Sunday, October 26, 2014

Forest Gumph

Tiger tiger burning bright. Someone set your tail alight.

That’s how the Spike Milligan version went, if I recall correctly. Last night’s Doctor Who episode, In The Forest Of The Night could have done with someone putting a match to it, sticking some dynamite under it. Or something.

Fearful symmetry? More of a tame mess.

The odd thing is, I mostly enjoyed it. Mostly.

We’re talking like pretty much a whole half hour, almost.

It opened with a fantastic scenario – a world gone green – and managed to maintain a persuasive sense that it was all leading somewhere interesting. With an idea this big, this audacious and so thoroughly inexplicable, the explanation had to be incredible. Cottrell Boyce, writer of the memorable Olympic opening ceremony for London 2012, provides a decently constructed mystery with hot and cold running dialogue and en suite wildlife. We’ve wolves, a little Red Riding Hood and there’s even a tiger. Well, there had to be, didn’t there.

The cluster of school kids weren’t nearly as annoying as the trailer led me to believe they would be. That helped immensely. And although many of them were more like character templates than characters, well, they made for some amusing exchanges with the Doctor, the most childish of all adults present. On the whole it was an entertaining jog as it led us up the forest path.

Danny Pink appeared to have discovered some life in his character, perhaps energised by the solar flare activity. And that helped.

Capaldi continues to be the best thing to have happened to Doctor Who since its return to our screens in 2005. That has helped with every one of this season’s episodes. He can’t always save the day but it helps.

The director managed to create the illusion of menace within the forest, so there was a feeling for quite a while that there would be some meat at the centre of this nightmare Eden. That, like Jenna’s continued standout performance as Clara, like the tiger, like a number of other elements, helped.

Unfortunately, the various carnivores on the loose were fated to grow hungry as we learned that a Britain smothered in verdure pretty much amounts to a vegetative state.

Many a Doctor Who episode in this and previous seasons has shared a similar problem. Strong idea, for which the writers then struggle to provide any sort of coherent explanation or convincing basis. They’ll milk what they can out of it and hope the sparkly dialogue and emotional substance will win audiences over and help them forgive the feeble rationale and/or resolution. And it works, to an extent. Heck, even the worst offenders are usually entertaining for sizable spans of their 45-minute runtime.

But so far, Jamie Mathieson has been this season’s only writer who, barring a few trifling cheats (handy neurosis-transfer gadget), appears to make a proper effort to make his stories make sense.

Here, Cottrell Boyce takes the bold step of not providing any explanation at all. Perhaps I’m being unfair. He does have his little troubled girl who talks to the trees burble some explanation in the midst of some flitting fairy lights, but there’s absolutely zero attempt to justify how flame-proof trees materialise to cover the entire globe overnight then vanish once their job is done.

Honestly, I’m all for the re-telling of fairy tales in Doctor Who, but the idea is that you give them a pseudo sci-fi spin. This is the stuff of Merlin and Narnia and Walt bloody Disney. And as if magic wasn’t enough, it’s all served up with enough schmaltz to choke Tinkerbell. We’re expected to believe the governments of the world will call of all their emergency defoliation plans on the strength of the heartfelt and cutely worded appeal of a little girl. And we just know we’re going to see her long-lost sister returned to her by story’s end.

The story has other problems.

Beyond the token amusing news coverage that tends to accompany any worldwide disaster depicted in Who these days, it makes no effort to properly globalise the crisis.
Other than the kids, we get to see Riding Hood’s mum and her neighbour who have been in such a busy rush this morning that they’ve only just cottoned on to the extensive forestation that’s occurred. Mum then meanders through the forest in search of her daughter, adding nothing much to the drama.

Worse, in addition to the story being dumb as a tree-stump, characters are seen to act stupidly - which is another guaranteed way to tax my patience.

And there is no menace. No monsters. As was illustrated by a single line in Flatline, the writers seem to be under the impression that such a situation represents a refreshing change when in fact it’s the modern norm. The flamethrower crew in their protective suits are meant to appear sinister, I think, but it just struck me as an indictment of the UK’s pitiful emergency response measures.

Even in these times of austerity and cutbacks you’d hope they’d field more than one team of half a dozen guys, but I guess it’s a nostalgic nod to the old days when UNIT consisted of six blokes and a Land Rover.

Also, I have an issue with this relatively new concept of the Doctor walking away from an Earth in crisis. It’s so utterly contrived in Kill The Moon, while here it takes Clara some trouble to persuade him he should leave, it just doesn’t add up.

Much as I hate that we now have a Doctor Who where the TARDIS can be used to drag planets across the universe and return them to their rightful orbits, since we’ve inherited that ‘feature’, why the in the name of fairytales wouldn’t he use the TARDIS to generate some sort of magnetic or gravitic field to divert the solar flares from the Earth’s path? Obviously that would be rubbish – but less rubbish. And it would comprehensively undermine the writer’s point, but I’m not sure the writer is entirely clear on whatever point he’s out to make.

All in all, it’s some tree-hugging Disney fairytale wizards-and-no-aliens gumph. As far as I can gather.

The tiger is gorgeous. Beautiful. And he does a fine roar, worthy of an MGM audition if only they weren’t so stuck on using lions. Along with some of Capaldi’s fiercer expressions, he’s the wildest thing about this episode and he’s the closest we ever come to a sense of danger.

Everything else has been thoroughly domesticated. Tamed.

If this is what the Doctor’s up against, it’s fitting he wields a magic wand. But if the stories are going to pull plot rabbits out of hats, you’d at least hope they’d feel magical. This felt for a while like it was going to be, but turned out to be anything but.

By story’s end, it was impossible to see the wood for the twee.

SAF 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dimensions Sublime

Good Doctor Who stories are like trains. You wait through six half-baked nonsensical plots and then finally two come along only a week apart. Yes, it’s true I did that joke last week, but it seems fitting when the same writer has been responsible for both of the season’s best episodes so far.

Flatline is the second best only in the sense that it follows Mummy On The OrientExpress, but in all other respects I think it’s even better. It’s clever, creepy, tense, amusing, entertaining and wonderfully inventive. And by clever, I actually mean clever and not liable to be pulled apart if left alone with a kitten for less than five seconds.

If you can count the flaws and plot holes on the fingers of one hand, you know it’s a good un. With Flatline, I have fingers to spare.

When the Doctor says ‘they’re using the dead as camouflage’, I did hmm a little, it occurring immediately to me that if you’re in the walls the best camouflage is looking like a wall. And while Clara’s idea of using the picture is ingenious (and I use that term less freely than many seem disposed to throw  the word ‘genius’ at any passing Who episode), I did wonder if 2-dimensional creatures that had recently perfected the art of converting things to 3D would keep at it for quite so long when they realised it wasn’t working. Wouldn’t they stop and think something was fishy?

But those questions are tiddlers in the Doctor Who logic pond.

While Mummy’s passenger list included a lot of extras who were little more than set-dressing, here we see victims becoming part of the scenery in a more fatal sense and the CGI is used to dramatic and very memorable effect. One or two characters could have used an extra dimension or so, notably the train driver who struck me as a bit lacking. But others are well drawn and even if the community work supervisor has a mind of narrower gauge than any model railway, it’s not as though there aren’t people like that in the world and the story gets good mileage from his lack of imagination. It’s as useful in its own way as Riggsy’s artistic skills.

A note on Riggsy: he exhibits more personality and charisma than the all-too-regular Danny Pink. So let’s hope Danny turns out to be the Master or somebody and Riggsy can step in as replacement male companion contender. His readiness for self-sacrifice is wonderfully comical (it’s earnest, but we know it’s not going to happen) and to see him saved from the fate of many a supporting DW character before him by a hairband is a superb touch.

Referred to as a Doctor-lite story by some, even though Clara takes the reins – and the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper – I nevertheless felt the Doctor was right there throughout, at the heart of things and it’s a neat trick to have him inside the shrinking TARDIS and almost granted the equivalent  perspective of an out of body experience, watching himself at work as Clara loads up Doctor-emulator Vista and runs with it. Much as the author takes his central premise and runs with that, milking loads of great material out of it and not skimming on detail.

The Addams Family TARDIS is just one stand-out example of the inventiveness on display and we’re treated to all sorts of inter-dimensional visual play, with the Doctor handing items to Clara from a Dungeons & Dragons-style Handbag Of Holding. The graffiti people are fantastically well-realised and the ‘body art’ – a nervous system and a magnified mural of human skin – as evidence of the flatlanders’ work is inspired. The shambling, 3D zombies they become as they attempt to invade our world and pursue Clara and co through the tunnels is very effective  and not too far from some of the figures you might find stalking you through a Resident Evil game. Put me in mind of some of the fractured dream elements of Shinji Mikami's The Evil Within (minus the excessive gore!), so I’d be surprised if this episode didn’t give young kids nightmares. Let’s hope.

And even the use of a suspended bubble seat in a room with walls and floor come alive is a clever piece of situational construction. Yes, it’s built in and you guess it’s going to be used but it’s a simple touch that provides an opportunity for some hastily improvised use of the environment to escape a seemingly unstoppable foe. The sort of thing I’d prefer to see more of than handy waves of the get-out-of-jail-free screwdriver.

Jenna Coleman really shines as Clara in her Doctorish role, enjoying herself immensely – of course! – but also given an insight into the burdens and responsibilities that come with the job. In essence, it’s a neat switcheroo body-swap episode without the actual swapping of bodies.

And as if that wasn’t enough, here’s the icing on the cake: there’s this whole question that the flatlanders aren’t monsters and are merely misunderstood. Or rather, they’re only striving to understand the 3D world, trying to communicate. “Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?” says the Doctor. Well, no, as a matter of fact that would be par for the course. What is a refreshing change is that they turn out to be monsters. Nice one. Thank you for that.

If Mathieson gets to write more Doctor Who next year, Moffat may have to apply his script-editing skills to start inserting gaping plot holes and logic failures to bring his stories in line with the rest. Or alternatively, here's a shocking idea, have himself and the rest raise their game accordingly.

Assuming he doesn’t do that, future stories from this writer may as well come branded with a simple advertising slogan:


SAF 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

First Great Eastern

Good Doctor Who stories are like trains. You wait through six half-baked nonsensical plots and then finally one comes along. Let’s hope more follow, but for now Mummy On The Orient Express stands as the best of the season so far. At last, a tale that by and large holds together and makes reasonable sense.

Not bad going for an adventure set on a train in space. One of my more outlandish Who book proposals featured a trans-dimensional train, so I was never going to have a problem with the concept of a space-train. I did wonder why such a vehicle would feel the need to take a winding route across the heavens, but my wife put that down to a driver indulging his boyhood fantasies of being a real train driver. Who’d want to drive in straight lines?

Fair enough.

What we have here is a story that moves forward in relatively straight lines, throwing in a few twists and turns along the way. For the most part it’s a neatly constructed adventure mystery and a successful fusion of its diverse ingredients.

It’s a given that Capaldi and Coleman give outstanding performances, but that’s no reason not to give them a mention. And just when you think they’ve shone their brightest they manage to deliver more. Much as I found the basis of the Doctor-Clara division flimsy and contrived, its fallout and resolution here provides for some truly great moments. It does tether us to Earth and dull Danny Pink, but that’s less intrusive, more of a branch line to this story.

The use of the digital countdown was a tad intrusive, I found, at times an effective device for heightening the tension, at other times making the action appear drawn out to tally with the impending deadline. But the adventure rattles along at a good pace, without being afraid to throw in quieter moments that help amplify the times when the Mummy makes his appearance and somebody’s clock starts ticking down once more.

Bit disappointing to find that many of the people on board are holograms, but the actual characters who are present are fair to great. With the latter category including Frank Skinner as Perkins, who is surprising treat to watch. Terrific character, given some fab lines. I’m not sure I would have objected if he had elected to tag along on board the TARDIS as a resident engineer.

And the adventure leaves us with a tantalising mystery as to the identity of Gus (voiced by John Sessions, no less), surely something we’re going to see unveiled later in the season. The possibilities at this stage are more intriguing for me than the whole Missy mystery.

The roaring twenties aesthetic for train and passengers is nicely realised, and Clara looks especially gorgeous in the period costume. The musical contribution from Foxes providing a welcome touch of class – and to be honest I wouldn’t have minded a touch more of that.

There are minor quibbles. Chief of them for me being the use of a conspicuously handy gadget that transfers Maisy's anxieties and issues to the Doctor, thus drawing the Mummy’s attention. I mean, why not use some Time Lord telepathic trick – there’s at least some precedent for that – rather than conjure up a purpose-built gadget out of thin air? Come on, Jamie Mathieson, you’ve outdone all your fellow Who writers thus far this year, why drop the ball at that late stage in the game? Details.

Also, I think some more characterisation for the collection of scientists on board would have been preferable to having them all standing dumbly around looking vaguely like Einstein and other noted brains from history. But I appreciate that a 45-minute episode could get a bit overcrowded that way. Not unusual for trains, but I get how it could create problems for a humble one-parter. So, ultimately easy enough to forgive.

Every other story this season has for me fallen apart at the slightest touch like expired life forms in Skaro’s petrified forests, their often convoluted routes littered with plot holes that often would’ve required only a granule or two of extra thought on the part of the writers/script editors to repair.

Here, by comparison, the writer makes the task of constructing a half-decent story look as easy as coupling a few carriages together. It’s kind of sad that this constitutes a vast improvement, but that’s how Mummy On The Orient Express felt for me.

Not perfect, but by current standards this qualifies as first class.

SAF 2014

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Lunar Sea

At some point before the current season of Doctor Who, I imagine thousands of hopeful plots queued up to audition at some BBC Cardiff office and they were eventually narrowed down to thirteen. And I guess what we're seeing are the ones that didn't make it as far as judges' houses. Or boot camp. Or possibly even to the audition registration desk.

Sheesh. Some episodes have had their redeeming qualities and Kill The Moon had its share. It lost my interest early on by following the now standard pattern of starting with a) a pre-credits scene explaining the basic setup and b) a post-credits opening scene in Grange, sorry Coal, Hill soap land. It's gotten to the stage where part of my brain disengages as soon as I see those school corridors, Danny Pink, Clara's kitchen or any of the usual domestic earthbound elements or sets. They just don't interest me.

Good job then that by seven minutes in we're on the Moon, searching around a shadowy lunar base infested with spiders. Well, a spider. But hey, the Moon is breaking apart and it's absolutely crawling with eight-legged freaks. Unfortunately, the Doctor and Clara are joined on this Moon landing by a fairly dull collection of Two-Legs.

Yes, folks, the Earth is facing disaster and they can only scrape up a second-rate shuttle to investigate the source of the disaster. Fair enough. But I'm not entirely clear on why they could only find third-rate personnel, since you'd expect them to send the best. In Armageddon they found Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck at relatively short notice. All the world can manage in 2049 is the cast of a BBC re-imagining of Dad's Army and Three's Company hybrid. In a nod to Nightmare In Silver, we also have Courtney, a kid who manages to get *bored* on her first trip in the TARDIS. When you add her to a Clara who just can't seem to commit to more than one TARDIS trip a week, well, it's kind of understandable if I'm not really feeling the spirit of adventure here.

Where this episode succeeds over others this season is in effect. By which I don't mean FX, although those are at times stunning. Mostly the lunar landscape shots. The spiders themselves are pretty well realised and the director does build an effective atmosphere of suspense with the shadowy interiors and the scuttlesome beasts. In these sequences, it doesn't feel like the story is straining for scares, the way other episodes have come across this series. Alas, these moments are seasoned with rather dragging sequences devoid of tension and featuring more boring than any drilling operations attempted by the Mexicans.

Where it does strain - and suffers a nasty rupture - is in striving to throw in a huge, mind-blowing original twist. Obviously, the Moon can't really be made of cheese, so here the writer opts for an alternative (non-dairy) product - eggs. The Moon is an egg. It's the kind of central conceit that would have been perfectly at home in Red Dwarf, but it's really hard to take the oh-so-serious-and-weighty moral dilemma at the heart of this tale seriously when we're presented with the notion of another giant space chicken.

This one isn't invisible like the one in the Van Gogh episode either. We get to see it, flapping away in the sky after the Moon breaks up. Of course, because Doctor Who is brought to you by Everything-Has-To-Work-Out-In-The-End-O-Vision, it lays a brand new egg before it flies off into space. And it's here where I feel the deepest sympathy for the creature because the poor bugger has had to lay an egg more than twice the size of its newly hatched body. Cripes, that must have hurt.

Capaldi and Coleman act their socks off and there are some great scenes between them. But it's a case, once again, of the actors making the best of their material, because the situation seems highly engineered and contrived. At one point the Doctor is telling us quite emphatically that there are points in space and time that he can't simply walk away from and then declaring just as emphatically that this is in fact one situation where he has to walk away and let humanity - and Clara - make the decision. What's more, Clara puts the whole question - kill the chicken? don't kill the chicken? - to a global referendum. Well, I say global, one assumes it was only about half the world that got to vote - so a fairly middling turnout. But what's worse is that they're expected to vote based on very sketchy information. Nobody on Earth at this point has the faintest idea  that that there is a creature at the heart of the Moon but she addresses them as though they have been watching the episode this whole time.

Giant spiders on the Moon might have been more than enough to promote this episode well above the preceding entrants in this year's show. As it is, I'm left with an overall impression of a poorly engineered morality tale purpose-built to deliver Clara's (well-acted) strop at the end and her falling out with the Doctor. Almost as though the Doctor is now driven by an urge to create drama.

Wholly unconvincing and I wish they had discovered the Moon was made of cheese (even the kind that's full of holes), served on something slightly less crackers.

SAF 2014