Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Frontier in Space written by Malcolm Hulke and directed by Paul Bernard


This story in a nutshell: War between Earth and Draconia lingers and the Master is the one firing the shots...

Good Grief: 'Only you could manage to have a traffic accident in space!' There is such an easiness between the Doctor and Jo at this stage and Pertwee has developed the Doctor into a far more genial version of the snappy, insulting scientist that she first met a few years back. Perhaps she has had a humanizing effect on him just as Ian and Barbara had with the first Doctor. I love the idea that that he is off out in space once again after his prolonged exile on Earth, there was something very exciting about this season where the Doctor could once again go anywhere from story to story (but never quite forgetting he has a new family back on Earth). I love his perky one lines when it appears he is in the shit (he escapes a prison cell and walks straight into a guard to 'oh how very embarrassing...'). Rather brilliantly when one disgruntled security officer first claps eyes on the Doctor he ask if they are having a fancy dress party (that guard is a great character actually, coming across as a real person rather than just somebody to shuttle the Doctor and Jo about). There's a very funny gag that plays out across the first four episodes of Frontier in Space where the Doctor and Jo are constantly mistaken for agents of a foreign power, depending on who they are captured by. No matter how much the Doctor protests his innocence (and Pertwee's charm offensive is on full power), his captors are convinced that he is a traitor. When he finally does get someone to listen he practically gives them a big kiss even if it is just a fellow prisoner on the moon. It's not just Jon Pertwee who is an engaging storyteller, the Doctor is at it too. Although perhaps it's best we never met the Medusoids given his description of them (a hairy jellyfish with claws, teeth and a leg), or the delegates from the conference come to think of it (a giant rabbit, a pink elephant and a purple horse with yellow spots). Imagine those being concocted on a Doctor Who budget? He's not exactly telling the truth when he says he hasn't been employed by anyone, is he? Pertwee plays his comic explanation of how he tried to kill himself by depressurising the area from the outside whilst he was suffocating inside deadly straight which makes it all the funnier. He is all charm when addressing the Emperor of Draconia, using his previous history with the planet to form a relationship based on trust and honour. He really isn't unrecognisable from the overbearing bully from the beginning of his tenure, isn't he?

Hippy Chick: Two and a half seasons into her time with the Doctor and Jo is more confident than ever. Something wonderful happened with the advent of season ten where Jo stopped playing the hanger on and developed and matured into a very capable young woman in her own right. When watching the show in order I would say that Jo has more development than many other companions, she's still ditzy and gobby but she has a sense of maturity and the feeling that she can handle herself in her latter adventures that was often missing when she screamed her way through season eight. She practically saunters out of the TARDIS, chewing gum and exploring the landing site without the Doctor. This is a Jo with swagger. Watch as she reels off a number of escape plans in episode two, the Doctor picking holes in her logic. She's learnt from her experiences and she is taking those lessons and applying them to what comes next. Most companions lose impetus the longer they are in the show, having a strong introduction but falling into a certain pattern of behaviour. Jo shows how genuine character growth can invigorate the series. The greatest sign of her development is demonstrated in her scenes with the Master. Back in season eight she was susceptible to his hypnotism, terrified of his schemes and constantly falling into one of his traps. Now she stands up to him with some vigour, brushes off his attempts to beguile her mind and is capable of finding her way out of the many prisons he locks her into. I don't think I have ever loved Jo Grant more than when she is babbling on about her friends assuming that her spy lifestyle is a glamorous one, dashing about in sports cars with handsome agents. And she's stuck with Pertwee in Bessie. Running around, making tea and being a general dogsbody. I like the fact that Master's plan relied on her resourcefulness in escaping from her cell, even he can see how smart she is these days. Not smart enough to realise she has walked into a trap anyway, but pretty smart all the same.

You Will Obey Me: 'Nobody could be more devoted to the cause of peace than I...' We've reached a stage in the Pertwee era where his regular appearances have become a lot more sporadic than they were in his first season and therefore much more of a surprise. I have smile outwardly every time Roger Delgado appears on screen because I know that I am going to be in for some fine acting and cutting ripostes. The mystery generating the situation seems to vanish as soon as the Master appears...he's obviously stirring up trouble for some crackpot scheme. Actually what Hulke is doing is disguising who is really responsible behind a well established recurring character, using the Master as a expert red herring. Once he had showed up I thought all the surprises Frontier in Space had were exhausted. How wrong was I? He's almost drunk with pleasure when he informs Jo that he is a credited official and she and the Doctor are criminals being handed into his custody. An exact reversal of their situation last year. As much as he gets off on that, it is nothing compared to the pleasure of being able to reel off the list of criminal offences that the Doctor has committed. I wonder if the Master allying himself with the Daleks counted against him when it came to the Time War? Was he enlisted because he had special insight into the creatures? Scenes of the Master attempting to explain his plans to the Ogrons are comic gold, his incensed attitude to their natural stupidity had me falling about ('We are on a course for Earth!' 'Well naturally that's because we're chasing them!'). Dispatching the Doctor via rocket fire at long range, somehow it lacks that personal touch. When the Master steps in stops the Daleks from exterminating the Doctor is it because cares about the fellow Time Lord or does he genuinely want him to see the Earth in ruins (shades of John Simms' Master there) before he is finally exterminated? It is such a shame that Delgado's tragic death should rob us of a dramatic final showdown between the Master and the Doctor and that his final appearance should be such an awkwardly directed moment (especially since he has been at his absolute best in this story until then). It is difficult to figure out what is going on; he shoots the Doctor and then runs off it appears but I couldn't be entirely sure. All I know is that between this abrupt exit and his next appearance he suffers a horrific accident that leaves his flesh hanging from the bone. Still at least he gets to call the Daleks 'stupid tin boxes' before he goes. Raise your glass to Roger Delgado, still the classiest and, in my mind, the best Master.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'An Emperor who does not rule deposes himself!'
'The Ogrons have got the finest defence mechanism of all - stupidity!'
'I was never very fond of nursery rhymes...'

The Good:

*   Much like The Space Pirates before it, the modelwork is of a very high standard through Frontier in Space (although in my opinion not quite as good) and you only have to watch the documentaries on the DVD to see how a lot of these models were cobbled together in desperation and from parts of other shows. It doesn't show and the wealth of good modelwork (still my preference over CGI I have to say) really helps to sell the scale of this story and give a sense of journey between the many destinations we visit. A huge round of applause to the effect team.
*   Mac Hulke really shows his contempories how these futuristic adventures should be written right from the off by allowing the 26th Century characters to talk like normal, every day people from the 20th Century. Watch the first scene, through two people having a chat at work about the current Earth/Draconian you get some clever world building, a healthy injection of character and a sense that these are real people with jobs and dreams of a better life. That kind of earthy realism is spread throughout the story to every character.
*   He might have The Time Monster on his record (although I would still say there are some effectively realised moments throughout that story) but I think that Paul Bernard is quite an underrated director (certainly by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks on the DVD commentaries). He might be using old school techniques but that is because they work and I love his excessive reliance on zooms, pans and fades to created a feeling of movement and time passing in the story. It means that although the Doctor and Jo spend the majority of this six parter in an assortment of prison cells that there is a swift stride to the tale that keeps it moving. With relatively little money he manages to assemble a creative team that carves out a vision of the future that really stands out, taking us to alien planets, prisons on the moon and a corporate version of the Earth. Black news casters (unheard of at the time) spreading propaganda, stock footage of riots, broadcasts of politicians calling for war, reports of conflict around the world ('In Los Angeles demonstrators burnt an effigy of you!') - so many smart little details that help to build an impressive picture of a planet on the verge of war. Between this and Day of the Daleks, Bernard carves himself out as a director to watch. What a shame he would never work on the show again.
*   Bernard clearly has a decent hand on the actors since this story is packed full of terrific performances, enhanced by Hulke's memorable dialogue. Vera Fusek (the President) and Michael Hawkins (General Williams) have both been extremely well cast, both actors hinting a relationship beyond what we see on screen and enjoy both fraught and gentle moments trying to hold the volatile situation on Earth together. It took several viewings of this to realise that Cross was played by the same actor who delighted us with Governor Lobos in The Space Museum. This a chance to see him having a stab a more animated role and the results are so different. There's an unspoken relationship between Cross and the Governor of the lunar prison as well, which rears its ugly head when he fails to kill the Professor.
*   The beauty of the set design cannot be ignored either with the designers having to live up to the challenge of bringing to life three very different cultures. With Bernard shooting the sets to their maximum capacity there is a real sense of space to the story which helps with its operatic feel. I doubt there was much more money thrown at this than your average six parter but with so many different sets in different locations, all of them pulled off with some style, it just feels like there is a greater budget. On Earth, the exteriors create a sense of this story taking place at a later date, opting for a very concrete, build up utopia, all straight lines and tall gantries (on a location that was probably considered very futuristic at the time). Function over aesthetics. This depressing, washed out view of the future was adopted by Blake's 7 for practically its entire 4 year run.
*   Isn't it astonishing that the Draconians have never appeared in Doctor Who since Frontier in Space (beyond a couple of appearances in spin off material) given their critical success? Given JNT's love of giving the fans a hand job to the past and the current wealth of classic series creations being re-invented in the new series, this species is something of a glaring omission to those who have been given another chance to shine. John Friedlander's masks are extraordinarily good, allowing the actors facial movement (trust me this wasn't always the case) and the chance to emote and the emerald green Samurai aesthetic that the designers have gone for really makes the race stand out in rich colours and stylish design. They have the look and feel of a race that enjoys its own culture and identity and has a life away from the programme. Most alien cultures feel as though they have been custom made for a Doctor Who story and wouldn't have the substance to last beyond it. Not so the Draconians.
*   The return of the Ogrons is a great surprise, not least because they hint at the true masterminds behind this operation as far back as episode one. Hulke cleverly subverts this by mentioning the Daleks and throwing the audience off the scent. They are something to be pointed and laughed at in Frontier in Space (usually by the Master) although it is fair to say that they are effective muscle too. And what an entrance, blasting onto the cargo ship, shooting the Doctor in the back and towering over Jo (this really feels like it should have been a cliff-hanger). The great lumbering oafs come crashing through doors (clearly they haven't been taught how to use a handle) and massacre a ton of guards like swatting flies in their attempt to capture the Doctor and Jo.
*   The political manoeuvres that play out between Earth and Draconia with the Master in the middle winding them both up are exquisitely handled so that it is simple enough for children to understand but complex enough to engage the adults too. This is space opera on a grand scale (with monsters, alien planets, shoot outs and space battles) but much of the political wrangling is fairly sophisticated too. It helps that the actors are driving every nuance out of the script that they can find. The President intends to cling onto diplomatic relations with the Draconians as long as possible and watching how far the Master will go to test her resolve is half the fun. Williams' history with the Draconians, firing a shot in haste which started the first Draconian conflict, adds some depth to his presence and opinion. He tries to make excuses for his actions when called upon but he knows that he acted rashly. Was he trying to use this conflict as an explanation for what happened before. He proves himself to be the better man ultimately by apologising and agreeing to set the record straight this time around.
*   When the escape/capture routine is just on the verge of getting dull we are flung to a spanking new location, this time a prison on the moon. It's another vivid setting, I especially love the screens that looks out on the desolate lunar surface. It feels like Hulke has sketched out this corner of the galaxy in vivid detail. Thousands of political prisoners who have criticized the government incarcerated in one place they can't cause any more trouble.. 'I sometimes think there are more members of the peace party than back on Earth...' Adding details of Sirius IV, 'a tin pot' colony as General Williams calls it and how it has been granted Dominion status generates more interest in this sector. Have we ever enjoyed a more comprehensive setting outside of a Robert Holmes script? 

*   Has there ever been a Doctor Who story where the padding as pleasurable as this? With Terrance Dicks on hand with his quick fix solutions to any plot problem, the Doctor and Jo could easily escape their any confinements much sooner than they do. However Hulke and Dicks know they have to pad out six episodes half the fun of this story is the dialogue they share when they are incarcerated. Cue outrageous tales of peace conferences, insane escape plan ideas, the Doctor recounting his trial by the Time Lords (and putting his own egotistical spin on it), Jo's glorious babbling when she is trying to distract the Master whilst the Doctor is flying about outside the prison ship (basically giving him a stiff telling off for giving the Master such a hard time when he keeps offering him a share of the galaxy) and Jo's very funny prison scenes with an Ogron who chomps on her banana. These dialogue scenes are some of my favourite in the whole story, showing off actors who are extremely comfortable with each other ('Thank you Miss Grant, we'll let you know...').
*   Yes you can see the string that is holding Pertwee up in some scenes (although I like to think that is some kind of tether so the astronaut cannot fly too far away from the ship) but the sequences of the Doctor out in space clinging on the side of the ship are very nicely realised. Shot on film, atmospherically lit and for once a character is put in a spacesuit that looks genuinely functional rather than sparkly and fashionable. Very nicely done and another feather in the cap for Frontier in Space.
*   Usually at the end of a long Doctor Who story the money starts to run out but there is no sign of that in this tale with a visit to two planets in the final two episodes. The Draconian scenes are based around the throne room with its billowing emerald green curtains, incense wafting in the air and an impressive sized throne for the Emperor to sit on and lord it up to his subjects. With John Woodnutt turning up and pouring every ounce of Shakespeare into his performance as the Emperor, it is a refreshingly exotic setting and the one where the Master attempts to stage his greatest coup. An attack on the palace with Ogrons disguised as human soldiers.
*   There aren't many scenes in Doctor Who that make you goosebumps all over like the one at the end of Frontier in Space where the Master reveals that his allies are the Daleks, gliding dramatically to the edge of a precipice. We are used to seeing the Daleks being given a gosh wow introduction at the end of episode one but is this the first time since The Space Museum where they have turned up to shock us at the end of the tale? It's a fantastic twist because it adds a whole new dimension to the story (which was pretty complex to start with) and kick starts a whole new story to take place after this one. It puts the whole twelve part storyline on a pretty ambitious scale, the Daleks weakening the two strongest powers in this corner of the galaxy by setting them at each other and then coming at them both with 10,000 strong army of Daleks. A shame that the Doctor put a spanner in the works with both plans because that would have been one hell of a fight.

The Bad:
*   Weirdly the Drashigs don't work half as well in this story as they did in Carnival of Monsters. It's a good thing that they are contained to a few seconds of hallucinatory madness on Jo's part.
*   The end of episode five isn't so much a cliff-hanger as a pause in the action. Unless we are supposed to be shocked that the Ogrons are attempting to rescue the Master?
*   'One dominant life form. A large and savage reptile...' or more like an orange duvet having a conniption fit and grunting with ecstasy. Not quite the least convincing monster this show has ever put out but it ranks pretty high all the same. Bernard was right to limit its exposure as much as possible.
*   I complained in my previous review about not bothering to give certain characters and plots the ending they deserved, instead leaving their fates unresolved. The same thing happens in Frontier in Space but it doesn't bother me anywhere near as much because this is the first half of a twelve episode epic. Williams and the Prince Regent head off to tell their respective societies the truth and restore peace so they can fight the Daleks. We can only assume they made it because it is never mentioned again. It is quite remiss of Terrance Dicks, I would have expected him to at least have had a mention in Planet of the Daleks that the status quo had been restored.
*   As for the direction of that final scene? Actually it is the editing which is mostly at fault, cutting away from the action too quickly before we have figured out what has happened. The Master simply vanishes and the Doctor is dragged into the TARDIS by Jo in a terminal condition. It's a shame that such an lucid, well presented story should end on a confusing hiccup like this.

Result: Hugely entertaining for a story that is essentially the Doctor and Jo being thrown into one cell after another, Frontier in Space is Doctor Who's finest space opera and one of the few stories where the padding is as enjoyable as the rest of the material. The scale of this story feels huge both in term of its setting and its production. In setting terms we get a detailed account of Earth in the 26th Century, visit Draconia and the home world of the Ogrons, a penal colony on the moon and several spaceships along the way. As far as the production is concerned there are impressive sets that have a particular aesthetic depending on which race we are visiting, stylish modelwork that charters the journey between each location, plenty of location work to give the planets a sense of realism, space walking scenes and some exciting shoot outs. Holding all this together is Paul Bernard's strong direction which keeps the whole thing skipping along with excitement. All of this gloss would be for nought if the script didn't hold water but Hulke has delivered a real humdinger of a plot, one involving the Master (working for unknown allies) trying to drive humanity and the Draconians to war. His trademark gift for dialogue really helps to make the characters come alive and sound more like people and not like ciphers, from the President of Earth right down to the lowliest guard and Ogron. I wonder if the production is so solid because Hulke created such a vivid setting, carving out this corner of the galaxy in rich detail. They didn't want to let his ambitious vision down. Best of all though is the Doctor and Jo and what a team they are at this stage of the game. You'll rarely see two actors so in sync and enjoying their time together as you do with Pertwee and Manning in season ten and it comes off the screen in wafts. Add Delgado to the mix, oozing charisma and good humour and you have a six part story that actually gets better in the second half where most of them start lagging terribly. The story even has a whopper of a surprise in store for the audience in the last episode that reveals that this is just the first half of an even bigger epic. Planet of the Daleks might fail to live up to the promise of Frontier in Space but this is some exceptional build up. It is padded in places but the dialogue in those scenes sings which papers over the pauses. I love Frontier in Space, it is one of my favourite Pertwee's. Space opera ahoy!: 9/10

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel written by Tom MacRae and directed by Graeme Harper



This story in the nutshell: It’s the genesis of the Cybermen…only in an alternative universe...

Mockney Dude: Either it's the writing (which pushes the Doctor to the sidelines for long stretches of the action) or David Tennant was having something off an off day but there was something distinctly awkward about the tenth Doctor in this story. He always has erred on the wild side but he seems to express every emotion in the extreme here; whether it is mistreating Mickey in the early TARDIS scenes, reacting badly to his two companions heading off on their own, facing up to the Cybermen or smugly running rings around the Cyber Controller. There doesn't seem to be a place for subtlety. Why shouldn't his companions decide that they are adults and do exactly what they want? The Doctor doesn’t even think for one second that there might be something in an alternative universe that Mickey might want to re-discover whilst he is obsessing over Rose. I liked his assertion that when the Time Lords died everything became a bit less kind and the thought of giving ten years of his life in a breath to give life to the TARDIS again is rather lovely. On the other hand he is really slow on the uptake as to what the menace of the week is, especially given his history with the Cybermen. I didn’t enjoy his squeaky voiced confrontation with the Cyber Controller in the last episode – it felt like Davison in Four to Doomsday, inexperience in the role. One moment I did like was his reaction Cyber conditioning breaking down and one of the converted humans looks in a mirror and shrieks mechanically at what they see staring back. It's one of the times when his mantra of 'I'm so sorry' really hits home.

Chavvy Chick: Ouch. After her dribbling and tears in The Christmas Invasion, her gushing in new Earth and her jealousy in School Reunion Rose has been on a downward spiral of obnoxiousness and she finally seals the deal in this two parter by proving just how unbelievably selfish she can be. It’s such a shame how her character wound up because there were moments in the first season where she was on course for being one of the most enjoyable of companions. How irritatingly smug does she look in the first scene, taking the piss out of Mickey’s naiveté? As soon as they land its all me me me about her dad with no thought for Mickey until they have split up. I'm pleased she isn't my girlfriend. She sulks away, sticking out her bottom lip as she moans about not being part of Pete and Jackie’s life in this universe. Jealousy rears its ugly head again when the Doctor seeks information from a fellow worker called Lucy. Such was my disdain for the character as portrayed here that I was in fits of laughter when she was introduced to her namesake and looked mightily pissed off (even the Doctor cracks up). I loved the scene where she was chewed out by Jackie – all this sugary sweetness was poisoning my stomach and it was long past time somebody gave Rose a reality check. Did she really think that she could walk into Pete and Jackie's lives and become the daughter that they never had? At the end of the story both Pete and Mickey can't wait to get as far away from Rose as possible and who can blame them wanting to get away from the clutches of somebody who is quite this self centred? Rose blubs about losing Mickey (Amy was exactly the same in season five, not realising what she had until it was gone) but all I was thinking was serves you right. When is Donna coming along?

Cheeky Chap: By far the most likeable and engaging of regulars at this stage. What a shame it is his last story for a while. Whilst he is treated like he is foolish, Mickey is at least smart enough to realise that they have landed on a parallel Earth. His suggestion that the Doctor will only ever run after one of them and it will never be him is really devastating because you know he’s right. It's nice to learn more of his backstory and Noel Clarke aces the scene where he visits his Gran, apologising for not fixing the carpet that ultimately killed her in his universe (plus she is a great character in her own right: ‘Stop hitting me!’). I do, however, have to question what is going on with Clarke’s performance as Ricky – I understand he had to be suitably different from Mickey but did he have to play the role with quite this much testosterone (I can't help but laugh every time he talks through clenched teeth). Watching yourself dying must be a truly harrowing experience and Harper captures the moment in silence. He refuses to stay out of trouble and be the tin dog any more, it is about time that Mickey finally stood up for himself and refused to play the idiot any longer. Harper's penchant for action aside, it is his heroics that make this story worth watching, Mickey goes on a real journey of discovery in the parallel universe and discovers he has nothing to go back to in his. The Doctor and Rose have each other and it is abundantly clear nobody else is welcome. He has a mission now, he has something he can pour his heart and soul into.

The Good Stuff: I love the gas masks falling down from the console, that's a cute touch. Bitchy and spoilt Jackie is just a few steps removed from our Jackie and goes to show how a little pampering can tip you over the edge. Don Warrington is always good value for money and it’s a shame that the President gets killed so quickly after he is introduced as I am certain he could have brought a certain gravity that the second episode lacked. The scene where everybody freezes in the street worked a charm at freaking me out - it is a perfect representation of what the Cybermen offer, life at the press of a button. Given the troubled script, it is left to Graeme Harper to salvage something from this story and he fills it with many memorable, distracting set pieces. Chief amongst them is the glorious pan through the industrial nightmare of smoky pipes and the Cybermen convert more victims, The Lion Sleeps Tonight attempting to drown out the guttural screams. Harper never had the chance to bring the Cybermen to life in the classic series but he gets to indulge himself here and in his safe hands they make a storming return to the series. What an entrance they make at the party, advancing on the mansion and smashing through the windows. For a few moments this is the best Cybermen story. I really enjoyed Lumic’s assertion that the tramps he took to convert were ‘homeless and wretched and useless’ because they are sure commanding some respect now. The Cybermen look awesome marching through the grounds glistening in the moonlight, their revised art deco design resplendent in this setting. It might be all empty action but it's dynamic action all the same. Colin Spaul is a favourite of Harper's and it's such a shame that we didn’t see more of this beautifully cynical character. There’s a wonderfully chilling sequence where the Cybermen advance and murder Ricky and stare coldly through the metal fence in silence at Mickey. The way the silence cuts in meant that I could hear myself catch a breath. The cooling tunnel scenes are extraordinarily well lit and directed, the Cybermen are far scarier when they are frozen and silent, the audience waiting for them to jerk to life and attack. There is one moment that really drove home the horror of the Cybermen, when the emotional inhibitor was turned off and one stared at it's reflection in a mirror screaming in horror.

The Bad Stuff: Just adding some zeppelins to the skyline doesn’t make this an especially imaginative alternative universe. The TARDIS dying is treated as a throwaway scene when it should have been a devastating moment; the story is far too busy focussing on daft old Rose and her domestic problems to focus on the potentially exciting stuff. I know Davies was keen to push the domestic angle but let's not forget that this is still Doctor Who and not a daytime soap opera. A gay Mickey, a Welsh blond rinse and a CBBC presenter – that’s the resistance? Despite efforts to stick him in a wheelchair Lumic is no substitute for Davros. Roger Lloyd-Pack can't be held entirely responsible because he is simply bringing to life the overwritten part although there is something remarkably mechanical (hoho) about his performance. It might have been more chilling had he been entirely without emotion, stating every line like one of the automatons that he has become obsessed with. With no compelling villain to lead this story, it flounders terribly when it could have been chilling. Imagine how much more exciting this story would be in our universe? Why Russell T. Davies was reluctant to to re-tell the origins of the Cybermen on the Earth we know and love is beyond me and opens the can of worms of having to constantly bring the re-designed Cybermen from one universe to another (actually he finds a very clever way to achieve that in Army of Ghosts but it does cause problems for subsequent stories featuring the same design). Why they had to make this an origin story baffles me too. It could just be a story of a man who took the designs from the 1985 attack of Mondas and used them to his own ends. 'Delete delete delete...' is such an obvious attempt to give the Cybemen a Dalek-like slogan but it really doesn't work. It's not exactly the sort of word that chills you to the bone, is it? What exactly does the Doctor do on the phone that makes the Cybermen disintegrate? David Tennant talks so fast that the rushed explanation makes absolutely no sense. He may have well have just said 'I've just done something clever' and shove the phone into it's socket. London’s most wanted for parking tickets…what the hell? Why are the regular characters always gay in these alternative universe stories? Why bother to cut the ‘boyfriend’ line at the end of the episode when it is clear from Jake’s response that he and Ricky were lovers? For once the gay reference isn't superfluous. Mrs Moore is on her way to being a half decent character until she involves herself in the camp melodramatics before her death. The story spirals out of control at the climax with the exposure of the Cyber Controller, a hilariously awful nasty with big glowy eyes, an exposed brain and a squeaky voice. The Doctor sending Mickey coded messages should be really fun but it just feels contrived. The Cyber Controller goes ‘NOOOOOO!’ when he falls to his death, not only falling into villainous cliché but also a highly emotional response to the situation. The Zeppelin set piece is a brainless ending to a brainless episode and the sight of the Cyber Controller climbing a rope ladder might be the nadir for the second class bad guys. Was the last scene genuinely filmed by Westminster because it looks remarkably like a CSO backdrop? Murray Gold smothers Mickey’s departure scene in syrup. I’m usually a big fan of his music but this is too much sugar, even for me.

The Shallow Bit: Mickey gets tied to a chair in his boxers whilst his gay alter ego salivates over him. Is this an RTD wet dream?

Result: So much lost potential. You've got an accomplished writer and director and the return of an old monster looking snazzier than ever but somewhere along the way the execution of all three doesn’t quite gel. The first episode builds up the reveal of the Cybermen with some aplomb but at the same time concerns itself with some truly excruciating soap operatics surrounding the Tyler clan whilst given the Doctor virtually nothing to do. The second episode has some terrific action sequences and visuals courtesy of a director who is pouring everything he has into the execution but he is working to a truly brainless script that threatens to foil him at every turn, especially at the climax. The whole story is weighed down by irritating flaws (Rose's selfishness, Roger Lloyd-Pack's overwritten character, the early death of the President who is the most interesting character, the retarded ending that sees the Cyber Controller climbing a rope ladder) but you can see glimpses of something much superior (Jackie's venomous outpouring to her 'daughter', the street full of frozen zombies, the terrifying Cyber conversion devices). This would work far better as a 60 minute action adventure tale in our universe, cutting out all of the alternative universe nonsense (including all the material that continues to deteriorate Rose's character) and focussing on the psychology and body horror of being converted. These things are tantalizingly touched upon briefly but as with all Cybermen tales never exploited to the full. The Cybermen return time and again because they are popular but every production team that has utilized them seems afraid to expose the true horror of the creatures in fear of upsetting their teatime audience. I’d give the first episode a 5 and the second episode a 7 so this two parter scores a disappointing: 6/10

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Krotons written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney


 This story in a nutshell: Attack the Machine! Children of the revolution!

Oh My Giddy Aunt: Despite this story have a less than stellar reputation in some quarters, there is always one actor you can rely on to provide some top notch entertainment regardless of the larger tale being told. Troughton is so into his stride come the point of The Krotons he is practically swaggering, playing up some scenes to insane comic effect and giving terrific urgency to others. As with a lot of the stories in season six most of his most successful scenes are with Wendy Padbury's Zoe simply because they are like a pair of school kids trying to outsmart each other all the time. I have absolutely nothing against Frazer Hines' Jamie being around because he and Troughton share a chemistry unique in the series (they have a lovely shorthand such as the charming moment where the Doctor pushes Jamie's head below the rocks) but the Doctor/Jamie interaction had been pretty much exhausted of fresh ideas come this season. And like the majority of season six it has Jamie going it alone whilst the Doctor and Zoe are paired up (The Mind Robber, the latter half of The Invasion, The War Games). Unlike a lot of other Doctors, his first instinct isn't to stay around and investigate but to get as far away from the scene of the murder as possible. Perhaps he's learnt fro experience that he will be caught and blamed or perhaps he is just looking out for his young friends. He trips into Gond society with a beaming smile declaring 'We are friends!' (has there ever been a more amiable Doctor - I think not. Smith tried to emulate his natural sociability but the dialogue was often quite forced) only to be confronted with a wall of spears. It pretty much sums his era up in a nutshell, the Doctor turning up with the best of intentions and tripping over a conflict that has already arisen without him. You've got to love the idea that with the Doctor entering Gond society he has completely revolutionised how they think as a people (having survived the wasteland). You'll rarely get a better chance to see Troughton do his quirky style of comedy than the squabble he has with Zoe about going through the test and then forcing himself to do it as well. Troughton is lifting this story like a heavyweight champion, providing gleeful entertainment. You're seeing the real life affection between Troughton and Padbury spill all over the screen and it fills me with sunshine. His reaction to 'my people will always remember you' is a scream. The comedy business between the Doctor and Zoe at the climax, discussing where they will stand and how to put on the headsets, is effortless. I think I could watch these two arsing around in any story and find something to appreciate (scratch that - The Dominators).

Who's the Yahoos: The fight that Jamie has in episode is great because it shows that he isn't just bluster when he says he can take care of himself. I found myself thinking he was a gonner when his bluff was called and I was surprised with how well he can handle himself. Perhaps it is because he is used for comic effect so often but it was useful to be reminded that Jamie is a skilled fighter who was fighting in a nasty conflict when the Doctor met him. When stuck for a choice between looking after a pretty girl and protecting the Doctor it surprises me that Jamie opts for the latter. It's gorgeous the way that Jamie and Zoe think they are keeping the Doctor out of mischief, just as he is doing to them. You have to wonder if Jamie is going to leave his adventures with some kind of a complex, though. The Doctor and Zoe leave him out their investigations of the Learning Hall because he isn't smart enough and the Krotons as good as tell him he is as thick as shit. This would have been a great opportunity for Holmes to score the ultimate triumphant moment for Jamie, outsmarting all of them and figuring out the solution in a way that only he could. Alas it was not to be. To give him some credit he does affect his escape using the Doctor's mica but it isn't quite enough to make the point. And the climax does see him bring down the Krotons with brute force but Beta could have happily have done that without him. What the solution needed was something uniquely Jamie McCrimmon.

Brain Child: 'Zoe is something of a genius, of course. It can be very irritating at times!' The Doctor and Zoe appear to be talking in some kind of code to Jamie when actually they are just discussing the scientific nature of the planet they have landed on. Do we get a little peek into Zoe's life as a pupil when she was growing up, revelling in the praise of her teachers as she absorbed knowledge like a sponge? Naturally Zoe gets over double the amount of points than the next best student and there is laughter behind her eyes when the Doctor cocks it all up ('The Doctor's almost as clever as I am...'). Padbury is astonishingly confident throughout and cute as a button too.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'She was one of the finest students we had ever produced?' 'Oh really? Competition for you Zoe.'
'Sounds a bit like a dinner gong...'

The Good:
*   Maloney is trying his best with the resources at his disposal and despite being set in a filthy old quarry he makes the location work really stand out. It gives him a chance to work in wide open spaces away from the cramped studios and the long shot that sees the TARDIS materialise and the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe emerge is especially impressive.
*   To modern eyes the modelwork of the city might look some poorly done papier mache blocks but I think it is rather imaginatively constructed. I especially like how props team placed the dwellings in what appears to be a reconstruction of the quarry and there are little paths interconnecting them. It's a bit like the miniatures in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, easy to mock but worth studying what they were trying to do and the effort that has gone into it. With Doctor Who in the sixties where they had to make shortcuts visually, this is a creative example of trying to bring something a little alien to the screen.
*   It is fascinating to compare the performances of Gilbert Wynne (Thara) and Philip Madoc (Eelek) because the former is doing all he can to attract your attention (screaming, emoting like a madman, dashing about the set) whilst the latter isn't moving at all and doesn't raise his voice once. Beguilingly my eyes were all drawn to Madoc.
*   I can feel Terrance Dicks working behind the scenes on this one, he and Robert Holmes generating as many mysteries as possible to keep the viewer hooked (it is a similar trick they pulled off in the first episode of Carnival of Monsters). Who are the Krotons (perhaps it would have been better had we not found that out)? Why do they need the smartest minds? What happens to the youngster between heading into the machine and emerging the other side catatonic? And why are they dispatched so callously? Holmes always had something of a rebellious nature to his writing and he kick starts his Doctor Who career by jumping on the bandwagon of the youth uprising in the sixties. Interestingly I can't imagine scenes of rough kids behaving violently and smashing their way through a story being allowed anywhere near the series these days, especially in the wake of the London riots. Does placing this youthful uprising on another planet distance the viewer from what is going outside their front door? Although I have to say Holmes' script skips the metaphor completely and makes a direct comment when he has one character screaming 'Smash the machine!'  Add in the climax which features kids dropping some acid to take on the system that has held them back and it's the sixties in a nutshell. Progressive, riotous, revolutionary. I like how the back story is left to the last minute so everything falls into place at the climax, the Krotons raising the intelligence of the Gonds after they crash landed to a level where their mental energy could be harnessed to enable them to escape.
*   My favourite sequences in The Krotons all take place in episode where the Doctor step into the unknown of the machine. Doctor Who is often a straight forward action adventure show and only every so often does it dip its toes into something weirder and more idiosyncratic. These scenes certainly qualify with Maloney adopting some dramatic camera techniques (he gets right in the Doctor and Zoe's faces as they are having their mental energy torn from them) and indulging in some 60s psychedelia to stress the weirdness of the Kroton ship. I love the bubbling vats of liquid with the Krotons forming inside, at this point it is impossible to know what exactly is going on. With no incidental music guiding this story along, it is at this point where Brian Hodgson's sound effects really start to create an atmosphere.
*   That heart stopping moment when it looks as though the Krotons have destroyed the TARDIS. Although whether my dismay was because it was apparently taken out by one of the least effective monsters the Doctor has met or because it means he will be stuck on this miserable rock forever more, I'm not sure.
*   Whilst I can think of a fair few times when the HADS might have come in handy, it's sudden mention is just another element of the ever expanding list of devices that the TARDIS has on offer. Writers make these things up as they need them but it all adds to the crafts sense of magic.

The Bad:
*   The first few minutes of The Krotons might be solely responsible for its poor reputation because it stacks up one cliché after another. When your first shot is of a cardboard wall failing to separate properly followed by a stiff actor talking in what appears to be a tongue tripping alien language ('Abu Gond!), children being adorned with sparkly cloaks straight out of Flash Gordon and some horrendous b-movie style reactions ('You can't go! I wont let you go!' - you can see the beginnings of Jenny Laird's stylish interpretation of a distraught mother here) all your worst fears might feel confirmed. I certainly wouldn't recommend this as the first classic story to show to a non-fan. Not because it isn't any good, but because you have to look past some questionable performances, aesthetics and production values to get the gold. To my shame I have seen far to many farcical b movie SF horrors usually obtained from my local pound shop (and even then I would say they are overpriced) and there have been plenty with scenes like this, hysterical men and women trying to sum up an entire civilisation, wobbly sets barely holding themselves together and an unconvincing culture born out poor aesthetics and lack of numbers.
*   The Krotons, not one of Doctor Who's finest moments in the costume department. Which is a shame because the central idea of them being grown from crystal is genuinely innovative. With the advent of CGI this is an notion that is ripe for a re-invention, imagine being able to watch the crystal bubble and form, cracking into place and the finished result emerging; sleek, faceted and deadly. What we essentially get in this story is an egg box with a skirt, Dalek like appendages and a phallic crystal standing erect from the top. Cumbersome, impractical, artificial and unbelievable. Not exactly what every Doctor Who designer is aiming for. Initially I rather liked the voices when they were used sparingly, booming through the echoey halls of the learning to warn of the rebellious students. Unfortunately they start to shred at the nerves when the Krotons are actualised and they paper the last two episodes with their unintelligible babble ('DIRECTION POINT!'). I don't even think with more time, money or resources that the Krotons could be made to work with the methods of television at this point. It really is the case of Holmes thinking outside the box and conceptualising something that needed computer wizardry to bring it to life convincingly. We needed to see the transformation (rather than the egg boxes emerging from the machine - sorry standing up from their crouched position) for this to really come off. I think the Krotons work much better in episodes one and two where they are silently observing the Doctor and his companions, Maloney uses some creepy spying techniques to give them a real presence (given my phobia of snakes that viewing tendril that attacks the Doctor give me a moments panic). What I came up with in my head was far more impressive. Imagine The Krotons being brought to life with the same sort of technology that wowed the audiences of Frozen.
*  Compared to Holmes' later work on the series (particularly in stories such as Carnival f Monsters, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Ribos Operation) The Krotons doesn't excel in the characterisation department either. The trouble is that the guest characters aren't given enough exposure to make them truly relevant and mostly serve to explain the mystery and help the Doctor to defeat the Krotons. We cut back to the revolt plot every fifteen minutes or so, long enough so we have completely forgotten about it. The dialogue isn't exactly sparkling either and doesn't make the character stand out as individuals with their own lives. Mostly it is the work of the actors that gives them any real identity with Philip Madoc's Eelek and James Cairncross' Beta both standing out amongst the rest. James Copeland struggles to make his unwieldy exposition work and Madeline Mills is given a real bum deal, either unconscious or moaning for the first three episodes. We needed to get to know the Gonds as a people, so we can give a damn if the Krotons wipe them out or Eelek pulls off a political coup but they are so faceless it is difficult to give a damn especially if Selris, Vana and Thara are anything to go by. The line 'we still have Eelek to deal with' thrown in at the end goes to show how irrelevant that whole plot has been to the story, so much so that it doesn't deserve an ending. That might be realistic but in dramatic terms it isn't very satisfying.
*   Shots from the Krotons POV as it hunts down the Doctor and Zoe = big plus. Long shots of the Kroton ambling down the ramp trying to keep hold of his burdensome gun = big minus. Just how was Maloney supposed to shoot these creatures? He couldn't do it all in POV because money had been spent on the costumes. Perhaps he should have always shot upwards, capitalizing on their stature and excising any glimpses of the skirt.
*   When the Kroton gives Jamie a big cuddle why doesn't simply kill him? How does the Doctor walk away from all that heavy rubble crashing down on his back?

Result: Would The Prison in Space have made for a more entertaining watch? This story was rushed into production and it shows and it oftens has the ring of strong cheese but I find The Krotons is much better than its reputation suggests, playing with some intelligent ideas and revelling in it's condensed format. It's rare to call a Troughton story pacy but at only four episode the story doesn't outlive its welcome and it seems to have just enough plot to spread across the entire piece without any much escape/capture padding. Like so much of this story, the Krotons themselves are a marvellous idea that simply cannot be realised convincingly with the resources of the show at the time. The idea of crystalline creatures setting a thousand year old trap is a stunning one and if made today would inspire genuine awe. Back in the sixties we had to make do with hulking cardboard boxes with skirts. Holmes is still getting to grips with the series at this stage but it clear he has a unique approach to the show creatively (intelligence as a power source is a very sophisticated concept for Who), even if his characterisation and dialogue need sharpening. Whilst it does haemorrhage viewers throughout the course of the story (dropping by two million from episode 1 to 4), the first two episodes performed high above the majority of the Troughton era. So whilst interest waned there was an initial burst of interest for the story (I wonder if that had anything to do with coming after the breathlessly exciting final episodes of The Invasion?). Without a doubt the most successful element of this story are the regulars and Holmes shows that without much coaxing has a perfect handle on all three of them, giving them plenty to do and playing to their strengths. Imagine this story without the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to keep us entertained? It would be staggeringly melodramatic and certainly belong in the vaults and best forgotten. Between them Troughton, Hines and Padbury lift this intelligent but creaky SF story into something that is much more palatable: 6/10

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Reign of Terror written by Dennis Spooner and directed by Henric Hirsh


This story in a nutshell: The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are caught up in the machinations of The French Revolution...

Hmm: Pretty much anything starring Hartnell makes my heart sing and I genuinely believe since his performance is a distant memory to those of us who are currently enjoying the show that his contribution to the show is sorely underrated. When he appears in The Reign of Terror it automatically racks up another notch in the quality stakes and he is clearly having a ball in precisely the sort of story that he thinks the series should be tackling. Much like The Romans in season two and The Gunfighters in season three, he is practically faultless, far more comfortable at home in the studious drama of a historical than struggling with the technobabble of an SF tale. I love it when the Doctor gets grump on, it seems to bring something natural out in Hartnell (by all accounts) and we get a peek into his vulnerable side that is often guarded. It's even more fierce (and therefore more heartbreaking) at the climax of The Chase. In his bluster he admits he is tired of the insinuation that he is not master of his craft, a title that really can't be justified given his erratic control of the Ship at best. I always find Hartnell a delight when he is afforded the rare opportunity to work with children and his sweet little scene with Jean Pierre makes me long for him to have a young lad as a companion (I melt a little when he salutes him goodbye). He seems to understand children in a way that adult psychology eludes him. It's hard not to be charmed by the thought of the Doctor strolling all the way to Paris to try and rescue his friends. When he comes across the road work overseer behaving so appallingly to his workers he cannot help but get involved and in what becomes something of an amusingly childish squabble ('Get to work, skinny!') he winds up as part of the work party himself! Trust him to figure some sneaky scheme to prey on the overseers greed...but what surprised me was his violent way of dealing with the bully. Hartnell's Doctor often surprises me by turning violent and this time he is wielding a shovel (although it is made clear that he is only unconscious after he koshes him with it). Spooner's script features the Doctor a great deal and yet he doesn't connect with the main plot until episode four which must be some kind of record. Spooner has to defer getting him involved so his companions can fall into the most terrible of danger so he can affect their rescue once he finally reaches Paris. Escaping flames, beating up bullies and trading clothes of uniform are his game for the first half of this story. There is a gorgeous scene where the Doctor and Barbara are reunited in episode five and they exude warmth for each other - it reminds us you how long they have been parted for this story. He runs rings around the jailer, using complimentary words and promises to manipulate the drunken glory seeker. You have to wonder if the Doctor genuinely gives a damn whether the jailer is beheaded or not, risking his life to ensure that Susan is freed. He's at it again in episode five, smashing the jailers head in with a pot. Don't kidnap this guys granddaughter, on your own head be it.

Schoolteachers in Love: Ian and Barbara are resolute in the fact that even they have adjusted to life on board the TARDIS, they will leave at the first opportunity to go home. Ian doesn't want it to be on sour terms and is determined to soften the Doctor up before they part ways and Barbara has always been good at coaxing out his softer side (the way she dusts off his jacket and leans affectionately on him is just lovely). Despite the promises, I don't think either of them are surprised to learn that they haven't miraculously found themselves back in 1963. Ian has clearly learnt from his adventures by suggesting that they get back to the Ship whilst they still can. There always seems to be something in the first two season that prevents them from escaping and whisking away elsewhere. There are two scenes in season one that really expose how far Ian and Barbara have come in regards to their life with the Doctor and Susan. One takes place in The Daleks and the other in The Reign of Terror and both feature the teachers holding back to assess their situation as the two aliens head off and explore. On Skaro they were frightened, clinging onto each other for support and desperate to get home and escape this mad life. In France they are relaxed in each others company (some might say deeply in love at this point), taking the fact that they aren't home on the chin and not really disappointed that that is the case. They've adjusted and even started to enjoy their time travelling in the TARDIS. It is a very telling moment and appropriately comes at the end of the season to expose the develop they have enjoyed in the past eight stories. Poor Barbara is lumbered with Susan, cowering at her own shadow and becoming a wailing banshee at the sight of a rat. Both Ian and Barbara attempt to affect their escape from prison, proving to be highly resourceful when necessary. Barbara's unique perspective on history brings her into conflict with Ian who has been on the violent end of the revolutionaries ideals, defending their desire to push for change. It's nice to see that these two don't agree all the time. We are afforded a cute peek into their potential future, owning a bar together and providing warm hospitality for travellers on the road. They look quite comfortable in this profession, I must say. Perhaps that's how they ended up, as husband and wife pub landlords.

An Unearthly Child: Susan proves once again why, even though the script tries to fool the audience that it is Ian and Barbara that are leaving, it is she that has to go first. The way she hysterically flings herself at the two schoolteachers and then dashes off out of sight is ridiculously melodramatic. She's in a fatalistic mood when they are carted off to the Concierge prison, figuring that their previous escapes from danger have been more luck than judgement. Come episode three she has become a serious liability, preventing Barbara from making a run for it and escaping the guillotine. You can sympathise with Carole Ann Ford, there is a chauvinistic thread that runs through The Reign of Terror that turns Susan into a useless whinger. I doubt it is any actresses dream to play a character quite as wet as this. So vacuous is her character that she disappears from the action altogether by episode six, just turning up in a brief handful of scenes at the very end of the story. Her cards are marked.


Sparkling Dialogue: 'I have the universe to explore...'
'You can give them uniforms but they remain peasants underneath!'
'The Revolution isn't all bad. Neither are the people that support it! It's changed things for the whole world and good honest people gave their lives for that change. You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve.'
'Our destiny is in the stars so let's go and search for it.'

 The Good:
*   I really miss the old days of the TARDIS simply plonking itself down somewhere completely mysterious and the travellers having to wander out and discover where they are. Every landing seems to be either pre-planned or the Doctor has full knowledge of where they are going these days because there isn't the time in 45 minutes to allow for the exploration of a setting. The fan of the show in the sixties don't know how lucky they had it - every week a new mystery to unravel.
*   There is a pace and energy to Dennis Spooner's dialogue that really gives the story a fluidic feel, unlike some of the other stories in the early seasons that are dialogue heavy and drag because of it. Spooner always remembers to find the fun in each situation and creates a sense of adventure - his scripts for The Romans, The Time Meddler and The Daleks' Masterplan had a similar vigour to them. Spooner enjoys splitting the TARDIS crew up and giving them their own plot to carry. It allows us to see the best of them because they all have some time in the limelight.
*   You might say that stumbling across a chest full of clothes that are suitable for the era is a spot of luck but the reason they are in the house is well explained and tied into the setting that Spooner has chosen. The Reign of Terror is a fantastic period of history to set a Doctor Who in because it comes ready packaged with so much incident, bloodshed and interest. It would have taken a spectacularly inept writer to have fudged up this assignment and Spooner is more than capable of dipping his toes into the nastier aspect of the period whilst still telling an enjoyable Doctor Who story full of exciting incident. The horrors of the conflict are plain to see; D'Argenson recounts the story of his family being dragged from their home by the revolutionaries and executed and is visibly anxious at sharing their fate. He and Rouvray are savaged by the mob, one shot and the other suffering the indignity of being shot down like a dog. Suddenly this is a much darker tale of the kind we haven't witnessed before where people are treated as so much garbage. Suddenly our heroes are in real danger. For a moment it looks like Ian, Barbara and Susan are going to be lined up against a wall and shot and the Doctor is almost roasted alive when the revolutionaries torch the farm house. So much jeopardy, so suddenly...Spooner knows how to drag you kicking and screaming into a story. The sight of Barbara and Susan being carted through the streets towards the guillotine is one that sticks in the mind. They really did put the companions through the ringer in the sixties, didn't they? Robespierre being shot in the jaw is a shocking last minute turn of events, proving the story hasn't quite lost its pulse in its final episode. 
*   Whilst it would be a violation of the trades description act to call the music in this story incidental, it certainly helps to keep the story moving and is often atmospheric and memorable. Imagine the end of episode one without the music to give a real sense of jeopardy or the scenes of the Doctor walking to Paris without the jaunty score whisking us along with him? Sometimes it does cross a line though, it is hard to take a bloodthirsty raid seriously when it is being accompanied by music that wouldn't be out of place in a Carry On movie.
*   I still think the end of episode one is one of the finest cliff-hangers the show ever managed to pull off. Given how many half hearted jeopardy moments the show has indulged in to pause the action for another week this is a genuinely perilous set piece in which there appears to be no escape for the Doctor. It is beautifully shot and scored too.
*   Kudos to the set designers to who manage to convince us that we have stepped back in time to Paris during the reign of terror in the cramped and poorly resourced studios at Lime Grove. The sets for the prison where a lot of the action takes place is rightly given the most detail with some filthy, rat infested cells for Barbara and Susan to suffer in. I really like the street setting too, convincingly pulling off an exterior in the studio.
*   Episode five suddenly restores a racing pulse to the story when Ian and Barbara come to blows over the ideals of the revolutionaries. Barbara defends Leon, suggesting that there is some good to the revolution, that the world needed to change. You cannot paint either side in black and white, there is good and bad in every political movement. This is conflict comes a little too late in the day and it feels as though this could have been a dominant thread to give the story more of an edge (like Barbara's attempts to change history in The Aztecs) but I appreciate the attempt to inject a little substance and ambiguity into the tale. A shame too that this clash of opinions seems to go unresolved. Hill and Russell really go for it and the resulting drama is probably the best scene in the story.

The Bad:

*   It pains me to say it because I think are extremely lucky that the DVD range would go to such lengths to complete a story by animating its missing episodes but the efforts of Big Finish in The Reign of Terror aren't entirely successful. I'm not saying that I think the animation has to match the style of era perfectly since the moody and atmospheric work on The Invasion proved a triumph (to all but Ian Levine who was spitting blood that they dared to take the liberty of including shots that would have never appeared in the episode). However the pace of the visuals in the animated episodes in The Reign of Terror jars horribly with the recorded parts of the story, it suddenly feels as though the same story is being realised with modern camera techniques (fast zooms, rapid cuts). Also some of the facial approximations are iffy and in places look lumpy and misshapen, almost as though they had been sculpted out of clay. It's hard to focus on the details of the story (and unfortunately episodes four and five are the most plot heavy of the whole piece) when you are so distracted by the animation. It's not all bad news though, the way the animators 'light' some of the scenes are stunning and there is a real fluidity to the work that makes them feel like they fly by. Unfortunately that means we return to live action in the final episode and it feels like the story has grinded to a terrible halt. There has clearly been a great deal of effort that has been put into this animation but I wonder if it isn't a little too complex a job, the uncomplicated artwork on other stories does the job much more effectively. It is a bit of a relief when the story moves back into live action, if only to witness the nuances in the performances.
*   Of course Leon turns out to be the traitor. Who else could it be but the handsome, dashing man who has got Barbara hot under the collar?
*   One of the problems with The Reign of Terror that becomes abundantly more obvious as the story inches towards its conclusion is that the Doctor and his companions aren't instrumental in the machinations of the plot. Like The Crusade in season two events would play out pretty much as they do if the TARDIS had never landed in 18th century France. The plot bubbles on regardless of all the escape/capture escapades that the travellers are indulging in. It's hard to get properly involved in the story when the regulars, our identification figures, are teetering on the edge of the narrative just trying to get away. 
*   James Cairncross is painfully wooden as Lemaitre, coming across more as a history teacher constantly blurting out exposition in a stilted way than a spy working undercover to aid the resistance against the revolutionaries. Strangely once his alias is stripped away his performance becomes even more dictatorial. 
*   Napoleon's late arrival feels far too tacked on rather than an integral part of the plot. Whilst this surprise twist at the end of the tale does liven things up for a moment (at least for the reveal), I feel as though he could have taken centre stage in this re-telling of the French revolution (even if Spooner would have had to have exaggerated his involvement in politics at this stage). If this were an episode of the new series you could count on this being the case. His name brings a certain weight with it and connects the audience with the period instantly.

The Shallow Bit: How dapper does the Doctor look dressed to the nines as a Regional Officer? You can't imagine him adorning the uniform of a lower class of officer, such is his ego (the outrageous feathers exploding from his hat are quite a sight). As soon as Barbara and Leon clap eyes on each other there is an instant attraction between them, haring wine and barely breaking eye contact. She has a habit of turning the heads of the more attractive men they meet on their travels, such is her charm and natural beauty. She even manages to make the look of a serving wench come off as sexy.

Result: An enjoyable foray into the French Revolution, albeit one that would have had much more impact as a tightened up four part story. The first episode is genuinely exciting and packed full of shocking incident but after that things do slow down a little, content on exploring the innards of the political situation whilst indulging in several episodes of escape/capture antics. Fortunately this story features the original TARDIS crew and so, Susan aside, there is a great deal of entertainment to be had watching the Doctor affecting a pompous disguise, Ian sniffing out a traitor and Barbara barely escaping the guillotine and being seduced. The production is sound with some detailed sets and a memorable score and Spooner turns every one of his characters into real people with some cutting and amusing dialogue. Pacing is in issue as the story progresses though. As fun and as charming as his exploits might be on the way to Paris, had the Doctor wound up there in episode one the whole story would have wrapped up a lot quicker. Once the plot has been all but tied up and we have reached the final episode it is basically a half hour long sitcom sketch with Napoleon visiting a tavern which feels like something of an anti-climax after what has come before (although it is the first example of the historical celebrity in Doctor Who). My biggest gripe (as ever) is Susan who is about as useful as a cat flap on a submarine, screaming and wailing an sniffling her way through the story and failing to contribute anything useful. Her cards are officially marked. Like many a classic Doctor Who story it could do with its flabby bits cut aside to shape into a more dynamic, substantial piece but if you watch this in two episodes chunks you'll probably come away thinking you have seen a reasonably accomplished slice of drama. One of the weaker historical stories in my book but considering my passion for them that isn't exactly a criticism as this still has much to recommend it. I would rather watch the efforts of Spooner than some of the creaky SF polluting much of the next season, although he does a much better job of handling this genre of Who next year in The Romans and The Time Meddler: 7/10

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Girl in the Fireplace written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Euros Lyn


This story in a nutshell: He was a Time Lord from Gallifrey and she was the King of France's lover...

Mockney Dude: One David Tennant's more assured performances in his first season, The Girl in the Fireplace offers the actor an opportunity that no other performer in the part has ever had before, a chance to play the Doctor involved in a love story. He rises to the challenge magnificently, producing a charismatic and sexy Doctor who is as convincing protecting a little girl from clockwork soldiers in her bedroom as he is seducing one of the most important figures in pre-revolutionary France. He does gabble and get a little hysterical in parts (What do you want with a little girls mind?’) but on the whole this one of his shining moments in season two, thanks to a sparkling Steven Moffat's script that gives lots of wonderful things to do. The moment the Doctor, Rose and Mickey step out of the TARDIS and start exploring I am transported back to the height of the classic series; a smart, sexy team, an intruiging location and a thought provoking mystery. It could be the Doctor, Sarah and Harry on Nerva Beacon. Or the Doctor, Polly and Ben on Vulcan. I love how he invents technobabble to save himself saying ‘magic door.’ He does not seem to age which Reinette finds incredibly impolite. It’s a common complaint in Moffat scripts but he cannot seem to find companions that don’t wander off. Life with him means an end to average days but then I guess that is a given when you are travelling through time and space in a police box. It’s fantastic when the intrusive Doctor probes Reinette’s mind, thinking he is fully in control when she returns the favour and gets the rarest of opportunities - access to the Doctor's thoughts and his insecurities. No wonder he finds her so intoxicating, they have nothing to hide from each other any more. I like the idea that he was a lonely little boy on Gallifrey, an outcast. Lonely then but even lonelier now despite being surrounded by people all of the time. Take a trip back to the Graham Williams era and you were seeing sequences as slapstick and joyful as the one where the Doctor pretends to be drunk to get close enough to the droids to incapacitate them. I could imagine Tom Baker playing that scene quite naturally with a few little tweaks. If Moffat was trying to make the Doctor look as heroic as possible he sure succeeded as he comes bursting through the mirror on horseback. By this stage I was already more than convinced of Tennant's suitability to the role but if there had been any doubt this would have sold it to me on its own (and all he had to do was wink). Aside from his period of exile on Earth there has never been the need for the Doctor to even consider settling down. That's simply not his bag. So it is fascinating to see his weary acceptance of his grounding once the portals back to the ship are all sealed up. It’s interesting to see how much he is looking forward to his life with Reinette, it is the one adventure he has never been able to experience and now he finds it pleasing that it is foisted upon him. This is not the last time the idea would be touted this year (The Impossible Planet sees the Doctor and Rose having a remarkably awkward conversation about settling down together) and it is one that the new series would go on to favour during the Eleventh Doctor's era (The Lodger, The Snowmen, The Bells of St John, The Time of the Doctor). This is the first time we get to experience a lovesick tenth Doctor and it works so well here it is no wonder Davies favoured it so often. The difference in approach between Moffat in The Girl in the Fireplace (the funereal atmosphere of the last few scenes, the subtle reaction of Tennant in the TARDIS reading the letter, the absence of a goodbye scene) and Davies in Doomsday (massive fireworks as the the Doctor and Rose are torn apart as dramatically as possible, long reaction shots of them crying, the agonised performances of Tennant and Rose on the beach) couldn't be more different. I wouldn't condemn either though, they both brought tears to my eyes.

Chavvy Chick: There is a world of difference between Rose's jealous behaviour in School Reunion (she's like a kid who has had her sweets taken away) and in The Girl in the Fireplace where it is mostly portrayed through subtle reaction shots. It is an unfortunate juxtaposition to have the two stories placed back to back, not only because you will compare the two and one will ultimately come up short but also because it seems to be really pushing Rose the Green Eyed Monster. I am not the biggest fan of Rose in season two anyway but having her act anxiously and possessive two stories in a row was hardly the best way to intensify her appeal In season one it was Rose who was in total control, making the Doctor jealous more often than not and I prefer it that way round, she seemed so much more sassy when playing him on a long string. Moffat was extremely adept at pushing that approach in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Despite this, Billie Piper plays Rose's anxieties far more sensitively here than the playground pushing and shoving of School Reunion (as funny as that was). I really like how Rose swallows down her feelings and comforts Reinette when she is confronted with the world of the future. It's also nice to see that Rose is the seasoned traveller and showing the ropes to Mickey, it’s a lovely dynamic that I wish had continued throughout the season. Watch as she puts her arms around him to comfort him as he looks out into space for the first time. Rose’s quiet vigil by the broken mirror fearing that she will never see the Doctor again is very touching and a far better expression of her love for him than the melodrama to come. Even at the climax she can see how devastated the Doctor is to be separated from Reintette and quietly pulls Mickey out of the way so he can be alone to read his letter. It’s quite a sophisticated way of exploring the theme of jealousy, one of my least favourite characteristics.

Cheeky Monkey: Moffatt writes a great Mickey so it’s a great shame he would never get to do so again. I love how much of a realist he is because he is not as obsessed with the Doctor as Rose is…he asks the question ‘where’s your precious Doctor now?’ when they are in danger. The Doctor makes several lovely digs at him (see sparkling dialogue) which makes you want to cuddle him even more. He thinks in terms of special effects, which as seasoned science fiction fans we would also do – the idea of somebody looking out at the universe and considering it 'realistic' says a lot about today's culture. His little scream as the eye on a stalk leaps at him is lovely too, proof that it isn't just the ladies who shy away from danger on these travels. I don’t think the tenth Doctor, Rose and Mickey are the best combination we have ever seen (Donna is my favourite with Tennant and I think both Piper and Clarke worked better with Eccleston) but this is certainly a very strong showing for all three. The next story will pervert this threesome into something quite ugly and uncomfortable so enjoy the fun while it lasts.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Can you smell that? ‘Yeah, someone cooking.’
Who the hell are you?’ ‘I’m the Doctor and I’ve just snogged Madame de Pompadour!’
‘What’s a horse doing on a spaceship?’ ‘Mickey, what’s pre-revolutionary France doing on a spaceship? Get a little perspective!’
‘You’re not keeping the horse!’ ‘I let you keep Mickey!’
‘There is a vessel on your world where the days of my life are pressed together like the chapters of a book so that he may step from one to the other without increase of age while I, weary traveller, must always take the slower path?’ – that is just lovely, there’s the premise for this striking fairytale adventure.
‘One may tolerate a world full of demons for the sake of an angel.’
‘I’m not winding you up’

The Good Stuff: I automatically new we were onto something special when the pre and post title sequences mirrored each other, both beginning with the same magical star scape and one panning down on the court of Versailles and the other panning up to the SS Madame de Pompadour. Murray Gold’s music for this episode is so accomplished it can (and should) be listened to as a piece of classical music in its own right. The next time somebody complains that Gold is still scoring the show, stick the score for The Sea Devils on followed by the soundtrack to The Girl in the Fireplace and explore the differences in quality. I love how Moffat slaps two incongruous elements together to really grab your attention; the fireplace on the spaceship, the horse trotting down the corridor illuminated by artificial lights, the beating heart wired into the ship, Reinette in her ball gown surrounded by ugly technology. Any one of these moments pushes the magic of Doctor Who button, the juxtaposition of these elements is extremely appealing. Our glimpse at ethereal, ashen Paris is typical of this episode's attention to detail. A literal monster under the bed…Moffat loves preying on those childhood fears and the way the droid snatches at the Doctor from the darkness still makes me leap out of seat even though I know it is coming. Space age clockwork gives me chills; I am a shameless lover of horology and this intricately designed droid is a work of beauty. Look at how exquisitely detailed the sets are, they are vast and beautifully lit so you can drink in the elegance of the designs. A romance needs a great deal of opulence and the location work is elegant and alluring, perfectly in tune with it's tone. The scene where the droids terrorise the ballroom are so gorgeous to look at I forget that I am watching Doctor Who for moment; extravagant, artistic costumes and an exquisitely decorated hall (those chandeliers). I have seen big budget period movies that haven’t looked this good. The idea of cannibalising the crew for spare parts gives an otherwise delicate story a touch of the macabre. Sophia Myles gives a gentle yet imposing performance as Reinette and she is more than a match for Tennant. I have heard people suggest that she is quite wooden in the role but as far as I am concerned the key to a successful romance is the central relationship and the chemistry between the actors and the real life attraction between Tennant and Myles bleeds on screen during their scenes. When they are together a great episode becomes a classic, eyes longing, gently touching, playing with each other with words. The camera rushes down on Reinette’s mock execution like a guillotine blade, one of countless awesome directional touches by Euros Lyn. When the Doctor asks Reinette to wish him luck she lets out a quiet ‘No’ and his reaction speaks volumes. The director does an excellent job of capturing the elegiac mood after Reinette’s death; Lyn uses solemn light and much slower camera movements (the camera work is extremely fluid throughout except in these scenes). Has the console ever been lit as beautifully as it is in the last scene with the Doctor standing alone with the weight of feeling pressing down on him? The final shot explains what has been happening, simply and effectively. I miss Moffat scripts that are this subtle and concise without having to be overly clever and sexy.

The Bad Stuff: More of a comment on the period but those puffed out dresses really are some of the most impractical fashions ever to have appeared on Doctor Who. The sun keeps vanishing outside the palace depending on whether we are watching the Doctor or Reinette, proof that these scenes were filmed at different times. There’s a political dig about Camilla that I didn’t find funny at all (and please don't think that is me coming out in support of her). Sometimes political subtext isn't in order. ‘You wouldn’t want to mess with our designated driver’ – sometimes Rose’s dialogue is horribly stilted and she keeps repeating this horrendous line. Will they ever manage to pull of a pure historical?

The Shallow Bit: Rose’s hair looks so utterly fantastic crimped and when the light hits it it positively glows. I don’t want to harp on too much about Tennant but he really is gorgeous, it’s the dazzling charisma, the sparkling eyes, the fact that pulls of geek chic and has great hair. Do you remember when kissing the Doctor was a really huge deal? When certain members of fandom fell about themselves feeling betrayed because their hero had finally done the one thing that they couldn’t? Perhaps it is the context that matters, perhaps it felt tacked onto the TV Movie whereas it was integral to this plot (although I would vehemently deny the former whilst totally agreeing with the latter). Whatever, the Doctor’s snogging boys and girls these days and…shock horror, the world didn’t end.

Result: So much to say about the Doctor in 45 minutes. I think the testament to The Girl in the Fireplace should go to one of my mates who cannot abide Doctor Who and claimed that this, that she happened to have to watch because her little boy is in love with the show, was one of the most beautiful pieces of drama she had ever seen. The overall effect of Fireplace is just dazzling; it is so alive with inventiveness, so radiant in its confidence and the execution courtesy of Euros Lyn results in one of the most attractive looking Doctor Who stories ever. Should Doctor Who be attempting a love story? You might think not but the success (critical reception of this episode was extremely positive) of this episode is a good indicator of why Davies and Moffat have continued with he same approach countless times since. Personally I don't think it has been bettered since (although the split of the Doctor and Rose in Doomsday is very powerful) and it has become a little old hat (especially with the companions) but the accomplishment of The Girl in the Fireplace does at least explain why they have both been chasing its success ever since. Tennant and Myles share sizzling chemistry as is usually the case with off screen lovers who work on screen together (Tom’n’Lalla anybody?) but there really isn’t a performance out of place and this is one of Rose’s high spots in series two despite the fact that she is kept out of the action for the most part. A treat for the senses, this episode will whip up your imagination and your emotions into a giddy frenzy and cements Moffatt’s name as the one to watch: 10/10