Monday, November 25, 2013

Golden Whobilee!

Happy 50th Birthday Doctor Who!

Hope you had a great time. I did.

Seriously, be they Fez, Panama, or broad-brimmed floppy, hats off to Steven Moffat and the cast and crew of The Day Of The Doctor. So good I watched it twice on the same night. And I’ve never done that with a Doctor Who episode. Ever.

It’s the kind of mad, crazy stuff we do for a special occasion.

Was it the greatest Doctor Who story every told? No. I don’t think it could claim to be that. For one thing, it featured one of my pet hates – the undoing of time and its attendant (and often convenient) confusion over who remembers what of the events that have occurred. Or haven’t, as the case may be.

When John Hurt asks, “Is there a lot of this in the future?” he might as well have been talking about temporal rewrites instead of snogging. But that is just one of the many brilliant moments that outweighs concerns over such trifles as plotting and tired old tricks. Who needs trifles when you have a birthday cake like this?

The Day Of The Doctor is one of those tangled webs that Moffat weaves so wonderfully well – that also leaves you with the sense that it would all unravel if you tugged at a single thread. The difference, I suppose, is that this is woven from such winning material that I honestly don’t feel like pulling at those threads. Which, I know, is very superficial and shallow of me but if a slice of cake tastes good and leaves me satisfied why would I want to go all critical on it like some nitpicky Paul Hollywood on a Great Whoish Bake-Off?

Sure, it raises questions – such as, is the Gallifrey that returned to menace Earth in The End Of Time the same one that the Doctor is now thinking of going searching for? – and others, probably enough to fill a NOW That’s What I Call Doctor Who Continuity Questions 86 – but right now I’m not especially hungry for answers.

This special was everything it needed to be – with some delicious extras. It told a story that felt both epic and personal. It embraced present and future and past (even while rewriting it). It gave us not just the three Doctors I’d been given to expect, but all thirteen! Without the overcrowding we had in previous anniversary specials. It had Daleks and Zygons (a representative D to Z of Doctor Who monsters, if you will). And if 3D didn’t give me headaches I could have popped along to the cinema to enjoy it all on the big screen.

As it was, it felt sufficiently big-screen on my telly, with all manner of good stuff spilling out of the frame like mysterious figures breaking out of time pictures in a gallery.

It was, in short, a celebration. And a fantastic one at that.

Matt Smith was on fire. Tennant was a thankfully toned-down and lighter-hearted version of his Doctor. John Hurt was phenomenal, a true gem. Clara chides his Doctor for being ‘the life and soul shortly before gracing him with an affectionate farewell peck on the cheek. For a ‘forgotten Doctor’ who didn’t deserve the name of Doctor, he perfectly embodies all the essential Doctorish qualities. Further, he combines the gravitas of a warrior weighed down by a heavier pair of hearts with a ready humour and wit and a kind of bemused despair of his younger (older) selves that is a joy to watch. He’s given numerous opportunities to shake his head at some of the elements I’ve remarked on myself – the excessive snogging, the sometimes infantile behaviour, the babbling and the catchphrases and the pointing of the sonic screwdrivers ‘water pistols’.

It is in some respects an implicit recognition that there are many fan voices out there and they’re not always approving of everything but they’re still very much included on the party invitations. In any case, it’s inspired material from a writer who understands his audience and knows that we love this show as much as he obviously does.

Hurt is the life and soul of the tale, right at the core. The moment when Ten and Eleven join him so that he won’t have to face his fateful decision alone brings the best kind of lump to the throat, the best kind of tear to the eye. A moment that should have a capital M – except that would confuse it with the ultimate WMD.

Then again, the Moment itself couldn’t really compete with the countless glorious moments liberally sprinkled throughout.

Kate Lethbridge Stewart. Derren Brown as UNIT’s go-to cover story for strange events, the photo board in the Black Archive. One Doctor snogs a Zygon and the other doesn’t let him forget it. Comedy Zygons. Ferocious, scary Zygons. The Two Elisabeths. Three Doctors! “This has all the makings of your lucky day.” Peter Capaldi’s staring eyes! All thirteen Doctors! Osgood and her Tom Baker scarf and obvious fangirl crush. Tom Baker! Et cetera et cetera. The list could go on, but it’s worth stopping on that one because it was an arresting, magical moment. When Tom’s rich, unmistakeable tones break in on Matt Smith’s Great Curator reverie, that produced the best kind of shivers. One more crowning glory on top of all the others.

If I were to cite key disappointments they would amount to things like the Time War resembling any other war. I'd imagined it as something like Call Of Duty meets Mass Effect meets Curse Of Fatal Death. (Maybe it was, we might never know.) But this was the ultimate battle and you could argue that there’s a message in the fact that all wars are ultimately the same.

My biggest 'gripe' though would be that John Hurt was so bloody brilliant that I’m now sad that we didn’t have a full season of his Doctor fighting said Time War. But imagination is frequently better than whatever might be realised on TV and in terms of glimmers of what might have been, well, this was one of the brightest. Fantastic! as Doctor No.9 was always so fond of saying.

On a more technical note, I guess the closing image with all the Doctors could have been better rendered as some looked distinctly 2D. But it remains an enduring image and a fitting tribute to all those actors who’ve played this most prestigious of parts. A perfect birthday card on which to close.

A 50th anniversary is a monumental milestone in the history of any TV show and Moffat faced a monumental task. To succeed to any degree would have been a remarkable achievement. To succeed to the extent delivered by The Day of The Doctor is nothing short of a miracle.

So, all in all, this is much less a review, more a thank you note. I doff my Fez to all involved. And wave my scarf in the air. And twirl my bow tie.

The candles on this birthday cake are still burning brightly.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Tex Max

When I told my friends I was bound for London this November to see Texas, nobody made any obvious geographical jokes. What a number of them did ask, though, was ‘Are they still going?’

The answer, as it turns out, is yes. They’re going strong.

They’ve been away, there’s no denying that. They’d been a favourite of mine for many years and then they disappeared. I missed their presence in the charts and then I guess I assumed they weren’t coming back. But now they’ve returned, with fresh music and masses of energy.

Makes you feel old and young at the same time. Old, because you realise just how long they’ve been a familiar friend in your ear. Young, because for a band so rooted in the blues – for their first three albums anyway – they sure know how to throw a party.

The venue played its part. Live at the Hammersmith Apollo feels really alive. It’s capacious enough to accommodate some sizable names and lend the show the air of a grand occasion, while retaining the character of an old theatre to give a sense of a more intimate setting. Last time I was there was to see Sheryl Crow and she rocked the place. When I arrived I think I was buzzing with memories of that show.

Sharleen Spitieri and company were not to be outdone. They were as happy to be back as we were glad to see them – and their enthusiasm infected the crowd from the start. Credit to the warm-up act – an outfit called A Girl Called Johnny – who made their mark and left a positive impression with their 30-minute set. They struck me as a talented trio and a good fit for the headline act without being clones. Their lead singer returned to duet with Sharleen on a track they co-wrote – the title track from the new Texas album, The Conversation.

Ahead of that there was a decent mix of old and new, the band hopping fairly freely around their back catalogue in between what seemed quite clearly designated sections for the new material. At one point someone in the crowd shouted out for Rick’s Road and the band obliged by striking into So Called Friend, the opening – and probably best-known - number from that album. Which lent the impression of an impromptu, spur of the moment deal – an impression only enhanced when one of the guitarists cocked up and Sharleen called a halt, teased the poor guy mercilessly and restarted in the middle. Taking the attitude of the show must go on, but not before we’ve had a laugh and joke about it. And inadvertently adding to the party atmosphere.

Sharleen’s a funny lass. When she speaks she’s like a wee pint-sized Lorraine Kelly with a fondness for dropping f-bombs and a wicked sense o’ humour. Heck, I’d get up to watch her breakfast show. Highly entertaining. She has a fine singing voice too and is more than just the lead singer – she’s pretty much the face and the sound of the band. Kind of like Debbie Harry was to Blondie. To the extent that I wondered why the hell she went and did a solo album a little while back. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice album but I always got the feeling it would have been just as good if recorded by Texas. Anyway, no disrespect to the other musicians but she’s the one bounding around the stage, she’s the one who gave the show its character.

As to the rest of the set, personally, I’d have welcomed another song or two from Rick’s Road as it’s my favourite album of theirs, but in an hour and half there’s only really time for the big hits. Hence, second album, Mother’s Heaven, was entirely neglected – which was a shame. But at least we were treated to two from Southside, including their debut single – I Don’t Want A Lover – with its rich Ry Cooder-esque intro and thumping rock beat sounding bigger and better than ever.

Obviously, main focus was on the major hits from White On Blonde and The Hush, the heights of their commercial success – as well as a couple from the later and really rather excellent Red Book. And sure, those albums abandoned the blues in favour of more polished pop production, but even the more watered-down tracks sounded a little bit rock ‘n’ roll in the hands of these great live performers. Plus they stuck to a strictly upbeat tempo – none of your wishy-washy slow numbers. Save those for the 300-mile train journey home when you want to sit back and relax and reflect on a great night in the big city.

Texas may not be the force in the charts they were once upon a while ago. But there’s a reason this band from Scotland chose such a big name. They have a big sound and a huge personality.

Loved ‘em.


Monday, November 04, 2013

Doctor Who?

It’s kind of difficult to review a Doctor Who episode like The Name Of The Doctor.

When it comes to his big arc stories, Steven Moffat loves to leave us with as many questions as answers, which tend to feed into the next season arc and so on. It’s no bad thing in principle – maintains the momentum, keeps us wanting more – but occasionally it does mean we get an episode like this, where its degree of brilliance – or the opposite – can only properly be gauged when we see how it all gets wrapped up. Will it be neat and awesome? Or will it be a tangled mess of threads that don’t quite tie up? Time will tell.

Of course, some questions are best left unanswered. For example, Doctor Who? The idea that the Doctor wants to safeguard his true identity is fair enough, but the notion that it might actually mean anything to us or that, if revealed, it could somehow lead to some universe-wide cataclysm is frankly a bit daft. The mystery is always going to be better than any answer supplied.

So you might be forgiven for wondering why there’s any need to build an episode around it. Well, relax, because that’s not what Moffat has done. It’s roughly as much about the Doctor’s name as The Doctor’s Daughter is about his progeny and The Doctor’s Wife is about his missus.

As the Doctor points out, it’s not his secret that’s been discovered – it’s his grave. And that’s a much more tantalising (and chilling) prospect. It’s something that was raised in Lawrence Miles’ DW novel, Alien Bodies, and as much as the fibre of many a fan will protest at any suggestion of pinning the Doctor’s death to a particular place or time, it’s ominous and compelling stuff.
Like Scrooge confronted with his own headstone. So it’s altogether fitting – and welcome – that it’s Richard E Grant’s Dr Simeon (aka the Great Intelligence) who steers the Doctor towards this fateful encounter along with his small army of Dickensian ghosts.

It’s not made abundantly clear in the episode why the triggering message has to be delivered in the form of a 'til Burnham wood do come to Dunsinane' style rhyme via a Victorian serial killer locked up in Newgate prison, but we have to assume some subtlety on the Great Intelligence’s part – e.g. he knew Vastra would investigate, he knew she would hold a temporal dreamstate conference call and he knew that would ultimately lure the Doctor to the blighted world of Trenzalore.

That subtlety does go out the window somewhat later on when the only ploy he can come up with to coerce the Doctor into opening his tomb is to seize him by the throat and have his Whisper Men menace the Doctor’s companions. Some sort of trickery would have been preferable and more in keeping with the name, Great Intelligence – and we know Moffat is clever enough to devise such a trap for the Doctor. I guess the physical confrontation was deemed more obvious and TV friendly.

There’s a healthy quantity of other cleverness on display. The dreamstate conference across time is an inspired device, craftily handled – and the evident chill Jenny feels as she knows someone or something has intruded on their ‘seance’ in the real world is a lovely spot of ghostly storytelling. Together with the witty exchanges you’d expect when Moffat sits a bunch of his favourite characters around the same table. The TARDIS as the Doctor’s tomb, with its internal dimensions spilling over to the outside and transforming it into a vast monument, is fantastic. And the idea that instead of a corpse the Doctor leaves behind a scar in time – his timeline weaving a convoluted web that he describes as ‘the tracks of his tears’ – is a pretty elegant conceit.

As is the Great Intelligence’s intention to exploit this as the means of his ultimate revenge. Yes, stepping into the Doctor’s timeline will destroy him and shatter him into a million pieces, but those scattered parts of himself will be in a position to rewrite the Doctor’s history. And by extension the history of the universe.

It’s just a little unfortunate that this manifests – a tad inevitably – as yet another winking out of stars and all the usual malarkey that accompanies this kind of temporal script doctoring. The direction and performances and how the Doctor’s undoing is handled is all well and fine – we feel for Vastra as Jenny blinks out of existence and it’s refreshing to see Strax turn nasty for a moment – but it’s not radically unlike the sort of stuff we’ve seen before.

The damage is repaired fairly promptly, of course. The good news is that repair is not achieved without sacrifice. The bad news is that sacrifice is Clara. (Nooooo! Not Jenna Louise!) The good news is the Doctor is not going to let that sacrifice go ahead without a fight and he’s hot on Clara’s trail to rescue her. The (potentially) bad news is that we now know Clara’s purpose – ‘my story is done’, she says - and there’s this danger she’s been reduced to mere plot device even before she’s been properly fleshed out as a person.

Maybe something can be made of that in future tales, as Clara has to rediscover who she is and we can look forward to getting to know her as a character. But for now, I’m left a touch concerned that it’s lessened her somehow. For all that scattering splinters of the same person throughout the Doctor’s lives is a jolly clever device, Clara at this point is a device with personality. Like K9. Her mission, whether she chooses it or not, is to help the Doctor out of trouble wherever she can.

And yes, that’s part of the job description for ‘Companion’ but I don’t know that anyone else has become the job description quite so literally.

Interestingly, it’s also the only occasion I can recall when a Doctor Who cliffhanger has hinged on a casting revelation. ‘Introducing John Hurt As The Doctor’ strikes as an unnecessary caption, spelling out the awesomeness of the moment for the hard of being impressed.

Nitpickers and hair-splitters can also delight in pointing out that only a line before, the Doctor makes the distinction that this dark and enigmatic fellow is him but is not, in fact, the Doctor. It’s a question of titles, apparently and we are left to speculate on who he is and how he fits in the Doctor’s past.

Time will tell, like I said. The strengths and merits and/or weakness and disappointments of The Name Of The Doctor will be best measured in terms of where it leads. It’s Part One of a major two-parter, at least. And, lest we forget, it’s Part One of the 50th Anniversary Special. And that’s HUGE.

Worth remembering and actually impossible to overlook, since the celebrations have already started right here in this story. The sprinkling of past Doctors throughout are like the lighting of the candles on the cake and I’ll not be the one to blow them out. I just sat and watched and applauded each one. Those sequences of archive footage were, for the most part, married pretty well with the present-day shots, save for a few questionable shadows here and there. Technical quibbles aside they were a welcome treat and a taste of the party atmosphere that should accompany any story as we approach such a landmark birthday.

I do wonder whether the Hartnell Doctor could really be persuaded to slip off with a dodgy TARDIS purely on the word of some random (presumably Gallifreyan?) girl who assures him he’ll ‘have more fun’. And if one of Clara’s splinters can be born a Gallifreyan, does that mean she can also be a Sontaran or an Ice Warrior or a Fishgirl of Atlantis? Time will probably not tell on that one.

Whatever else, it’s written and played with the gusto, wit and love and affection of a cast and production team committed to putting on a great party.

There’s a great deal of hope and expectation riding on the event and The Name Of The Doctor successfully fuels all that. Which is exactly what it needed to and sets out to do, so in that respect is a triumph. But, at the risk of captioning the obvious, once you’ve sent out the invitations you have to deliver.

Like one of Clara’s souffl├ęs this could all fall flat. But for now, the recipe gives me cause for optimism.

Next Time...

Day Of The Doctor!