Friday, 19 December 2014

42 written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Graeme Harper



This story in a nutshell: We've only got 42 minutes to save the ship...

Mockney Dude: The Tenth Doctor immediately takes charge of the situation on the Pentalion, it's a role he is very accustomed to fulfilling when there is danger afoot (and why it was so effective when he failed so spectacularly to succeed in Midnight). 42 is almost a dry run for series four's superb chiller, showing the Doctor at his most confident (striding about, tackling several dangers at once, being witty and clever and working out precisely what has been happening to make the sun so angry) but also at his weakest too (once he is possessed by said sun and tortured horribly). It's an acting tour de force for David Tennant who is so in stride at this point he's got swagger. He keeps all the characters focussed on tackling the immediate danger and not letting their personal feelings get in the way. There is time to get in touch with your emotions when your not going to be roasted alive. Only the Doctor would be insane enough to cling aboard the skin of a ship that is so close to a roasting sun and look into its heart. Tennant's hysterical, terrified turn as the Doctor being consumed from within by a violently angry sentient sun that has had its heart torn free is something to witness. It's quite an admission from the Doctor to admit to being this scared and the way he growls that he could kill them all is genuinely frightening. Chibnall might not be pushing himself in narrative terms but he takes the Doctor to a very dark place and allows Martha to take control, both intriguing innovations. For a moment at the conclusion he is quietly affected by how close to the edge he was brought in this story before snapping back into his usual persona.

Medical Student: This is technically Martha's first outing as a fully fledged, paid up member of the TARDIS crew and given Human Nature sees her relationship with the Doctor played very different and they barely feature in Blink it is the only time she gets to just land somewhere and have an adventure in this role (Utopia counts too but that is the opening instalment to her exit story). Martha is wonderful in 42, it's a great story to show what she can bring to the series as a companion. Apparently simply being the Doctor's assistant is something of a dirty word these days but I don't see anything wrong with having a strong female supporting character that isn't trying to usurp the titular character of this show on a frequent basis. Martha gets to be funny (her pained reaction to how long her mum takes to switch on her laptop in a life and death scenario), flirty (her tactile relationship with Riley) and brings with her oodles of energy  and charisma. All without having to shove the Doctor to one side and claim the show as her own. Martha's panic in the escape pod is palpable, Agyeman really going for it and giving a fearless performance. You get a real sense of the Doctor and Martha belonging together in a way that you have before when they reach out to each other across the vacuum of space. The fact that she can't here his repeated cries of 'I'll save you' is very touching. She realises that if she dies in the future that her family will never know what happened to her, she will have just disappeared. In a lump in the throat moment Martha tries to explain this to her mother (who is already suspicious that her daughter is in danger) without telling her anything tangible. With the Doctor in such pain at the climax, Martha gets the opportunity to save his life for a change and try and salvage the situation. She has more than earned her stripes at the end of this adventure, giddy at the thought of being given the key of the most wonderful craft in the universe.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Well done, very hot.'

The Good:
* Doctor Who has featured so many spaceships in it's time that you would need an entire universe to cram them all in if you were going to bring them together in one space. From the ship that ventured out into the Sense Sphere in The Sensorites in the first series right up to the train that screamed through space carrying in a homicidal Mummy in the most recent one, we have been taken through space in an astonishing assortment of space craft. To make a space vehicle unique is quite a tough task to pull off in modern times because everything has been done before. However 42 has a unique setting in Doctor Who terms. This isn't a gleaming, pristine sexy space craft, instead it's a tired, worn out, industrial, dripping with grease and grime, hissing with steam and saturated with light so bright from the nearby sun that it hurts the eyes. The visuals are quite stunning and the actors are made to look hot, sweaty and uncomfortable as they dash about trying to prevent the ship from being swallowed by the sun. There were many things that impressed upon me when I first watched 42 but the superbly realised setting (especially the vivid lighting) was paramount.
* The extended effects shot along the hull of the Pentalion as it is helplessly dragged into the corona of the sun convinces the viewer of the danger that the Doctor and Martha have found themselves in. The immediate peril means that the story gets its claws into you almost instantly and never lets go until the climax. Telling a story in real time across 42 minutes brings with it a lot of problems, not least not being able to take any narrative short cuts - you have to experience every action that the characters go through in this dramatic three quarters of an hour. But it also means that time is of the essence and there is always a palpable sense of danger. I think Chibnall and Harper pull of this immediacy with some skill, maintaining an incredible pace and stifling atmosphere.
* On paper the idea of Martha having to answer a pub quiz to prevent a spaceship from bring roasted alive and phoning home to her mother in another galaxy and time period to google the answers is absurd but on screen it transforms into something funny, touching and ominous. It's wonderful to have more scenes between Martha and Francine because they are needed to show just how much her mother cares for her (all she has offered her so far is scathing disapproval), it's amusing to hear Martha make up excuses for why she needs the answers and what the death rattling screams are in the background and the season arc is brought into sharp focus when we realise that the calls are being monitored for the mysterious Mister Saxon. Bravo on taking a potentially ropey idea and pulling it off with so much confidence that it becomes one of the most entertaining aspects of the story.
* If you want to see what Graeme Harper brought to Doctor Who then watch the five minute sequence that sees Martha and Riley evacuate the ship in an escape pod. The pacing is outstanding, the visuals a delight and the reactions from the actors really drag you in. The scene suggests that Martha is safe in the escape pod before it starts undocking, then they manage to abort the sequence and then it spits them from the ship anyway. It's a rollercoaster and it has nothing to do with the central narrative. From sheer panic and volume to silent screaming as the Doctor and Martha are split apart by the vacuum of space. A fantastic set piece, one of those rare occasions that they manage to make space seem very scary in Doctor Who ('...the prettier it looks, the more likely it is to kill you').

The Bad: You could complain that the supporting characters (McDonnell, Vashtee and Riley aside) are little more than canon fodder but there is nothing wrong with that in a story that has so much to do and so little time to do it in. Enough of the guest cast are given back story and the rest are there to die in spectacular ways (people should better than to say 'kill me now' in a Doctor Who story) and show how dangerous this creature is. They perform that function admirably. Michelle Collins does everything that story requires off her and it isn't what you could call a bad performance (in the Jenny Laird meaning of the word bad) but I could think of tons of stronger actresses who would have been able to have play the tough space captain with a heart. She's okay but the character thread would have had more impact had it been brought to life by an actress with more chutzpah.

The Shallow Bit: The lighting is very kind to him but a greased up, whiskered Riley is quite the hottie. You can see why Martha is attracted. Come to mention it how gorgeous does Freema Agyeman look stripped down and lit by the furnaces that belch smoke throughout the ship? To my mind she is still the most gorgeous NuWho companion.

Result: 'Burn with me...' Oh Graeme Harper, how much do I love you. Without his dynamic, stylish direction I think that 42 would be quite a different beast but with Harper at the helm it manages to transcend some hokey clichés and become a strong standalone that pulls off a vibrant narrative in real time. This isn't a deep and complex Doctor Who story or a cerebral and thoughtful piece (you've got the triple whammy of Human Nature, The Family of Blood and Blink up next to fulfil all those requirements), all 42 wants to do is scare the pants off you and provide an hour of high octane entertainment and it reaches that goal and then some. Thanks to some gorgeous atmospherics (especially the stunning lighting), strong performances and a palpable sense of danger throughout, it is easy to be dragged along with the excitement and revel in the gorgeous production values that the show commands these days. This might not be the most intellectually stimulating Doctor Who adventure but it manages to maintain it's incredible pace, throws in a lively Doctor/companion combination and gets in touch with some powerful emotions at points too. Sometimes you have to simply react to a story rather than dissect it, which makes 42 an excellent first night performer but not so satisfying on repeat viewing. What this proves is what a loss Harper was to the show when Moffat took over. Lesser episodes in the past four seasons have been about as bland as Doctor Who comes but with Harper packaging what is essentially a run-around it gets a massive boost. Pause this story at any point and you are looking at a vivid image and I bet the kids loved it too. Adrenalin, panic and fear, that is the stuff that 42 is made of: 8/10

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Pandorica Opens written by Steven Moffat and directed by Toby Haynes



This story in a nutshell: All the world's a story... 

Nutty Professor: Still adorable at this point, Matt Smith is riding high on the success of his debut year. The awkward, geeky, desperately cute eleventh Doctor of season five is still my favourite version of his character (at Smith's too) before the rot began to set in (season six is responsible for a lot of problems in this era). Whilst the gentle pace of Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger afforded the eleventh Doctor the chance to enjoy some of his warmest character moments it is nice to ramp up the pace a little and see him trapped in an impossibly dramatic situation. Much of season five is quite quiet in terms of huge threats for the Doctor to face (the run from Vampires of Venice to The Lodger sees the Doctor squaring up to fish people, himself, Silurians, an alien chicken and a spaceship interface) and this is the chance to see how he copes under the pressure of the sort of danger that his predecessor dealt with week in, week out. Pretty damn well, as it happens. The much celebrated speech he makes atop Stonehenge to the collective menagerie of monsters that have shown up is a scene that celebrates how confident this character can be in the face of impossible odds. He does it all with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. He doesn't have any weapons, just a great deal of front. His 'look at me I'm a target!' and two thumbs up to Amy when they dash into danger are just gorgeous, the sort of simple character humour that the show forgot how to pull off in Smith's final year. There will be moments in subsequent seasons where Matt Smith will wow me despite the some of the material he is given but there is no moment where I was quite as thrilled by his performance as the final scene where he is locked in the Pandorica. The Doctor is completely at the mercy of his enemies, begging for them to listen to him as the universe falls apart. Matt Smith really goes for it, vulnerable and desperate, and I was quite literally on the edge of my seat.

Scots Tart: 'She's Amy and she's surrounded by Romans, I'm not sure history can take it...' Amy walks from the TARDIS drunk on her own confidence, tipping  wink to the Roman Army and impossibly smug in her certainty. My teeth grind at how appallingly self satisfied she is at this point. The mistreatment of the character in season six couldn't come quick enough. The Doctor points out that Amy's life doesn't make sense and the whole story is built around the mystery of how vacuous her back story is. Beyond Rory, we still don't know a great deal about the character (beyond the fact that she is stroppy and horny a lot of the time) but Moffat is acknowledging that that has been done for a reason. I still don't think it is the best approach to introduce part of a character with so many gaps - it makes it very hard to warm to them when you can't see what their motivation is or why they behave the way they do - but at least the repair work has begun. Come her final half season Moffat will have assembled a full character, it's just a shame that for much of her run she should be so lacking. Just before she is shot to death, Amy starts to behave like a human being. Go figure.

Loyal Roman: It's the first instance of the resurrection of Rory so the idea is still innovative at this point. You can't help but cheer at the re-appearance of the character and how Moffat plays it up to comedic effect, the Doctor completely failing to notice the impossibility of him being here. I'm glad they didn't go with the Doctor's 'it just happened, let's just except it' explanation (I think Moffat is preparing us for the magic tricks that he will pull off without explanation in the second episode) and there is a solid reason for him showing up by the end of the episode. The scenes that plays out between Amy and Rory at the climax are the first time I felt the tragedy of their relationship really clicked into place.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Everything that ever hated you is coming here tonight.'
'Remember every black day I ever stopped you and then do the smart thing, let somebody else try first.'
'No, we will save the universe from you!'

The Good:
* The pre-titles sequence is startlingly ambitious insofar as it walks through a myriad of the stories earlier in the season and re-acquaintens us with many of the characters that we met along the way. It's a culmination of Matt Smith's debut year, bringing together all the elements in such a way that makes them all feel connected. Either these vignettes were filmed during their episodes or plenty of the actors agreed to come back for small cameos but it was a delight catch up with Van Gogh, Churchill and Bracewell, the 'bloodah Queen' and River Song and see how they are linked to the Pandorica. At this point Steven Moffat is riding high on the success of his first year and revelling in all the elements that made it work. It feels as though a whole seasons budget might have been swallowed up in five minutes too, such is the expense that makes it on screen as we cut from one setting and one time to another. Bravo, it's the most grand and confident set piece in his entire run to date, all leading up to that potent image of the TARDIS exploding in the vortex as painted by Van Gogh.
* It's worth remembering that at his height Steven Moffat is capable of writing some very funny material and The Pandorica Opens is packed full of some of his funniest jokes; the stick person drawing left on the wall of River's cell, the insinuation that Jack's wrist has been cut off for his vortex manipulator (which would tie into the idea that he is the Face of Boe), the Doctor poking at Rory who cannot exist.
* The Pandorica is certainly given appropriate build up, billed as the ultimate prison for the most feared creature in the universe. I love how the story tries to trick us into thinking that there is something inside that wants to get out when in reality it is an empty casket waiting to be filled. I don't think anybody could have predicted quite where this story was going. It always feels like the story is building to something impressive with the clicking of the Pandorica's gears as it gets itself ready to open and unleash...what?
* Cinematic influences abound with stirring footage on horseback that reminded me of fantasy films such as Lord of the Rings and a secret entrance beneath Stonehenge that apes Indiana Jones. The soundtrack certainly thinks it is accompanying something more majestic than a small screen production and the astonishingly vast sets below ground concur. When we catch a glimpse of the Pandorica in the half light, draped in cobwebs and adorned with symbols it is a masterpiece of design.
* It's almost a shame that Moffat pulls every trick out of the hat for his first finale because he has nowhere to go in subsequent end of season spectaculars. Russell T. Davies got to a point where he pulled together all of the Doctor's friends across three series (Doctor Who, Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures) to take on the might of the Dalek Empire. The Pandorica Opens brings together all of the Doctor's enemies to joining forces against him. How can you possibly top that for sheer excitement? Subsequent season finales would go to the lengths of marrying the Doctor off, introducing a new Doctor and turning the Master into a woman for their kicks but nothing touches the sheer dramatic strength of a union between the most evil races in the universe. Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Tereleptils, Slitheen, Chelonians, Nestenes, Drahvins, Sycorax, Zygons, Draconians, etc. What could possibly be in the Pandorica that all these races want? How spectacular is the light show in the sky that represents all of these races screaming in and out of the atmosphere of the Earth, all waiting for the right moment to pick off the Doctor. Smartly the story makes us think that the Doctor has managed to convince the collection of nasties to bugger off when they are just waiting for the moment to spring their trap. The cracks in the skin of the universe are given some consideration. All of reality being threatened is enough for the Doctor's enemies to pool their resources and work together to defeat him because they recognise that it is his Ship that causes the calamity.
* To my mind this is still the best use of the Cybermen in NuWho. It works because the Cybermen are not the central threat of the story so not a great deal is expected of them and thus Moffat is able to surprise with some gloriously inventive and macarcbre moments as parts of a Cyberman come to life and attack the Doctor and Amy. The standout moment of horror comes when Amy is lashed at by the tendrils of a Cyber-head and when she grapples with the mask it pops open and a screaming human skull is revealed inside. I have always asked for the body horror of these creatures to be exploited and Moffat fulfils some of that desire in these visually delicious scenes. On first transmission I was screaming with delight. The head scuttling away to find its body and being plonked on top to make a complete soldier might be my favourite moment of the entire year.

The Bad:
* Whilst there are many, many things to praise in The Pandorica Opens, it is also the point where Moffat realises that he can do anything with the show and get away with it, almost to the point of smugness. The first recorded words in the universe being HELLO SWEETIE scrawled on a cliff face is the sort of self-satisfied nonsense that would pollute the next two seasons. 'I hate good wizards in fairytales, they always turn out to be him.'

Result: A huge round of applause for the final ten minutes of The Pandorica Opens, which builds to an incredible climax that has never been topped by Moffat since. The eerie mystery of River exploring Amy's house when she was a little girl, the goosebumps down the spine moment you realise that the entire story has been constructed out of a storybook in Amy's bedroom, the aching tragedy of Rory being revealed as an Auton and shooting the woman he loves, the drama of River trapped in the exploding TARDIS and the potent appearance of all those monsters who conspire to shove the most dangerous creature in the universe in the Pandorica: the Doctor. It's an astonishing vivid series of events and it never fails to thrill me. Moffat takes the epic climax of the penultimate episode to it's furthest extreme by destroying the entire universe, stars exploding as we pull away from the Earth. Never mind how the series deals with taking the story to such a compelling climax, just bask in the glory of a series that has so much gall. What impressed me the most was how gently so much of this is played; the scenes between Rory and Amy re-discovering themselves are underplayed and all the more affecting for it, the Doctor being imprisoned is filmed in slow motion with quietly sad music and the pull away to the imploding universe is a disquietingly undramatic and poetic image. This could have been overblown and pompous but instead it makes an impact by being subtle, despite how everything has gone to shit. Everything that leads up to that climax is pretty gorgeous too; the dynamic and frightening use of the Cybermen, the budget busting and ambitious pre-credits sequence, the enormity of the sets and the musical score. The only problem I have with The Pandorica Opens comes in the form of Amy, who irritates the hell out of me in season five but even she is shot dead come the climax so a massive thumbs up there too. Moffat might never be able to build up to this kind of a climax again but we can rest assured that for one year he pulled all the threads of the season together in a way that, if not besting Davies' bizarre ability to take the show to a breathtaking precipice, matched his predecessor. The antithesis of The Stolen Earth; subtle and haunting rather than bombastic and high octane and bringing together all of the Doctor's enemies rather than his friends, The Pandorica Opens is a quietly masterful and powerful episode: 10/10

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Time Monster written by Robert Sloman and directed by Paul Bernard



This story in a nutshell: A hallucinatory experience that feels very much like 'a real pippin of a dream!'


Good Grief: The Master has been a thorn in the Doctor's side for too long now and he is having apocalyptic dreams about him (this might just be the best shot sequence of the entire story, it is genuinely frightening and disorientating). You have to wonder why the Brigadier doesn't have the Doctor sectioned when he asks him to put out a worldwide alert for the Master because he saw him in a dream - not half an hour ago! All the bitching between the Doctor and the Master in episode four is highly amusing, especially when the Master switches the sound off to his scanner whilst the Doctor is in mid-rant. The Master is right, this Doctor cannot bear to not have the last word. Jo gets the chance to hear the Doctor's subconscious thoughts - what a shame we aren't privy to them too. Especially the ones he isn't proud of. Letts was very interested in making the Doctor a flawed character and takes steps to suggest that he has doubts and fears like everybody else. An extension of that is his story of the blackest day of his life, a poetic tale that he tells Jo to cheer her up when they are locked up and awaiting execution. He talks of a hermit who lived halfway up a mountain on Gallifrey that taught him the meaning of life simply by staring at a daisy. Both the hermit and his own doubts about his character would return to haunt him in Planet of the Spiders. The fable tells of the joy of being able to experience life through somebody else's eyes, a profound sentiment that we should all remember in our blackest moments. On the whole though, this is as bland as the third Doctor comes. He's lost a lot of the arrogance and coldness that made up his early persona and hasn't quite transformed into the charming rogue of his final two seasons. He's caught somewhere in the middle; an apathetic man. He's heroic only in the sense that it is expected of him. He does nothing that genuinely surprises.

Groovy Chick: I don't know how Katy Manning does it. At times she was written in such a patronising manner (well, I say at times but what I mean is in this story) but somehow she manages ride that wave of condescension and cling onto her dignity and stroll through the story a hip and independent young lady. Compare and contrast with Victoria, who wallowed in sexist clichés but didn't have the personality or charismas of Jo to burst free of it. Saying that the moment in episode one where the Doctor practically pats her on the head of getting a scientific question right (he sounds genuinely astonished) and deserves a conk on that mighty honker of his. The Doctor actually tells her it is her job to do as she is told. Apart from a brief moment when he believes the Doctor has been killed, Jo walks through the story completely unfazed by everything that is going on about her. Almost as if she is taking none of it seriously. I can't say I blame her but when even the most hysterical of companions stops giving a shit about proceedings and just seems to be hanging around for a laugh we're approaching unforgivable levels of nonchalance. Jo in her groovy Atlantean dress and hippy wig looks quite beautiful. There's a moment very similar to that of the one between the ninth Doctor and Rose in The Unquiet Dead in episode six, the Doctor apologising for bringing Jo to such a dangerous place and her telling him she wouldn't have missed it. She's the suicidal queen, throwing the TARDISes into Tim Ram because she knows she is the only leverage the Master has in stopping the Doctor from acting and defeating him.

The Bearded Wonder: The Master has had enough of this piffling little planet and is going for a grand finish, haunting the Doctor's dreams, manipulating time, attempting to ensnare time monsters and playing God in Atlantis. All in a days work for the half baked fruitcake with arsenic frosting. Plenty was asked of Roger Delgado during his three year tenure as the Master but this was the only time that he was written for in quite such a mortifying fashion - where the character wouldn't be out of place in a pantomime. It is a sign of what an astonishing actor that he is that he manages to overcome the cod-Greek accent, the grovelling and snivelling, the cheap tricks and maniacal laughter and still manage to keep his intact and provide a great time for everybody watching. Delgado is worth his weight in gold and nowhere does he prove it more than in The Time Monster, where everything around him has gone to shit and he still smells of roses. Pertwee was right to fear his popularity, the Master is every  bit as vital to this story's (limited) success as the Doctor, perhaps even moreso. Since this pretty much reaches Scooby Doo levels of naffness, it is a surprise to me that the Brigadier didn't rip away the Master's anti-radiation suit as soon as he entered the room wearing it. You'd think he would begin to suspect something when he started bellowing 'Come Kronos! Come!' An embarrassing slip on the Master's part who soon gets straight back into character. He wants control over the Earth and the universe itself - I'm not quite sure what he is going to do with it all but I'm sure it will be tediously overcomplicated and barmy. About as close as classic Who ever came to examining the Master comes in the exchange 'You're mad! Paranoid!' 'Who isn't?' It's the paranoid part that interests me. Of what exactly? We get to see a new shade of the Master's character when he turns on the seductive charm and climbs the ranks of Atlantis by promising dark romance to Galleia. I like how she falls for the sinister side of his character, he doesn't have pretend he is someone he is isn't to intoxicate her. She wants a bad boy in her life and when the creaky body of Dalios and the simpering poetry of Hippias are her best alternatives who can blame her? I don't think the Master has ever looked so smugly satisfied as he has the moment he sits in the throne at the head of Atlantis. A buxom babe at his side, guards to do his every bidding and the Doctor at his knees in chains. Turns out the Master would rather be killed than lose out to the Doctor - a belief that the John Simm Master would follow on with. The Master grovelling at the Doctor's knees a the climax is the most pantomime the character has ever dared to descend. Delgado almost gets away with it too.

UNIT Family: 'Greyhound Three - we're stuck in the mud!' Oh the irony of that statement. One criticism about the UNIT stories midway through the Pertwee era is that the whole organisation is supposedly starting to feel a little bit too cosy and indolent. Having Mike turn up at the start of the story and state that he hopes something dreadful happens soon because he is bored isn't exactly the most dynamic of introductions. It suggests that they just hang around between invasions and drink army cocoa and Benton's brew. Once upon a time this organisation could pull on impressive resources to take down any alien menace and now it is reduced to a bouffant-bothered Brigadier huffing because nobody will escort him to Prom, sorry to the demonstration of TOMTIT (it's a choice between Yates and Benton and one is duty officer and the other is heading home to knit a tea cosy). The Brig has been lobotomised to such an extent that he needs jolly Sergeant Benton to explain the science to him - how the mighty have fallen. It's not as if the TOMTIT technobabble is especially hard to grasp, even if you are a pompous military idiot. I think if you rosy up the Brig's cheeks, put a wind up key on his back and have him marching around banging drums in the background of scenes and he would look less of a goon than he does when getting involved with the action (his nadir comes in episode two when he unwittingly contributes to the explanation of Stuart's ageing but can't figure out how). If you are having a bad day you simply have to watch the second episode of The Time Monster with the commentary switched on. John Levene's solo effort is a joy to behold because he seems to think that this is some kind of forgotten gem and his personal contributions are the work of a skilled actor at the height of his powers. The pantomimesque trick that the Master attempts to pull on Benton in episode two is highlighted by Levene as an especially golden moment for his character. Note the urgency in episode three when the entire universe is in all probability going to ignite and the regulars pop back to Stuart's flat for marmalade sandwiches and a nice cup of tea. Despite falling for the most obvious of tricks, Benton is given some of his best material because he is allowed a little autonomy and lumbered with tweedledum and tweedledee (Ruth and Stu) and thus is able to appear decisive and gifted by default. Ultimately UNIT is so vital to the story they can be trapped like flies in amber for two whole episodes and completely miss the climax.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'That's the most cruel, most wicked thing I've ever heard!' 'Thank you, my dear.'
'It was the daisiest daisy I had ever seen.'

Dreadful Dialogue: I'm at a loss to explain how the dialogue is quite as nauseating as it is in The Time Monster - Barry Letts and Robert Sloman wrote three other (well regarded) stories and none of them consist of the sort of tongue twisting, beatnik, flamboyant discourse that pollutes this story. It feels like the writers have simply forgotten how people talk for six episodes...it's bafflingly apparent because there isn't a single other story in the era where such cod-modish crassness spews from the characters mouths. Watching the stories in order makes this one very much the sore thumb.
'Simmer down, Stu!'
'May God bless the good ship Women's Lib and all who sail in her!'
'You'll be consulting the entrails of a sheep next!'
'TOMTIT, that's what it's all about!' - Say that to the tune of Agadoo.
'That's alright, Prof. You go and enjoy your nosh. Leave it to the toiling masses.'
'It can swallow a life as quickly as a boa constructor can swallow a rabbit - fur'n'all!' - this might be the worst line in all of classic Who, a hotly contested field.
'Get on with it you seventeenth century poltroons!'
'Sorry about your coccyx, Jo.'
'How about curses, foiled again!'

The Good: 
* What a shame that Director Pervical has to become one of the Master's stooges because he gives as good as he gets when he first meets the renegade Time Lord - he could have been an amusing thorn in the Master's side rather than a snivelling brainwashed slave. He even scoffs at the Master's TOMTIT.
* When the whacky ideas start coming they manage to lift the story considerably. I love the idea of the chronovores, creatures that exist in the vortex and if let loose on our plane of existence would cause untold damage. Shame the execution lacks finesse but that doesn't take away from the strength of the idea. Creating a myth to tame reality when it has become unbearable works to explain how the Greek legends can worm their way into Doctor Who. . During the first third of this story the Master isn't engaging with the UNIT family at all, he's too busy running dull tests. The whole thing perks up considerably when they sabotage his efforts because it gives him the chance to fight back. Cue an attack on UNIT by a horseman in armour, Roundheads and the deployment of a V1 to take out the platoon of do-gooders. The Master having control over time to such an extent that he can draw in some of the most destructive weapons/soldiers throughout history and set them on his enemies is a lot of fun. More should have been made of it. Don't get me wrong, the scenes lack urgency and drama and the Doodlebug footage is in black and white  but it's some action and we should be grateful for it. Time Ram is an incredibly dramatic notion - two TARDISes occupying exactly the same space and causing utter annihilation. I bet that was a popular tactic during the Time War given both the Time Lords and the Daleks have time travel technology. I've heard many say that episode four is the nadir of the Pertwee era but it is my favourite part of the story (frankly it is my favourite episode out of the disastrous 16 episode run that makes up The Mutants-The Three Doctors). Like the transition between The Dominators and The Mind Robber, a one episode interlude was required in the TARDIS to help with the switch between the dreary contemporary Earth scenes and the am dram naffness of Atlantis. I especially love Letts and Sloman realising the potential of TARDISes within TARDISes long before Christopher H. Bidmead got a hard on for dimension transcendentalism. The loopy idea of having one ship inside another like a Russian Doll effect, constantly finding yourself in a loop of console rooms, is deliriously trippy. 'The TARDISes are telepathic?' 'Of course, how else do you think they communicate?'
* Thank goodness for the sudden cut to Atlantis in episode two to break the monotony. Filmed at Ealing, giving at a more polished look than the rest of the production to this point, it marks something of a turning point from all the dull explanations that have replaced any sense of drama or wonder.
* Am I the only person who likes the space age TARDIS design that appears in The Time Monster only?
* Dalios is the one element of the Atlantis scenes that excites because George Cormack is too good an actor to be sunk by the weight of the ungraceful dialogue. The character has a sharp wit, doesn't take anything seriously and questions everything. He's more than a match for the Master. He's the smartest person in the whole story and it might have been better had he stepped into the renegade Time Lord's life instead of Krasis. He would have single-handedly lifted the contemporary Earth scenes.

The Bad:
* Doctor Who is programme that has gone to far flung planets so it isn't always necessary for the characters to talk in a naturalistic way in order for you to enjoy the story. However if you are going to set a story on contemporary Earth (or in the near future) then it is a good idea that your characters have a certain degree of naturalism to them in order for them to convince. I can only put the lack of success of characters like Stu and Ruth down to the dialogue because the performances are generally fine (Wanda Moore pours on the scorn a little too much at times but on the whole she and Ian Collier are underplaying their parts). Ruth is a spokesperson for women's lib and that is her sole contribution to the story - if she isn't agonising over the lack of respect for women then she blends seamlessly into the background. I bet her husband is seriously hen pecked. Stu, as characterised, is even worse, a tussle haired hippy scientist with a line in hip language and an irritating knack of dancing around the room when an experiment is successful. I reckon he's into experimental drugs, puffing away on the fire escape when nobody is looking. No part of these characters convinces - I simply cannot imagine knowing anybody like either of them. And that's a problem when they are supposed to be the two normal characters surrounded by Time Lords and soldiers. I think Stuart's rapid ageing is supposed to enamour us to the character through pity but the fact that he looks like he is wearing a hideous rubber mask and how the story moves on from the consequences of his senility nips that in the bud.
* Don't get me wrong, the ability to transport things across the planet would be resourceful technology and a wonderful time saver but devoting two episodes to laborious experiments in a dreary institute to achiever something that is second nature on Star Trek is hardly a thrilling way to kick start one of the most ambitious of Doctor Who stories. First episodes are the bread and butter of Doctor Who, that stab of excitement in the gut as we head off on a fresh new adventure to anywhere in the universe. The Time Monster might be the only Doctor Who story that kick starts with its dreariest episode with far too many familiar elements that fail to excite. It lacks atmosphere, scares or interest. A far cry from where the season began. You would be hard pressed to figure where this story would end up give the weariness of the opening instalment. People complain about how long it takes for the Doctor to get involved in Revelation of the Daleks but he's irrelevant in episode one of this story too.
* With The Time Monster it becomes a game to spot things that amuse you to distract you from the general lethargy of the storytelling; the Doctor's insanely phallic TARDIS detector, the highly popular and much simulated 'we've done it!' dance, Bessie speeding down the road at a million miles per hour to a devil may care tune, how the Master pre-empts Chronos' every visitation with a bellow of 'Come Kronos, Come!' (note - don't try this during sex, it only invites awkward questions), how everybody gathers around the Doctor and watches in intense astonishment (except the Brig, who stands back as sceptical as ever) as he cobbles together his greatest invention out of a wine bottle, a cork, two forks and a cup of tea (this is the living embodiment of actors selling material that is beneath them), the random in-bred yokel who turns up to inform the viewer that the Doodlebug fell in this exact spot all those years ago and just happens to have a tractor on standby to drag the TARDIS out of the mud, Benton being turned into a baby wearing a nappy (which kind of suggests the adult version is too).
* It's no secret that some Doctor Who monsters don't quite live up to their fearsome reputation. What's not as widely accepted is that just as many do. However, when it comes to Chronos the train has well and truly fallen off the rails; a man trussed up in a white budgerigar costume and a roman helmet jammed on his head, hoisted up on a Kirby wire, flailing about and losing feathers and squawking like seagull that has spotted a fresh round of fish and chips. It's so appallingly unsuccessful you have to wonder why Barry Letts didn't gate crash the production and demand a reshoot. The success of the story does rather rely on the terrifying impact of the titular creature. This is the sort of horror that awaits us in the spaces between time. A good sprinkling of baking soda and they'll be exploding across aeons.
* I don't buy the idea that Atlantis was too ambitious for the show to realise in the early seventies - they had a pretty good stab at it in the sixties (and it was far more atmospheric in The Underwater Menace and not just because it was shot in black and white, the sets were genuinely more impressive) and managed to carve out a convincing corner of the universe in Frontier in Space (including several planets, palaces, prisons, spaceships, etc). The truth is as is so often the case in Doctor Who that it is the end of the season and the money has been spent already but despite all that the producer still wants to try and pull of a spectacular eleventh hour coup. We are left with a humiliating attempt at trying to pull off the scale and the majestic design of the ancient city but what ends up on screen looks like a shoddy am dram set complete with dubious extras and a cod-mythical score from Dudley Simpson. Despite its reputation for looking this tacky every week the truth is the set designers normally produce magic with their meagre budget but in this case the results make the show appear insolvent. The lighting is the biggest sin, it is over lit so every deficiency is evident and every drop of potential atmosphere is bleached away. It brings the flatness of a BBC studio into sharp relief. Aidan Murphy playing every scene with robotic over emphasis doesn't help, nor Ingrid Pitt's disinterest (in everything except bedding Roger Delgado, naturally). The costumes are spankingly clean, the wigs preposterously lustrous and mock-Shakespearean dialogue so extravagant it made my toes curl. Rarely has a setting in Doctor Who lacked this level of conviction, I could not believe in this society on any level (check out the appalling attempt at a backdrop of the sprawling cityscape over Dalios' balcony). Just when you think it can't get any worse, the bloody Minotaur shows up! Half man, half bull; it's a muscle bound actor with a pantomime bulls head (slick with Vaseline) dumped on his head going 'rrrawwwrrrr!' At least The Mind Robber had the sense to keep the mythical beast out of shot for the most part, terrifying with its shadow. The Time Monster goes all out and has the Doctor waving his red rag to the creature. Add some meekly falling polystyrene boulders, an unconvincing lightning effect and Chronos flapping his fluffy wings to complete the disastrous effect. The Fall of Atlantis, indeed. I had no idea it was so unremarkable.
* Is there a climax to this story? To my mind it just sort of stops. Chronos turns out to be quite lenient in the end and lets all the silly little mortals get on with their squabbles. If she was never a threat in the first place, what the hell was this story all about?

Result: People seem to queue up around the block and ask 'what went wrong?' when it comes to The Time Monster. Technically it should have everything going for it. The writers of The Daemons, The Green Death and Planet of the Spiders, the director of Day of the Daleks and Frontier in Space, Terrance Dicks at the height of his powers, Jon and Katy settled into their relationship, the UNIT family plus the Master, a script bursting with ideas that can encompass everything from TARDISes within TARDISes and a trip to Atlantis and an attempt to craft an end of season spectacular. Why then does this have such a gutter reputation? The general lethargy in the production is mostly to blame, I think. It infects everything from the writing (the dialogue lacks urgency, the plot lacks drama), the performances (everybody involved acts as though this is a jolly romp rather than an end of season spectacular) and the direction (which is flat, lacking atmosphere and quite unimaginative for the most part). Something might have been salvaged had one of these problems struck but the coming together of all three creates a feeling of this story being made up on the spot by a team of regulars (including the production staff) that are far too comfortable with each other. For a story that finishes a universe away from where it starts, The Time Monster feels startlingly unambitious and lackadaisical. It's the story you can stop and point it if you are one of those people that suggests that the Pertwee era lacked any urgency potency. The contemporary Earth scenes are so unimportant that all the characters that make up the first four episodes are written out completely when the action moves to Atlantis, only to return for a token gag at the climax. The Ancient City is realised so inadequately on every level you have to question whether the production team is in desperate need of a shake up. When Inferno is the ultimate expression of Sherwin's exiled on Earth format and Atlantis represents the production teams desire to get away from that, you have to ask who had the right approach. And look at all the embarrassment along the way; Bessie's super drive, TOMTIT, a thick as shit Brigadier, baby Benton, the Minotaur... The Time Monster is one of those rare Doctor Who stories where nothing comes together and you genuinely question your love for this silly old show: 3/10

Friday, 12 December 2014

Revelation of the Daleks written by Eric Saward and directed by Graeme Harper

 

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and Peri visit a planet devoted to the dead...

Theatrical Adventurer: Some have argued that the sixth Doctor does take something of a back seat in Revelation of the Daleks and that this has something to do with Eric Saward's casting of Colin Baker as the Time Lord. Both may be true but I don't think that it detracts from the story as a whole. Colin Baker's Doctor is such a wonderfully dominant figure in every other story in his tenure that a one-off story where he is sidelined in favour of a superbly drawn guest cast is no bad thing. It also helps that the half of the story that he does feature in prominently sees some of his finest characterisation and certainly one of Baker's most charismatic performances. I love the respect that he shows to the mutant, gently holding his hand as he dies in his arms despite the fact that he has just attempted to kill him. This is a Doctor that because of his extremes of personality is capable of surprising you when he is tender. There have been few scenes so perversely engaged in the double entry in Doctor Who then that of the Doctor and Peri climbing over the wall ('I rarely use it...').  Stengos, like Azmael, Magellan and Tonker Travers, is another character that we have never heard of before but has apparently played a pivotal role in the Doctor's life before. There's no reason to assume that everybody that we have encountered with the Doctor are the only people he knows - he surely has off screen adventures (look at all those novels for a start). It's nice for the sixth Doctor to be drawn into an adventure on a personal note for a change, to look out for a friend rather than t repair some piece of the TARDIS. Colin Baker excels at the moments where the Doctor is confronted with something that haunts him (remember his reaction to the end of the universe in The Two Doctors) and he delivers a genuinely traumatized turned when the Time Lord has to face the possibility of his own death (in keeping with the theme). The thought of never again regenerating and that this is where his body will end up, it's the events of The Name of the Doctor in a microcosm. Apparently it would take a mountain to crush an ego like his. The Doctor/Davros confrontation in episode two is one of the greatest scenes of the eighties, both characters given the chance to shine verbally and the Doctor in particular coming to the fore as a moral character who wont stand for Davros' revolting scheme. It's witty, dramatic, grotesque and hugely entertaining. What a shame they didn't get more time together (go and listen to the Big Finish audio Davros for more magic from this pair). The quiet moment where he sits with Orcini at the climax and allows him the dignity of killing himself without objecting might be my favourite sixth Doctor moment and he doesn't say a word.

Busty Babe: Proof, if it was needed, that Peri can work extremely well as a solo companion, that she compliments this Doctor perfectly and that the pair of them can get on. Saward is clearly as bored with all the griping between the pair as everybody else (mind you he was the script editor, he had the power to do something about that a long time ago) and presents a far more effective pairing; playful, considerate and sparky. There's a sly piece of continuity in the opening scenes, harkening back to the Doctor's newfound vegetarianism thanks to the events of The Two Doctors. Peri does not approve, especially of the Doctor's ghastly nut roast rolls. Her botany degree is given some consideration again and she mentions that her grades aren't exactly spectacular - there is an effort to make Peri less of a cipher and more of a person. The scene where she beats the mutant to death to save the Doctor and feels remorse for behaving so savagely could have been hideously overplayed but instead is hauntingly played by both Bryant and Baker and shows the Doctor comforting his companion at a disquieting time. This is the first time Peri has had to kill in order to protect the Doctor. Tellingly Peri admits that the Doctor is a close friend when she thinks that he is dead, a sign of how far they have come since his regeneration. Her scenes with the DJ are vital for her growth, showing her homesick for America that would continue to be explored in the next season.

Scarred Scientist: 'It is an offer that must be fulfilled through blood! Show me your total obedience and kill Jobel!' My personal favourite Davros story. I can sympathise with anybody who might disagree and put forth Genesis of the Daleks of Big Finish's Davros as a alternative (because they are both top dollar too) but for me this is the story that does the most interesting things with the character and presents the most shades. Not only does he live up to the ranting old loon of repute he is also teasing and hilarious, sadistic and manipulative, intelligent and patient, blackly comic and terrifying. Terry Molloy cites this as his personal favourite because he had the chance to bring his voice right down and show a boarding, menacing side to the character that was absent in Resurrection. Early scenes of him sitting like a spider in the heart of Tranquil Respose and directing everything, chuckling to himself as the Doctor walks into his trap, are genuinely unsettling. When Davros has something to giggle about, be scared. He is forced into doing business with people like Kara ad tries to restrain his tongue when dealing with her, sometimes failing dismally. He's in hiding from the authorities and other factions of Daleks and so doesn't want his real name mentioned on open communications. Davros takes perverse pleasure in manipulating Tasambeker, he can see how weak and easily led she is and selects her because of it. He strokes her ego a little, tugs on her insecurities and then directs her to murder the man she loves to please him. It shows a new kind of sadism in the character, playing with peoples emotions for sick pleasure. He had no intention of upholding his promises - as soon as Tasambeker has seen Jobel off, Davros sends in the Daleks to polish her off too. He could have just have easily have dispatched a squad to kill Jobel too, he wanted to manipulate his victim into doing it for him for his own perverse gratification. He's drawn the Doctor to Necros to pull off another joke in awful taste, trying to convince the Time Lord that this is where he is going to die...and then attempting to kill him. He's lost his mind but there is still a keen intelligence shining through, directing all of the insidious threads of this story. I'm not sure if the Davros in the tank was a clone throughout or whether he put one in place as soon as he realised he was being targeted by Orcini but it's a marvellous surprise either way. Trust Davros to be so paranoid as to create another version of himself purely for the purpose of being blown away. His method of receiving universal acclaim (a nice reversal of his usual notoriety) is to take a starving universe, develop a way of luring in the dead, turning them into food and selling it back to them. He's had some revolting ideas in his time but that takes the biscuit. 

Grotesques: Such is the quality of the performances and the dialogue that I feel compelled to give the astonishing guest cast in this adventure a section of their own. It might be predictable to say that they are split into Robert Holmes style double acts (no he wasn't the first person to pair of strong characters against one another but he is responsible for some of the best double acts the show ever presented) but Saward's close friendship with Holmes and his sudden penchant for vivid character pairings is a remarkable co-incidence. When the usual Saward massacre takes place in the second episode you feel every death because these characters have the depth to go on beyond this story...

Few people could admit to have such a bloated ego with so little reason than Mr Jobel, the Chief Embalmer at Tranquil Repose. You'd have to search a long time to find a character quite this grotesque, drowning in his own self importance, convinced that he is something of a ladies man, insulting, flirtatious, lecherous and turncoat. As soon as Jobel sets his sights on Peri nothing can hold him back. His charm has the same effect as repelling magnetic poles, she wants to run as far away from him as possible. Somehow he has caught the eye of Tasambeker, one of the supervising attendants. Jenny Tomasin's performance has come under fire in the past but this is one occasion where an uncomfortable turn isn't a problem - that is the whole point of the character. Dumpy and awkward, she is the obsessive sort who takes out her frustrations with herself out on other people whilst fawning over somebody out of her reach. She's a character that you both despise and pity, not an easy mix to pull off. It's ironic that this doomed love match should end up with a pair of scenes of both characters being killed and Jobel's fate at the hands of the woman he has spurned is perfect, his toupee falling off with his last breath revealing his hideous egg-like dome underneath. All his barely concealed ugliness revealed at his death. Perfect.

One of Sward's most bizarre characters is the DJ, an entertainer that is set up in Tranquil Repose to communicate with the those in suspended animation and keeping them up to date with current affairs and playing them music to make their lying in state an entertaining experience. Whilst his public persona is all overdone humour and in yer face broadcasts, he makes snide and sarcastic asides to the bodies at times that reveal a much more complex character. I think I would be far less forgiving of such an outrageous character (I know some people who wont give this story a chance simply because of the DJ) if it weren't for his gorgeous scenes with Peri in part two where he is revealed to be quite a shy, bashful man. He's confident and charismatic when behind the microphone, adopting the persona of old American DJ's (he'll adopt every persona from Elvis to a stoned out student) but in reality he is quite an unassuming man. I imagine a lot of actors to be like this.

There are also a pair of grave robbers in town, Natasha and Grigory, the former who is trying to find out why the courts were so unwilling to give her fathers body back. Saward uses this pair to suggest that something very sinister is going on, performing the Doctor's role in episode one of investigating the dark underbelly of Tranquil Repose. These two talk in typical Saward macho dialogue but I do love the occasional moment of morbid humour that Grigory brings to the table ('You forget I'm a Doctor, when they slice me open I'll know the name and function of each organ that plops out.').

Saward manages to further carve out this vivid slice of the universe with the use of Kara and Vogel, a shrewd businesswoman and her secretary who are responsible for the processing and shipping of Davros' product. With this pair there is the suggestion that there is a much larger world out there in Necros beyond Tranquil Repose, an industrial nightmare headed by officials with entangled relationships and secrets of their own. With very little help in the way of the script, Eleanor Bron and Hugh Walters manage to suggest that there is far more going on beneath the surface between this pair. The scenes between Davros and this pair are wonderfully entertaining in episode once he realises that she has sent a hit man after him, talking politely about potential dangers but knowing that they are the only danger to each other. The longing look that Vogel gives Kara when he is blasted by a Dalek suggests great regret at the life they could have had with Davros out of the way. Isn't it wonderful how Davros forces Kara into admitting that she sent Orcini to murder Davros with a great big bomb and thus signs her own death warrant? Since when did Davros getting the upper hand become so delightful?

The corner of the galaxy that this story portrays is further expanded with Orcini and Bostock, a pair of assassins hired by Kara to take out Davros. Steeped in honour and looking for glory, these two could easily have been macho clichés but thanks to a pair of subtle performances, especially from William Gaunt, who imbues Orcini with a courteous stillness that somehow makes his history as a professional murderer even more convincing. It is the relationship between the two characters that us again so interesting, a pupil and a mentor but it seems to go much deeper than that. There is a respect between them that suggests a long partnership and Orcini's quiet and understated stroking of his squire's head after he dies and he is about to commit suicide speaks a thousand words. Interestingly as soon as Bostock is dispatched by a Dalek, Orcini is happy to throw his life away too.

Probably the least interesting are Takis and Lilt because they are portrayed as little more than violent thugs (well Lilt is, Takis usually stands back smugly and let's it happen) but once again they are terrifically cast. The most interesting thing about this twosome is their apparent turn at the climax, suddenly becoming the good guys after spending the story roughing up characters, going at them with knives and alcohol and fists. Clearly Lilt is a little deranged ( Takis is no better, setting him on people like a guard dog) but were they simply reacting to a restrictive situation set up by Davros? Will things genuinely be more productive with these two in charge?

Sparkling Dialogue: I could recite half the script, but these are my personal favourites...
'I hope they're on time, she's already started to froth.'
'I killed him...and he forgave me. Why did he have to be so nice about it?' 'You had no choice.'
'You've got a wife and half there, George. They found a cure for Bex syndrome forty years ago. Still, it would be interesting to know what she's really doing with the money.'
'There will be no drinking, swearing or smoking of herbal mixture in the presence of the deceased...'
'Those rose red ruby lips were made for kissing...' '...but not by you' 'I love a woman who plays hard to get' 'Then you'll love me to death!'
'Serve me with your total being and I shall allow you to become a Dalek...'
'I would rather run away with my mother than own a fawning little creep like you.'
'This is a highly directional, ultra sonic beam of rock and roll! It kills!'
'But did you bother to tell anyone that they might be eating their own relatives?' 'Certainly not! That would create what I believe is coined consumer resistance! They were grateful for the food...it allowed them to go on living.' 

The Good:
* Few things excite me more than seeing the TARDIS make a beautiful landing in a picturesque setting (I don't get out much) and the opening to Revelation of the Daleks is a particularly gorgeous example. Standing askew atop a snowy hillock, freezing mist battering its exterior. Graeme Harper sure knew how to get value on screen and the most out of his locations.
* I love the confidence of Saward's writing and how he isn't afraid to have two narratives co-incide briefly in the same scene without either of them meeting (such as the grave robbers dashing through the corridors of Tranquil Respose at the end of Jobel's rant about etiquette).  Or how he can shift tones so self-assuredly, turning the mutants attack into a touching warning of the shocking experiments that are going on on Necros. He's far more invested in his guest characters in episode one than he is in the Doctor and Peri (despite characterising both of them magnificently) but in order to pull that off there has to plenty going on and real complexities in the relationships. It's hard to believe that this is the same writer that brought us the surface-level depth of The Visitation and Earthshock (both stories barely contained characters) - with Revelation Saward has managed to brew up a whole world of nuanced characters, intriguing situations, engaging relationships and twisting loyalties. There are plenty of worlds in Doctor Who that seem specifically designed for the titular character to land in and sort out its problems. That is it's only function, to provide a setting for a Doctor Who story. Not so with Necros, this is busy world, populated with strange, perverse, wonderful characters and it's complexities exist whether the Doctor visits or not. The fact that the Doctor is kept out of the action for so long and this world keeps on turning in a fascinating way proves that. It's Saward's greatest achievement on the show.
* Not only is Revelation of the Daleks one of the funniest serials of the eighties but it is also one of the scariest too. It is packed to the gills full of horrific imagery and frightening moments that I'll give some consideration to here. The attack by the mutant a great example, a thrilling fight sequence that sees a blistered, blemished, salivating man come screaming from the darkened woods and threaten the Doctor and Peri. It's a revolting make up job  and the camera settles at the bottom of the snowy ravine so the Doctor and the mutant can come rolling dynamically down the hill. Truly this is the stuff of nightmares. Although not quite as much as the much celebrated sequence where Natasha discovers her fathers remains in Davros' laboratory of horrors. Lit from below in a pulsating red light, discovering brains suspended in tanks, Natasha and Grigory stumble upon a glass Dalek holding the sickening remains of her father. There is all manner of technology grafted onto his body and pulsating organs and offal smeared across his head - it is one of the most unpleasant sights in the series' long history. More insidious is the psychological implications of the scene, Natasha having a neat breakdown at having to murder her dad in order to protect him. It is impeccably scripted, acted and directed and one of the finest moments of horror in small screen science fiction I have ever seen. I've watched it dozens of times and it still gives me the chills. Stengos is bring turned into a Dalek in the most horrific way imaginable and the way he slips from caring father to mechanical killer (with excellent, rising music) is superbly acted. The assassinations begin in episode two and some of the murders are up close and personal.
* If you are going to write a Doctor Who story that revolves around the theme of death you have to be very sure of the tone you are going for. Saward settles for blackly comic and explores the theme in a number of entertaining ways. I love the idea that if you take a look at the numbers that the whole idea of Tranquil Repose doesn't work - there are simply too many people alive now for people to be stored and brought back once their terminal conditions are curable. And yet people like to believe that there is the possibility of going on and the relatives can live their lives safe in the knowledge that they have done their best by the loved ones...it is a shared delusion when secretly everybody probably knows the truth. That kind of pretence exists in our lives all the time and it's nice to see the most subversive Doctor Who story built around that kind of self delusion. The truth of the matter, though, is positively nauseating. Trust Davros to come along with a scheme that takes care of both over population and starvation in such an awesomely disgusting manner. Yes, that's right, he's turning the dead into food and delivering them back into the hands of their loved ones to nosh on. An idea so grim I am surprised it made it past the censors.
* It's no secret that Graeme Harper is considered one of the finest directors to have worked on Doctor Who, despite only having worked on two stories in the classic series his work really stood out as being more imaginative and dynamic than the directors around him. Some inspired moments of direction: shooting the Daleks from below (designed in cream and gold, looking sexier than ever) for maximum dramatic impact, another scene shot from below that reveals the disfigured state of the corpse told entirely from the point of view of Jobel's haunted face ('I suppose you can't make him look any worse...'), the sudden flick of a knife in front of Vogel's face, the Doctor looking straight into the camera that is posing as a security camera (but with no concessions to the fact until he looks straight at us), the sweeping camera work as the Doctor and Peri walk the steps up to the President's wife's death bed that takes in all the stylish detail of the set, the chilling Dalek eyestalk that comes into view as Tasambeker is offered immortality, the dramatic handheld camerawork as Tasambeker chases Jobel with the hypodermic needle, Davros' hand stretched out with Bostock aiming his gun slowly in the background, the sexiest computer voice in science fiction, plenty of explosive Daleks but especially the exploding glass one and the guard that erupts and parts of it flutter to the ground for an age.
* In Resurrection of the Daleks Saward simply used the creatures as assassins but he tries a completely different and far more insidious tactic in Revelation and thus manages to find new ways to make them Scary. Firstly there is the terrifying notion of people being turned into Daleks on their death bed and the psychological implications of that (dealt with in the transformation of Stengos). Then there is the idea of being offered that form of immortality as a reward. That's chilling. Davros sends a squad of Daleks to 'escort' Kara to him for her protection and it is loaded with ominous threat. Check out the menacing shot of them coming through the mist in the catacombs. Then there is the whole idea of a Dalek civil war, that is barely touched upon here but has massive implications. Finally I love the notion of Daleks being destroyed with music, the joy of which is something that simply could not comprehend. It is the perfect method to dispatch a Dalek because if they took over there would be no music. The Daleks get to murder a great number of the characters and I found the DJ's casual execution the most shocking, mostly thanks to Peri's horrified reaction.

The Bad: The transitions between floors are a neat idea but they don't really work. Tasembeker's 'Find the intruders!' has to be seen to be believed. I get that the Dalek voices are untreated to suggest that they are human...but they don't really work. The climax of the Daleks sweeping in and taking Davros away only feels unsatisfying because I was desperate to know what happened next - a sure sign that this story had sunk its claws into me.

Result: The fact that Revelation of the Daleks was the last story before the hiatus that was enforced on the show because the powers that be thought it was getting too adult is an irony that isn't lost on me. For one story only we enter a world of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, a world of lecherous old men drooling over pretty young things, where blood is on everybody's hands and funky music can be used as a weapon. Mentions of necrophilia, incest, alcoholism and murder. Fingers sliced away by laser beams, women stabbed in the gut, legs blown clean off, organs pulsing organs grafted onto heads, psychological torture and men being force fed liquor. It's a perverse, squalid world that fascinating characters inhabit, a setting that stretches far beyond the confines of Revelation of the Daleks, where the characters pairings have so much more to say than the little they do when they converge at Tranquil Respose. Each double act feels expertly crafted and is impeccably cast, so much so that it feels like a world that is populated by characters that could front a series beyond the trip Doctor Who makes to Necros. It's the perfect world for the Doctor and Peri to visit, a Doctor/companion pairing that has always been a bit more larger than life, because for once they are most subdued and normal characters in the show. I've waxed lyrical about Eric Saward's script and Graeme Harper's direction but both are so different from the norm in the mid eighties that they are worthy of great praise. Saward writes with absolute abandon, refusing to conform with the rules of telling a Doctor Who story and producing his finest work as a result. Harper packs every scene with visual interest, assembles a first rate guest cast that gets to grips with their characters and ensures that the whole piece is constantly moving, imaginatively realised and thick with atmosphere. A lot of credit for that has to go to the set designers and the lightning supervisor, there is far more much creativity in those areas than was the norm during this period. I have watched Revelation of the Daleks more times than I can remember and every time I do there is always something new that I spot, such is the complexity of how this has been put together. The sixth Doctor and Peri might be forgotten in episode one but their material once they join the action is their best and Davros has rarely been written as such a nuanced character, revelling in the madness of his own schemes and seen to be much more than just a one-note ranting villain. It's rare for everything to come together quite this perfectly for Doctor Who, it's even rarer for a story to achieve that and push the envelope quite as much as this one does. Revelation of the Daleks is a thrilling one-off in the season that also gave us Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors. It's a remarkable oddity and has stood proudly in my top ten ever since I first saw it: 10/10

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Death in Heaven written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay


This story in a nutshell: The dead are coming back and they have been upgraded...

Indefinable: Capaldi slips into Pertwee mode quite easily as he teams up with UNIT but manages to insult, baffle and contradict them at every turn. He is dressed for the part too so it's nice to see him live up to his predecessors role. I'm not sure about this President of Earth nonsense and I'm pleased that the Doctor looks unsure too. Like Pertwee he manages to run rings around them, chastise them but secretly seems to working with them. It takes a great deal to impress this Doctor, especially if you are a human being so for him to offer all of time and space to Osgood says an awful lot. I prefer this Doctor as a more thoughtful, contemplative man and so his James Bond stunts falling from an exploding plane into the TARDIS left me a little cold. Leave that to the younger boys, Doctor. You get back to brooding. The Doctor has been pondering on whether he is a good man or not for an entire season now and delving into the complexities of that question. The conclusion that he has come to in the final episode is that he is simply an idiot with a box and a screwdriver. I can't say that was exactly where I thought this was heading - I was figuring we were going to draw some complex emotional conclusion to all this therapy. Instead the Doctor realises pretty much what he knew all along. That he's a drifter, a helper, a healer. Well, duh. What really worked was the scene between the Doctor and Clara at the conclusion because all the fucked up science fiction nonsense that this episode sports has been dealt with and we are back to two people talking about their relationship. It feels very right that these two should hide their real feelings and pretend that they are okay for sake of the other and part amicably. There's has always been a dysfunctional relationship and it felt right that it should end on this warped and poignant note of pretence. A shame that this couldn't have been the end for them because it would have been a uniquely disquieting split. The Doctor's furious anger at being lied to about the position of Gallifrey, kicking the shit out of the console, was a real eye opener. I hope there is some fallout from that disappointment next year. He's got some scores to settle with Missy.

Impossible Girl: Clara is not needed until the climax in the graveyard and the episode spends an awful long time forgetting about her until then (aside from a brief trip back to the Neversphere where she is keeping up her Doctor ruse). It's a little strange because Dark Water invested so much time in the character and when watching the two episodes back to back it seems very strange to suddenly just forget about her completely for 20 minutes. Not only has lost the man that she loves but now she has to make the choice to kill him all over again. What a cruel decision to have to make. You might think that the writer enjoyed torturing this character? We get some insight into why Clara travelled with the Doctor: because it made her feel really special. She really has had an impressive overhaul this year. It's just a shame things couldn't have worked out better with Danny.

Fruit Bat: Ah, the Master. Or the Mistress. Or Missy. Or whatever we are supposed to call him/her these days. You see what a can of worms you have opened, Moffat? Do I have a problem with the Master regenerating into a woman? Not at all, in fact I find the idea rather a refreshing one for a character that has been pretty much done to death. Why can't Time Lords become Time Ladies? With the feats of science that this race have achieved I'm sure a little gender swapping isn't beyond them. Is this a backdoor way of seeing how well a female Doctor might be taken in the future? Perhaps, and with the near universal acclaim for Michelle Gomez's female Master I could well see that being a possibility in the future. The simple fact of the matter is it comes down to the writing and the performance, not the gender of the character. And one of the reasons that the first half of Death in Heaven was so enjoyable was getting acquainted with this nuttier than squirrel shit Mary Poppins versions of the Master. She's absolutely psychotic and embraces that madness whole-heartedly. Cold blue eyes piercing out of pale moonlight, whispering sadistic threats in the ears of our friends, casually taking lives of people we care about. As much as I enjoyed John Simm's childlike insanity as the Master he never frightened me in the way Gomez does when she murders Osgood. It's so calculated and yet unpredictable, I was on the edge of my seat. Simm's Master was so inextricably linked with David Tennant's Doctor that I cannot imagine the villain without his heroic counterpart (it was their relationship that was so interesting, not so much the character), Gomez stands alone as a formidable nasty. You can see the look of jealousy in Missy's eyes when the Doctor offers Osgood a place in the TARDIS - her cards were marked from that point on. The way she plays with Osgood, making the scientist believe that she has made a decent case for staying alive before killing her is heart in the mouth stuff. I didn't even mind it when she ascended from the heavens, literally playing Mary Poppins. I rather like the fact that she's taking inspiration from the practically perfect. The Master has always been a playful character and why should Missy be any different? Is this the last we have seen of her given that she appears to have been bumped off? Have you seen this show before?

Mr Pink: Danny Pink is resurrected as a Cyberman, a soulless automaton and I couldn't tell the difference between this and the man that has dragged his heels throughout this past season. That's probably the blackest joke of the year. It goes back to presenting a relationship that is fun and zesty and heartfelt...because that wasn't done with Clara and Danny so much of the tragedy that Moffat is trying to present in the graveyard scenes lacks any emotion. I honestly couldn't tell the difference between their conversation about switching off his emotions and their conversation earlier in the season about unruly school kids. We're being asked to care about this pair at the eleventh hour without being given a good enough reason to in the previous eleven episodes. His death felt perfunctory to me, something to tie up the plot and little more.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'You know the best part of not knowing? Not telling you...'
'How can you win a war against an enemy that can weaponise the dead?'
'I'm going to kill you in a minute...'
'Pain is a gift.'

Dreadful Dialogue: 'Hey Missy you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind, hey Missy...' - really?
'Permission to SQUEEEEEEEEEE!' - rivals 'I'm not your boyfriend' as the worst line to grace the series.
Danny's entire speech in the graveyard. Why would he need to make a big rousing speech to a bunch of emotionless automatons? It's almost as if he knew this was his swansong from a popular series and wanted to go out with some style. Logically, it's nonsense.

The Good:
* Kate Stewart throwing down the Invasion-style Cyber head gave me a little thrill.
* Flying Cybermen and a Travelodge. Sums up Doctor Who perfectly. The fantastical and the mundane, side by side.
* What a delicious, macabre idea it is to bring the dead back to life en masse. There was a real buzz of excitement in my house around the appalling concept of dead bursting free of their graves and turning on the living. It continues the themes that were mooted last week in a very in yer face fashion. What's the one thing more appalling than people being burnt alive and begging you to stop whilst it is happening? People being shoved back in their decaying bodies and brought back to life. Missy admitted that our dead far outweigh the living in terms of numbers and we wouldn't have a hope in hell if they were directed to slaughter us. The only problem that I have with the idea is the bodies being turned into Cybermen. Quite aside from the fact that this is their least terrorizing manifestation, just where do the constituent elements come from to turn those rotting corpses into metal men? Even if there is nanotech in the water, you would still need the basic materials for them to make a Cyberman. I find the idea of decomposing cadavers being animated far more frightening (like the one in Mummy on the Orient Express) but I don't think the audience is ready for an episode of The Walking Dead on BBC1 on a Saturday night. Saying that the shots of Clara wandering the moodily it graveyard with Cybermen slowly clawing their way out of the graves are exceptionally creepy. Rachel Talalay should certainly return.
* The scene in the morgue was wonderfully reminiscent of both The Moonbase (the Cyberman under the blanket) and The TV Movie (the rattling door).
* I loved every second of the action sequence on the plane and it proved without a doubt that Doctor Who can pull off cinematic action set pieces on a TV budget. These Cybermen are designed as evil Action Men and work much better when treated like that, performing impossible stunts. Seeing them gliding alongside the plane by use of rocket propelled feet and then smashing their way inside was desperately exciting, the sort of visuals we could only dream of in the classic series. I was floored by the moment when Missy caused the hull of the plane to tear asunder and Kate Stewart was ejected out into the vacuum, screaming. With Osgood murdered too it felt like Moffat had genuinely restored the pulse back to Doctor Who. It's not every day the show sports action like this and it should be relished whilst it lasts. I've heard complaints that the series favours 'the moment' over plot logic and that is a valid argument but when you have moments as dizzying as this it is hard to question the approach.
* The painting of the Brig on the plane was lovely, I wish this tip of a hat to the character had ended there.

The Bad:
* I don't want to be accused of being sexist but I'm not very keen on these sleek, feminine looking Cybermen that the Moffat era has developed. The idea for the redesign in Nightmare in Silver (spits in corner) was that they were smooth and slender so that they could run at incredible speeds. The redesign made sense in that context. Now they are slim line and curvy and yet still stomp around like the old cumbersome ones. When I think back to the original Cybermen with stitched together cloth faces and scream-like mouths this is a world away from that kind of blank horror. Nowadays they look as though they are built for marketing purposes. Frankly, I don't find them very scary and that is a bit of a problem when you are talking about the walking dead.
* This has been a year of pretty impressive pre-title sequences, gripping hooks that sink their claws in and never let go until the credits. Death in Heaven tries to pull off an audacious gag by suggesting that Clara has been the Doctor all along this season. It even goes to the effort of having Coleman's name first in the credits and her eyes replacing Capaldi's in the graphics. The trouble is I could well believe that this was the case. Clara has slowly become the dominant figure in season eight and it has done her character the world of good as a result. She even got to play the Doctor in Flatline whilst he was relegated to the TARDIS. Why not take this idea to its natural conclusion and come out and say that she is the Doctor and that strange Scottish fella is her companion. Unfortunately I was groaning under the weight of the possibility that Moffat (who has made some pretty whacko decisions of late, including adding a whole new Doctor to the shows mythos that we knew nothing about) might genuinely thinking of going ahead with this crazy notion. When it was all revealed to be a con I was left thinking thank goodness for that...and what was the point of it all except to be clever clever?
* People taking selfies with Cybermen? Suddenly comparisons with The Invasion seem irrelevant. What an appalling comment on today's society (and unfortunately an accurate one).
* Why does Kate Stewart talk in sassy quotes all the time. She's less of a character and more of a walking sound bite. Seriously, go and watch this episode again and try and look out for one natural piece of chatter from this character. The Brig was always on duty but I always believed he was a real person. Not so with his daughter.
* There were hints of the Big Finish adventure The Reaping (which made vivid connections between Cybermen and the dead in graves) and the DWM comic strip The Flood (the rain).
* Once the Cybermen have left their graves they amble around the graveyard in a discombobulated fashion, like rat-arsed punters after closing time. Hardly a terrifying threat.
* Missy brought the Doctor and Clara together because one day in the future she would ask him to take her to Hell? Was anybody else expecting a little bit more than that as an explanation for the woman in the shop? Does that mean Missy had a hand in Danny's death. If that was explicitly stated that would make a lot more sense. It would still be pretty underwhelming, but at least it would suggest some kind of pre-planned scheme to bring the Doctor to Missy. This does strike me as Moffat once again suggesting a great overall plan and then tossing a scrap of an answer just to tie up that loose end (see Time of the Doctor and the appalling wrap up of the Silence arc).
* Once Danny has been 'murdered' (i.e. had his emotions switched off) why didn't he kill Clara? Such a song and dance was made of this but instead he gives her the longest hug in the history of television.
* It's time to see where all this insane plotting of Missy's has been heading. She's created a falsified version of Hell and trapped souls there in order to turn her victims bodies into Cybermen and download those souls back in to them once they have been converted. Try saying that three times fast. Complete insanity but certainly on par with the Master's usual lunacy. The only thing that is missing is why. I could have gone along with the idea of her wanting an army to conquer the galaxy and play Goddess. Or to use the Cybermen to systematically destroy every world that the Doctor has ever saved. Instead Moffat goes down the baffling route of Missy having performed this entire stunt simply to give the Doctor an army of Cybermen as a gift. Huh? She wants to give him a present so he can conquer the universe and she can get her friend back. I'm sorry, what? In what should have been a scene where their relationship was laid bare and some conclusions were drawn I was left scratching my head in bewilderment. Either she has fundamentally misunderstood the Doctor and his role in the universe or she is completely bananas. Either way this climactic revelation falls flat on its face. It takes a potentially horrific scenario and turns it into a farce. Suddenly the Cybermen aren't scary, they're just fodder in a bizarre misunderstanding. If Missy wanted to please the Doctor then why didn't she simply ask him what he wanted? If she wanted to show him how similar they are why didn't she ask to travel with him? If she wanted to please him why did she do something that would horrify him as much as resurrecting the dead population of his favourite planet? Or murder his friends? It's best I move on and simply accept that Missy is so gaga that she just makes it up as she goes along. And that goes for Moffat too.
* Why are the wrap up of all these season finales so unconvincingly simple? Let's suck all the Daleks and Cybermen into the void. Let's delete the past year. Let's tow the Earth back to orbit. Let's reboot the universe because Amy Pond says so. This is possibly the worst example yet. The dead have been brought to life and violated across the globe. With the sacrifice of Danny Pink and his compatriots the clouds have vanished and everything has gone back to normal. I think perhaps we are supposed to be thinking more about the sacrifice than how insultingly the grisly developments have been swept away but unfortunately this time Moffat pushed the series off a precipice and attempted to claw his way back up invisibly and failed. Like this madness can just be forgotten?
* The Brigadier Cyberman. Dear God no. Poor Nicholas Courtney must be turning in his grave at the thought of this perverse violation of his character. Watch the Confidential for this episode and listen to Moffat's reasoning behind this. It sounds like he's gone mad. Plus it guts the episode of one of it's best moments, the death of Kate Stewart.
* I don't understand the return of the kid at all. Hasn't the kid been dead for yonks? Shouldn't his body be a decaying mess? Isn't this all a bit cloyingly obvious?

Result: If you had got in touch with me half an hour into Death in Heaven I would have happily have told you that this was the most exciting script that Moffat had written since The Pandorica Opens. Had you come and seen me during the last fifteen minutes you would have found me banging my head on the dining table wondering how it had all gone to pot. It's such a mishmash of good and bad it is impossible trying to judge episode as a whole. At one point I was riveted to my seat at the callous death of a character I liked and later I was trying to claw out my eyeballs as a tribute is made to the Brigadier in the worst possible taste. There's no denying that Moffat has found some inspiration in his creation of Dark Water/Death in Heaven but it is laden with huge flaws that seem destined to crop up with every season finale where everything needs to be tied up neatly for the next season. The good stuff is easy to spot; this is genuinely dynamic episode in parts with an unforgettable attack on a UNIT plane by Cybermen, the ideas are once again pleasingly morbid and the duo of the Doctor and Clara continues to shine when they are together. Michelle Gomez springs into action as Missy and she is as mad as a box of frogs and yet utterly compelling with it, even when Moffat feeds her some appalling dialogue. The only thing that spoils this version of the Master is her motive for why she has pulled off such an insane scheme - it lacks any sense whatsoever. Pretty much everything that takes place in the last 20 minutes sees season eight heading into the delirium of madness, embarrassment and cloying emotion of the sort that it had managed to avoid until now (aside from the climax of Into the Forest of the Night). The graveyard climax that sees Danny Pink depart the show turned me right off. Good riddance, I say. Moffat, like Davies before him needs a strong script editor to tap him on the shoulder and ask 'are you sure that's a good idea?' to ideas like resurrecting the Brigadier as a flying Cyberman, bringing a war victim back to life in a magic glowing cloud or waving a magic wand and making the grim developments of the past couple of episodes disappear like they had never happened. You really shouldn't set up such an insolvable dilemma if you have no means of tidying up satisfactorily. Fortunately the closing scenes restore a little dignity with the Doctor and Clara departing on dishonest terms in what would have been a exclusive way for a Doctor and companion to say goodbye. But Santa has something to say about that. Yeah, you heard me right. Death in Heaven = gripping, action packed, barmy, disturbing, illogical, humiliating, farcical and unsatisfying. A contradictory episode: 6/10