Friday, 28 April 2017

Smile written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Lawrence Gough

This story in a nutshell: A Doctor Who story entirely without jeopardy? 

Indefinable: The Doctor is proud of humanities optimism in the future, how that sense of optimism can touch even the architecture. The Doctor met an Emperor made of algae once who fancied him. It’s a shame we couldn’t enjoy that adventure rather than this one. What precisely is in the Doctor’s browser history that he wants Bill to steer clear of? Remember when Bill said that he looked like a penguin with his arse on fire when he runs? Watch him dash through the cornfield away from the TARDIS. It’s hilarious. The Doctor doesn’t use the phone in the TARDIS door to phone the helpline because he is the helpline. The Doctor has bumped into a few of the colony ships that left the Earth over the years. Who can name them all? I get that the Doctor is a fallible hero but there is a massive difference between making a mistake and almost blowing up an entire colony without checking to see if it’s people are in suspended animation. When was blowing things up ever the Doctor’s option? Is he channelling the Brigadier? It makes me look like a destructive child that has made a severe overreaction. A bit like he was in Hell Bent. 

Funky Chick: Bill looks very impressed that the Doctor had the gall to steal the TARDIS, she admires his honesty and his criminal activity by all accounts. Cheeky. She’s wonderful, far better than nonsense like this deserves. She wanders through the blandness of it all smiling and cracking jokes and trying to keep our interest levels up. Imagine if this had been a Clara episode? 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Between here and my office, before the kettle boils is everything that ever happened or ever will. Make your choice!’ 
‘Who needs loos? There’s probably an app for that.’

The Good:
· For my money, the first and last scenes in Smile were the episode at its height and they were nothing to shout home about beyond introducing Bill to the core concepts of the TARDIS and the exciting segue into the next adventure. Things that I did enjoy though were Bill’s continuing questions, Nardole’s darker presence in the Doctor’s life and the appearance of a feature film elephant at the shows climax, which promises much greater things for next weeks’ episode.
· Visually this is a very strong episode and it is clear that a great deal of money has been thrown at it. I’ve read some commentators praise the use of CGI in creating the landscape of the colony, not realising that it is actually on location in Valencia. That doesn’t stop the establishing shots of the colony and the TARDIS in the wheat field being quite spectacular. I was perfectly convinced that this episode was going to be a winner based purely on the type of visuals I was seeing. It just goes to show that you can throw all kinds of money at the series and it doesn’t mean that it will automatically generate interest.
· I like the contrast between the aesthetic on the inside and the outside of the colony and how that is discussed (wet brains, dry brains). From wide open gleaming spaces to claustrophobia, pipes and steam. I realise I’m reaching here but an episode so devoid of interest forces me to.
· The music deserves recognition again this week, it was much subtler and less bombastic than usual. It suggests a quiet menace that the episode fails to deliver.

The Bad:

· I never bought the Vardies as a credible threat and that is a big problem when they are the shows sole attempt to do something sinister for almost half an hour. I like the idea of something cute becoming threatening but this is a failed attempt at that because the robots are simply too clunky and cumbersome and move in such an unthreatening manner. The emoji faces are a neat idea now in 2017 but they will dates the robots really quick because the pictographic method of communicating with people is already a little passé. Nothing dates a show faster than obsessing on the latest craze (just take a look at Terror of the Autons and its amazing black plastic chair of death). Emoji badges (sorry, mood indicators) might seem very cool right now but we’ll look back on this in a few years and cringe. Besides, Doctor Who has never really cared to be ‘in’ before, I’m not sure why it should start now especially if this is the level of imagination on display. The Doctor and Bill being chased by the painfully slow Vardies doesn’t exactly get the heart racing. We’ve seen monsters in Doctor Who make a slow advance before (the mummies in Pyramids of Mars are a particularly terrifying example) but this is probably the least sincere example. Clunk clunk clunk go their little feet. The idea that the Vardies identified grief as the enemies of happiness simply because they weren’t programmed to recognise is it is absurd, and the idea that they would kill to eliminate it even moreso. I’m having trouble following this logic at all, it feels like my brain is short circuiting. Following Cottrell Boyce’s logic I know what I am supposed to do.
· The pre-titles sequence with the Vardy’s attacking and the colonists having to be happy about it doesn’t work at all. The attempt at forced happiness comes across really awkward as portrayed by Mina Anwar (usually so reliable in The Sarah Jane Adventures) and the Vardy’s simply are not a credible threat. ‘Is it hugging me?’ indeed! The bones falling to floor in slow motion so unconvincingly is simply the icing on the cake. I was very nervous heading into this episode after this. After Gough’s stellar direction of The Pilot I was mighty confused that this felt so awkward in contrast.
· The idea that the walls are built from interlocking microbots should be the coolest thing ever but the reveal is so…plodding. Like so much of Smile, it lacks the wow factor.
· The first thing that happens in Smile is around the 30-minute mark where the Doctor decides to blow up the colony for no intelligent reason. His actions are countered by the appearance of a child emerging, sleepy eyed and all innocence, to let them know that the colony is actually still populated and they need to stop the countdown. This is hardly what I would call subtle storytelling. Or convincing storytelling. Or remotely interesting storytelling. It gives storytelling a bad name. ‘What’s in those pods, Bill, is the surviving population of Earth. And I nearly killed all of them.’ When the Doctor starts admitting he’s an idiot, we’re in trouble.
· Ralf Little is a mammoth talent. Go and watch The Café. Wasting him on such an insignificant role is inconceivable.
· The Doctor essentially does an IT Crowd ‘turn it off and on again’ which wipes the Vardies memories and resets the whole colony? Why does this mean the colonists are suddenly accepting of the loss of their loved ones? This kind of pull a giant lever and everything is okay storytelling beggars belief. Surely Doctor Who should be aspiring to something more complex than this in its 54th year.

The Shallow Bit: Bill’s smile. She’s a keeper.

Result: ‘We’re in the utopia of vacuous teens…’ You said it, mate. So much of Smile relies on the interaction between the Doctor and Bill because very little happens in the first half beyond them exploring the empty colony. Barry Letts once said that the Doctor and companion should have an appeal that carries the story even when what is on screen isn’t particularly engaging and this is the living embodiment of that approach. I just think the show should be aspiring to something a little more riveting in its tenth season than a story that solely relies on the charisma of the leads because the story it is telling is so slight and dull. People have made allusions to the fact that this episode is a bit like The Happiness Patrol (forced happiness) and a bit like The Ark in Space (the clinical atmosphere of finding a human colony in slumber) but in truth beyond the ideas they have very little in common. For a start both of those stories have some substance and interest about them. When I compare one story to another I am often talking about direct steals or similarity in tone but Smile only has the most insincere similarities to those classic Doctor Who adventures. The pacing of Smile is way off balance; the first 30 minutes plays out like a really plodding classic series first episode and the last 10 minutes is a manic fourth episode condensed down. It flies from one to the other with a scene of painful exposition in between. I always applaud Doctor Who’s attempt to do something a bit different and Cottrell Boyce has tried that twice now and I clap my hands at the braveness of having two Doctor Who stories taking a less suspenseful and more cerebral approach. However, both episodes failed to engage me because of the lack of action, their lack of interesting guest characters, their unconvincing climaxes and their failure to do anything interesting with their core concepts. It’s almost as if the notions of the forest of London and the deserted colony are enough. This is aping the pace and tone of the classic series but it is failing to remember the one core ingredient, the engaging narrative. And don’t get me started on the Doctor almost randomly destroying the human race and the robots that murder because they don’t recognise a frown. The ideas Smile does flaunt I simply could not buy in to. This episode rests almost entirely on the characters of the Doctor and Bill and their reactions to pretty much nothing and it is a testament to their partnership this early in the season that this doesn’t bomb entirely. When episode one and two are both quiet, unassuming stories with small guest casts you have to wonder if the series isn’t losing its nerve a little. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Bill had asked the Doctor to take her home because travelling to other worlds is a massive yawn: 3/10

The Pilot written by Steven Moffat and directed by Lawrence Gough

This story in a nutshell: Bill Potts had no idea that she was about to walk through a door into the universe when she started attending the Doctor’s lectures…

Indefinable: Peter Capaldi has been having something of a Goldilocks experience during his time as the Doctor. From a public perception point of view, I mean. In series 8 he was considered too cold and inhospitable (‘SHUT UP!’), in series 9 he was redefined into a rock Time Lord and just a little too hot to handle and now in series 10 there seems to be some kind of middle ground forming, and he feels just right. I would say that this much more relaxed, amiable 12th Doctor emerged in The Return of Doctor Mysterio and it almost feels a terrible shame that he will only be around for a single year now that that the character (and the performance) has been perfected. But let’s dwell on such minutiae when the net result is that Capaldi has finally been handed a character that seems to have won over the public at large. I think the inclusion of a new companion helps immeasurably. And it’s clear that there is an immediate rapport between Capaldi and newcomer Pearl Mackie. I love the idea of the Doctor lecturing at a university for over 50 years and simply teaching whatever he wants with nobody having the audacity to question him because he is clearly a genius. There has always been something rather scholarly about the Doctor, even in his most playful and irreverent of incarnations and so this post seems to fit him like a glove. Also winning is the concept that it isn’t a student that the Doctor notices, but the girl who works in the canteen who keeps sneaking into his lectures. He notices how she reacts differently to everybody else in the class, her uniqueness. The whole teacher/student angle has never truly been exploited before and it’s such a natural and instant dynamic it is difficult to see why not. It’s one of those aberrations that becomes apparent when somebody has a crack and gets it right (like the whole Rose being missing a year angle). There seems to be more of an effort to give Nardole a purpose in the Doctor’s life here, rather than just a comedy tackalong without purpose. If you would have told me that scenes between Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas would be the mainstay of Doctor Who in 2017 I would have laughed in your face but somehow this pair of high profile actors shine when working together. You can always tell when two perfomers are having fun together and it really feels as though there is the weight of history behind the Doctor and Nardole now, after having spent so much time together. Watch the Doctor fly when Bill puts a mystery in his path. Clearly he has been bored guarding the vault all these years and is desperate for a bit of adventure. 

Funky Chick: What a revelation. Who would have thought that Moffat was capable of introducing a character as a companion? Not an arc plot like River Song or a plot device like Clara Oswald or a fusion of the two like Amy Pond…no Bill Potts is a regular Josephine who exists simply to stumble into the Doctor’s world and offer a fresh perspective on events. She’s a living, breathing person, somebody that I can buy into totally and for the first time in an age I have a window into the Doctor’s adventures because I have character that I can go on these adventures with that I really care about. Pearl Mackie has to take most of the credit because she gives an effortlessly real performance, there is no point where I felt she was trying. There’s an earthiness to her acting style that wasn’t even hinted at in the preview for her character last year. Moffat has to be applauded for a slice of the good work that has been done here; Bill functions as a far less momentous event in the Doctor’s life than all of the previous companions in his era and yet is far more fresh and vital because of it. She’s uncomplicated but never uncomplex, inquisitive, curious and engaging. I liked her very much. The fact that Mackie is a relative newcomer to television matters not one jot…her inexperience is never there to see. More importantly, her rapport with Capaldi simply shines on screen. I was hungry for them to have more scenes together at the end of the episode, which bode well for Smile that seemed to promise just that. The last time I was this interested in seeing what happened with such a sunny Doctor/companion dynamic was way back in the halcyon days of the Doctor and Donna. And even then there is something slightly less showy and razzle dazzle than the, still dazzling, combination of David Tennant and Catherine Tate. 

Bill is clearly the companion to ask all the questions that should have been asked but never have been before. ‘I had fatted her’ – Bill has dialogue as alien and unusual as Ace did in the eighties but Mackie simply has a better way of dealing with it. I love her asking the Doctor if she built the TARDIS with a kit. Did Bill come to the university to serve chips or to learn? The Doctor could spot the answer to that questions the first time he met her. Her buying the Doctor a rub is the cutest thing ever (‘It’s okay. It was cheap’). Bill’s mum dying when she was a baby sounds like something we should be remembering, so I am. Her foster mother is self involved and thoughtless, but clearly loves her. I think there are more mother-daughter relationships out there like that than you might think. Bill admitting that she has never liked her face is a truly honest moment, and I think we have all had a moment like that. She doesn’t strut about going ‘oh yeah it’s bigger on the inside because it’s dimensionally transcendental’ as everybody seems to these days as if dimensional engineering is a subject taught in schools. Bill is in genuine shock at the nature of the TARDIS and what it can do and she has a million and one questions. The moment Bill asks the Doctor how he would feel if somebody wiped away his mind and took away all the wonder of the universe she has more than earned her companion stripes. She reminds him of his conscience, just as Donna used to. A shame Donna didn’t use that line when he took away her memories…but then she would have died. Bill on the other hand survives that fate but something tells me with the hints that he had an involvement with her mother’s death, she might wish one day that he had. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why do you run like that?’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Like a penguin with his arse on fire.’
‘What is sky made of?’ ‘Lemon drops!’ ‘Really?’

The Good:
· The design work on Doctor Who these days is simply stunning. Not only does the TARDIS interior look sexier than it ever has before (unless you genuinely liked Willy Wonka’s dayglo orange lounge in the Matt Smith era) but the Doctor’s study comes alive in unusual ways too. The personal touches such as the various sonic screwdrivers arranged like pencils in a jar and the pictures of River (I’m hoping the next showrunner drops the references to her completely, she’s become a bit of a vice like Rise was during Davies’ time) and Susan are lovely. Goodness knows what that latticework in a jar is, let’s leave that to the imaginations of the audience. He’s got a beautiful silver globe too. And they clearly have quite the imagination, they are watching one of the most creative shows on television. The design work throughout is impressive, but I particularly like the two representations of the Doctor. His home and his work, both stylish, full of fascinating nooks and crannies to explore and exploding with personality.
· I was unsure about the super-fast cross cutting of scenes that establish the Doctor and Bill’s relationship (mostly because it is presented in Moffat’s clever clever lecturing style not unlike a number of sequences in series nine – Missy explaining about the Doctor escaping from an impossible situation is a good example) but it ultimately served a purpose. We get a lot of the opening months out of the way, quick as a flash and can move on to moments of character like their first Christmas together. It reminds me of the sequence in Forest of the Dead that pointed out how television cuts out the narrative flab of real life and relationships and just allows us to get to the good stuff. This is the epitome of that approach. It also means that for once the Doctor has a solid few months under his belt with his latest companion before she even steps foot inside the TARDIS. I can only think of Liz Shaw (who never did) and Jo Grant (who did) who had such a deferred invitation. It’s rather nice to have the relationship established before it is shattered with a million and one questions about the Doctor’s insane lifestyle.
· Would this feel as much like a Davies opener if it didn’t obsess so much with chips? Actually, yes it would. A down to Earth companion with a life we can recognise, a light plot to ease her in to the series and show us what she is capable of, a focus on mood and humour and how it obsesses on the abilities of the TARDIS in a very punchy way. The last time I enjoyed a series opener this much was Partners in Crime, the last time that Davies wrote one. This kind of economic storytelling, giving far more attention to the characterisation is the last thing that I expected from Moffat at this stage. What a pleasant surprise. Also the whole nature of the vault and what the Doctor is guarding is just the sort of seeds that Davies used to plant at the beginning of his seasons. Moffat has always been more overt with his arc plotting previously and this is a real refreshment.
· Is it worth acknowledging the fact that Bill is the first openly gay companion? Only insofar as it is never made an issue of at any point in the episode and in a climate where gay rights are being infringed in America and concentration camps are being used to detained gay men in Russia that this is a very positive message to make, especially in a family programme. Imagine being a child that knows they have desires for the opposite sex and listening to the all the news around the world that suggests that it is a bad thing. Now imagine them sticking on this episode of Doctor Who that presents it as the most natural thing in the world. I guess the message is don’t fall for any cuties with stars in their eyes.
· Moffat reaches his apotheosis with trying to make the mundane frightening. What he manages to achieve here with a puddle is terrific. Who has ever looked at a puddle and thought that it could be a scary portal to another dimension? The idea that a puddle isn’t a puddle but that the reflection is something in the puddle pretending to be you is super creepy, and an intriguing way for an alien to attempt to escape from the planet. It is worth acknowledging the similarities between the watery Heather and the Flood in The Waters of Mars (the physical effects utilised are very similar) but in storytelling terms it is a very superficial similarity.
· I simply accept that the music in Doctor Who is going to be of a reasonable standard these days, whilst being plastered all over the episodes in a slavish manner. The Pilot stood out for me as an exceptional example, especially the jaunty introductory music and the chilling, fingers down the spine string work during the tense scene in Bill’s flat.
· One of the best TARDIS introductions ever (‘er they’re made of wood…’) with the pull back from the doors and the ship coming alive being matched only by Mackie’s wonderful reaction. If you are looking to discover the magic of the TARDIS within one episode, this might just be the one for you. Sydney, the Movellan War, an unknown alien planet…the Doctor gives Bill a little taster of what she can expect in a life with him.
· The scene with the Doctor, Bill and Nardole on an alien world trying to figure out what the nature of the alien is reveals a fascinating new dynamic to the show that really works. They investigate by asking and answering intelligent questions.

The Bad:
Is Nardole a robot? Have I missed something? Why does he sound as though he has hydraulics in his arm? I thought we had disposed of the electric guitar. It would be quite cute if it was used at some point in Capaldi’s final year as the resolution to a plot (like Victoria and her endless, pointless screaming). Otherwise I would be quite happy to never hear from it again. I couldn’t entirely buy into the relationship between Bill and Heather because there was a distinct lack of humour between the two and little is done to establish affection between them. Heather has something of the Dawn Summers (from Buffy) syndrome, drearily miserable and longing to be elsewhere. It makes you wonder what somebody as vibrant as Bill would see in her. It seems to come down to the fact that she is quite cute. Which is plausible, but a little shallow. The Movellans? Hahahahahahaha. And might I add…hahahahahaha. Fancy taking the naffest alien race from the classic series and giving them a dynamic repolish and a war to fight with a bigger budget. The Movellans look great being thrown around an exploding set but this is little more than fan lip service. My other half groaned at the use of the Daleks and questioned aloud if the show was bold enough to have a season without them.

The Shallow Bit: Bill has one of the most expressive faces of any companion. She’s really quite beautiful but not a regular way. I love seeing her react to things. She’s a snappy dresser too. I love a good dresser.

Result: Welcome back Doctor Who after two Christmas specials that have erred on the side of high camp entertainment and the show has been off our screens, seasons wise, for longer than the hiatus is 1985. The Pilot would have felt like a welcome return even if it had turned out to be shit but the fact is there is much more to this than your standard Doctor Who episode. Whilst this will receive the same mark as both of those Christmas specials (Husbands had a glorious last ten minutes and Mysterio was one of the cutest pieces of television ever) because it has a number of issues holding it back, this is far more my kind of Doctor Who than either of them. The pacing is lethargic in the first half but that is just to give us time to get close to Bill and drawn into her relationship with the Doctor but things really pick up from the halfway point and it is ghoulish attacks and a whirlwind tour of the universe until the touching conclusion. As I’ve stated elsewhere, Bill Mackie is a revelation and I think this is the biggest surprise, in the eyes of fandom, since Catherine Tate turned out to be one of the strongest actresses to ever appear in the show. She’s effortlessly good and extremely watchable and much of the episode relies on you liking Bill and wanting to stick close to her so that is a really good thing. I love how much she questions and doubts whilst employing a keen mind and allowing herself to be afraid. Clara I know everything and nothing bothers me Oswald she aint. Gough’s direction is worth noting for its atmosphere, he gives The Pilot a lightness of touch and still manages to throw in a couple of effective scares. This is a very easy piece of television to like. Downsides? The Bill/Heather relationship never really came alive for me so I never truly felt anything when they were forced to part, there are the trademark unanswered questions that might frustrate the casual audience (my other half was baffled that so much was left hanging) and looking forward with Smile also being a little low key it is a very gentle introduction to the season. I wouldn’t expect a newcomer to be particularly knocked off their feet. But overall this is a triumphant return for the show in what feels like reboot before the reboot takes place. It’s funny how the introduction of a new companion can give the show a massive facelift and The Pilot confirm my suspicion (which I stressed in several reviews last year) that Clara simply hung around for too long. This opener belongs to Bill and Bill is fabulous and that means Doctor Who is fabulous for me again. Go figure, when Moffat said the show is all about the companion perhaps he was right. I’m optimistic once again: 7/10

Saturday, 25 March 2017

City of Death written by David Agnew and directed by Michael Hayes


This story in a nutshell: Marrying Douglas Adams’ comic wit and creativity to Graeme Williams’ rock solid plotting, this is as good as Doctor Who gets.

Teeth and Curls: Tom Baker spends the whole story walking the fine line between genius and lunacy and sparkles in every second of his screen time. The truth of the matter is that there really isn’t that much difference between how he is portrayed in City of Death and the two stories either side of it, it’s just that his surroundings are much more in tune with this level of madness. City of Death is crazy Tom Baker hour writ large, it isn’t a last-ditch attempt to tell a sixties Dalek story where his lunacy feels jarringly out of place of a pantomime on an alien world where his madness tips the whole thing over into farce. Everything feels precisely balanced to show off the fourth Doctor during this period at his best; his verbal sparring with Scaroth, a moral debate with Kerensky, eating away at the Countesses fears, exploring a romantic city with Romana, insulting the hired help that keeps talking with his fists. Tom Baker is elevated by the stunning performances around him, he raises his already impressive game to match them. ‘Which came first the chicken or the egg?’, ‘Duggan what are you doing... that's a Louis Kearns!’, ‘1979, more of a table wine’, ‘I've been threatened, thumped and abducted, I've discovered alien technology and been through two time slips...’ During season seventeen it is easy to laugh at the Doctor at times as he trips over and indulges in funny voices and eccentric outbursts but throughout City of Death you aren’t just laughing with him, you’re grabbing onto his scarf and dancing your way through the story with him.

Lovely Lalla: It’s hard to believe that this is only her second story in the role, both Lalla Ward and Romana seem remarkably confident for such a short stint in Doctor Who but when you are handed dialogue as exquisite as this how can you do anything but relax into it and enjoy the ride? It’s an assured turn, it is almost a shock when Creature from the Pit reveals a Mary Tamm-esque ice queen, the unfortunate result of filming these stories in a different order to how they were transmitted. This feels like the first steps of a love story that was doomed to fail, Lalla and Tom dancing through the streets of Paris together. Never mind if their marriage is short lived, at this point they were desperately in love and that spills over on screen magnificently. The chemistry between a Doctor and his assistant has rarely been more intimate. When Romana is away from the Doctor she proves that she is more than strong enough to hold up the show, forming a hilarious relationship with Duggan, working for the Count and generally behaving like the Doctor would if he wasn’t swanning off to Renaissance Italy to figure out the background of the plot. Romana treats are plentiful, her opening of the puzzle box, her quiet insistence he says ‘world’ and not ‘universe’, the charming ‘bouquet’ scene, any scene where she's gently patronising her assistant and his bunched fists, the way she bobs the torch as they run away from the Louvre in episode two...

The Good: So many of my favourite scenes appear in City of Death that it is stuffed full of magical moments you just want to watch over an again to remind yourself why Doctor Who was the best show ever. It is one of those stories where you can justifiably do that rather than sifting out the diamonds in the rough. My favourite bit is a scene that is never mentioned and yet for me it epitomises everything that is so wonderful about the Graeme Williams era, Douglas Adam's writing and Doctor Who in general. It is the scene where Kerensky enters the hidden room in the cellar and looks up at all the copies of the Mona Lisa's and stands there, aghast and exclaims ‘Mona Lisa's!’ It makes me crack up every time I watch it. Only Doctor Who could get away with something this absurd, this ingenious, this perfect. Such a simple line and yet it would seem out of place in almost any other show and every other era of Doctor Who. It’s an ‘only Doctor Who’ moment where you don’t have to make any allowances for its absurdity.

This is Doctor Who: The Movie before the Movie actually happened, except with genuine wit, surprises, character motivations and a dense plot. A story so sumptuous to look at you are disappointed to come back to the drab old world we call reality at the end. People bemoan the scenes of the Doctor and Romana wandering through Paris are padding and just showing off the location...why wouldn’t you want to do that? The material speaks for itself. Paris is a gorgeous city, full of wondrous sights. Why not put on the screen for everyone to enjoy? How the story is in no hurry to get to the plot and simply enjoy the atmosphere whilst the Doctor and Romana take a holiday is all part of its uniqueness. Michael Hayes directs these scenes with a romantic edge, letting the teenage thrill of the leads off screen relationship explode in the French Capital. Dudley Simpson provides a score that ties my tummy in knots it’s so perfect, a shattering contrast to his regular plod-plod-plodding music...did they take him along on the shoot with them and let him get wrapped up in the stylish atmosphere of it all? Along with Mindwarp it is one of my favourite scores for the show, arguably the best because it touches on every genre from comedy to drama to science fiction. Simpson strides these genres with effortless confidence, in his twilight days he reminds the audience why he has been scoring Doctor Who for as long as he has. I love it when they are walking towards the Louvre arguing about the Braxiatel Collection, I love it when they run off the subway hand in hand. I love the shot through the postcard rack. I love the high angles as they dodge the traffic. I love it when they sit outside the cafe and chat about time slips. It’s all so absurd, two Time Lords deciding to have a nice holiday instead of saving the universe... it's just so wonderful.

The plot is hard as nails perfect too. It encompasses much, has many layers, is bred into the very fabric of human existence itself and yet still manages to tell a hugely enjoyable adventure story in the process. The Jagorath spaceship exploding caused the birth of the human race and scattered Scaroth throughout time where he pushed the human race forwards to a point where they could help him go back in time and stop it all happening. It's so bogglingly audacious It’s Doctor Who throwing the highest concepts in the air and shrugging as though it does this all the time. It takes brilliant ideas like the Doctor popping in for a chat with Leonardo Da Vinci, the man drawing a picture of a Time-Lady with the crack through the face to explain the time slip, seven Mona Lisa's hanging out in a basement, a ruthlessly inept Detective who punches out everyone the Doctor talks to but ultimately throws the punch that saves history, a suave and elegant bad guy who is involved with a multi million dollar heist to wipe out humanity…and best of all the Doctor dodging traffic trying to hail a taxi screaming out ‘is no-one interested in history?’ City of Death is the work of incredibly skilled writers with formidable imagination and a real sense of humour. I could never hope to have a hundredth of the talent of Douglas Adams and Graeme Williams (and let’s throw David Fisher in there too for his subtle contribution). 

Duggan feels like an aberration but he’s part of the point. He’s one of those characters that turns up in Doctor Who just to complicate the plot (although he does provide a great deal of explanation in episode one). Punching out scientists, touching the laser beams, smashing a vase over the Countesses head…he bumbles from one scene to another, getting in the way and trying to keep up. The secret of Duggan is that he is not only utterly charming because of the Tom Chadbon’s marvellous comic turn in the part but the character is ultimately an ace up the sleeve on the part of the writers, the very thing that he is criticised for doing throughout the story is what ultimately saves the day. We should all hang around with somebody as useless as Duggan, you never know when he is going to be needed. 

Julian Glover is still thrilling audiences on screen to this day and it’s easy to see why he is never out of work. His controlled performance is crucial to the story's success because if he had chosen to play it up the story would have descended into a horrible farce but as it is I totally believed Scaroth's story. Menace is the key word and the thing that is missing from so many villains in this era. He refuses to be a pantomime villain, even when the lines point in that direction. Scaroth is elegant, charming, wealthy, indulgent of the Doctor’s excesses…and he will also destroy all human life on this planet just to suit his purposes. And you absolutely believe that humanity is an irrelevance to him, just a means to getting where he needs to be. What a fantastic character.

Result: It has been noted that just when you think City of Death cannot get any better that John Cleese and Elanor Bron appear. Their scene has never thrilled me as it has others because this story is simply packed with scenes as good. It’s just another to add to the list. The Doctor headbutting Duggan’s gun in the gallery. The close up of the detailed eye of the Jaggaroth mask at the end of episode one. The saxophone music that plays when the Countess appears. The centuries that divide me shall be undone. The pan across prehistoric Earth in the opening seconds. The effect of the chicken and the egg and the Doctor asking the obvious question. The Doctor’s reaction to the cold of the guard’s hands. Duggan’s method of opening a bottle of wine. The telephone book. Too much joy, too little time I guess the only bad thing you could say about City of Death is that it touches upon genius to such an extent that it leaves the majority of this season, of the era it takes part in and I hope you don’t think it crass of me to say but the remainder the of the classic series a little embarrassed to exist beside it. Ambitious, funny, atmospheric, perfectly performed, directed and scored Doctor Who. Little more needs to be said: 10/10

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Mind Robber written by Peter Ling and directed by David Maloney

This story in a nutshell: Are we going to play this game? Okay…the TARDIS slips sideways in time, explodes and the Doctor and his companions waltz with literary characters and scenarios in their imaginations. Or do they…? 

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. What a trio, so relentlessly entertaining the five episodes exhale like a breath of fresh spring air. They are like three hyperactive children, wrapped up in each other's company and living the thrill of their adventures together to the full. I can't think of any other regulars I would love travel with more. Troughton gives a masterclass in how to play the Doctor in The Mind Robber. Because The War Games might be a little too long for some this is the story that I would give to prospective actors (or actresses before I’m accused of being un-PC) to see the sort of legacy that they have to live up to. Or simply how well it can be done. Troughton gets to play the gamut of emotions from fear to anger to curiosity to humour before finally settling on righteous outrage and a formidable sense of justice. Maybe it is just because we can watch this story in full but you get a real chance to see how much he gave to the show. He is breathlessly active throughout, every line a comedic gem, every movement impossible to drag your eyes away from to see just what he will do next. Troughton never stops entertaining, you can see why he was so tired after each story what with his puffing and shouting and laughing and pouting. It’s a remarkably active performance. On any given day my favourite Doctors will change depending on what I am looking for…but Troughton will always rank high. My favourite moment? Well, I want to say his ‘string of sausages’ outrage because it leads to his sheer nervous wreck delight where he is tearing characters from literature to take on the Master’s but in reality it is his tussle with the Karkus that I love, so blissfully funny it has to be mentioned. He won’t state that he doesn’t exist because he has never heard of him…and in truth I think he is having just a little too much fun being tossed around like a rag doll. Note the quiet, understated edginess Troughton exudes in episode one. He knows that episode is different from any other and he’s relishing the chance to play something this radically different. 

Who’s the Yahoos: I’ve gone on record saying that, despite Troughton and Hines’ beautiful rapport, that I feel Jamie is somewhat superfluous as a character in season six. The Mind Robber is the exception to that rule. Hines, like Troughton, is really enjoying the chance to play something a little out there and gives a very measured turn as the hairy legged Highlander. You really believe Jamie is intoxicated at the thought that they might have landed in Scotland in the first episode and after all the horrors he has seen who can blame him? He’s up for the adventure though, scaling sheer mountains, flirting with literary characters (Jamie would flirt with anybody) and enjoying a very funny, conflicting chemistry with Zoe. I bet they were at it all the time. They would make a far more believable couple than Jamie and Victoria, they’re already indulging in martial bickering. Plus Frazer Hines is playing the role to excellent comedic effect; his face every time the Doctor tells him to shut up so he can discuss something brainy with Zoe is priceless. Despite Hamish Wilson's attempts (and gives a perfectly good performance but it is a very different kind of Jamie) to fill his shoes for an episode I was beaming when Frazer returned in part three. 

Brainbox: It’s nice to see Wendy Padbury enjoying some quality material because her previous forays into the part of Zoe have been The Wheel in Space and The Dominators, 11 episodes of Doctor Who so dreadful that for almost three months followers of the show must have been sinking into despair. Zoe is written extremely well here, it’s a script that points out her strengths and her weaknesses as a character. She was daft to leave the TARDIS in the void and to not realise that there was a leap to her death in the darkened house and even worse is her monumentally stupid moment where she walks through the castle detector beams but who could imagine the story without her and the Doctor and their delightful moments exploring the tunnels, leaving Jamie out or her hysterical moment where she comes to blows with the Karkus and leaves him in the dirt. Wendy Padbury is divine in this, her scream as piercing as they come and she is clearly full of enthusiasm for the story. Like Caroline John and Elisabeth Sladen, I feel Padbury is almost too good for the standard companion role and like Liz and Sarah, Zoe is often allowed to dominate events because of it.

Sparkling Dialogue: Basically every line that Troughton utters…whether its any good or not! 
‘That noise... that vibration... it's alien.’ 
‘No no no no no no! Not both together one at a time!’
‘Would you mind taking that pop gun away it does unsettle me so!?’
‘If we step outside the TARDIS we will enter a dimension of which we know nothing. We shall be at the mercy of the forces...’
‘I have yet to see a robot that can climb!’
‘But all the power had been used on the Soldiers and it was useless! Ooh you'll have to do better than that!’

The Good: I blame the sound FX. Huh? The sound FX? Aren't they great in this story? Just listen to the creaky, electronic hum the White Robots make... they might already by fairly menacing in appearance but with the addition of this spine-tingling noise they make an instant impression. And how about the Toy Soldiers? Brr... that harsh, gear grinding noise every time they get close... I watched it this morning with all the lights off and it really gave me the willies. Even more subtle sound FX, the alien hum that penetrates the TARDIS, the creaking door as Zoe peers inside, the Master Brain as it grips the Masters mind and gives him instructions... Sometimes a Doctor Who budget cannot convincingly wring all of the atmosphere out of the script and the sound FX and music have to give it a push, the sound design for this story is peerless and injects a lot of tension and fantasy into the finished production. It’s an oft-ignored strength of the show. 

Even better the story seems to have been supplied with a bigger budget than usual because although the story demands a lot from the production team they manage to magic up a startling number of convincing sets, costumes and genuinely impressive FX. How can anybody forget the TARDIS snapping open in space? Or the console flying through the vortex with Jamie and Zoe clinging to edge? The sets too are extraordinarily detailed; I adore the maze set with all the flickering candles and cobwebs but they also manage to pull off an exterior fairy-tale castle with terrific scope. And all the literary characters look authentic, the BBC always excel at costume drama and creating the likes of Gulliver, Sir Lancelot, Blackbeard is a piece of cake. It seems a shame to have to applaud the show for getting the aesthetics right but the sad truth of the matter is that because of limited resources, time and money that wasn’t always the case. And season six was a point in the show where the money had definitely started to run out and so get it looking this good is something of a minor triumph. 

Or maybe it's just the way director David Maloney puts it all together, his polished direction is the icing on the cake. An A-list Doctor Who director (Genesis, Talons) with the likes of Camfield, Harper and Martinus, he refuses to let the story sink into whimsy and continually gives it a delicious edge, despite the absurdities the story throws at us we are convinced there is real danger. There are too many scenes to list that make me glow, the sheer pressure that builds inside the TARDIS before we finally see it blow, the piercing shot of Medusa in the mirror, Jamie scaling the walls of the castle, the almost gleeful sparkle in the White Robots' eyes as they destroy everything in the final episode... it is a visual treat, never failing to satisfy. The Minotaur scene is outstandingly directed, in the hands of a less talented man this could have been farcical but with only the briefest of glimpse at the costume (because it's the ONE costume that is really rubbish), scary roars and close ups of the Doctor and Zoe backed into a corner filled with skulls as a shadow grows over them...instead of being a joke it is supremely dramatic.

It would be a little unfair to Peter Ling to suggest that the hastily written first episode is the best of the bunch because his four episodes in the world of fiction are full of magic and surprises. But that initial episode is an experimental joy to be sure, one of the most atmospheric openings to a Doctor Who ever (and given episode one of any story is pretty atmospheric) and a tense exercise in working with very little. It's the old Who adage (that I’ve just made up); the imagination soars because the budget lacks. The imagery conjured up is some of the scariest in the show's history (Jamie and Zoe zombified and treated with positive/negative effects, the TARDIS swamped by molten lava, the ship exploding...) and easily the most surreal. But all the clever stuff starts in episode two and the writing is clearly the work of an extremely imaginative mind. Tricks such as the face-changing game to escape the horror of Frazer Hines going ill. The forest of words constructing sayings. Zoe trapped in jam jar! The picture writing. The unicorn... and that's just in one episode. Things get more and more insane as we meet all number of characters from fiction (my favourites being Medusa and her hissing stop animation snakes and Horsfall’s delightful Gulliver) and lots of lovely narrative tricks (‘It doesn't exist!’, ‘When it’s ajar!’). The story refuses to compromise its fantasy nature, climaxing in a classic era moment when the Doctor and the Master conjure up all manner of fiction characters to fight each other and rescue/kill Jamie and Zoe. It is one of the most unpredictable stories I have watched, once you accept that ANYTHING can happen you just sit back and let it wash over you. Maybe that is why some butt heads with it – I can imagine the portion of the audience that enjoy logic and order would have a meltdown watching this.

The Shallow Bit: Frazer Hines looking practically edible in his tight black top in episode one. Doctor Who rarely gets me feeling unmentionable, but this is one of those occasions.

Result: Every season of Doctor Who has a class act in it, one that shines above the rest despite how good the rest are. Troughton Who is a little more fortunate than the rest, in his last season he was graced with three absolute belters (but you can determine what they are) and depending on what day of the week it is depends on which I would inch just a little higher than the others. The only convincing argument I ever remember hearing that pans The Mind Robber was from somebody who truly despised the fantasy genre. Fair enough, but on any conceivable level (writing, direction, performances) this is brilliantly done. A constantly surprising, adapting, giving story that manages to thrill, scare and amuse in equal measure. Stylishly directed too, with David Maloney shooting the story in unusual ways to highlight its surreal nature. My favourite experience of The Mind Robber was with a non-Who fan friend of mine who I showed the first episode to when he asked to see an example of a black and white story. We went out and he was desperate to get back and watch the rest. Usually he laughs his head off at classic Who (sometimes with good reason – he did ask to watch Paradise Towers) but he enjoyed this immensely, and I was able to see it through new eyes. Those of you who write off this story and only praise the first episode, shame on you. If Doctor Who’s greatest weapon is imagination then this is one of the finest examples of how far that can stretch…along with the shows format: 10/10

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Time Reaver written by Jenny T Colgan and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Calibris. The spaceport planet where anything goes. Where anyone who doesn't want to be found can be lost, and where everything has its price. Where betentacled gangster Gully holds sway at the smugglers’ tavern, Vagabond’s Reach. The alien Vacintians are trying to impose some order on the chaos. Soon the Doctor and Donna discover why. An illegal weapon is loose on the streets. A weapon that destroys lives… Slowly and agonisingly.

Mockney Adventurer: I love how this series of adventures has really gone for broke in portraying the Doctor and Donna exactly as they were on television, warts and all. If you found Tennant too squeaky and shouty and Tate too brash and in yer face then tough luck because they are presented precisely as confidently and as audience pleasingly as they ever were. Fortunately, I love this team, I still think it is the golden team of the post-2005 era of the show so I was pretty much in heaven in their company. Time travellers have issues with paperwork, given the slipshod nature of their existence. The Doctor is appalled that commercialism has materialised on Calibris, he was expecting pirates not coffee shops. You would think that for somebody who calls himself the last of the Time Lords that the tenth Doctor would try and protect his heritage and keep himself save. Instead he’s probably the most suicidal of the lots and his latest foray into self-harm features in this story when he drains the time reaver by shooting himself with everything it has. There’s something to be said for his willingness to put himself in the line of fire when more than his own life is at stake.

Tempestuous Temp: Donna’s hoping for a planet where boys dance around in her pants worshipping wenches. I’m not sure about the wenches, but I knew there was a reason I could identify with her so much. She’s helping the Doctor fly the TARDIS successfully so they have travelling together for some time but she’s still not above sticking sophisticated technology in her gob instead of her ears. Donna is so good at getting close to characters in a story because she is so real. Her earthiness and honesty encourages the same in others. She gets close enough to Cora for her to explain why she stole the time reaver. It’s because she forms a relationship with her that she can give her hard advice at the end of the tale and bring this sorry affair to a close. Where the Doctor is horrified by Soren’s plan of mass suicide, Donna can see the beauty in it. Donna having a time reaver bomb strapped to her back is a fantastic way of sustaining tension and providing a laugh at the same time – she’s one of the few NuWho characters that can walk that fine line between being very funny and very scared at once. She gets a gorgeous moment when she thinks she is going to die and she tells the Doctor that she wouldn’t have missed it for the world, even though this has to be the end.

Standout Performance: David Tenannt literally seethes with anger in certain scenes, it reminded me of how volcanic he could get in his first season. All I know is I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that wrath.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I told you we aren’t going to the planet of the boys! There is no planet of the boys!’

‘I have seen Time Reavers before. I’ve seen a man kept on the brink of death for near eternity until he changed his will. A mother using them to keep her own child from leaving home. Time Reavers were stamped out! Eradicated!’

‘Time modulators in a time machine are you nuts? It’s like forks in a microwave.’

Great Ideas: Calibris is an entirely mechanical planet where you can acquire, sell or swap any kind of transport in existence. Rocket trains shoot right through the middle of it and wormholes can transport you instantaneously if you can afford it. Who hasn’t spent a day in London and wish they had a copy of the noise cancelling headphones that the Doctor deploys here? Legislation is the order of the day on Calibris but as it has proven impossible in the past, the planetoid is true to form. Crime simply thrives here and any attempt to control that is counterproductive to how the place works. The time reaver is the deadliest of weapons and it doesn’t even kill you. Outlawed in every galaxy, banned by every civilisation, this time modulator can stretch time so a moment can last an eternity. Imagine being caught in a time reaver bomb blast where you feel the pain for months. If you get shot by a time reaver when you’re happy you will crave it for the rest of your very short life. In pain, you will never recover. Every civilisation they have touched are a blasted heath. Some people try and time reave themselves and prolong happy experiences. The Time Reaver was never meant to be a weapon, the Viscinteans are a collective race and the plan was for the whole race to die watching the final sunset on their world whilst being shot with a time reaver.

Audio Landscape: Nice to see Big Finish exploring the crazy, no budget (within reason) universe of the new series with a thriving and imaginative alien community being brought to life here. It does us well to remember that the Russell T Davies years of the show weren’t just domestic drama but there was a great deal of off world action too. And it creates a lovely contrast to the first story in the set. The crazy, busy, bustling atmosphere of Calibris, octopi alien voices, smashing glasses, an elongated scream when the time reaver is fired, a wormhole delivering passengers, the bizarre electronic whining that is passing as music where the busker has to be paid to stop, smashing through the door,

Musical Cues: Howard Carter, one of my favourite Big Finish musicians, is on hand to provide a sweeping, bombastic score for this story. Plenty of Big Finish adventures feature sweeping, bombastic scores so it is to Carter’s credit that this one stood out as much as it did. He has a way of punctuating the action in a very snappy way. Every time the Doctor or Donna ended up running I felt as though I was being dragged along with them and that was mostly thanks to Carter’s music.

Isn’t it Odd:
The very thing that makes this story so unique might be the reason that alienates a section of the audience. Whilst a pretty traditional Doctor Who story is playing out in this audio the presentation of Calibris is quite out of the ordinary. Glaringly loud and obtrusive alien voices compete with a strikingly assaulting soundscape which might just be too much for some people’s ears. Cora is remarkably naïve to think that people would only buy the time reaver for party’s and nice things like that. When time bending technology is up for grabs you know somebody is going to leap in and try and exploit it for nefarious purposes.

Standout Moment: It’s a fanboy moment but I couldn’t help but love the little reference to ‘there’s something on your back.’ Anything that reminds me of Turn Left is bound to put a smile on my face.

Result: Jenny Colgan comes up trumps with an engaging series four tale, sporting a great central idea and a pleasing, ‘out there’ location. There’s plenty of opportunity for the tenth Doctor to shake his fist and moralise and Donna provides sterling emotional support in a tale that looks like it is going to be all plot but has a surprisingly affecting second half. On the whole I was impressed with the immersive and creative soundscape and I applaud the choice to do something different. However, there were times when this audio was a bit too noisy for its own good and I was looking to find some noise cancelling ear pods for myself. Calibris is one of those big, bold SF locations that the new series throws into the mix to keep things interesting (think The Rings of Akhaten for colour and imagination and Satellite Five for ambience) and I really enjoyed how the setting took on a life of its own, mostly thanks to the Doctor and Donna’s differing reactions. Tennant and Tate feel as though they have never been away and they imbue their characters with such enthusiasm and clearly relish the chemistry that it is effortless to enjoy them. Some of the Big Finish new series output has lacked the spunk of the series but that isn’t a problem with the 10th Doctor box set. This is the winning filling of a very satisfying sandwich and it provides Colgan with another top notch credit to her name: 8/10

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Quicksilver written by Matt Fitton and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: It’s the telegram Constance never wanted to read:  DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU LT-CMDR H CLARKE LOST IN ACTION. CLASSIFIED OPERATIONS.  Those classified operations concerned a top-secret military project code-named ‘Quicksilver’. A project based in Vienna. A project with alien connections. But bombed-out Vienna is not what it was before the war – with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. It's not the time nor the place for a happy reunion. As Constance Clarke is about to discover... And as the Doctor is about to discover, too!

Softer Six: ‘I don’t stand a chance against the two of you, do I?’ Sixie has been inundated with new companions of late it would seem, unable to settle unlike his early days where Evelyn was the focus. He’s been on jollies with Flip and Constance, Jago & Litefoot, we’ve hopped back to Mel and Peri…and recently skipped away from an adventure with Kate Kennedy. You might feel as though the production team are trying out so many combinations to see which ones stick but a little continuity would be quite nice now. He’s enjoyed two trilogies with both Flip and Constance and it has taken the audience a little while to warm to both. Brightly, the creative decision has been made to have them join forces at the point where they are both starting to find an audience and some popularity. The end result? A duo that rival and possibly best Peri and Erimem for sass, smartness, humour and culture clash. Things are finally looking quite bright for Sixie in the main range if we can enjoy an extended run with this trio, which is sounding extremely promising. My suggestion would be to shy away arcs (and with Constance’s backstory sown up here there is no need for that) and just let the three of them enjoy their adventures. A bit like it was for the seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex before they got bogged down in the most convoluted and ultimately hugely unsatisfying arc in Big Finish history. The future’s bright, the future’s Flip and Connie. The Doctor taking a cutting of an English rose from Constance’s garden to remember her by is very sweet. The Doctor has a wedding invite from Flip that he hasn’t answered, much to Constance’s chargin. He’s appalled at Kinvar’s blatant abuse of the laws of time, offering superior future technology to the SIS in order to protect himself whilst trapped on Earth. He understands there are stages of grief and is aware that Constance is avoiding them. Obviously, he has the highest security clearance and has exactly the right level of arrogance to get by in intelligence circles without even showing his ID. His special interest is Mrs Clarke. There’s not much that can boggle the Doctor but the sudden appearance of Flip out of time truly floors him. The Doctor playing the Lord of Time at the climax is delightful, Baker hamming it up to the nth degree. Flip’s ‘OMG!’ is perfect. ‘Ten million years of absolute power!’ indeed!

Constant Companion: ‘Constance! You are astounding!’ ‘And I’m astounded it’s taken you this long to realise, Henry!’ She feels as though she has neglected her duties for far too long. She suggests that Amar had nothing to do with her desire to return him but it’s astonishing what the fluttering of the heart can do to remind you of your responsibilities. Sometimes one feels the needs for home comforts, and she invites the Doctor in for one last cuppa for the road. She’s fastidiously tidy and can always see how any place can be improved. There is a coldness to her when she tries to say goodbye, trying to hurry the Doctor away as quickly as possible. In truth she is as bad at parting with people as he is and she’s trying to ease the pain of both of them. It’s lovely material, this friendship between them that seems to have springed for nowhere is finally giving me the feels. A character who has been strong and capable but deliberately lacking in background (because they were waiting for this story for all to be revealed), Constance has needed this kind of breakthrough story to make her truly shine. She suspected Henry’s affair before she went off on her travels with the Doctor. It’s clear from the flashbacks that there is a great deal of affection from Henry for Constance, but I didn’t feel the warmth of a husband. She tries to brush aside her reaction to Henry’s affair by offering to help the Doctor once more but she’s only running away from feelings she is going to have to deal with eventually. For somebody so reserved, Constance’s anger when she finally catches up with Henry is something to behold. She’s terrifying, thinking Henry is a serial adulterer she starts hurling things about. I wouldn’t want to be on the sharp end of her tongue. The Fillipa/Connie gag might have become annoying had it gone on for a long time – aping the Mrs Clarke/Constance affectation – but it actually serves a character purpose, showing how Constance has relaxed into her role as a member of the TARDIS crew as she’s prepared to allow Flip to soften her name. She knows that Henry isn’t a traitor to his country, even if he has betrayed her. When she first met him he turned her head in a spin because she had hardly met any men. This is the first heartache she has suffered and it’s painful, particularly when Ana is pregnant and she never can be. She can offer Henry what he wants, she can’t.

Flippin’ Heck: I felt a resistance to Flip when she first joined the Doctor from the audience, that somehow she was unworthy of him. I found her a plucky, cute young girl and her recklessness quite an adept tool at getting us to care for her (Wirrn Isle, Scavenger). The tide started to turn when she left the Doctor to go back to Jared…what’s the old saying: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’ Her appearance in the sixth Doctor’s Last Adventure box set was met with acclaim, pairing the Doctor and Flip with Jago and Litefoot. Now people seem ready to embrace her. Funny, I thought she was quite appealing all along, mostly down to Greenwood’s charming performances. I think the writers have just gotten better at writing for her now. I really like how proud she is to work in a Supermarket. Me too Flip, me too. She’s really gone and done it, she’s married Jared for better or for worse. She really thought the Doctor would make it to her wedding. As soon as Ana and Flip meet the eventual misunderstanding about who is Henry’s secret lover made itself clear. Strange goings on and she immediately thinks of the Doctor. She thought her trip to Vienna in the 40s was his idea of a honeymoon (minus her husband). She’s accused of being a floozy by Constance, although I’m sure she’s probably heard a lot worse in her time. Constance think that she has quite some pluck. Constance knows that Flip is a friend of the Doctor’s because she doesn’t have the slightest clue of what she is talking about. She has some grasp of history but only the stories her great-grandfather told her about the war. The wedding just sort spiralled out of control, from an idea to suddenly actually planning it and then it happening. Typical, the second she’s back in the Doctor’s company she’s running. Flip ran away from everything that was mapped out in front of her, her relationship with Jared and her job, as uninspiring as that might be. It was worth it, she saw some wonderful things with the Doctor but ultimately, she knew you have to live up to your responsibilities. Constance believes that things don’t just happen, that we don’t just drift through life without control or influence upon the events around us. Henry never trusted her enough to talk to her about his feelings and she recognises that even if he did they still wouldn’t have lasted. Saving the world is what she does now.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Self-preservation might be the purest evolutionary trait.’
‘Is it worth it? For a night of champagne?’
‘Anything off the wedding list would have been fine. But no…you had to get me the 1940s!’
‘If you want a marriage to work then you have to work at it and you stopped working at it, Henry!’

Great Ideas: I haven’t been too thrilled about the covers of the main range of late…like much of its output. They haven’t been as bad as some of the copy and paste jobs that opened the range but there has been a certain lack of visual imagination. Quicksilver is different; it’s moody, dramatic and even the colours are in on the act. There are some nice links to Criss Cross, Kinvar detecting the TARDIS when it was stationary in the 1940s but arriving too late, realising that the Doctor had left with Mrs Clarke and so sticking near her house for him to return. It all makes perfectly logical sense. I’m pleased that the story doesn’t paint Henry as a villain. He’s done something wrong and it doesn’t shy away from that but love is treated as a very complex emotion. He married early and to the wrong girl and he strayed and is now having to deal with the consequences. The Doctor explains the international division in Vienna succinctly, I never knew about it so I took something away from the story. Communism, McCarthyism…the brainwashing and torture will occur quite well enough on its own without Kinvar’s anachronistic technology being added to the mix. Kinvar is a living AI, a construct, the battle computer for Quicksilver. An alien war brought to Earth in the aftermath of the Second World War. A recipe for disaster.

Audio Landscape: It’s a story with an atmospheric source and time period and Jamie Robertson does a terrific job in bringing the story to life. The cut from the 40s to the 2010s through the use of music was very stylishly done. Sirens, a metal gate screeching, planes in the sky, bombs screaming through the sky and exploding, helicopters, the TARDIS materialising, birdsong, flicking through a book, a beeping horn, knocking on the door, a whistling kettle, a chugging train, cars growling on the streets of Vienna, the dank, echoing fetidness of the sewers, soldiers barking orders, ringing telephone, keys jangling,

Musical Cues: In complete contrast to Absolute Power (but just as strong), the score for Quicksilver is subtle and emotive which befits the material. Until the aliens arrive, then it’s all bombast and pace.

Standout Moment: More like blink and you’ll miss it but make sure you pay attention during the quieter moments. Constance blatantly admits that she cannot be Flip’s grandmother and later Flip admits that she couldn’t drink during her wedding. Two female companions, one who can have children (and probably is pregnant, although nothing is confirmed) and one who cannot. Could be heartbreak ahead, or by the signs of things here, mutual support. The scene where Constance and Henry finally talk about the weakness of their marriage and he explains how he fell in love with another woman is one of the more real moments to have come out of the main range in many a year. Bravo. More like this please.

Result: ‘You’re better than that, Constance. Stronger than that.’ Quicksilver does a lot of repair work for the Sixie adventures, bringing two companions that haven’t entirely found an audience together in a triumph of a culture clash, and tells an engaging story to boot too. The first episode being so character driven it highlighted just how long it had been since Sixie had enjoyed a story heavy on character. Scavenger, The Wrong Doctors and The Widows’ Assassin, that’s about it in the past couple of years. Quicksilver redresses the balance with some style. It’s Constance’s breakout story and one that gets us closer to her than the previous six stories (including The End of the Line) put together. Miranda Raison seizes the opportunity to flesh Constance out and the result is a number of standout moments for the character, moments where this cold character is put through the emotional wringer. How the story twists from convincing you that Henry has died to much more personal tragedy for Constance really twists in the gut. Pairing her up with Flip is another great move and one that offers a great deal of promise for the future. Flip has always been street wise and Constance mannered and proficient, together they make quite a formidable pair and there’s palpable chemistry between Greenwood and Raison too. They bring the best out in each other and the second half of the story is all the more enjoyable for their interaction. There’s a fairly full-bodied in plot too, mixing history, politics and science fiction to pleasing effect. It’s ultimately little more than dramatic window dressing for all the characters to strut their stuff in but it also provides Jamie Robertson a great chance to conjure up the atmosphere of post-war depression. And it plays with some tasty notions. I really liked that there were no easy answers, no quick solutions and no daft science fiction explanations to aid Constance in her journey. Henry has betrayed her and it’s portrayed in a complex way with no easy answers, as love often is. Fitton always writes Sixie beautifully and whether he’s berating Kinvar for his anachronistic technology, comforting Mrs Clarke at the loss of her husband, trading barbs with Flip or shouting down an alien war, he’s pretty damn magnificent. Baker always gives 110% but I love it when he is handed material that is worthy of his efforts. One of the best of the year: 9/10

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Return of Doctor Mysterio written by Steven Moffat and directed by Ed Bazalgette

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor wanders into a superhero movie to see what help he can offer…

Indefinable: I think this title has never been more appropriate. Capaldi’s Doctor has shown more development (or alteration) than practically any other Doctor since Tom Baker progressed from a brooding alien to a madcap Uncle to a haunted spectre of death in the seventies. Capaldi’s first season saw the show take a daring approach, to make the Doctor as distant and as unlikable as Colin Baker was in the 80s. Some fans enjoyed the approach, making the Doctor much darker and less approachable and having to work to get close to him. I certainly did. However, it’s probable that the casual audience were less keen and the gradual softening of the 12th Doctor has been a work in progress ever since the beginning of series nine. I didn’t enjoy some of the obvious quirks that were foisted upon the character (whether they were at Capaldi’s insistence or not) such as the sonic shades and the electric guitar. In my own words, it came across as an old man having something of a midlife crisis. However it is clear that Capaldi has the ability to turn on quite a charm offensive in quite a beguiling way…and I think Moffat finally got the mix just about right in The Husbands of River Song last Christmas. The Doctor was light on his feet, snappy with a one liner, charmingly one step ahead and seemed to be having a whale of a time. Interestingly we didn’t need a companion gushing about the wonders of time travel to get across the delight of travelling through time and space. That feeling of an adventurer who is at peace with himself and his place in the universe is extended here and the Doctor quite charmingly steps into a superhero tale to hold the protagonists hand from childhood who to adulthood. The Doctor is happy to stand back and let another man’s story play out. I’ve heard criticism that the Doctor seems out of place and is side-lined but that is quite a deliberate move. He is the outsider in this environment and that offers a new perspective on the character, not somebody who is trying to hog the limelight and show off (stand up latter day 11th Doctor) but someone who gently pushes the story on by truly living up to his name; a teacher, a friend and a mentor. I thought it worked very well and the small inclusion of a timeywimeyness with the Doctor popping up throughout Grant’s life added some depth to their relationship. The Doctor has always enjoyed an appealing relationship with children so it came as no surprise to me that the opening scenes had a suffuse glow about them. What surprised me the most was the very un-Doctor Who cut to the high school and Grant as a teenager rising to the occasion at the sight of Lucy and the Doctor offering advice. Doctor Who doesn’t often dish out erection metaphors (although those sonic screwdrivers are getting bigger over time) and rather than coming across as something lurid it feels innocent and sweet. Some might say that it isn’t the job of the Doctor to interfere in the domestic lives of people but this story does a good job of balancing his usual role (saving the universe from irritating nasties) and letting him help bring two people together. Simon still says that Capaldi is not one of his favourites and it saddens me to think that that might be a popular opinion because he automatically adds a touch of class to any episode he appears in and is probably the strongest actor to take on the role since it returned in 2005. He does everything that is asked of him to a very high standard. This isn’t stirring material for the actor, it’s comforting, hug-your-loved-ones-its-Christmas material. I’d take this over his unbalanced reign of terror on Gallifrey in Hell Bent any day of the week. Who cares if we don’t know why the Doctor is hanging outside of the window and setting traps, let’s just accept that he’s in the middle of an adventure and at the start of another at the same time. It wasn’t a problem in Blink. There’s few Doctor’s that would make an authentic Santa substitute and even fewer that would find the idea so amusing. The Doctor sipping pop, his legs hanging through the railings and talking to Grant about his adolescence, made me chuckle. Is this really the same Doctor who stepped out of the TARDIS in Deep Breath? There’s somebody worse at love in the universe than the Doctor, apparently. Even the Doctor realises this is less about the usual alien takeover guff and deals with all that and gives Lucy and Grant time to realise their future is together. How he calls in UNIT and deactivates the villains gun so half-heartedly at the climax reveals just how bothered he is by this latest threat to the world. I love his madness in the spacecraft, deciding the most unpredictable thing he can do is set their plan into motion and hope that Grant is paying attention on Terra Firma and isn’t distracted by a pretty girl. Nardole is right, when this Doctor smiles it means something is quite amiss. The final shot of him blazing eyed and heading off into the universe tops off a glorious performance from Capaldi.

Baldy: I don’t object to Nardole, in fact I though Matt Lucas did a nice job in underplaying the character nicely throughout and proving to be a sweet observer of the action in this story. But that is rather my problem – I don’t get why he is here. He doesn’t add anything to the story, we know absolutely nothing about his background and he has turned up again with the barest explanation as to how he and the Doctor met again after Husbands. He’s an enigma. One that I am sure it will be worth exploring further down the line in season 10 but for right now I find him a bit of an anomaly. His ‘You are completely out of your mind!’ was delivered to perfection, though. And how he appeared from the wreckage of the spaceship, Mainwaring askew, was very funny.

Sparkling Dialogue: I’m not really a fan of the one liner, especially not the Moffat one liner which is often drowning in self-assurance and smugness. Something was different in Mysterio, I found myself chuckling along with the characters. It’s because much of the humour is character based and it isn’t forced, it’s gently unassuming.

 ‘You’re kind of wet’ ‘I prefer mild mannered’ That line made me laugh on both watches.
‘Mrs Lombard, there are some situations that are just too stupid to be allowed to continue.’
‘You’re jealous of you!’ ‘Technically she’s jealous of her!’
'I flooded downstairs with Pokemon.’

The Good:

·         I have heard complaints that the episode looks cheap, with specific mentions of the general cheapness of the show since they moved on from The Mill. It’s nonsense. No part of this episode looks as though expense has been spared, in fact I was quite in awe at times at just how visually spectacular the show has become. Whilst it lacked the flash bang wallop action set pieces of a superhero movie (and I would never expect anything like that from Doctor Who), it is astonishing just how well New York is realised despite the production team never setting foot there. There were a multitude of vertiginous shots of the New York skyline that made me feel a little giddy, especially that incredible pan up the Ariel and looking down on New York from above. It’s delirious.
·         I have to confess that I am not the biggest fan of superhero movies but weirdly that might have increased my enjoyment of Mysterio. The episode had nothing spectacular to live up to for me and I thought the approach of playing out what is effectively a different genre to anything Doctor Who has ever been before was quite novel. There were lots of cute touches that I liked; the introduction to the episode through the panel of a comic strip, the comic book wallpaper in the young Grant’s room, the Doctor points out the absurdity to many a superhero cliché including how ridiculous the double identity plot is and why the regular Joe’s who are infected with radiation don’t happen to puke and die, Lucy mistaking the baby monitor for a bat signal app, neither Simon nor I guessed that Grant would wind up being the nanny to Lucy’s baby…when if this story was to pay homage to Superman he had to be a part of her life somehow as a regular guy, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Grant dashing off to save people from burning buildings and emerging with the baby in the apartment a second later, the biggest cliché of all – the glasses – turn out to be a lovely device, allowing for several catch your breath moments and reversals when it looks like Grant is going to be bold and reveal his identity to Lucy. My favourite thing was how because this is a superhero movie we have been pre-conditioned to accept the impossible. The climax features a man holding a baby monitor and spaceship. Under any other circumstances we would be decrying that that is ridiculous and the single most embarrassing thing that has ever happened in Doctor Who. Because of his choice of homage, Moffat has bypassed any complaints you might make about the implausibility of the story. I thought that was delicious.
·         Grant being a superhero and a nanny. It’s cute, it riffs on gender identification and it means there are lots of lovely gags that make your heart sing with the baby. I had yearnings for Sarah Jane Smith with Lucy a busy reporter sniffing out her own story and discovering the Doctor along the way. When the Ghost whisks in and snatches Lucy away he’s dragging the audience away from the naff Doctor Who story and into the romance/superhero one. It’s that point where the narrative makes up its mind what it wants to focus on. Lucy is smart and observant and takes all the information she needs from the questions she asks. Very Sarah Jane Smith. Lucy putting Grant’s superhero costume on (his glasses) was just lovely.
·         I can’t decide whether Mr Huffle is a nice, quirky notion or an idea that quickly out stays its welcome. Either way, he’s responsible for the one sincerely emotional beat in the story that made me catch my breath. Lucy grabs him tight when the Doctor says he is okay at the climax and she tortured the toy to prove that she knows he is lying. It’s nicely set up and it reveals a depth to their relationship. I like how he pops up in shock when the Doctor informs Lucy of the aliens’ plan for worldwide colonisation too. I wonder if Mr Huffle has a more important role to play in this story than Nardole, he certainly made me feel more. He’s a part of the TARDIS crew now, let’s see what other surprises he can provide.

The Bad: The ridiculous throwaway reason that Grant is granted super powers. As played it makes logical sense that grant would think that the crystal is medicine but it’s still pretty naff – a gemstone that when ingested gives you everything that you want? It’s almost as fairy-tale as the Doctor existing just because Amy Pond says so. Brains with eyes? Was anybody else thinking Morphoton brains? There was absolutely nothing original about the nature of the invaders, their plot to scare the world and their desire to take over those in power. Aliens of London/World War Three played this out much better because despite the domestic element of Rose coming home and the comedy aliens (I still love the Slitheen) it was structured like a traditional Doctor Who adventure and it was focussed on it’s scenario. The alien invasion takeover is the Doctor Who aspect of Mysterio but it feels like it is intruding on the more personal story taking place between Lucy and Grant. It feels like an intruder, there because it has to be rather than because it needs to be. A threat was needed, one is conjured up but let’s not pretend that the banal nature of aliens taking over by popping their brains into human shells and dropping a spaceship on New York is anything special. Strangely enough it is the most Doctor Who-y moments where I felt creative fatigue from Moffat. The effect of the head tearing open is fantastically achieved but beyond that these aliens didn’t managed to distinguish themselves at all. I get the point of the split screen sequence, cutting the action up like a comic book but I don’t think it is particularly imaginatively realised or effective. It feels kind of half arsed, just there to add a (unsuccessful) visual quirk. Not even the cut to the baby adds any charm to the sequence.

The Shallow Bit: Justin Chatwin con glasses. Hot.

Result: This is less of a superhero movie and more a collection of the elements that make up a superhero movie. It’s also less of a Doctor Who episode but more a collection of elements that make up a Doctor Who episode. The two don’t mesh together entirely well and plot wise you’re looking at a bit of a car crash of a story with some underdeveloped ideas. What salvages the story and lifts it surprisingly high in places is the amount of heart on display, the fun kisses to the genre it is aping, the stylish visuals and the character work, which whilst never aspiring to anything substantial is warmly written and brought to the screen by the cast. In other words, the precise opposite of what Steven Moffat usually delivers, light on plot and ideas and heavy on character and sentimentality. I really enjoyed the love triangle between Lucy, Grant and the Ghost and the cute humour that arose from the situation. There really haven’t been scenes like this in Doctor Who before…because these scenes aren’t really Doctor Who. They’re the New Adventures of Superman, but I rather liked that show and the bizarre love triangle that played out (until they married off Lois and Clark, that was a disaster). Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield deliver charming performances and you’re rooting for them all the way, even if their eventual smooch is predictable. It’s the gentlest kind of romance, so chaste and innocent there’s only one hint of sexual tension but that’s why it’s so enjoyable for all the family to watch. You know, at Christmas. There were moments where the direction worked a doozy (the vibrant way New York is brought to life, the honesty of the intimate character moments) and there were times where it felt a little sloppy (the pointless split screen sequence, the Doctor on the live camera, the pedestrian nature of how the aliens were presented). I’ve seen better Christmas specials (The Christmas Invasion, The Snowmen, Last Christmas) and I’ve seen far worse (The Next Doctor, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, Time of the Doctor), this was a middling adventure but a kiss and a cuddle of a character tale. Against the odds, The Return of Doctor Mysterio was very enjoyable. It left me with a warm feeling in my stomach…although that might have been the Disaronno too: 7/10