thinking this would be known as The One With All The Farting. And along with The One With The Belching Wheelie Bin and the (really very good) The One With The Gasy Aliens, anyone might think there was a theme developing. What it should have been, to my mind, was The One Where Rose Faces The Consequences Back Home Of Her New Time Travelling Lifestyle, and it would have been ample to have a relatively simple single episode sci-fi adventure woven into this excellent bit of time-and-space kitchen-sink drama, which would have benefitted this story immensely and had the added side effect of giving the Doctor, Rose and the Nestene invasion the introductory outing they deserved. So whilst "Aliens of London" and "World War Three" are perhaps not quite the failures I make them out to be here, they do represent - for me - something of a wasted opportunity, and get marked down for that alone. And next time I sit down to a two-parter, I'm definitely going to reach for the remote as soon as the Next Time... bit flashes up after the cliffhanger. But for now, Yay! Daleks!

Monday, April 18, 2005

Long Live the Cliffhanger, the Cliffhanger is Dead

Prefect SlogI'm going to be mean to this one, you might as well know up front. Before I get into that, there was much to like in it, some really great character stuff, that whole domestic side, the soap opera aspects of this time travelling journey of Rose's. Brilliant. It's what we'd expect from RTD, with his contemporary drama credentials. Of course, in the good old days, they'd just get on with telling a Doctor Who story, but these bits work so well, they feel perfectly at home in a modern Doctor Who adventure. It's only a shame that they weren't featured in a *better* Doctor Who adventure. It started out fab with the domestic drama, the spaceship crash, the "Pigs In Spaaaaaaace", but like a government it started to slip badly towards mid-term. There are aspects you can't exactly fault it for: in having the Doctor watch events on TV, it's doing something novel, after all, but it feels at least as unexciting and plain wrong as it does novel. Especially as we see the Doctor only a short while later imposing some of that familiar authority of his to involve himself - unquestioned - with the Army operation. There was another little paradox too, in having the Doctor so excited to be present to witness humanity's alleged first contact with aliens - and then remembering his involvement with UNIT who, we can only assume, must have had contact with, er, aliens. Actually, as I recall, it was on a frequent basis. And with aliens a good deal more convincing than the Slitheen. Okay, maybe it's just me, but one of the principal let downs of Alien Resurrection was the baby-eyed alien. At least that had the elongated skull effect to go with it, but it still looked too cute. (Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to cuddle it.) The Slitheen had the baby-eyes and the baby-cheeks too, stuck on a scaled-down Rancor monster meets scaled-up ET body. And we're supposed to find that final shot of its face looming large into camera menacing. Hmm. They weren't helped in the slightest by the fact that they'd spent far too much of the episode farting and giggling about it like children - you're not sure whether you should feel a sense of menace, so much as an overwhelming urge to change their nappies. Or, rather, to get some other poor sap to do it. (Although nice to see that the outmoded elements of old Doctor Who, such as the screaming female companion have been done away with and replaced by the modern sophistication of the fart gag.) They certainly weren't helped by the laborious process of clambering out of their skins - I certainly wasn't jumping out of mine, but I did seem to be spending a lot of that time wondering why somebody didn't do something while they were thus occupied. The Doctor of old could have foiled their invasion attempt three times by the time they'd 'disrobed'. But at least it gave the show an excuse for not one, but three long drawn out finales where people, once again, got to stand around and do a great deal of not a lot. This is getting to be a habit and with only 45 minutes to play with, it's not a very endearing one. Worst of all though - and this isn't actually to do with the content of the episode itself - was that all three points of menace within that cliffhanger were rendered instantly as limp and deflated as an empty Slitheen skin by the Next Week... trailer slapped on the end before the credits rolled. What were they thinking? I remember the sense of anticipation and impatience to see the next episode after one of the cracking cliffhangers of old - and unfortunately, it seems that said anticipation is destined to remain something to be remembered, rather than something to be experienced again. This is a story with two halves, so naturally there's room for overall impressions to change, but it would have been nicer to find myself really looking forward to the second half. Still, in the interests of ending on a positive note, the fx for the spaceship crash were truly incredible for a BBC Doctor Who and those shots deserve special credit in and of themselves. And I feel sorry for the pig. It's high time someone combined Doctor Who and "Pigs In Space" - along with a lot of the other Muppet gang, come to that.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Doctor Do Little

Prefect SlogI see dead people. Not on any regular basis, you understand, just in last night's episode of Doctor Who. For my money (how many ningis to the pu again?), the best one so far. I was thoroughly drawn in and I loved it. Three episodes in and, for me, Doctor Who had really arrived. The Victorian setting (superbly realised) and the theatre will naturally conjure reminiscences of "The Talons of Weng Chiang", but what brought that reminiscence to life more for me was the way the story was full of lovely touches of characterisation. And of course, this one actually took some time to enjoy its setting, atmosphere and, just as Rose was full of wonder at the sheer marvel of stepping into history, we were allowed some time to wonder at it all as well. The scenes with Rose and Gwyneth warrant a special mention, as does Simon Callow as Dickens. As they like to say on Points of View sometimes (when they're not saying "Why, oh why, oh why"): thank you, BBC. Or, more to the point, thank you, Mark Gatiss. I won't go into a laborious Oscars-acceptance-speech style list of all the other people who were involved, but the cast were all a joy to watch. Even the dead ones. And within that Christopher Eccleston came over as much more Doctorish, lending a real balance of authority against the grinning idiot that he's done a little too much of up till now. A darker story allows the darker side of this Doctor to, er, shine through. I just wish he'd had more to do. There are other little quibbles: the seemingly nonsensical solution of filling the room with gas to draw out the gaseous aliens (am I missing something in the distant mists of my O Level physics?), the fairly obvious twist to the angelic nature of the Gelth and the (again) drawn out 'climax' where (again) nobody's doing much of anything. Butthey're minor and things that certainly didn't detract any from my enjoyment of the whole thing. No, my biggest grumble would simply be that the Doctor's only crucial role was to make matters worse. First time he doesn't get to solve things with a wave of his sonic screwdriver wand, and he doesn't solve anything. Both him and Rose are stuck for what seems like an age in a dungeon - in Cardiff - while the tension mounts as the unquiet dead, well, reach rather uselessly through the bars. The stories thus far have been pretty simple, and I can forgive that given the 45-minute episode time, but by the same token, that's a reason to use the time to good effect. Don't see that 45-minute length as a limit, but work to the advantage of your format. Do something. That goes especially for you, Doctor. Especially in an episode where you've essentially just shown up to take charge of the scenes without, for the most part, changing the script. As I said, I still loved it and something like that needn't be too damaging: I've experimented before by removing the Doctor from "The Caves of Androzani", and things still play out pretty much the same way. (Although the story benefits a lot more from the removal of the Magma Creature.) But, in the end, the whole thing felt very Holmesian, by which I mean Robert not Sherlock, and that's good enough for me. The gripes (and you've gotta have gripes) are only the equivalent of the big fluffy rat. And if you can live with one or two of those, it's about as good as Doctor Who gets.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The End of the World... and I feel fine

Prefect SlogYou could be forgiven, if you're an ordinary paid-up member of the public, for not knowing there was a war on last week. Doctor Who fans - or rather, some sectors of the fan community - were behaving like it was The End of the World. Which it was, of course, on Saturday, in the form of Episode Two of the New Series. And wasn't it fantastic? Well, before I answer that, let's just mention the war. "Rose" had already generated a few divisions in the fan world, and then, as fans welcomed the news that there would be a second series only to learn shortly afterwards that Christopher Eccleston would be quitting after only this one season, those divisions magnified into something of a bitter North-South divide. There's nothing quite like Doctor Who to divide Doctor Who fans. So where do I stand in this divide? Well, somewhere in the middle. Mr Eccleston has put in a good bit of actin' so far, but he's yet to really convince (me) as the Doctor. He needn't feel bad - and I doubt he does on that score - the fact is the only Doctors who've convinced me from the first moment I encountered them were the first four plus McGann. The others took time. And naturally, I'm greatly disappointed to discover that Mr Eccleston isn't going to give me - or himself - that same sort of time. But he's an actor and it's an actin' job, so he has his reasons for moving on. So much for that. But it seemed to me, among fandom, that people were polarised to extremes where at the hot end they were too parched to voice coherent arguments and at the cold end they'd lost all feeling in their fingertips. It's been the same, as far as I can see, with the new series so far: people have either lost all sense of appreciation or all criitical faculty. Things are, broadly speaking, either "Stupid!" or "Fantastic!" - and I can't help feeling there should be room for some more balanced perspective. But, in this particular spirit of fandom, I'll air a few of my thoughts on Episode Two. So, blue alien woman being hauled into a duct by a few teeny metal spiders: stupid. Diversity and colour of the whole episode: fantastic. The Moxx of Balhoon's voice: stupid. Jabe: fantastic. Rose not hearing the spider scuttling around right behind her: stupid. Rose being overwhelmed by the plethora of aliens around her: fantastic. The Doctor bopping inanely to Tainted Love: stupid. Britney Spears' Toxic playing at the end of the world: fantastic. (Although I'd have gone the whole nine yards and actually had Britney in Doctor Who - and now, Britney S from Terra Alpha!) The lowering of the Steward's sun filter at the stab of a button and the Steward not running for the door: stupid. The emotional depth to the Doctor when Jabe lays a hand on his arm: fantastic. The vital switch at the other side of a batch of whirling propellor blades, so reminiscent of Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver's experience with pounding hammers Galaxy Quest: stupid. (And is the poorly paced 'climactic action' sequence the replacement for the cliffhanger? I do hope not.) The emotion at the moment of Jabe's death: fantastic. (Well, I mean, obviously it wasn't fantastic that such a fantastic character died, but you know, that moment did get to me.) Leaving the modern independent companion nothing to do for the entirety of the climactic action sequence: stupid. The going to get chips scene at the end, so brilliantly and emotionally touching on the Doctor's past as well as rooting Rose's experiences in that everyday context: fantastic. And, of course, there are more where those came from, just in the space of those 45 minutes. But you know, with all the fantastics and the stupids, the overall feeling I had at the end of it - apart from that bloody trailer coming up slap bang before the closing credits - was a good one. So I can only say - on balance - that The End of the World - that is, the one on the telly, not the one in certain sectors of the online Who fan community - was a darn good show.