Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Emissary written by Michael Piller and directed by David Carson



What’s it about: Phew that’s a toughie. The Cardassians are out, the Federation is in and a disparate bunch of rejects from a dozen races become our new crew...

Single Father: Sisko is such an interesting character because he managed to divide opinion pretty much throughout the entire show. I have read critiques of the show that have condemned him a poor actor (which he clearly isn't) or one that was uncertain in the role (again not true) and from another perspective I have read opinions that have suggested he is the most realistic of all the Star Trek Captain's and the one who surprises more than the others. I know people who think he was too quiet and flourished in the shows latter years and I know people who think he was sensitively characterised at first and became little more than a grunting advocate for war post season five. The only conclusion that I can draw from all of these diverse opinions is that the writers were definitely doing something right by provoking so much discussion and that Brooks himself was willing to play about with the role and shape into whatever suited him. Like Deep Space Nine itself, Sisko is so wonderfully flawed but riveting and unforgettable for it. It's those rough edges that make him stand out. I think he's a marvellous character but my personal view is that he really kicks off his dominancy in season three. The Sisko of seasons four-seven gets two thumbs up from me. 

Watching Sisko desperately trying to get Jennifer free from the rubble in their quarters is heartbreaking. Can you imagine being in that situation and then having to leave her behind. You would think that introducing a character failing to rescue to his wife would be detrimental to the show but it is devastating to watch and makes you feel for Sisko from the off. Thinking forward to Image in the Sand at the beginning of season seven (and I know they made things up as they went along but it's astonishing how it all fits together so perfectly in hindsight) we learn that Sisko’s mum was part prophet so when Opaka says that this was journey he was always meant to take it's not just a throwaway line. His whole life has been leading to this point, heading to DS9 and Bajor and discovering the truth about his family history. His scenes in the wormhole with the Prophets are a vital cornerstone in Sisko's life, a point where he realises that he has to press on with his life. As he teaches them about humanity’s values they in turn show him how he is not moving on with his life and trapped in the moment of his wife’s death. None of the other Trek shows allowed their central protagonist to go through such an intensely personal experience in their respective pilots and it impresses me that from the off DS9 was developing its characters, even though we have only just gotten to know them. We get to witness the first time Ben and Jennifer met, when they decided to have children, the birth of Jake and Jennifer's death. All the important moments in his life whilst also exploring his life as a single father afterwards. If all the other wonderful elements of this pilot hadn’t already convinced me then the moment Sisko breaks down finally convinced me I was going to love this show. It's raw emotion, expertly played and is beautiful to watch.

Tasty Terrorist: Probably my favourite Star Trek character (along with Odo) and the one who is afforded the most character growth throughout the series. Even in season one Kira evolves from a woman who cannot leave her past behind to a woman who is looking to the future. And that is just the beginning of her journey. Anybody bemoaning that Ensign Ro didn’t make it from TNG (she was a lovely touch of grumpiness in that show) should relax because Nana Visitor brings such presence and charisma to the role of Kira that even at the end of Emissary you’ll be thinking ‘Ensign who?’ It’s so refreshing to hear characters criticising the arrogant and luxurious Federation, Kira is literally appalled that as soon as the Cardassians have been driven out the Federation arrives. It’s an opinion that we would see change over the next few years as her character develops but she has to experience a few bumps along the way before she can reach that opinion. Don’t you just want to cheer when Kira plays Russian roulette with Jasad (quoted in full below because it is so awesome). She has some guts and (forgive me) shits all over the previous female leads in Trek, absolutely in touch with her feminine side (there is an argument that the DS9 ladies are written as men) and yet strong, determined and deeply flawed. Sisko and Kira heading a series is a formidable duo that I wouldn't want to clash with. 

Unknown Sample: Despite the fact that in these early episodes he looks like his head has been beaten to a pulp with a mallet, Odo is the most fascinating character on this series and is brought to life by the extremely talented Rene Auberjonois. A man who can change his shape into anything he wants, he doesn’t know where he comes from, who is an outsider and who runs security with an iron fist – what’s not to like? He’s gruff, rude, insulting and rather wonderful. ‘All my life I have been forced to pass myself as one of you, never knowing who I am or wear I came from. Well the answers to some of those questions might be on the other side of that wormhole.’ Be careful what you wish for Odo. He's a bit of mystery in the first season as we get to grips with his wistful wish to find his people but come the final season he will have gone on such an incredible journey of discovery I promise you you will see him in a completely different light. 

Everyday O’Brien: Colm Meaney was one of the strongest performers on TNG and O’Brien the one character with the most untapped potential so it was a stroke of genius to transfer him to the station. Suddenly O’Brien gains real focus and throughout the seven years on DS9 we get to see the ebb and flow of his marriage as he juggles his personal life and the struggles on the station. In any other show that would be expected but it is so rare to see that sort of domestic strife in Star Trek and whilst there will be highs (Accession) and lows (Fascination) it’s a very worthy and absorbing ride, adding more depth and realism to the show. Imagine how dull it must have been standing around in that transporter room day after day…transferring to DS9 must be like a slap in the face. Somehow he makes all that technobabble bearable because he is so charmingly abrasive with the computer that is dishing it out. Their fractious relationship starts here… ‘Computer…you and I need to have a little talk…’ 

Rules of Acquisition: Another gift to the Star Trek universe is the depth that Deep Space Nine gave to the Ferengi. What had we seen of them before this? A really bad attempt to make them the new big bad on TNG (doomed to failure) and then horribly unfunny comedy stooges (Captain’s Holiday, Rascals). With Armin Shimerman, Max Grodenchik and Aron Eisenberg on board you have three actors committed to making this race work within this setting. It’s astonishing what they achieve together and their chemistry is extremely palatable and it doesn’t take long (I would say by season three) before they are the most lovable family in the Star Trek universe. Quark is a brilliant character – they get him about as right as Voyager got Neelix wrong. He’s devious, selfish, perverse and hugely critical of anybody who isn’t a Ferengi and Shimerman always plays him with a twinkle in his eye and a smile in his heart. He gets the best moment at the end of the episode when he slyly puts his hand on Kira’s thigh and nearly gets it bitten off.

Eight Lifetimes: Considering she would become such a vital character from the next season onwards, it is Dax that I find the hardest to get a handle on in the pilot. As far as I remember Terry Farrell was the last of the regular cast to be offered the job and some of the pilot was already shot at that point. It shows because she clearly is trying to grasp at anything at this early stage and seems remarkably restrained compared the good-time girl of later years. It’s wonderful to be able to see the transference of the symbiont from Curzon to Jadzia. It’s a relationship that will be explored in some depth later in the series so this is a vital moment to remember. 

GE Doctor: Poor Bashir in these first few seasons. They didn’t quite get his character right until season three but in retrospect when you learn his big secret (revealed in season five) it kind of makes sense of his bumbling attitude at first. Trying to fit in by appearing so flawed. His chief characteristic this season seems to be to bed Dax so at least he’s not completely daft. Kira’s admonishment of his dewey eyed Federation superiority is a lovely moment. All this character conflict is so refreshing for Star Trek.

Young Sisko: Like a lot of things in Deep Space Nine the creators looked at the mistakes they had made in the past and decided to have another shot and get it right. Jake works because of the strength of the chemistry between Cirroc Lofton and Avery Brooks and thanks to some strong writing he is a very likeable child character. In Star Trek terms that is what we call a miracle. When he gets too whiny about the state of the station his father takes the piss out of him which is exactly what everybody should have done with Wesley all the time.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I thought I’d say hello first and then take the office’ ‘Hello’ 
‘When governments fall people like me are lined up and shot.’
‘D’you know at first I didn’t think I was going to like him.’
‘My mother warned me to watch out for junior officers’ ‘You mother is going to adore me!’
‘I love the Bajorans, such a deeply spiritual people…but they make a dreadful ale.’
‘You can make yourself useful by bringing your Federation medicine to the natives. Oh you’ll find them a friendly, simple folk.’
‘You exist here.’
‘You’re probably right Jasad and if you were dealing with a Starfleet officer they would probably admit we have a hopeless cause here. But I am just a Bajoran whose been fighting a hopeless cause against the Cardassians all her life so if you want a war, I’ll give you one.’
‘Bloody Cardassians! I’ve just got the damn things fixed!’
‘If you don’t take that hand of my hip you’ll never be able to raise a glass with it again.’ 

The Good: Can we say getting off on the right foot? I think so! The pre-titles sequence is like nothing we had ever seen in Star Trek before. The Best of Both Worlds shied away from showing the engagement at Wolf 359 between the Federation and the Borg and instead concentrate on the aftermath, the Enterprise gliding through a sea of wreckage. Emissary takes us back to that cruel time but puts us right in the thick of the action. What jumps out about this series straight away is how close it allows us to get to the characters and how dark the tone is. Whilst the teaser sports some incredible special effects (I almost fainted when I heard what the budget was for this premiere) what’s really important is that it makes this fight scene personal. A man desperately tries to save his wife but fails and just about gets his son to safety before the ship blows up and a boy has lost his mother forever. How can you fail to be moved by that? This stoic Starfleet Officer turns out to be our new protagonist for the show and straight away we feel for the man and there is a fascinating back story to exploit. It's still one of the best openings to any Star Trek episode, a violent upheaval from the lily-white tone of The Next Generation. And its great to see Locutus again. By giving depth to Wolf 359 Deep Space Nine finds its groove and its mission statement – giving some emotional depth to the Star Trek universe. The shot of the ship blowing up reflected in the window of the escape shuttle is one of the most emotive special effects in the pilot. Much more so than the Enterprise, Deep Space Nine feels like a character in itself with its distinctive, functional and yet somehow beautiful exterior and the gorgeous array of sets inside. Visually this is the most original and idiosyncratic of Star Trek shows and everything from the multi level Operations (under lit to give it some atmosphere), Quarks Bar (which is teeming with alien life) and the Promenade (which is my all time favourite Star Trek set) give the show a real visual hook. But more on that as we progress with the series. The comparison with the shiny handed-on-a-plate-luxury of the Enterprise couldn't be made more apparent as we hop from that to the station. Grim, broken, rubble strewn and packed with weary faces walking the Promenade. It makes the show something worth investing in because we get to see them pulling the place together. Head forward to season four/five and DS9 is a gorgeous way station and a hub of activity in the sector. Just as an example of how the characters develop in this show our very first scene sees Nog as a petty thief and his last scene in the series he is being put forward for the position of Lieutenant in Starfleet. The Bajoran matte painting complete with temples, gardens and pools is a stunning planetary surface. Astonishing how old this pilot is and yet the effects stand up so well. Love the gorgeous location work on the beach – those American shorelines crap all over our British ones. The Bajoran spiritualism gives Trek a whole new angle and more layers to unpeel about this fascinating society. The idea that the Orbs can take you back to a moment in your past allows us the chance to learn more about the characters by experiencing their past. Sisko and Dax are treated to the experience here but Kira and Odo would both go on to reveal unpleasant things in their past thanks to the Orb of Time (plus an adventure with Tribbles that will never be forgotten). Look at the amount of aliens on display when Quark’s Bar opens – Star Wars Cantina eat your heart out! Interesting that Deep Space Nine seems to consist of all the alien races that haven’t really been given the time of day by TNG: the Trill, Ferengi, Cardassians and the Bajorans. So many staples of the show are introduced in the first few episodes; Dukat, Garak, Nog, the Prophets, the Wormhole – it just goes to show how right they got it from the off. Marc Alaimo has such presence I can see why they kept bringing him back. What an devious bunch this new crew are, closing the bar and using Odo as a bag for winnings to sneak onto the Cardassian ship. I think this crew are going to do fine with tactics like that. I’m glad they left it out of the titles sequence because the wormhole bursting open is a great shock. You have no idea what is happening when the landscape inside the wormhole switches from a rock face to an idyllic garden. It's nice to be completely in the dark for a change. It might be melodramatic for my to compare a sequence in Star Trek to a work of art but the amount of time and effort that has gone into editing together the scenes in the Wormhole has to be acknowledged. It flows beautifully, it is visually stunning and it reinforces the exploration of humanity that Star Trek is so passionate about better than practically any other example. It’s extraordinarily good. Wowza, they blow the shit out of the Promenade and we see bloody victims screaming for help. We're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. 

The Bad: The scene where Sisko and Picard meet reveals the one advantage TNG has over DS9: Patrick Stewart. He manages to convey with a simple look more than Avery Brooks does with the entire scene. One harmful aspect of the first two years is how pathetic those little runabouts are. The series kicked ass when the Defiant rocked up at the station. Dax only seems to only speak technobabble and I need a translator. Strange how she tosses the science away when she starts shagging Worf.

Orchestra: I love the piano score as Sisko explains about linear time through baseball.

Foreboding: Kira talks about the government falling and the planet falling into civil war and it’s nice to see that followed up in the opening three parter of series two.

Result: Exciting, unpredictable with a highly engaging new cast of characters and a welcome touch of dirt to the Star Trek universe, Emissary barely gets a step wrong. Visually the story is a feast for the eyes with some atmospheric new sets, exciting action sequences and a remains a masterpiece of editing for the astonishing sequences set inside the wormhole. I remember when I first watched Emissary and I was completely blown away by the scale of the story, the rawness of the emotion and the idiosyncratic look of the piece. I had never seen anything like it on television before and it felt like someone had taken all my complaints about Star Trek and ironed them out into a much darker, classier show. This show gets to have its cake (a fixed location with consequences) and eat it (exploration of a new quadrant) and once the Defiant is introduced it even has it's own unique ship. This is a show that isn’t afraid to pull a mirror on humanity’s weaknesses, that handles religion and space opera with equal aplomb and allows its characters to be both strong and unique but also deeply flawed. Emissary kick starts seven incredible years of mythos building and outstanding character drama: 10/10

Monday, 28 July 2014

A Good Man Goes To War written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Peter Boar


This story in a nutshell: It's all in the title…

Nutty Professor: What has happened to the Doctor? I don’t know if it is the result of television shows like Buffy, Alias and Heroes but when the show hit our screens again after a prolonged absence there seemed to be a constant need to assert that the Doctor was the greatest hero of all time. I remember bemoaning in several reviews that Russell T. Davies (who like Moffat is an absolute gem of a writer at his best) had diverted from the story for a complete Doctor love-in – the ‘I’m the Doctor and I’m going to save everybody on the Titanic!’ in Voyage of the Damned was one butt clenching example and Victorian London applauding him whilst he cruised over the City in a hot air balloon in The Next Doctor was another. That was why the end of The Waters of Mars was so effective, it was almost a reaction to all this praise that even the Doctor thought that time and space could bend to his design. It felt like a natural reaction to all that hero worship. When Moffat came along I thought maybe all that would change and the Doctor could go back to being his old self; a clever, witty wonderful hero who showed us how wonderful he was through his actions without having the script have to point to us and say how fantastic he was every five minutes. In many ways it has gotten even worse. The scene atop the Pandorica where he starts screaming at an entire menagerie of enemies really gets my teeth grinding because since when has he become such a man to be feared that a fleet of warships would be afraid to take on? If I was in one of those ships I would have listened to him railing for a couple of seconds, gotten bored and blown him to smithereens with my most powerful weapon, just like the Daleks did with Solomon in Evolution of the Daleks. Series six has taken the bold step to frame the entire season with a running arc concerning the Doctor’s death. Cue more hero worship and adoration and with A Good Man Comes To War it reaches its absolute zenith – suddenly the whole universe and his dog not only knows knows who the Doctor but suddenly (and for no readily explained reason) they are all scared of him. This is not my kind of hero at all… Joe Ford would like to add that there are so many things about Christopher Eccleston’s, David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s characterisation of the Doctor that he does like but this is one large aspect that really gets his goat. Look at that, I'm so miffed I'm even talking about myself in the third person like the Blue Box Boy. Apparently 30 seconds of the Doctor are all that ever happened to the Gamma Forests. Really? Nowhere can be that irrelevant that 30 seconds of a man in tweed running is the most exciting thing that ever occurred (mind you, I do live in Eastbourne). It's just more nonsensical idolization of the Doctor. When has the Doctor ever needed to raise an army to get himself out of a thorny situation (UNIT doesn’t count as it was rather thrust upon him and he never enjoyed the military approach)? This is the man who twirled his way through an army of Cybermen to bring the Nemesis statue to life. The man who prevented the whole universe from being wiped out by the Master. Surely he can waltz into Demons Run, nab Amy and Melody and get out again without needing to calling in all manner of dodgy old debts. The very idea of the Doctor calling in debts means that he expects the people he saves to owe him something and that opens up even bigger can of worms. I remember a time when a good deed was its own reward. They say that an image can conjure a thousand words…well the image of the Doctor silhouetted over Dorian in a threatening manner is just about the nadir of A Good Man Goes To War's perversion to the Doctor. He's such a scrawny runt anyway...there was no way this was going to come off. Come on guys this just isn’t the Doctor Who I know and love. I don’t want his arrival to be an ominous threat… A Dark Legend? Zzzzzz… At least Moffat comments on what the Doctor has become, River asking him that when he went sailing off into the universe all those years ago if he ever thought he would become this. But it feels like he has characterized him that way just so she can criticize him like everybody else does these days. There are few moments littered about that compensate however. I did love the Doctor admitting that he was angry and that was a new feeling and he didn’t know what would happen as a result. His unrestrained anger at River turning up to the party late also felt very right. But nothing can top his hilarious, naughty (the awesome kissy kissy noises) and absolutely joyful reaction finding out who River really is. Smith gives me goosebumps in that scene as the Doctor is privileged to know who she is a few minutes before we are let in on the secret. I'm in a bit of a quandary with the characterisation of the eleventh Doctor - I reprimand Moffat when he turns him into the dark avenger (I'm not sure if Smith has the acting chops to pull it off either, he doesn't do anger especially convincingly) but I also disapprove when he goes the other way and turns him into Willy Wonka (The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe). The trouble with Moffat's approach is that there is no subtlety in either. A little of either approach would be fine but he takes them both to such extremes.

Scots Tart: Amy is the only person who seems to realise that the Doctor isn’t famous. Good on her. This is the first time we get to spend with ‘our Amy’ this year and it appears she hasn’t lost any of the fire in her belly, asking to borrow Lorna’s gun so she can shoot herself if she keeps talking. To give Amy the hope of having her baby back and then to snatch that away at the last minute is just about the cruellest thing Moffat could have done and this is an emotional highpoint for the character. I have never empathised with her more.

Loyal Roman: I literally have tuck my head between my legs to prevent myself from screaming with frustration at the truly, truly dreadful sequence with Rory dressed up as a Roman and confronting the Cybermen. Firstly Rory isn’t some kind of action hero, that has been well established and giving him lines that would make Sylvester Stallone blush makes him look more ineffective than ever. Sticking him in that Roman costume really makes it look as if he is some kind of Marvel superhero. Apparently it was the Doctor’s idea and Rory knows he looks ridiculous…so why wear it? It's just to provide a moment for the pre-titles sequence...and not a very good one at that. This scene also completely belittles the Cybermen (why should A Good Man Goes To War be any different, that started around Revenge of the Cybermen?) and makes a complete embarrassment out of them. For the sake of spectacle Moffat has made Rory look like an absolute spack. Nice one.

The best moment in this entire episode (the cliffhanger aside) is when the Doctor, Rory and Amy are reunited. All the tricks and effects and smart lines are dropped and it is moment of genuine emotion that makes me well up every time I watch it. Rory trying to look cool but crying as he brings back his baby to his wife and ordering the Doctor into the room to enjoy the moment with them is just lovely. This is the kind of characterisation that Davies imbued every script under his reign with but nowadays we only get scant glimpses of.

The Missus: I wonder how far in advance Alex Kingston gets to read the scripts because it appears that her whole performance as River has adjusted in the episode where we discover Amy and Rory are her parents. Listen to how she says ‘hello Rory…’ with whispered excitement, she has never treated him with that kind of reverence before.

Sparkling Dialogue: SPOILERS...
‘I’m Melody. I’m your daughter.’

The Good: With its functional design, dirty, steaming ambience and focus on all things military there is a real Battlestar Galactica feel to the early scenes. Madame Vestra is quite an exciting new character, a Silurian hunter patrolling the streets of Victorian London. There is much about her history with the Doctor that we don’t know and I would welcome a story that reveals how they first met. I'd fancy that she teamed up with Jago & Litefoot on the odd occasion. A Sontaran nurse is another intriguing idea and a very funny one at that. Strax turns out to be the most likeable Sontaran we have ever met and it is a shame that he is dispatched because he could have made an amusing recurring character. Little did I know at the time that this would lead to the complete annihilation of the Sontaran image but that does take away from the fact that the character works here. There is a shot of the TARDIS being showered by mud in the battle of Zaruthstra that needs to be turned into a poster – it’s a bold, glorious image. Madam Kovarian has a great look and Frances Barber seems to relish the chance to play a leather clad villainess. It’s a shame her character came to nothing by the end of the season but she makes for a pretty memorable baddie in this episode. The Monks attacking at the climax with their sizzling electric swords (and some great music by Murray Gold) is the most exciting part of the episode. The Melody avatar turning to milky goo and Amy’s hysterical reaction is so well done it puts the rest of the episode to shame – there is something so primal in all of us about the horror of losing a child and pulling that trick off with this kind of grotesque imagery ensures it is a really disturbing sequence.

The Bad: There are a number of editing problems in an episode this choppy but the most obvious example in in the first scene, it doesn't quite know where to end. ‘We’re the thin fat gay married Anglican Marines…why would we need names as well?’ – have I become an old grump in my old age because I didn't find this line amusing in the slightest. I don’t understand why they establish the Thin One and the Fat One as a gay couple only to murder the latter and for it to have no emotional consequences (the former doesn’t even find out). In a script as packed as this it is just sensationalist time wasting. Pleasing the masses (my mum loved it, however). How does River know this is the day the Doctor finds out who she is? Why on Earth don’t those soldiers just shoot the Doctor when they have the chance? It makes his victory at Demons Run seem even more inconsequential because they are all so bloody stupid. Snapping the lights off and causing the Monks and the soldiers to turn on each might have seemed like a good idea in theory but surely that would lead needless deaths? Surely the Doctor would never settle for a needlessly bloodthirsty solution. Besides these scenes are directed without much care, lacking tension and featuring the universes most hysterical General screaming his head off the episode descends into a frenzied farce for a few minutes. Vestra’s lesbian maidservant is a bizarre prospect. What is up with Jenny's cod accent? What the hell – Danny Boy from Victory of the Daleks and Captain Avery from The Curse of the Black Spot? I thought that kid couldn’t leave the ship or he would die? Moffat has absolutely lost the plot! Why would you take upon yourself to remind the audience of two of your biggest failures? If Amy’s flesh avatar was pretty much our normal Amy in all senses and she experienced everything the avatar did what was the point of it other than to provide a good cliffhanger? You can’t knock us for six with the brave revelation that the Amy with have been travelling with so far in series six isn’t our Amy and then follow that up by saying actually she was Amy. Its packaging something as a shock that isn’t a shock, pretending to be brave storytelling when actually you haven’t the balls to see it through. Having your cake and eating it. I still don’t see the point of building up Lorna Bucket as some proto companion character, she really isn’t very interesting and her death scene fails to provoke a response because they push too hard for it to mean something. With the human plus Time Lord DNA were they really trying to convince us that this was a union between the Doctor and Amy? Even for just a few moments it is remarkably unsavoury idea. Doctor Who is aiming at the wrong audience to pull off a good beheading henceforth Dorium’s death shies away from being bloody and the direction shies away from what is going on (it really isn't very clear what is happening).

‘This is the battle of Demons Run. The Doctor’s darkest hour. He’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further…’ You really can’t go around using that kind of dialogue you know. For one thing it clearly isn’t the Doctor’s darkest hour – he’s faced far trickier situations than this. ‘Everybody lives!’ the Doctor exclaimed in The Doctor Dances so we know that managing to walk away from a situation with everybody intact isn’t a one off so how precisely does he ‘rise higher than ever before’? And losing one baby is hardly the greatest of crimes when he has clearly been hoodwinked. It's just superficial tension building bilge that promises far more than it can deliver.

Result: A noisy, empty, expensive spectacular, A Good Man Goes To War is the TV equivalent of a Doctor Who movie and proves to be as fast paced and shallow as I would expect a big screen bonanza to be. Or at least it did until Moffat pulled off The Day of the Doctor which managed to outclass this effort by managing to put equal weight on plot and characterisation and balancing the complexities of both. In comparison A Good Man Goes to War is all sound and fury, signifying not a great deal. A few moments of choking emotion aside the content of this episode is mostly spectacle and bluster, an average piece of storytelling pretending to be something more epic by constantly telling us that it is. Like The Almost People, this is the second episode in a row that has been lacking but ends on a cliffhanging high that leaves you with the illusion that it is much better than it really is. In that respect Moffat is the ultimate magician. It is reasonably good telly, sensational and glossy but it's not the sort of Doctor Who that I want to be watching for all the reasons stated above. My score is mostly for the terrific production values, some quirky new characters and that phenomenal final scene which ranks up there as one of the best revelatory moments the show has ever given us. But then what do I know, my mum loved it: 5/10

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Rebel Flesh & The Almost People written by Matthew Graham and directed by Julian Simpson


This story in a nutshell: Somehow as bad as Fear Her…

Nutty Professor: It looks like the Doctor was about to explain everything to Amy and Rory about the consistently puzzling mediscan of her pregnancy when the TARDIS honker sounds. What irritating timing. Only during Moffat's era does he keep so many secrets like this because they have to be spilled at the appropriate time for the arcs to have a spread of twists. It makes no sense to me that he would keep his suspicions from Amy, if he really cared for her they would be working together to work this out. With so much going on and so many characters to handle Graham practically forgets about the Doctor (and Amy) in The Rebel Flesh. At times he feels like an extra in his own series and not because this is a Doctor-lite episode. That's fine, sometimes Doctor-lite episodes are the ultimate refreshment but that is only the case when the characters filling the void are worth your time (Blink, Love & Monsters, Turn Left). That most certainly is not the case here. When the Ganger Doctor tries to stabilise he starts quoting some of the most well known Doctor lines from the past as though he has been reading one of JNTs fact books from the 80s. We know what stories are in Matthew Graham's collection now. There is some cheeky chemistry between the two Doctors that Matt Smith has great fun playing against himself, it’s the only light relief in an otherwise stifling two parter. Its only when faced with his own brilliance that he realises how impressive it must be to hang out with him all the time. His anger towards Amy is shocking and as usual Smith has trouble playing rage with any great conviction. He's far too amiable a fellow.

Scots Tart: The end of this story does not greet Amy Pond warmly and yet the Doctor gave her the perfect chance to get away before they even have the chance to find out about flesh avatars. It's her own distrust of his motives (understandably since he is keeping secrets from her) that sees her turn into a puddle of milky goo. The Almost People exposes what I have been convinced of all along and that is that Amy Pond is as shallow as she appears. Whether she is a Ganger or not, she deliberately shuts out what she thinks is the fake Doctor because she believes there can be only one. She's like a child who is so certain of her facts: 'He's my Doctor! Your an imposter ner ner ne ner ner!' It’s a real wake up call when she realises she has been duped and I hope she learns from the lesson but there were too many moments where I found her as gormless, distasteful and reactionary as the rest of the guest cast. The trouble with Amy is that she thinks she knows best and she is closed minded, both of which are unlikable traits. As I've said before I only really feel for her when she is being tortured horribly...not a sign that a likeable companion has been successfully created. Otherwise I tolerate her attitude (a bit like Tegan) but I have never warmed to her.

Loyal Roman: Completing the poor use of the regulars is Rory and Graham proves what I have long suspected and that is that is without Amy to obsess over he is an entirely insubstantial person. He has no legs to stand up as character in his own right. The girl in question is Amy Pond and transferring that affection from her to Jennifer is just about the worst mistake the writer could have made. It's supposed to noble and brave for him to be the voice that defends the Gangers but falling for someone as manipulative and unconvincing as Jennifer makes him look like a total chump. Frankly they should have chewed him out over this but he seems to walk away from this defection (and change his mind on a whim) Scot free. To prove how entirely unnecessary he is to the narrative Rory vanishes from the story for the first 18 minutes of The Almost People, literally wandering the corridors aimlessly, never to be seen. Graham really needs to learn how to give his characters equal and adequate screen time. How painful is it to watch him being tricked by the Ganger Jennifer into putting his hand on the scan? Her pantomime girlishness screams of deception. Why are they continually making him look like such a numpty? How does he go from this numbskull to the caped avenger during the pre-titles sequence of the next episode? The lack of consistency with these characters is astonishing.

The Good:
· The opening shots as we drift over the sea towards the island and the sudden snapping on of the lights down the corridor promise great things. It doesn’t deliver but the promise is there.
· What would the First Doctor have said about Ian and Barbara treating the console room as a bachelor pad as Amy and Rory do here? Clothes strewn everywhere, rock music blasting through the speakers and a darts tournament! Who cares? It's nice to see the three of them having fun for a change.
· A solar tsunami is a fine new innovation and the effects look glorious as the TARDIS rides the suns waves. What really makes this scene is the ‘assume the bracing position’ promise of a spectacular crash that ends with a nervous giggle as the TARDIS touches down with beautiful stabilisation.
· Rory is right…do you know anybody who doesn’t like at least one Dusty Springfield song? I like them all. Says everything you need to know about me.
· I guess every series has doppelganger episodes and whilst its not a type of episode that usually excites me (it probably added to my apathy) at least they tried to do something fresh with the idea with the Gangers. It's insane to think that people would agree to make replicas of themselves that are expendable for dangerous work but it’s a situation in which our sympathies are automatically with the doppelgangers and that is an original approach (because nine times out of town they are usually evil counterparts). The thorny subject of the Gangers wanting to go home to their families not because they are evil copies but simply because those are lives they remember having rears its head. I really wished we could have had more intelligent discussion in that vain.
· The Ganger makeup is really effective, it's such a memorably unpleasant look and the first time I saw one of them it made me shudder.
· Did anybody else get the hints of the revelatory climax with the Doctor telling Amy to breathe? Neither did I but Emma (who watched the second episode with me) caught on and knew something was up. It's slipped in during exciting moments so you don’t really pay attention but rewards on subsequent viewings.
· There is a very clever moment where the Doctor tosses Amy against the wall and you think he is the fake Doctor railing at the real Amy when the reality is that he is the real Doctor who knows that she is a fake Amy. It's only in hindsight that you realise how smart this scene is and the whole piece could do with more of this kind of playful deception. It's just a shame that the performances don't match the intelligence of the writing at this point.
· The final revelation that the Amy we have been watching for the past six episodes is a fake and our Amy has been kidnapped and pregnant is awesomely achieved. It is so beautifully done it shits all over the rest of the story. What’s important is that it is rooted in the characters with Amy horrified that the Doctor has suddenly turned on her and Rory choosing to listen to him and back away over his wife’s please for help. The final shot of Amy screaming hysterically as she prepares to give birth is one of the most shocking in Doctor Who’s history. There is a worrying habit this season of average episodes ending with excellent cliffhanging scenes that convince you that you have watched some kind of Doctor Who masterpiece. A Good Man Goes to War is guilty of it and so is Closing Time. This is the clearest example because I finished The Almost People with goosebumps of excitement but it had absolutely nothing to do with the story that played out, it was all to do with the arc related cliffhanger. Still kudos for keeping this surprise hidden and I couldn’t wait to watch the next episode.

The Bad:
· I remember watching The Rebel Flesh with Simon and our friend Ally (a convert since the new series started and number one lover of David Tennant) and we sat through the whole thing very nonplussed. It all began with the teaser which was so messily directed you didn’t get a good look at Buzzer’s face as he melted so when he turned up again in the corridor we didn’t have a clue who he was or why he was moaning about falling into a vat of acid. Sometimes puzzling is fun (Warriors’ Gate) and at other times it is nonsensical. And this was the latter.
· Shoot me down with a DeMat Gun for saying this because it sounds ungrateful considering they have sought out a grand site in Caerphilly castle to film this story in (and if you watch the Confidential it was filmed during a bad snowfall and all the production team were punished by perishing conditions)…but I really don’t like the location work in this story. Whilst I’m sure this is a glorious old building it lends a story which is already pretty dreary a dour, miserable feel and proves unpleasant to look at after a while. Besides I’m not sure it suits the feel of the story at all, which is going for a claustrophobic ‘us versus them’ feel. It lacks a base under siege atmosphere when you can get out in the sunny courtyard and wander about in the fresh air.
· Whilst the casting on the whole is excellent in Doctor Who there is one role in this story that is so hideously miscast I couldn’t make any connection with the character whatsoever. Sarah Smart as Jennifer did absolutely nothing for me. Half the time she said her lines as though she would rather be elsewhere and the other half she was playing a particularly stiff baddie cliché. Which I guess she was. Considering she has the pivotal role of gaining the sympathies of the audience for the Gangers, that aspect of the serial flops like a fish out of water. The scenes of her wandering about the courtyard calling for Rory aren't scary, funny or tense…just weird. I found the scenes where she is telling Rory about her red welly boots painful to watch. This is clearly supposed to be the moment that we make a connection with her and realise that she is exactly the same person as the real Jennifer…and yet all I could think was how retarded she sounded. Isn't it a bit late to ask for Rory’s help after you have already turned into a massive tentacle headed monster and attacked him? What is all this donkey shit about the eyes being the last thing to go and making sure you are ask a question into them – who even talks like that? Even Troi from Star Trek TNG would shy away from dismal psychobabble like that! I cannot buy a single line that comes out of Jennifer’s mouth. Her motivations are all over the place as well, either a helpless victim or a revolutionary leader depending on what a particular scene demands of her. Probably the worst ever reading of a line in NuWho is ‘You’re one of us Doctor. Join the revolution!’ Just abysmal.
· What is it about the new series and sticking the Doctor somewhere vertiginous and assailing him with the elements? It might have been fresh in The Idiot’s Lantern (it still felt like a bland climax though) but it wore thin in Evolution of the Daleks and The Vampires of Venice and now it is positively done to death. Not the feel that were going for during the central set piece in the opening episode.
· With the threat of acid leaks (The Keys of Marinus), radiation (The Daleks) and doppelgangers (The Chase, The Android Invasion) this is basically a Terry Nation script for the 2010s and all three of them were a bit passé in the shows first three years. I was really hoping they wouldn’t go for the ‘two characters trying to convince they are the real one’ scenario much loved by Nation but Graham managed to surrender to the cliché.
· What is up with that very odd scene where the Doctor meets Cleaves after the solar tsunami? Clearly she is a Ganger but did they have signpost it that obviously by her complete personality transplant?
· Oh dear. I think the JenHead (for want of a better name) glooping her way out of the toilet on a tether of flesh and screaming ‘JUST LET US LIVE!’ is supposed to be frightening. It is absolutely hilarious, for once a CGI effect that would be perfectly in place a some godawful b-movie (Attack of the Killer Heads?). The mash up of Gangers that Rory discovers is a little better but still rather comical looking for something that should have been really distasteful and revolting to look at (check out the far more effective example in Star Trek Voyager's Scorpion). By the time we get to the eyes in the walls and Jennifer’s grotesquely hanging mouth I was in fits of laughter – the show is trying assault you with comical scares that just aren't up to the task. The Jennifer monster stalking along the corridors makes the Lazarus creature from series three look phenomenal, it gets my vote as the most embarrassing CGI creation since the show came back.
· The ‘Us or Them’ conclusion to the first episode where the two factions go to war might have been more exciting if I gave a damn about any of the characters. Making them all so unlikable means I couldn’t care less if they wipe each other out or not. I was just hoping they would hurry up and get on with it so we could move on to something a bit more engaging.
· The most signposted and obvious cliffhanger to date in the new series. Ally said there would be a doppelganger Doctor as soon as he put his hand in the fleshy goo and the numerous ‘trust me…’ moments left me with no illusion as to where this story was going. I’ve always thought that a cliffhanger should either provide a shock (which it spectacularly failed to do so here) or provide some information that kicks the next episode in a new direction. This cliffhanger has much more success with the latter but still left me thinking ‘meh.’
· The TARDIS was sinking into the ground just so it could magically fall through underground to their rescue at the last minute? Oh fuck off! A magical blood clot solution? The TARDIS being able to stabilise the Gangers permanently? This story thrives on insultingly easy answers.

The Shallow Bit: Scottish, greying, gorgeous and gently spoken – Mark Bonnar can appear in every Doctor Who story. Of the guest cast he is the only one that engages my sympathies – or at least he did until that shamefully manipulative sequence with his kid. Go and watch The Waters of Mars to see how this sort of thing can be done really effectively.

Result: Terry Nation writes a script for the 2010s full of acid leaks, doppelgangers, radiation and fake Doctors. Actually Matthew Graham wrote it but you would be forgiven for thinking that somebody associated with the shows early years had been involved because this is really old fashioned storytelling, told at an old fashioned pace. The story is crippled immediately by a lack of identifiable characters – none of the human guest cast appealed to me in the slightest so that left no hope for their Gangers. Jennifer in particular is a hopeless character, atrociously performed and characterised and dragging Rory into a dead end sub plot that makes him look more like an idiot than a hero. Had all this been condensed down into one frantic episode it might have been made to work but dragged out to an hour and a half it plays the same tricks over and over until even (naff) monster effects and (abortive) paranoia seem uninteresting. Another damaging factor is the direction and editing; some scenes that should have flowed beautifully are discordantly chopped together and there are an amazing amount of scenes with agonisingly long pauses as if they are asking us to pass judgement on how boring it all is. The last scene is a genuine shocker and is so frighteningly depicted it puts the rest of the story to shame and I really liked the way that they kept the focus on the Ganger Doctor to disguise the fact that this story was actually all about a fake Amy. The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People doesn’t pass any of the criteria that I expect from good Doctor Who; it's not funny, imaginative, scary or entertaining. It's an ugly, outdated, unpleasant story which for me proved astonishingly unlikable: 3/10

Friday, 25 July 2014

Jonathan Morris Interview Extra

The Curse of Davros was a story with an insane shopping list of ingredients. Flip's introduction, Davros and the Daleks, a historical setting... Did you decide to include all of these elements or were they handed to you?


Most of those elements were in the brief. The historical setting was my idea, I just thought it would be amusing to have the Daleks turn up at the battle of Waterloo and join in on the French side. Not the most dark or serious of ideas. But it contrast, the chance to write about Davros meant I could explore his psychology, his existence in a state of pain. The intention was to do a big Russell T Davies-style season-opener; tell the story from a new companion’s point of view, and go big, and mad, and try to sum up all of Doctor Who in one story.

How did Flip go from being a one off character to a full time companion?

Lisa blew everyone away at the recording for the Thomas Brewster story. It wasn’t that her character was particularly well-written or defined with any depth in that story – I put my hand up to that, she was only intended to be a one-off, brought into the story to provide an everyday-person perspective – but Lisa made her so real, and so funny, and gave quirky, unexpected but very real line readings, it was obvious she was on her first rung on the ladder to stardom. Another Sheridan Smith. So Big Finish grabbed her and signed her up before she became too successful. Then the question was whether to create a new character for her, or to continue with Flip. And as any new character would be similar to Flip, we thought we’d continue with her. Which meant with The Curse of Davros – or Waterloo of the Daleks as it was called all through writing and recording – I had to properly introduce and define the character in a way I hadn’t done in Crimes of Thomas Brewster. But it was also a great and unique opportunity, to tell a story about someone who has met the Doctor before but who doesn’t really know him, so if he wasn’t acting himself, she wouldn’t notice.

How difficult did you find it to disguise the twist at the heart of this story?

It was tricky. On the one hand, you want it to come as a big surprise when it’s revealed, but on the other, the dialogue and the performances have to be true to those characters, even if it risks giving away the twist early. That was Alan Barnes’ note on my first draft, and he was right. So, yes, because of the nature of the situation and the performances, some people got the twist early. Some didn’t. But the point was to explore the situation beyond it being a twist, to use it as a starting point, so whether or not a listener guesses it, they still get some mileage out of the idea, it’s central to the story, not just a gimmick.

Were you pleased with the finished result?

Yes. It was fantastic. The recording session was kind of chaotic, because I’d written so many characters, far more than normal, so half the British and French forces were gathered in the green room at the Moat. But with something like the battle of Waterloo, you have to go big. But I was delighted with the end result, particularly the performances given by Colin Baker and Terry Molloy, who both rose to the challenge the story presented, and the scene where Flip meets Napoleon and tells him about ABBA makes me laugh just thinking about it. My only quibble is that I’d wanted episode four to open with La Marseillaise going into the Doctor Who theme, like at the beginning of All You Need Is Love, but maybe that was considered too silly or beyond the pale.

How do you think Flip has fared since her debut?

Really well, I think. I’m particularly pleased with the stories that have fleshed out her background more, those by William Gallagher, which have made her more ‘real’, and which have developed the original character point that her bravado and recklessness will be her undoing, and that she is living on borrowed time.

Protect and Survive received widespread critical acclaim for its terrifying plotline and stifling atmosphere. What was your inspiration for telling this story?


My inspiration is that nuclear war has been, and still is, my greatest fear. I’m tempted to say it’s ever since I saw Threads but I suspect I was frightened of it before then. The horror of it, the sheer cruel perversity of it, of people being blinded by the flash and then having the seconds tick by before the blast kills them, or dying of radiation sickness in a world where there is no birdsong, just ash falling from the sky like snow. It’s terrifying. So that was one inspiration. I had a vague idea of working it up into a Sapphire & Steel story, back when Big Finish did Sapphire & Steel, but nothing came of that.

My other inspiration was the TV version of Human Nature. To be precise, the ending, where the Doctor subjects the members of the Family of Blood to eternal punishments that are as cruel as they are weird. That part of the story didn’t sit easily with me. I’m not saying it was a misjudgement, but it made me question the Doctor’s morality, that he doles out punishments like some sort of god. It’s more the sort of thing you would expect from the seventh Doctor, so that was my other starting point; what if the Doctor’s companions found themselves trapped in one of the Doctor’s eternal punishments?

How much of the Hex/Fenric arc were you aware of when you wrote this story?

I had a meeting in Oxford with Matt and Mike and Alan. Matt was already thinking about Beowulf and plans were already laid for the final story. I had the easy job of starting things off, so my story could be fairly self-contained as it wasn’t following on from anything. With these arcs there’s always a balancing act between making each story work as its own entity and tying everything together into a developing storyline. Go too self-contained and the arc suffers, focus too much on the arc and the individual stories suffer.

Sylvester McCoy barely features, was it quite refreshing to give the companions the bulk of the action?

Refreshing is not the word. Difficult is the word. It was a very, very difficult story to write. Partly because of the grim tone and depressing subject matter, but also because of the very small cast and limited setting. I found, writing episode two, that I was getting through the story much more quickly than anticipated and had to email Alan for help. By way of a rescue, it turned out that they could get Sylvester in to do a day’s worth of recording, so I could fill one of my episodes by telling an extended ‘flashback’ of how the Doctor had set up the dimensional purgatory (or whatever you want to call it), which meant I had enough remaining story for the fourth episode. But it was very panicky for a while there. For the first and last time, I floundered.

But it turned out well in the end. The cast were terrific, Sophie and Philip did a blinder, particularly in episode four, Sylvester powered through some long speeches, and the cliffhanger at the end of episode one is incredibly powerful, partly because of the writing but also the performances and the sound design. When I was listening to it, my reaction was, ‘Bloody hell, that’s scary’, and I wrote it. But then again, I wrote it as being a story about the thing that I’m most frightened of, so I should find it scary.

And it seems to have gone down very well, it’s probably one of my best things. Despite – or probably because – of how difficult and stressful it was to write.

The Space Race was the middle adventure of the 1963 arc. You made an inspired choice to link this story into an important historical event of the time. Was that always your starting point?


The brief was a story set in 1963. And not about The Beatles, because Eddie was doing that. And not about cold war spy shenanigans, because Dorney was doing that. And preferably set outside the UK. So I had a bit of a think about stuff going on in 1963, and the thought of the Great Train Robbery didn’t appeal, so I decided to make it broader. Whilst also tying it in very specifically with the events of November 23. I had three big, bonkers ideas for the story – which comprise the three cliffhangers, and then it was just a matter of joining them up in an approximately logical way.

You write a phenomenal sixth Doctor - what are the aspects of his character that appeal to you the most?

Well, that’s very kind. I think his Doctor is very self-confident, he’s not prone to false modesty, and he’s quite garrulous and sesquipedalian, which works well on audio. He dominates scenes and drives stories forward, which can make like difficult (which is why so many TV stories sidelined him, because he’s so powerful) but it forces you to come up with more challenging situations, so that he still has to work.

You gave Peri a great deal to do in this story, do you think she has a lot of potential beyond her TV material?

Yes. I think all the companions do. Well, maybe not Kamelion. I just think it’s what listeners expect now. On the TV show back in the 1980s it was all about plot, so characters were by necessity quite superficial or stereotypical, but nowadays one of the reasons why people buy the audios is for the characters to be explored, or portrayed, in more depth. And with Peri, you have a great character established in Planet of Fire, where she stands up to the Master brilliantly, but then she quickly got reduced to the usual companion stereotype of complaining, screaming and asking questions. Which is fine, but you need to give her proper, valid reasons for complaining and screaming and make sure her questions are intelligent.

Were you concerned that people wouldn't take to the idea of Liaka forming a canine rebellion on Earth?

The Laika thing was partly inspired by a suggestion from Alan Barnes to tell an Animal Farm story behind the iron curtain. The great difficulty with this part of the story was to keep it serious, as it could quite easily become ridiculous, even Pythonesque. So I avoided any humour, and dialled up the violence and gruesome-ness, to take an outlandish idea and portray it utterly realistically. And I hope it was clear that Laika was acting out of a sense of morality, that she wasn’t just after revenge. Certainly I think Samantha Beart did a fantastic job with a part that could so, so easily have misfired. But dogs performing surgery without opposable digits; I wrote myself into a bit of a corner there.

Given this was your anniversary story do you think it turned out as well as you expected?

I think it worked very well. It might not have been the story people were expecting, as the cover, pre-publicity, and the first episode set it up as an Ambassadors of Death/Quatermass type thing, with spy shenanigans. And then it turns out to be something else. I like that, I think that’s a very Doctor Who thing. But maybe I should have gone even darker with it? Oh well, it’s only a shaggy dog story...

How many PG Wodehouse books have you read?


Oh, at least forty-odd. All Jeeves stories, naturally, and lots of the self-contained ones. My favourite, of those that I’ve read so far, is a short story called The Reverent Wooing of Archibald. The Auntie Matter was a chance to pay tribute (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). I borrowed a little of the plot from Joy in the Morning (the idea of someone being instantly attracted to someone after seeing them buying a clever book). Reginald is named after Reginald Pepper, a ‘prototype’ of Bertie Wooster. Mabel is from Jeeves in the Springtime. The colourfully-nomenclatured Zenobia Brabazon is named after Zenobia Hopwood and Major Brabazon-Plank. Grenville is named after the ‘G’ of PG Wodehouse. And Ligeia is named after my former agent. But with The Auntie Matter I wanted to throw in all the elements; people falling into duckponds, ferocious aunts and modern-minded girls, a chap falling in love at first sight. If I’d been permitted a larger cast I’d have added a country bobby on a bicycle getting mixed up in proceedings.

Was it exciting to have the chance to write for Mary Tamm's Romana?

Well, I’d written for her before, briefly, in Tales from the Vault. It’s always lovely to write for an established character where you have a specific actor’s voice in mind. And what I’m most proud of is that I got some feedback from Mary about how much she loved the script (I wasn’t at the recording session).

What is easier to write, a more humorous tale or a frightening one (such as Phantoms of the Deep)?

They’re not that different. A moment of suspense and a joke both have the same mechanics of build-up and surprise. But trying to write a humorous tale and trying to write a humorous tale to the standard set by PG Wodehouse, that’s a world of difference. Every line has to do work, the language, the rhythm of dialogue, the 1920s slang and literary references. What I’m most proud of this story is that I don’t think I failed entirely in matching Wodehouse’s style. Certainly there are some lines in there that make me laugh – ‘You nearly demolished a passing hen’, ‘Given sufficient cross-wind, my skull has been known to emit a high-pitched whistling sound’.

The cast seemed to react encouragingly to the script, is it always a delight to hear your words being brought to life by such talented people?

There are five highlights to each release. 1. Getting commissioned. 2. Finishing the first draft. 3. Getting paid. 4. Going to the recording (if invited) and 5. Listening to the finished product. It’s hard to choose a favourite out of the five highlights, I appreciate them all equally. The Auntie Matter turned out exceptionally well, I think. Reggie’s comedy rhotacism wasn’t in the script and I kind of wish I’d said something during the recording because it might look like I was poking fun at speech impediments, but apart from that I couldn’t be happier.

Phantoms of the Deep sat in the heart of the second season of 4DAs as a gorgeous little chiller set under the sea. Did you have the atmospherics in mind when writing this?


Very much. It came pretty much hot on the heels of The Auntie Matter. I submitted another storyline inbetween, called Criminal World, which featured Rasputin and which was based on an idea I’d been kicking around for the comic strip (which I was still writing at the time). The idea was too comedic so I scrapped it (I’ve since made it work as a Vienna episode, nothing is ever wasted). Anyway, David Richardson wanted something ‘dark’, and it couldn’t be historical or futuristic or space operatic because of other stories in the season, so I thought, there’s never been a Doctor Who story set on a submarine, why not do something like that? In that whole The Abyss/The Deep/Sphere sub-genre (sub-genre!). Claustrophobic, spooky, and it would allow me to indulge one of my fascinations, those weird and wonderful creatures of the extreme deep. And I’d been kicking around an idea of doing a Gremlins-type story, which is where the ghostly goblins came from (that and from Dickens). It was one of those wonderful occasions of having a really obvious idea that hasn’t been done yet, where the story kind of plots itself as you throw in all the things that you could find at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Originally it was set in 1978 but at Nick Briggs suggestion it was set in the near future. My main memory of the recording is that Tom Baker would act out swimming whenever he had swimming scenes – it seems kind of bonkers but it did help the performance. Although it wasn’t as intricate as The Auntie Matter the plotting was still pretty strong; Phantoms of the Deep really is a four-part strong boiled down to the strongest, tightest two-parter possible, which is a great way of working.

Fascinating fact. I’m always stuck for character names so for this one, for no reason whatsoever, I named them after the cast of Survivors.

Did you ask for K.9 to be included?

No, K-9 was in the brief. Which kind of set me a challenge; clearly K-9 isn’t very well equipped for an underwater story, he can’t swim and it would be kind of silly to have him in his own mini-sub, so I had to find lots of interesting stuff for him to do, so he ended up becoming quite central to it, and in particular to the cliff-hanger.

Do you like the character?

I do, a lot. I suspect he was one of the first things in the show I latched onto as a very small child. His character is actually very interesting, because you have the pedantic, know-all computer element, plus the canine element, plus a slightly camp, superior element. He reminds me of Gil Chesterton from Frasier. Camp robots/computers were a thing back then, Star Wars had C-3P0, Blake’s 7 had Orac.

There are few more authentic 4DAs than Last of the Colophon, a tale told in a handful of sets with some vivid characters. Was your aim to write something as nostalgic as this?


I’d never call it nostalgia. The aim is to be authentic. Now, that may evoke certain feelings and associations, that whole ‘It’s teatime in 1977’ thing, but clearly the idea of being nostalgic about new material is absurd. Half the people listening to these things aren’t old enough to even remember the 70s. But they’ll have the videos, the DVDs, of not just Doctor Who but Blake’s 7, so they’ll know what sort of quarries those shows would visit, what the film stock would look like, what the studio scenes would look like, even down to the wall flats used for corridors and how they would be lit. Last of the Colophon has a lot of Blake’s 7 in it. So it was kind of appropriate that Blake turned up for the recording.

Again you seem very much aware of how to generate chills on audio (Leela being menaced by Morax in the dark). Is that something that comes with experience?

I’m not sure. Certainly there is an element of experience, in knowing how audio drama works and the possibilities available, that you can create a dramatically immersive situation by having a character move from shouting at the far end of the room to whispering right up close in the listener’s lughole; there is a tendency to go, ‘it’s audio, so everyone is standing perfectly still at the same distance from the listener’, but you can have people moving around and establish a sense of geography which you can use as part of the drama. That was something I had to use for Last of the Colophon because of the nature of the story. So there is a certain amount of technique, but a lot of it comes down to trusting the actors and the directors (or having the experience of knowing that you can trust them). There’s not a lot of atmosphere on the page of an audio script (unless you write FX: SPOOKY ATMOSPHERE)

Geoffrey Beevers Master has taken on a life of his own on audio. How did it feel to be the writer who would give him a chance to give him a voice in the companion chronicles?


I’d written for him a tiny, tiny bit before, as I worked a bit on redrafting The Oseidon Adventure because Alan was under the weather, but my contribution comprised mainly of one scene. It was nice to give him a proper adventure, and make him the protagonist (though all villains are, in their minds, the protagonists). Master had already explored the Master’s childhood, and then the new series gave him another childhood of strange woodland initiation rites, so I decided to concentrate on the Master’s psychology rather than his rationale, and to give him a journey of a rise and a fall – villains are more interesting at their weakest, their most desperate, than when they’re sitting on a big throne in charge of the universe. Stories like The Deadly Assassin illustrate that beautifully; the Master is even more dangerous and horrifying as a char-grilled cadaver. So the story begins with him fleeing the TARDIS – following on from the events of the TV Movie and a Joe Lidster short story (note how the author goes out of his way to fit into established continuity!) – and then charting the rise of the Master as a criminal mastermind across the twentieth century, and his inevitable fall from grace (plus a funny bit where he gets onto the wrong boat). There’s a lot of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese in there, plus The Silence of the Lambs and a few quotes from Paradise Lost – the Master identifying himself with Satan, an angel exiled from paradise. I can do highbrow!

Did you have any more of his exploits in mind when writing this?

The story hints at an earlier adventure in ancient Egypt where the Daleks capture the Master (before putting him on trial in the TV Movie), so there’s a story there to be told. I also had in mind the events of Utopia, where the Master escapes the Time War by becoming human, and so had a little bit of fun with some subtle foreshadowing.

Is there going to be a third instalment of the UNIT Vault stories?

Matheson and Sato will return (to the Vault) in The Worlds of Doctor Who later this year. Whether they survive that adventure, I couldn’t say.

What do you think about the closure of this highly popular series?

It’s a shame, as good work was being done, but given how much product Big Finish is putting out – and that releases like Dark Eyes and The Light at the End show there is a large market for ranges where new listeners can get in on the ground floor, so to speak, rather than not knowing where to start with pre-existing ranges, you can see why it makes sense to give the range a rest, to give people a chance to catch up, complete their collections, and listen to them all. But hopefully they’ll do some more one day, as I haven’t done a story for the first Doctor yet, and those ones tend to be the best (these facts may not be unrelated)!

Do you have any favourites?

Well, I haven’t listened to them all, and tend to go for those by authors I already enjoy; Marc Platt, Jac Rayner, Simon Guerrier. So, avoiding those authors, let me pick out three. The Mahogany Murderers, Solitaire and The Scorchies. Those are three of the ones I most envied.

Played by one female companion and directed by another, Ghost in the Machine was a deftly written and realised conceptual horror. What can you tell me about the inception and writing of this script?

There’s something inherently spooky about old recordings. Sapphire & Steel did a story about a creature trapped in the first photograph, so why not a creature trapped in the first recording – which, by a marvellous coincidence, is an incredibly spooky rendition of Mary Had A Little Lamb. I’d had that part of the idea years ago. The second element came from listening to the interviews at the end of Big Finish CDs, listening to some imposter pretending to me, who doesn’t even sound like me. I pitch my voice up to my ‘telephone voice’ for interviews, because of nervousness, and become incredibly hesitant and gabble-y, and it’s very disconcerting to hear back. So that inspired the idea of ‘What if there was something speaking with your voice on a tape recording... and it really wasn’t you’. Which felt spooky. And then when I was asked to write a Jo story, I remembered the really handy device in Planet of the Daleks that she narrates her adventure into a tape recorder, and it all came together.

Is Katy Manning, the actress of a thousand voices, a joy to write for?

Ghost in the Machine didn’t call for a thousand voices, but it did call for some pretty weird stuff – at one point she’s playing the Doctor pretending to be Jo, so a performance within a performance – as well as an evil version of Jo. And Katy can handle pretty much anything you throw at her. One thing the Companion Chronicles have demonstrated is how much better, and how vastly more versatile, the Doctor Who companion actors are than we might sometimes give them credit for, because on television all they were given to do was to ask questions, react to things before they happened and scream.

Were you delighted by the result?

Of course. Part one worked particularly well, as that’s all about spooky moments, building up the atmosphere and the tension, while part two is all about explanations and finding solutions, and – let’s not forget – also had to be written only using words that were used in part one, an incredibly time-consuming and constrained form of writing. The Doctor Who equivalent of Gadsby.

Babblesphere was your contribution to the Destiny of the Doctor series and played to your inestimable strengths of capturing the bubbly tone of season 17. Is this your favourite period of Doctor Who to write for?


Possibly. I’m very wary that it might become a comfort zone thing, that I might start repeating myself and become just the Douglas Adams pastiche guy. But that period of Doctor Who is very dear to me, not just for nostalgic reasons but because I think that blend of imagination, humour and horror is what Doctor Who is, for me, and when you have other eras that aren’t as imaginative, or as humorous, I feel it’s missing something. It’s the era I see echoed most in the Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat incarnations of the show; there’s all sorts of other influences and eras in there, but City of Death, from where I’m sitting, seems the most influential.

Did I detect a commentary on Doctor fandom within the workings of the Babblesphere?

A bit, but it’s about social media in general. Admittedly a lot of my experience of social media has been filtered through Doctor Who, through usenet, yahoogroups, forums, facebook and twitter, but it’s not specific to Doctor Who fandom. Because in Babblesphere it’s all gossip, it’s all quite kind-hearted, it’s not raging decade-long arguments! But, yes, the idea of a forum moderator being sent mad by the poor standard of debate and turning into a monster killing off the most witless did amuse me.

Given your penchant for the era, are you going to be contributing to the Lalla Ward season of 4DAs?

I think people would be very, very surprised if I didn’t. I’m bloody ubiquitous!

Did you find the 11th Doctor sequence intruded on your story at all?

Not really. It was part of the brief. It was mildly irritating that the brief changed a bit, originally (as I understood it) the 11th Doctor would have been introducing the stories, as well as Matt Smith turning up in each one, but plans change and, I don’t know, maybe it’s better how it turned out because it gives each Doctor a chance to shine without being overshadowed. So anyway, I had to think of a way of involving the 11th Doctor in a way that none of the other stories would, without him being the one who turns up and saves the day.

To answer a question you haven’t asked, the thing about Babblesphere that I’m most proud of is that originally I’d written it as a very The Sun Makers type story of people in grey overalls in grey corridors, very authentic but also very boring, and John Ainsworth kept pushing me to make it more interesting, which is why it ended up set in a reproduction of Versailles with little old ladies as the rebel force and robots that look like chandeliers. I grumbled a little about being pushed but John was right to do so.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Turn Left written by Russell T Davies and directed by Graeme Harper


This story in a nutshell: An alien force invades Donna’s past to kill the Doctor and destroy the future…

Delightful Donna: So Catherine Tate can’t act? Here’s her chance to prove that not only she can but given the right material she can shit all over every other companion that has come before her (and certainly since her). Donna and the Doctor have now got to the stage where they are having a blissful time together, in Russell T Davies terms that means they are about to be split apart in the most catastrophically dramatic way possible (twice over actually, both here and in Journey’s End). She doesn’t need to know if she will be happy in the future because she’s happy now. The relationship between Sylvia and Donna bubbles with resentment and disappointment, it's one of the great unsung relationships in Doctor Who because it contains so much that is just feels so real. She is trying to get Donna to work as a secretary and has no faith in her daughter to find a job that has a future (‘City execs don’t need temps except for practice’). In a moment of pure thoughtlessness, Donna has a bitchy  reaction to her redundancy and completely skips right over the fact that people have died (no wonder she missed the Cyberman invasion, etc). And yet somehow you still love her. Sylvia admits she has given up on Donna, what a devastating thing to hear from your mother. I love how she doesn’t just throw herself into Rose’s arms, she’s quietly very aggressive with her and can totally look after herself. Her mockery of northerners clearly comes from an angry place and too enduring too many episodes of Coronation Street and is very, very funny. Look at the scene where she walks away from her mother in that long black coat, she looks like a spectre of death. She genuinely thinks she is nothing important (I guess her mother has told her enough times for it to make an impact) and after Rose tries to convince her of the contrary Donna’s ‘just don’t…’ speaks volumes. Donna is all flame hair and fire! Bravely she agrees to see the creature that has been hiding on her back and Tate aces the fear and anger, giving a performance of intensity that we aren’t used to on Doctor Who. This is the episode where Donna proves she doesn’t need the Doctor to be exceptional, she can do it all on her own. A companion has never been treated to a vehicle of this kind to prove their mettle before and I am so happy it was Donna (and Tate) that was afforded that honour. Donna’s optimistic speech about putting time back on track twists into pure terror when she realises she is going to have to commit suicide, a transition that Tate makes effortlessly. Proving that she understands how important the Doctor is, Donna commits suicide to make the world a better place. Somehow that bleak ending manages to be staggeringly optimistic because Donna proves herself as the ultimate companion, laying down her life even when she is terrified to do so. What a character. The fortune teller backs away from her, telling her she is so strong and asking what will she be? This is powerful stuff.

Chavvy Chick: I know it’s a coarse observation to make...but what has happened to Rose’s teeth? It is very interesting that Rose is played as a supernatural portent of death for Donna. If she had to return to the show (and after her sensational departure I still wonder if it was necessary) this is an inventive way to pull it off. She has crossed many different realities as an anonymous benefactor. I have to say I really like this witty, clever and confident Rose, she reminds me of the rock chick from series one but one who can now step into the Doctor’s shoes very snugly and take over his role in the series. Perhaps the idea of her running an alternative universe Torchwood wasn't such a crazy idea given the evidence in this episode. Billie Piper isn't quite afforded the same opportunity as Tate in Turn Left but she still acquits herself well. They make a pretty formidable team.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re just no one Donna. We don’t exist.’
‘Oh my God. The stars are going out.’
‘You liar! You told me I was special!’ – I have never seen a line delivered with such venom!

The Good Stuff: How much do I want to visit that exotic marketplace? Every time I visit Chinatown in London it reminds of the back alley planet from Turn Left, all lanterns, eateries and delicious foreign smells assaulting you. The chilling pre-credits sequence involves the notion that somebody can invade your memories and manipulate them to change the future. The Trickster was the finest SJA villain because of this stunning modus operandi that opened up so many storytelling possibilities and it is great to see that spilling over into Doctor Who. Like Love & Monsters Davies plays about with his own continuity but he uses it like a scalpel here, cutting and slicing at the very fabric of the series. Graeme Harper’s recount of the Webstar attack on London cuts out the hysterical music and makes its advance over London silent and consequently a million times scarier. The Doctor’s body on the stretcher with the sonic screwdriver slipping from his dead fingers is a terrifying image, and yet one of many in this episode. The events of Smith & Jones play out but this time Martha, Sarah, Luke, Clyde and Maria all die on the moon. Given Elizabeth Sladen's death these scenes have an extra layer of poignancy to them. Isn't it wonderful how all of the fluffy, much moaned about Russell T. Davies threats to the Earth that bring the planet to its knees? Utilising the Voyage of the Damned threat of the Titanic almost crashing into the planet but this time actually showing the devastating consequences adds another element of danger to the former story every time I watch it. The delayed impact felt by Donna’s family and the mushroom cloud hanging over the city is a devastating moment. London destroyed and everybody you know dead, that is almost impossible to come to terms with. At this point I realised this had to be undone at some point and feared the worst kind of reset button (ala Last of the Time Lords) but Davies has something much more personal in mind. Suddenly we are in darker territory, refugees being piled into tiny houses, no employment, concentration camps and armed soldiers on the streets. How can you not love Wilf? He refuses to take off his daft antlers at the super posh hotel, ‘God bless America!’, enjoying a sing song with his fellow house mates and his beautiful tears which leave you with no illusion to the horrors he has witnessed in his life. ‘Every day I think of someone else. All dead’ – I really like how Davies doesn’t ever shy away from the psychological consequences of losing everybody you love. Of course the Adipose hit America the worst – that is a rare (priceless) gag in an otherwise black episode. Donna’s ‘Where are you going?’ as she chases after the army van and the following scene where Sylvia stares at the audience blank faced, the only thing she can bring herself to part her lips for is to insult her daughter are two of the bleakest moments you will see in Doctor Who. Illusions to slave camps and depression and hopelessness brought to life so vividly by Jacqueline King - the Doctor hasn't been anywhere near as brave as this since because it is so emotionally real, Just when you think it cannot get any more apocalyptic the stars start going out. The visual of the dying, musty TARDIS is unforgettable. The ship aches for the loss of the Doctor, in throes of depression herself. S much so it resists the attempts of Rose and UNIT to coax her back into life. The episode never stops surprising - Donna landing half a mile away from her destination is both hilarious and edge of the seat exciting. Who saw that devastating conclusion coming when they walked into this episode? Donna proves herself as the selfless person that she really is and kills herself to save the Doctor. To follow that up with such a breathtaking cliffhanger which heralds Rose's return to our universe and suggests that the drama in this episode is only the beginning was a bold move. Nobody can build up to a finale like Davies and here he provides his most appetite whetting example of gearing the audience up for what is to come whilst still telling a brilliant story. Turn Left is a 45 minute long prelude to the finale, showing you the result of what will happen (the stars going out) if Davros (as yet undisclosed) manages to prime his reality bomb.

The Shallow Bit: Donna is beautiful throughout, outside and in. The moment Donna realises it is a time machine Rose breaks into a smile that makes you realise this is out Rose all along.

Result: Turn Left is bold, brilliant and shits on continuity with real verve. Because of its lasting emotional impact on me, the stunning production values, the bleak, uncompromising tone and adult content it manages to achieve the impossible...it knocks Blink from the top spot of my favourite Doctor-lite episode. Season four had been performing extremely well up until The Unicorn and the Wasp but the run of episodes from The Silence in the Library to The Stolen Earth are exemplary one of the greatest runs of knock outs in the shows history. Given the Doctor's absence this should be the weakest of the bunch but it is actually my favourite and the two individuals responsible, Russell T. Davies and Catherine Tate, should be extremely proud of what they achieved here. Tate has always been excellent but here she is a revelation, silencing all of her critics with a performance that has down in Doctor Who history. Russell T, Davies has written an impeccable script and it is dramatically realised by Graeme Harper giving us a deliciously dark waltz through the last four years of alien invasions and showing us the consequence of them without the Doctor's interference. Jacqueline King and Bernard Cribbins provide the best support that Tate could ask for, propping up the episode with some weighty talent whilst still giving her the limelight. The world without the Doctor is a scary place and the episode never shies away from how much we are in his debt. But the human race is a formidable force too and Donna proves once and for all what an incredible person she is; suffering terrible indignities, watching her world collapse and then willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to put things right. I couldn't love her character more than I do in Turn Left. Series four raced towards its conclusion with six incredible episodes in a row and Turn Left rises ever so slightly above the quality and drama of its neighbours and has a vivid, stark and emotional identity all of its own: 10/10