Monday, September 30, 2013

Ever Decreasing Circles

You might think a surprise twist would be diminished on a rewatch. But that’s nothing to a time loop.

Call it what you like – a rewind, reset switch, Undo, a Big Friendly Button – it all amounts to the same thing. Doctor Who’s Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS opts for the latter phrase, even goes and burns it into poor Clara’s hand. But this sort of temporal shenanigans has more worth as a comic than a dramatic device. (See Bill& Ted, The Curse Of Fatal Death etc)

On one level, it’s a powerful tool. The big enabler for the writer to steer us into a big dead end – the bigger the better! End of the world, end of the universe, the TARDIS has already blown up and we’re all dead. You can almost hear the Cloister Bell striking Dum-dum-dum! It’s the ultimate cliffhanger when you can actually throw your characters off the cliff, right?

Everything’s okay when one of the characters can warn their earlier self know not to walk too close to the edge. Everyone’s saved. They never even went for that clifftop hike or if they did they brought the proper safety equipment and none of it ever happened. Bob’s his own uncle.

Usually in some feeble attempt to make it all mean something, somebody is able to recall something of these non-events and in some way learn and grow from the experience. In this case it’s Clara (who will later remember the incidents) and a salvager who develops a conscience about this joke he’s been playing on his little brother.

Fittingly enough, it’s rubbish.

So is there anything salvageable in the pile?

Well, let’s see what we have here.

Wooden salvage operators who have been ribbing their baby brother, convincing him he’s an android. What larks. So persuasive is their merry jape, the poor lad is still declaring ‘No fear, no pain!’ when he’s been skewered by a large metal rod. Apparently, since the accident that netted him a replacement pair of bionic eyes and voice box, he’s never once hurt himself – not even stubbed his toe – in this dangerous profession. And no explanation is given as to what explanation the brothers gave him when he felt the need to visit the bathroom. Imagine the embarrassment as he tries to fit a waste pipe to his groinal socket.


It’s not as though Doctor Who has no precedent for this – Guy Crayford in the equally daft AndroidInvasion. But prior ignorance is no excuse.

The funny thing is, post-skewering we might believe the fellow is an android the way he engages in strenuous activity – like fighting charcoaled Siamese twins from the future – while acknowledging the grievous wound with no more than a wince and a hand clamped over where it hurts a bit. That could be a(nother) failing in the script or simply down to the general woodenness of the acting.

Clara and the Doctor are the saving graces in the acting department. Neither can singlehandedly save this sinking ship, but they are a pleasure to watch. Together or apart, they do a great deal to keep us entertained – until we discover where it’s all leading. There’s suspense and action aplenty and the barbecued horrors that stalk everyone through the TARDIS corridors are suitably nightmarish, presented in their earlier appearances in a sort of blurry shimmer like heat distortion. Although it’s not difficult to guess the nature of these ‘monsters’, it’s not a bad stab at seasoning proceedings with a surprise twist and their presence lends the air of urgency and inevitability that the story desperately needs for it to have any chance of working.

Likewise the various temporal echoes (murmured voice overs from the past and the idea of Clara and the Doctor occupying the same control room but just seconds apart) are a welcome ingredient. Part of what you’d expect, in fact, from a time ship breaking apart.

And therein also lies a problem.

It’s by and large everything you’d expect. In this golden chance to explore so much more of the TARDIS interior, the degree of inventiveness is limited. I’d go out on a limb and say it’s produced on a larger budget than Invasion Of Time, but all that amounts to is that most of it involves running around more expensive-looking corridors. Notable exceptions being the opera house/theatre, a rather lovely library and the tree of egg-like light bulbs. And yes, the enormous reactor room with the suspended star is impressive, but it is essentially just a catwalk with a CGI backdrop. With infinity to explore, writer Steve Thompson doesn’t really let his imagination wander too far. And that’s a shame because if there was one area where the story could have redeemed itself that was it.

Had we been shown genuine wonders, well, I might have felt the experience more worthwhile. Especially given that it was all going to be neatly time-waved away, it was under some pressure to show us something truly special right up to the point when the Doctor throws the Big Friendly Reset Switch back through the time fissure. And it falls short of that target.

While also offering up some A-grade stupid. From the spectacularly involved magno-grab and giant mechanical claws system for dumping the TARDIS on a scrapheap to fooling an intelligent young chap he’s Kryten, it’s all a bit Red Dwarf without the laughs. (Well, there’s witty dialogue, but it’s not the riotous side-splitting sci-fi sitcom material brought to us by Lister, Rimmer, Cat and Co.) That spiralling sensation is just a wasted opportunity being flushed down the TARDIS bog.

As Macbeth expressed it (sort of), if it were undone when tis undone, then twere well it were undone quickly.

In the first five minutes, maybe. To spare us the pointless forty minutes of runaround.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, that’s my future self at the door just arrived to tell me not to bother watching it a second time. I should go and let him know he’s too late.

Next Time...

The Crimson Horror


Monday, September 23, 2013

Romeo & Ghouliet

The trouble with a ghost story written and played as well as Hide is that it’s never going to have the same impact the second time around. The suspense and scares are all delivered in exactly the same way as before, of course. Nothing’s changed. It’s as (relatively) flawless as ever.

Problem is, we know there are no monsters under the bed. It’s only shadows.

And I pick my words carefully. See, I know this Doctor Who episode not a ghost story but a love story because the Doctor takes the trouble to declare it loudly and with great enthusiasm at the end. I have to say, I’m not sure I welcomed the twist so enthusiastically the first time round.

But it’s the element that I can appreciate more on a second viewing.

It’s not as though Doctor Who hasn’t done a ghost story before, not to mention one that involves the phantoms turning out to be time travellers or temporal projections of some sort. So the writer was under an obligation to turn it into something novel. It’s just that when you pull the rug out from under things they sometimes have a tendency to fall down.

Hide doesn’t do that. It still stands tall. Because everything preceding that final revelation is superb. Even with the benefit of knowing how it all unfolds, this haunting tale is crafted and orchestrated with superlative skill behind and in front of the camera. Chilling, urgent, exciting and genuinely scary. The Doctor’s fear as he’s stalked by some barely glimpsed horror in the pocket universe is evident without him having to spell it out.

By incorporating the Metebelis crystal, it even harks back to Planet Of The Spiders and the idea of the Doctor confronting his greatest fear. (And yes, I say ‘everything’ was superb but the Doctor does suffer that awkward mispronunciation slip which set Twitter flapping at the time. It’s inherited some added comic value now as a result, but I’d hope it’s not what Hide is remembered for.)

In any case, it’s a perfect example of how much more effective it is to emotionally invest the audience in the fate of a handful of people than some grand threat to the universe or a global population. It wasn’t as immersive on the rewatch, but I recall being fully engaged by the story the first time and the core relationships are just as touching.

The fact is, long before the monsters are revealed as lovers, it’s already a terrific love story with the tender and nervous romance-in-the-making between Emma Grayling and Alec Palmer – in essence, another Doctor and assistant relationship. Beautifully pitched and played by Jessica Raine and Dougray Scott. Emma’s empath also happens to touch on themes close to my heart as a character of mine, Aphrodite (from Emotional Chemistry) can be a lonely figure, sometimes uncertain whether feelings of those around her are real or a product of her own ‘gift’.

In addition, we’re given some strong relationship material between the Doctor and Clara, as he seeks to understand her and vice versa. The notion that he views mortals as ghosts is an interesting and compelling one and Clara’s reappraisal of her position in the Doctor’s eyes makes for another key step in the progression of their relations. The reveal that the Doctor has come here principally to consult psychic Emma about Clara reminds us that she is his current ongoing obsession for this season. “The only mystery worth solving” is a neat summation of the Doctor’s perspective at this point.

Throw in Clara’s difficulties with the TARDIS as they’re learning to get on with one another plus the inevitable temporal paradox of the ‘ghost’ turning out to be the great great great (etc) granddaughter of Emma and Alec and it’s practically a 45-minute LoveActually, with its anthology of relationship examinations. Only less saccharine. Instead it’s sweetened with a few deft sprinkles of sugar and strengthened and darkened by a ghost story to rival Poltergeist.

Flipping the whole thing over in the last minute is a bold and novel move, but at the same time it dilutes the scares. It’s as though Richard Curtis collaborated with M Night Shyamalan and both men brought their B game for the final three minutes.

I remember from the first viewing sitting back entirely satisfied with the episode at the point before that, with the monster(s) left as (largely) unseen horror(s). The notion of something out there, lurking in the mists of a pocket universe, that terrifies the Doctor, something in the face of which ultimately he has no answers but to run and/or hide is so steeped with potential that it seems a shame to undo it all with an original twist.

Within the context of a succession of rather impotent endings, in some respects an actual honest-to-frightening monster strikes as the more original choice.

On the other hand, that’s not really the fault of Hide. Taken individually, this is a damn near-perfect story and I sincerely doff my writer’s cap to Neil Cross. The sting in the tale is not as scorpion-like as I’d prefer it to be, but in the end it’s a pretty minor flaw in one of this season’s true highlights.

It runs rings around Akhaten. But on the strengths of that one and this, I’d certainly like to see more from this writer next season.

Next Time...

Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Green Peace

Ice Warriors! On a submarine!

A combination guaranteed to beat Dinosaurs On A Spaceship any day of the week. And Cold War, penned by Mark Gatiss, manages that at the very least.

This episode was a treat the first time round, plus or minus a few quibbles, and to be honest not much has changed on a second viewing. Except the surprises have diminished and the quibbles have taken on marginally greater significance. But that’s a fairly natural progression. All it means is I didn’t really notice anything new on a rewatch, but I had a feeling that would be the case. The episode does exactly what it says on the titanium hull.

It sets out with an ambition of being a back to basics monster story, sticks to its guns and delivers. The guns fire blanks in the end, but for the most part after the ambitious Rings Of Akhaten this proves that sometimes simple is best.

It helps that I love the Ice Warriors. They look fantastic in their scaly armour and they worked successfully both as monster and full-fledged alien race. Even if not much background detail was provided in the TV series, they fired the imagination and there was always more to them than we saw on screen. By which I mean culturally as much as what manner of creature lurked under the armour.

Here, Gatiss and the production team conspire to reveal some of the latter and a hint or two of the former. With a degree of subtlety that’s well-judged, using the shadows of the sub interior and some very RobertHolmesian language in the Martian history references. (Vanquisher of the Phobos Heresy, songs of red snow etc.) That subtlety is blown out of the water with the full face reveal at the end. It’s an odd decision, since I would’ve thought the greater impassivity lent by the helmet would have served to the scene’s advantage. Surely, the suspense lies in the illegibility of the opponent – what will the other guy do? It’s at the core of the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) policy which Gatiss makes his theme.

If it’s done to show the Grand Marshall’s personality, that he’s ‘not so different to us’, then it fails because the face isn’t that great. What we see lacks character or expression, which is a shame and feels like a wasted opportunity.

Fortunately, other modifications and enhancements to the design are innovative (remotely operable armour, data probes – ooer, missus – in the fingers) and very welcome. Gatiss’s script also does a good job of rendering a single Ice Warrior menacing and a dangerous, credible threat – much as Rob Shearman did for the solitary pepperpot in Dalek.

Since that was clearly the aim, we can award pats on backs all round because the story succeeds on that level. Up to a point.

However, there’s a sense of greater potential that lies under the surface throughout and it remains untapped.

The episode doesn’t really make the most of its setting. It’s a rather impressionistic take on the interior of a Soviet SSBN (ballistic missile submarine, to you and me) that seems founded on a few viewings of The Hunt For Red October and Crimson Tide. Tom Clancy isn’t known for the depth of his characters but his technical knowledge of naval vessels verges on intimate and he can use that to create situations and develop tense scenarios that evolve and progress. Stories set in confined spaces need to generate movement in alternative directions. A little research goes a long way and maybe Gatiss did more, but there’s scant evidence of it in the finished production. At one point as they hunt the alien through the ship, I’m sure I heard the captain declare, “It’s in the walls.” Which just sounded wrong.

Even the crew seem constructed from borrowed templates. The captain might easily be mistaken for Ramius, Stepashin is a political officer modelled on Peter Firth’s in Red October. The delightfully quirky professor is a Doctor Who staple, but when he first steps into view I assumed he was an eccentric sonar officer stepping out of one of those submarine movies. Luckily, they’re all saved by the fact they’re played by a triumvirate of great guest actors: Liam Cunningham and David Warner, especially, bring tremendous presence and empathy to their roles, while Tobias Menzies brings some of the same qualities he showed in Game Of Thrones.

The middle of the episode riffs on Alien, of course – handful of crew stalked by solitary alien, attempting to turn tables on the intruder and hunt it down. Much of it is suspenseful and urgent, countered by too much screen time given over to lingering shots of claws playing over victims’ faces. Coupled with duplicated explanations to clarify the global situation in the early 80s.

The writer frees up a lot of time by having Clara fall unconscious, skipping the part where the Doctor has to explain his and her presence on board and moving the situation on. So it’s a shame so much of that time has to be used up in history lessons. Context is important and there’s no easy way to show that – without the presence of an enemy (i.e. American or British) sub, say – but I’m not sure we need to be told it quite as many times as we are here.

Removal of the TARDIS from the equation is a glaring contrivance, sweetened with a touch of nostalgia by use of the HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System), which fans will remember from The Krotons. So it feels a bit of both clumsy and neat.

And that’s as good a summation of my impression of the episode now I’ve taken the time to watch it again. Never mind why a Soviet SSBN would be drilling the arctic ice for oil (clumsy), an Ice Warrior on a submarine is a terrific setup (neat). Overall, it’s more neat than clumsy and sometimes that’s good enough.

It’s the ending that really lets it down.

That’s where the movie switches from Alien to The Abyss.

Helmet on or off, negotiations with a Martian feel anticlimactic. Matt Smith does his utmost to inject urgency and tension into the scene, but at the end of the day it’s just an argument about whether or not one side or the other should press a button. Which is about what the Cold War amounted to, but in dramatic terms it’s another weak ending to an episode that deserved better.

It’s by no means a crippling blow and a relatively minor disappointment. There’s enough lateral thrust to save the story from sinking altogether.

Next Time...



Sunday, September 01, 2013

Cirque Du Soleil

Anyone who knows me and even some who don’t will know how much I love Farscape. So when Doctor Who begins to resemble Farscape – to any extent – that’s a cause for singing and rejoicing.

All right, that might be overstating the case a smidgen for The Rings Of Akhaten, but it did have plenty of good things going for it and many of them did remind me of Farscape.

There’s even an episode of that show with a living sun. Mind you, it’s an episode which has a sappy ending and is one of the rare ones I’m not particularly fond of. That might provide a clue as to where I have a problem with Akhaten.

When I saw it the first time, I was in two minds about it. And I still am. Many Doctor Who episodes divide opinion among fans. This managed to divide this one fan’s opinion. Twice.

It begins well and is an encouraging start from newcomer Neil Cross. The Doctor stalking Clara in the way only a time traveller can – starting from even before she’s a glint in the, er, passing pedestrian’s eye. Instead of a glint, it’s a leaf and it manages to strike him so hard it makes him stumble into oncoming traffic. So we’re clear this is one powerful leaf. The ensuing montage is a neatly encapsulated scrapbook that paints us a picture of Clara’s life up to this point, including her mother’s tragic death at a young age. Not sure if we’ll be given any more explanation on that but as a means of ensuring our empathic investment in Clara, job done.
Then we’re whisked off, along with Clara, to Akhaten. It’s a place like nothing we’ve seen in Doctor Who and even if it’s sometimes a bit too obviously a product of the miracle of CGI, the effect and the aim is appreciated. The story wants to show us something new.

The street scenes are familiar, courtesy the Star Wars cantina and other xenocosmopolitan scenes from the likes of Babylon5 and Farscape. There are a few Star Trek-ish humanoids with crinkly bits, but surprisingly few. The variety of lifeforms gathered here is staggering considering the expense and that they’re (probably) only going to be used for one episode. It would have been easy and tempting to take the cheap way out. The Vigil are simply styled, but particularly striking and are a scary presence, used sparingly and effectively. It’s only a bit of a letdown when they end up in a Harry Potter-esque standoff, locked in glowy battle with the Doctor and his sonic wand. But the point remains that the production team went the extra mile on the alien diversity front and that effort is hugely appreciated.

Clara’s reactions to it all are a treat to behold and she manages to retain all her plucky independence and spirit while being a fish out of water. The ideal combination and it draws us into her perspective, helping even the most seasoned-veteran Doctor Who viewers see all this as new and exciting.

We know something’s going to go amiss from her helping the little lost alien girl, but it’s perfectly understandable that she does so. We all would.

As it is, it’s not Clara’s involvement that triggers the problem – little Merry Gehjel (Emilia Jones) was going to be nabbed by the ‘old god’, or Grandfather as he’s known locally anyway. And here’s where more of the familiar seeps in – Grandfather strikes a Sutekh-like figure seated in his throne, imprisoned in his tomb. Plus, and it must surely have been deliberate, use of the title Grandfather and the ‘throwaway’ line about the Doctor having brought his granddaughter here chuck in a decent red herring or two, calling to mind things like the Faction and suggesting possibilities that somehow the Doctor and this Grandfather might turn out to be one and the same. There’s a sense that we are in new territory and that anything can happen.

What we get is simultaneously novel and disappointing. But I do wonder if it’s more in the orchestration than in the scripting.

It’s a nice twist that Grandfather turns out to be only the alarm clock for the actual ‘old god’. And as for living suns, I have nothing against them. (See the Magellans in EmotionalChemistry, profoundly empathic beings.) Likewise, solving the situation with emotions and/or stories – or even a song. Why the hell not? It’s different. Doctor Who thrives on different. The intention, like the effort on all those aliens, is worthy of applause.

The grand choral number itself is fine, although coming so soon after Merry Gejehl's earlier performance it does create an impression of going on for too long. It doesn’t help that some of Murray Gold’s over-dramatic scoring continues to thump away in the background while the Doctor’s having an urgent talk with Merry and Grandfather’s beating at his glass prison in his (protracted) fight to get out. But constant music, whether needed or not, is a feature of other episodes.

What is a shame is that after celebrating alien diversity, they felt the need to give the living sun a face so the episode’s climactic moments are given over to the Doctor – and Clara – negotiating with a giant Jack O’Lantern. So the power of the Doctor’s great speech – and it is a great speech – is undermined by this vast, blazing fireball looking a bit stupid. Forget the souls it’ll devour if allowed, it’s just sapped much of the strength of that scene.

Also, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the Doctor’s argument. Pointing out to a parasite that it’s a parasite is about as likely to produce a change in behaviour as telling a Dalek it’s evil. That aside, just when we think we’re in for a Tenth Planet Mondas-style ate-a-bit-too-much-energy ending, that doesn’t work and it’s up to Clara to save the day with that all-important leaf. And as touching a scene as it is on the surface, it’s at that point I detect a minor logic failure.

The leaf is to the soul-eating sun what a wafer-thin mint is to Mr Creosote, because it is full of ‘what should have been’. But surely a child – such as Merry – is not so different – full of potential, all the things she could be. Indeed the same might be said for any life cut short. And in any case the possibilities centred on that leaf are not nearly infinite. They were limited by geography, meteorology and other factors that meant that, yes, a great many permutations of outcomes might have arisen from that leaf’s movements after falling from the tree. But not infinite.

At the end of the day, the value lies in how you view these things and I’m not sure an ancient being that devours souls should be quite so gullible.

So there’s much to like in the episode but the ending feels a bit weak. And if memory serves – and if first impressions hold up on the rewatch – that is something of a common feature to a number of episodes this season.

So, more The Rings Of Akhasevenoutoften. Not outstanding, but stands out because of various elements and it’s laudable ambitions.

Next Time...

Cold War