Sunday, April 30, 2006

Me & Sarah Jane

Prefect SlogWe go way back, we do. Surely my earliest crush, and unlike the girls my age at school, she'd come round to my house every Saturday - even though she was busy fighting monsters or peering around corners and whispering 'Doc-tor' in that irresistibly timorous way of hers. She had that perfect balance of fearful and fearless, she was an intrepid investigator who knew when to be afraid. She was a bona fide, 100% real Doctor Who companion and, damn it, I lurved her. It was wonderful to see her return in School Reunion last night and no wonder at all that the Doctor greets her with the boyish excitement and delight of a fan. I'd be the same.
Quite simply, *every* moment of that story was exquisitely judged, beautifully performed and everything it needed to be. And by 'that story', of course I mean the 'Reunion' part. The 'School' part - the vampire-like Krillitane (surely a food additive?) taking over the school, feeding the kids brain-enlarging chips and trying to crack the something paradigm or the Da Vinci Code or whatever - was like the narrative equivalent of the musical score - mostly incidental, sometimes intrusive. There was nothing terribly wrong with that side of things - apart from the dreadfully convenient fact that the aliens' own oil was lethal to them, which is probably just another product of having to tell these stories too fast. When I saw the trailer the week before, I was mildly concerned that they were attempting to cram too much into their usual 45 minute slot: Sarah Jane, K9, Mickey, Anthony Head, aliens invade Grange Hill etc - and to a certain extent that turns out to be true. A fair bit of the "tell don't show" principle, and no real development on offer. And, not that its relevant, a lot of kids tapping away at keyboards according to the Space:1999 school of possessed computer programming - as a result of which I envisaged a Krotons-style scenario, where the aliens were skimming off all the High Brains for their own devices. Curiously, the bat-creatures are a tad too reminiscent of the Reapers from Father's Day, last year's Doctor Who blub-fest, but it might have been one continuity-dredge too far to explain that they had evolved thus as a result of an encounter with those particular monsters. But the 'School' part is anyway, let's face it, there for the kids - what better setting to rope in the younger audiences, especially with the obligatory blowing up of the school at the end. And the rest of it, the 'Reunion', was so absolutely perfect, that it didn't matter what was going on in the background. Actually, that played in its favour, because equally it didn't matter much if there were flaws with the alien menace plot.
The emotion in every scene that counts is played out beautifully - from that first meeting, to Sarah's encounter with the TARDIS, all the way through to that heart-warming and heart-wrenching goodbye. It's all played out naturally too - it's like they know the heartstrings are going to be playing themselves, especially for us sad old fans who know what it all means, so there's no need to pull on them. Even K9's return is handled deftly, with gently mocking humour, while at the same time allowing him to do what made him such a story liability in the first place - i.e. to save the day.
Then there's the emotional angle between Sarah and Rose - "the ex and the missus" as Mickey says, and you won't often find me quoting him. Sheer brilliance, and again there's a progress to it that feels perfectly natural, all the way up to and including that touching farewell, where Sarah tells Rose to look her up if she ever feels the need. Of course, when bickering they could have thrown names of visited planets at each other, but we know how that would have looked. Sarah Jane: "Earth, Peladon, Mars, Karn, Zeta Minor, Skaro, Voga etc." Rose: "Earth, Earth, Earth, a station orbiting the Earth, Earth, Earth, and an alien planet called New Earth." Compared to SJS, Rose's list reads like the Monty Python Spam song. With the monsters thing, they at least achieve the illusion of a balance they can work from. Although Rose all but blows her game by playing the Slitheen card. :)
But see, even though it gives me the chance for some evil humour, that Rose-Sarah Jane scene was, like so many other aspects of this very human story, pitch perfect. And to have the Doctor walk in and find them laughing about him is pure magic.
Even Mickey, dear God I can't believe I'm going to say this, is bearable here. Although he's perhaps one character too many in this all too short 45 minutes, he does serve a purpose and it's worth it for the aforementioned line and his comparison of himself to the 'tin dog'. Cue my first real Metal Mickey joke opportunity.
Obviously I am going to have to watch this one again. In part, to remind myself of the 'School' part of the story, which I'm afraid may remain forgettable even after a second viewing. But chiefly, just to savour that 'Reunion' again. I mean, I know I'm a married man and all, but - between you and me - you have to envy the Doctor that ecstatic final hug. :)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Fang Horror Rocks!

Prefect SlogNo, not a new variant of Scissors Paper Stone, but a brief summary of my response to Tooth & Claw, the second episode of the second series of new Doctor Who. Was that the werewolf's bollocks or what? Okay, it kicks off with the guys from the BBC One idents giving up their waterside T'ai Chi for a spot of Matrix style ass-whupping, but that just serves as a welcome reminder that it's only really in Doctor Who that you're going to get warrior assassin monks, a spacefaring werewolf and Queen Victoria in the same episode.
To tell the truth, throughout it all I was getting two strong past DW story vibes, one of which was of The Unquiet Dead: simple ghost story, terrific atmosphere, beautifully executed and featuring a key historical figure played brilliantly by a great character actor. Replace 'ghost' with 'werewolf' and replace 'characters helplessly trapped in a room at the end' with 'a Doctor who's actually doing something to solve the situation', and that's pretty much what you get here. With more action.
The other strong vibe I was getting was one of Horror Of Fang Rock: period piece, isolated setting, classic horror with an sf twist, diamonds etc. So much so that somewhere in the middle I actually commented that if the Doctor adapted the telescope into a laser to destroy the beast, that would certainly clinch it. And lo and behold...!
Of course, the major difference - er, other than the lack of a lighthouse and the fact that the isolation is achieved by a cordon of armed monks instead of stormy seas and fog - is that we have a single 45 minute episode and the whizz-bang storytelling that comes with it. But it's the episodes that achieve this kind of standard within that framework that remind us that new Doctor Who needs to be judged by its own new set of rules. I.e. they set the bar and show what can be done with that new pacing. I recall when Rose first appeared, I bemoaned the fact that 'We have no time to stand and scare'. It's the same here: the scaring has to be done on the move. But when it's done well, it makes all the difference between a rush and a rush job.
I'm afraid that these reviews have to be done at much the same speed at the moment, because of writing commitments and what have you (hopefully I can make an announcement before too long), but I'd have to scrabble around a bit to find much worth criticising in this one. Yes, it all turns a bit Buffy when they're in the library leafing through books for a clue as to how to defeat the monster. Yes, I did wake up this morning wondering what the hell had happened to all the monks surrounding the house. At the death of their leader Wolfie, they *might* have dropped their weapons and wandered off to resume their pondside callisthenics between BBC One programming, but I missed what happened to them. (Basically I'm going to have to rewatch it to find out if I blinked at the wrong time or something, but a rewatch is no trouble at all in this case.) And yes, the episode should have ended with Rose and the Doctor departing in the TARDIS, laughing their socks off at the royal family and howling like wolves - instead of that ham-fisted ad for the spinoff series, Torchwood, that was tacked on at the end.
I mean, I've heard fans complain about nods to the past - well, phooey, I loved the bit where the Doctor refers to himself as Dr James McCrimmon - means nothing to anyone watching DW for the first time, but it's a nice touch for those of us in the know. Whereas, by contrast, this little nod to the future as Queen Vic plugs the spinoff felt unnecessary and clumsy - and others who had no idea Torchwood was on the way have told me much the same thing. They were left wondering what the hell that was about. Surely a subtle reference in Torchwood to the idea that they'd been established by Queen Victoria would have sufficed to build a subtler but just as firm bridge?
But really, never mind. Last season, it wasn't until episode 3 that I really felt like Doctor Who was back. This year, it's an episode earlier and that's a step in the right direction. And next week: the return of Sarah Jane Smith. So woo, and indeed, hoo!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Moving Swiftly On...

Prefect SlogOkay, I'd just gotten over my disappointment at discovering that there were in fact six more episodes of Invasion to crawl through - serves me right for checking an incomplete episode guide on the net, huh - and now the return of new DW for a second season leaves me with a meh feeling. Usually, I'd rewatch an episode before commenting here, but on the one hand it left vivid impressions and on the other it lacked that degree of re-watchability that's in the classics. Still, it's something that was missing from a great deal of the first season, so I can't hold that too greatly against it. A friend of mine was only commenting yesterday that she supposed I had all the first series on DVD and was surprised to discover that wasn't the case. In the first place, I'd generally watched them again right away for the purpose of scribbling a review and in the second place, that was generally enough. This one wasn't helped by the fact that I'd been so hugely looking forward to it and in part that's owed to the strengths of the first season, but probably in equal part that's owed to its weaknesses - i.e. I was hoping to see some marked improvements.
But don't get me wrong, what we had in the opening episode New Earth was not actively awful in the same way as, for example, World War III or (heaven forbid) Boomtown. No, it was a curious mix of dazzling and dumb, with the rough edges taking the shine off the gems, and the shiny bits not managing to dazzle enough to take your mind off the flaws. By no means terrible, but as it used to say on too many of my school geography reports, 'Could do better', and this morning I find, disappointingly, no immediate desire to watch it again.
Inevitably it's reminiscent of End of the World, but doesn't have the advantage of the wow factor of seeing this kind of Doctor Who for the first time - and doesn't have the brilliant 'chips' scene at the end. But it also reminded me of Time and the Rani, the rampantly silly debut of McCoy's Doctor, complete with the companion-villainess switcheroo. Mostly a nonsensical runaround. Unlike the McCoy debut, it's liberally sprinkled with bright ideas, so gives it that feeling of being rushed, but there's nowhere near enough of note in it to fill out a two parter.
The list of plus points is impressive: outstanding performances from everybody who really counted, brilliant cat make-up, terrific set design (special mention to the Intensive Care Unit, although I was temporarily jumped out of the action by the fact that the Doctor and Rose apparently had to descend through the Nestene chamber from Rose to get there), oodles of witty dialogue and some intriguing stuff with the Face of Boe. Against that you have a story that feels hastily cobbled together and sadly lacking, plus some wobbly CGI (the modern hi-tech equivalent of wobbly sets) where the cityscape and all the flying cars are poorly married to the foreground, a so-so opening that was perhaps required viewing for anyone who needed reminding that Mickey and Jackie will be back this year but that didn't do much for me. And a troublingly quick character U-turn from Cassandra at the end: "I don't want to die. Oh, all right then." Bah. The Doctor here is much more proactive in the resolution than previously, but again there are shades of End of the World where the action finale and the way the situation is resolved is a bit more than faintly ludicrous. Unfortunately, the most positive enduring impression the show left me with came from the trailer for next week's episode and how bloody good that looks. So, as I say, in the spirit of a Doctor who apparently likes to rush about, moving swiftly on...