Friday, 31 January 2014

Antidote to Oblivion written by Philip Martin and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Future Britain is bankrupt, its corporate owners facing financial ruin. Fortunately, the Universal Monetary Fund, and its slimy representative Sil, are willing to give its President a multi-billion credit bail-out... but terms and conditions apply, and Sil's proposed austerity measures go far beyond mere benefit cuts. Responding to a distress call, the Doctor and his companion Flip land in a London whose pacified population has been driven largely underground. But the horrors down there in the dark are as nothing to the horrors that await them at ConCorp HQ, where a young biochemist in Sil's employ is working on a permanent solution to the nation's terminal unprofitability. Because in the final account, Sil plans to make a killing...

Softer Six: 'Psychic bacteria, now I've heard everything!'  It's rare to see Colin Baker having to work quite this hard to bring such troubled material to life with gusto. His characterisation is a little all over the place, hopping from his acerbic pre-Trial incarnation and his softer post-Trial version as though Martin wasn't quite sure where to pitch the character. Baker is a strong enough actor to tie the two together and bring a consistency to the performance but there is little that marks out his character in Antidote to Oblivion. He's happy to let the universe pass him by for a few aeons whilst he relaxes away on a tropical beach in the company of Flip. He's happy to lie back and forget about the worries of the universe, even when the TARDIS' distress signal is sounding. Sometimes you have just got to have a break from the stresses of life. As Time Lord's go he is in his prime. He's been back at the Garazone Bazaar recently. He once spent some time as a rat catcher in Hamelin, you might have heard of him. Ultimately he is a Time Lord, not a beach bum. He only has fragments of memory of the time he met Crozier but he goes to great pains to point out that he lost somebody very close to him when he did. The Doctor is desperate not to lose Flip in the last episode, ranting at her forcefully as if he can will her back to life. He wants to go after Peri and find out what really happened to her but there are one or two variables to be considered first.

What the Flip?: Lisa Greenwood is very good in the role of Flip and feels very comfortable next to Colin Baker. Let's be honest she didn't get a great deal of time with him in her first trilogy of adventures (in Curse of Davros Baker is mostly playing a different character, Flip torn from the Doctor's side in the first episode of The Forth Wall and then departs the story entirely in the second episode and she chooses to leave him in episode one of Wirrn Isle and head off to get help) and so this is he first real chance to see how effective they are as a Doctor/companion unit. A shame it should be left in the hands of Philip Martin then who gives her standard companion lines and fails to inject anything unique into her personality. This could just as easily been Peri or Mel accompanying the Doctor in this adventure for all the difference it would make. It's just as well that Greenwood is as good as she is because Flip remains likeable purely on the strength of her perky performance. Tranquillity is not really her scenes, she needs something a little more exciting to occupy her time. She'll take any Atlantis over a luxury beach resort where nothing happens. She doesn't have the eyesight of a nocturnal animal but she can sniff out the London underground in the dark because it is so memorably disgusting. Martin goes to the lengths of drugging Flip in order to make her enthuse like one of the New Series companions about her life with the Doctor - it's nowhere near a funny or as infectious as he was probably hoping. She's rubbish with a sniffle...one sneeze and she's laid up for a week. I enjoyed her interaction with the Doctor when they were surrounded by zombies, her mock zombie acting really made me chuckle. Greenwood is especially good in part four when she thinks that she is going to die, dropping all the sassiness in favour of something a little more poignant and touching. She talks of 'so many adventures' that she and the Doctor have had so I can only guess that there were a wealth of stories between Wirrn Isle and this that we have not been privy to. Certainly we seem to be asked that they have a strength of feeling towards each other without any natural evolution in that direction in her previous three adventures.

Silmy Snake: I always look forward to hearing from Sil, easily the strongest villainous creation to have stepped from the Colin Baker era (the Rani comes a close second but and I am still holding out for the day that Big Finish resurrect her character, however Sil has a far more distinctive visual hook). When the President extorts Sil for 12 billion universal credits, Sil almost has a heart attack on the spot. Clearly money is all that motivates him. Discipline, probity and integrity are the watchwords of all Thoros Betans when dealing with foreign investors. Sil indignantly exclaims that he is still young and I rather liked the idea that he genuinely is a repugnant little infant that has been let loose on the universes economy, with all the bloodlust and anger that comes with it. 'A little trauma, the odd burst of agony...is that too much to ask?' Sil really does have a thing about causing pain, doesn't he? Sil can't wait to see the look on the Doctor's face when he has ensured that Sil's mentorship is considered most bonus worthy...or something. He escapes at the climax (although the Doctor thinks he has perished), rescued by a female Thoros Betan and making tracks with the failed experiment Anzor ('Fiddlesticks!'). Let's hope he returns in a better story. There is a suggestion that he might have caught something nasty.

Standout Performance: Nabil Shaban, naturally. He's trying his hardest to make this story count for something but this is the least interesting material he has ever been handed in the role.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Weren't they once called something else? The Yuck?' 'The UK, my Lord. Or Not So Great Britain.'
'That coat of yours could light the way on its own.'

Great Ideas: ConCorp manufactures PPMC (Population Pacification & Mind Control)  drugs to the rest of the planet. In the future London is a broken wasteland, the Thames is a toxic swamp and everybody is drinking bottle water packed with suppressants and happy drugs. Anzor tries to bargain the Doctor's life for his own by showing Sil how to beam a distress call at the Doctor's TARDIS. Anzor suffered a malfunction of the chromosomes whilst he was inside the isolation chamber and wound up a 'pink potato with his eyes out on stalks.' Probably no more than he deserved. The Velendari are biological bugs that have bound together around an alien intelligence. Their intelligence wishes to leave the confines of the microbial world and occupy the living spaces beyond but to do see they need a point of entry. After patenting the treatment,  Sil and Cordelia are planning an outbreak of the diseases so they can make a killing. When the time storm abated on Thoros Beta, the Lord Kiv was dead. Peri's fate remains unknown.

Audio Landscape: A refreshing breeze, lapping waves, the Doctor's snoring, Sil's gurgling giggle is as delightful as ever, the TARDIS distress signal, Sil scoffing down on marsh minnows, the TARDIS landing, a waterfall, Sil have an orgasmic wash, guns cocking, a plague of rats squeaking, a fire crackling, jackbooted army, having a shower...there really isn't that much to the overall direction of this adventure. It feel like Briggs (easily one of the most reliable and exciting of Big Finish directors) took one look at the script and decided not to bring his a game. You can try and polish a turd up but it is still a turd at the end of the day.

Musical Cues: Whilst the story adheres to many of the problems with the series during the mid eighties, the music is similarly authentic. If you listened to it in isolation you might be convinced that it was the work of the radiophonic workshop.

Isn't it Odd: The first episode is full of clunky exposition that forms a report from Sil to Mav which apprises him (and us) and us of the situation on Earth. Bizarrely the first episode seems to be entirely built around the idea of Sil returning, featuring as it does, one scene after another of the reptilian nasty bawling and arguing with various members of the cast. Rather than setting up an intriguing plot and him being a central part of it, it seems that Antidote to Oblivion's entire reason for existing is to bring this character back. So I guess this is authentically of the time it is supposed to be set in (the mid 1980s) where that sort of thing happened all the time but it hardly makes for a riveting audio experience. Given that Mission to Magnus went down like a cup of cold sick perhaps it wasn't the brightest idea to even mention Anzor, even in passing. The first episode is 35 minutes long but there is barely enough plot to squeeze into 5 minutes and the slack is taken up with lots of drawn out two hander scenes that lack an sparkle or wit. The first episode of any Doctor Who story has the potential to be the best because it is setting up a spanking new scenario but in Antidote to Oblivion's case it is the worst, a dull plod of description leading up to a tenapenny cliff-hanger. What is Philip Martin's obsession about genetic experimentation all about? Why does he insist on threatening the Doctor's assistants with such obscene experiments and have Sil lusting over the thought? Did he only ever have one Doctor Who story inside of him because so much of Antidote of Oblivion is made up of elements of Vengeance on Varos, Mindwarp and Mission to Magnus (Sil himself, Cordelia Crozier, Anzor). Sil's financial inveigling simply isn't as interesting as he would like us to believe. Dawn Murphy's Crozier is a dreadful old ham, one of those characters that talks in nothing but clichés ('How I longed for you to answer Anzor's distress cal! Longed...I ached for it!'). What the hell was Anzor's repeated 'fiddlesticks!' curse all about? Was it supposed to be funny? I comes across as a desperate production team going for the lowest possible denominator in order to get a cheap laugh. The Velendari are a complete sideline to the main story, utterly superfluous and yet weirdly the most interesting thing on offer. Interesting insofar as their nature (psychic bacteria is an intriguing notion) but not their aim which is predictably to 'conquer' for no other reason than that is what monsters do in Doctor Who. Ho and hum. As fun as Nabil Shaban might be in the role there seemed to be something amiss with the modulation of Sil's voice in this story and at points when Sil and Mav we both talking where I started to get a headache. How on Earth can there be a surplus population of 90% on the Earth? How could any planet cope with an overspill of that proportion? You wouldn't need to wait for Sil to come along and wipe them all out...the lack of resources and food would do that for you. Surely Peri & the Piscon Paradox dealt with the whole post-Trial Peri problem as well as could be expected. The Doctor certainly seemed to walk away from that story heartbroken but satisfied with the explanation. Why would Big Finish want to start mucking around with the whole messy business again? I hope this isn't a precursor to an adventure that this on the way...BF needs to push forward with some original storytelling rather than wallowing and perverting the series messy past. To wait four episodes to discover that Sil murdered Crozier after the transplant of Kiv into Peri was a failure might have been worthwhile had the story been building to that point but it just feels like a random additional element tacked onto the climax. And it gives Cordelia an excuse to go even more over the top when she discovers Sil's betrayal ('Nooooooo!'). 'Even the worst diseases in the universe wont survive that holocaust...' - what? Cordelia has unleashed all manner of virulent diseases in an insane revenge plan and the explosion of the tower wipes them all out? That's a handy little solution that prevents the Doctor having to anything then.

Standout Scene: The fate of Peri plays on the Doctor's mind and he still misses here, a touching admission amongst all the shouting.

Result: So traditional it hurts, Antidote to Oblivion has its redeeming features but it is still the weakest sixth Doctor audio adventure in some time. Philip Martin simply does not have the hang of writing audio drama, neither pacing a story nor filling it with any interesting material. I was willing to let Mission to Magnus scrape a pass because it was fast, quirky and outrageously sexist but that was written for television back in the eighties when Martin was firing on all cylinders. His scripts for the main range (The Creed of the Kromon was just as dreary) are a world away from the adventures he wrote in the eighties; sluggish, tiresome and lacking originality. The writer is so obsessed with Sil's financial machinations that there are times when this comes across as an audio representation of a balance sheet...and you can imagine how exciting that is! The best parts of Antidote to Oblivion are the work of three performers, namely Colin Baker, Lisa Greenwood and Nabil Shaban but even they are hampered by some less than stellar scripting. Whenever there is a combination of these three actors together (Greenwood and Shaban have some gorgeous moments together) the story automatically lifts from dreadful to passable but they are literally holding the tale up with their bare hands. Usually with every Doctor Who story there is something to grab hold of that helps to captures my interest. A clever idea, a memorable twist, characters that you want to spend time with, an inspired moment of direction, fun dialogue...but Antidote of Oblivion has a dearth of all of these. It plods along for four episodes drowning in cliché with a hollow void where strong characterisation should be. It's one of those stories that just sort of exists, failing as entertainment and lacking any purpose: 3/10

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Ark in Space written by Robert Holmes and directed by Rodney Bennett



This story in a nutshell: Humanity is bottle away in an ark in space and it is about to get a long overdue alarm call…

Teeth & Curls: 'It may be irrational of me but human beings are quite my favourite species.' This where you need a really strong team of regulars on your side when they have to hold up almost the entirety of episode one on their own. In the case of The Ark in Space you have a new Doctor and a new companion in the shape of Harry but also Sarah Jane who is new to this mix. Considering Tom Baker’s erratic (but highly entertaining) turn in Robot the question is whether this trio are up to fronting Phillip Hinchcliffe’s bold new direction for the show? Of course they were! I have seen actors who have spent years together have far less chemistry than the warmth and good humour that is shared between these three, looking at this story today it is hard to acknowledge that they have only just been thrown together. Take a look at the fifth Doctor, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa in season eighteen…they would never seem as comfortable together as the regulars in this story even after spending an entire season together.

Even when he is trying to desperately figure a way to bring the oxygen back on the Doctor cannot help but sniff out a mystery (‘these cables have been sheered clean through!’). It is hard not to warm to the Doctor and Harry (both new boys) when they are seen shuffling under a table together with their asses sticking in the air. The Auto Guard sequence could just be to grown men cowering under a table but Baker plays the danger so intensely that you never forget that they are in the most terrible of danger. Harry’s apparent increase in intelligence is entirely due to his influence. The difference between the third and fourth Doctor’s is never more apparent than during Baker’s ‘indomitable’ speech. The Doctor has rarely felt more alien than at that moment, revelling in humanities achievements rather than condemning them (as Pertwee’s Doctor had a knack of doing). According to Harry he is a first class boffin. When he says that he is afraid, he is not making jokes. There is a credible difference between the Doctor’s behaviour in Robot and in The Ark in Space, he is just as quirky but this situation demands far more intensity, which Baker delivers in spades. Don't get me wrong, what the Wirrn are doing is reprehensible but shifting the story in their favour for a moment they are only trying to incubate and survive in the only way they know how. What the Doctor suggests is that they find them at their weakest and most defenceless point, the pupal stage, and destroy them. That is the equivilent of saying that he will head back in time to the birth of every dictator and stab their mothers in the belly before they have the chance to bring them into the world. Nasty. He's all smiles when he reveals his plan to link his own cortex to that of the Queen's to find out what happened to lead up to her death, throwing himself into danger with a grin on his face. When he starts movie across the room towards the grub in a zombie-like fashion shouting out the Wirrn's name he feels dangerous, the safety of Pertwee's Doctor has completely vanished. He's perfectly prepared to sacrifice himself at the climax in order that his friends should survive and not become Wirrn incubators. By the end of The Ark in Space the fourth Doctor is a perfectly rounded character and one who is ready to embark on a series of gripping adventures. And that's not something I would have said at the climax of Robot where his characterisation was still to be determined. In these four episodes Holmes refines what makes this character great in his first three years.

Investigative Journalist: It seems highly appropriate that in a story about insect monsters shaking off their carcases that Sarah Jane should do precisely that with her feminist agenda and simply embrace the role of being the Doctor’s companion. This is the point where all that attitude and feminism is left to rest and she simply gets to behave like a person rather than a poster child for female liberalism. Even her clothes are more fun and less severe. I’m not saying I didn’t like the Sarah of season eleven (because I really did, she was a breath of fresh air after the rather more submissive Jo) but I do prefer this version of her character – the one who accepts that she is a traveller in time and space with the greatest friend you could ask for. The one who throws herself into danger recklessly to save his life. The one who became the Doctor’s best friend. Sarah’s recovery from irradiation is remarkably swift but saying that her initial reaction to her surroundings when she wakes up is haunting.  Sarah proves herself time and again, figuring that the rocket must have its own power source and volunteering to run the cable through the conduit. She's not brave without reservations though, crawling through the claustophobic tunnels and panicking as the Wirrn attempt to attack her. Another sign of the gorgeous Doctor/Sarah relationship that would flourish once Ian Marter is written out comes during the delightful sequence where he taunts her into completely her task when she all but gives up in the tight space. She slaps him away mercilessly once she is free, annoyed with him and getting all haughty when she realises she has been played.

Oh I Say: It is impossible not to have a degree of affection for Harry, and not just because he is a bumbling idiot who gets himself into trouble all the time. It is clear that he is made to exist on screen with Elizabeth Sladen and that under other circumstances these two would be shacked up in a BBC sitcom as a soon-to-be married couple (‘Call me old girl again and I’ll spit in your eye!’). Ian Marter manages to play down Harry’s excesses and make him a credible character even when he is asked to say and do the most absurd things. Holmes writes for the character extremely well, letting him speak in naval terms and giving him plenty to do. I love the fact that Harry has to spend the whole story in his socks. When humanity seems to have been reduced to something sterile and humourless, Harry is there with his anachronistic dialogue and sexist jibes to remind them of how much fun we used to be. He’s no regressive, he’s a naval officer. I love his casual 'well I'm ready to leave' when things get a bit hairy. He's so normal that I just want to hug him.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m going to try and distract it. Let’s hope it’s not double barrelled.’
‘Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It’s only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learnt to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They’ve survived flood, famine and plague. They’ve survived cosmic wars and holocausts. Here they are out amongst the stars waiting to begin a new life. Ready to out sit eternity. They’re indomitable. Indomitable.’
‘But I am here…I am Dune’ – absolutely chilling.
‘You mean Dune’s knowledge…’ ‘…has been thoroughly digested, I’m afraid.’
'Besides, we can't like the Wirrn eat their way through the cryogenic sleepers as though they were a lot of...' 'Jelly babies?'

The Good:

·         When it comes to the special effects and this story you have two choices. You can either stick to the ‘we tried our best’ original version which features a number of washing up liquid bottles glued together and suspended against a star background precariously on the end of a wobbly wire…or you can access the new CGI version of the story which features some stunningly detailed and beautiful shots of the Ark silently spinning in space, a ripe target for the Wirrn Queen to get her mandibles on as she kicks her way through the void. I know which version I always choose to watch but some people insist on experiencing the story in its purest form.
·         The opening sequence is like an introduction to an entirely new phase of Doctor Who. Unlike the recent past it doesn’t feel the need to explain itself but instead to tell a picture entirely through images and music. The POV shot of the Wirrn Queen (although we don’t know that at this stage) working her way through into the Cryogenic chamber and selecting the head technician as her target is chilling (especially in hindsight when you realise she has eaten her way into his body, stolen his knowledge and laid her eggs inside him as an incubator). He sleeps as quiet as a babe as this creature approaches, about to do the most horrendous things to him. It might be one of the most intriguing and unnerving openings to any Doctor Who story.
·         Sarah being trapped behind the door without any oxygen is a stifling realisation. This show suddenly feels dangerous, like stepping through a door can mean the difference between life and death. We have stepped foot on many a space station and spaceship throughout Doctor Who to this point but this is the first time the realities and dangers of space travel really hit home. Walking into a room could result in you being fried alive and lying down on a bed might whisk you away into cryogenic storage. Whilst all of these things are beautifully explained away (the oxygen was cut deliberately, the safeties were engaged and killed the Queen and the entire purpose of the station is to put people to sleep over a long period) it does feel as though the Doctor, Sarah and Harry have landed in a technological trap throughout the first episode. Drugged on tranquilisers, classical music pumping through the speakers and being reassured by the Earth High Minister that her sacrifice is for the greater good, Sarah is placed a brand new style of danger that sees her physically impotent and unable to even shout out to warn the others. There has never been anything like this in Doctor Who before, Robert Holmes pushing the boundaries of the kind of drama the show can explore.
·         After producing one action adventure score after another throughout Pertwee’s tenure, Dudley Simpson is suddenly asked to try his hand at scoring something a little more challenging. He is more than up to it, producing what I consider to be his finest score since The Seeds of Death. The music is less about papering over the cracks in the logic and ensuring that the action scenes flow and much more about getting under your skin and producing an eerie, sterile atmosphere. His work in episode one is particularly memorable, the scream-like tone as Dune is selected and the creeping horror as the Doctor tries to oxygenate the room.
·         Doctor Who designers should always be applauded for their ingenuity for turning a pittance of a budget into the most dazzling array of sets. With half a crown and some sticky backed plastic, they managed to whisk the audience off to exotic alien worlds and allowed us to step back into some of the richest periods of history. Their imagination was endless even if the resources weren’t. When Roger Murray-Leech was asked to conjure up a space station in the future he didn’t go green at the thought but instead rose to the challenge magnificently, using a number of techniques to transport the viewer to a cavernous, funereal Ark in space which in its own sterile and functional way is rather beautiful to look at. It feels as though Doctor Who’s resources have been increased tenfold in this adventure (compare to the cramped Skybase we visited in The Mutants) when in reality it is just Murray-Leech creatively using what he has to its fullest potential. The curved corridors suggest a concentric ring that goes on and on, the Cryogenic Chamber feels as if it stretches for miles and is packed full of sleepers on several levels, There is a real feeling of space, as though the show suddenly commands far more studio space when it is precisely the same rooms that Robot was filmed in.  Highlighting the green of the Wirrn against the sterile white of the Ark only serves to make the nature of the threat more disgusting, green slime trails running along pristine floors. This is one time when an overlit set isn't just necessary, it is rather the point.
·         The same process applies to Robert Holmes. With a little imagination he can twist the shows meagre resources into something truly epic in scope. Hence the Doctor and Harry stumble across the repository of knowledge which is stored on microfilm (‘the entire body of human thought’), talk of the solar flares forcing the human race into hibernation and Wirrn swarms floating through space seeking out terrestrial breeding colonies of humans to incubate in all help to paint a picture that is on a much larger canvas than the scale of this story.
·         Much is said about Kenton Moore’s agonised performance as Noah (which is fantastic and really sells the psychological and physical horror of the Wirrn) but I find Wendy Williams (as Vira) gives one of the great, unsung performances in Doctor Who. She is extraordinarily good, reeling off dialogue that would have a lesser actor tongue tied, not able to display a shred of emotion and yet going on a journey from suspicion to trust with the Doctor and his friends whilst trying to keep her crew alive and under control. It is a star turn, full of nuance to the point where you take how good she is for granted because she isn’t given all the juicy material to play.
·         It is astonishing how much difference the tone of a story can make. When you compare the Giant Maggots and the Wirrn Grubs I have no doubt in my mind that the former are more convincingly realised and yet it is the latter that stick in my mind as a more credible foe because of the tenor of the story and how terrifying the idea of what they represent is. For once it doesn’t seem to matter that the effects aren’t quite up to scratch because the idea of the Wirrn is such a terrorizing one, and portrayed so convincingly by the actors. Although I have to say the grub mutating in the solar stack is really nauseating and when it cracks the glass and breaks free you get a horrible sense that the threat is about to escalate.
·         A genetic pool that has been balanced, cross matched and compact evaluated sounds no fun at all if Vira and Noah are to go by. Humanity condensed down into a functional survival unit, all individuality and creativity crushed. Terrifying. A highly compartmentalised society. Holmes might allow the Doctor a moment of devotion for the human race but he paints a cold picture of our future.
·         Thus begins Robert Holmes’ love affair with the theme of possession throughout the Hinchcliffe era and his first dalliance with the notion is also one of the best. It’s a double assault because the Wirrn is attacking Noah’s body as well as his mind and we get to see plenty of glimpses at his real personality being swarmed by the Wirrn poison that is coursing through him. Kenton Moore’s reaction to the Noah’s mutated hand rises the moment above the revelation of bubble wrap and green paint to something far more horrific and damaging. The way he sways back and forth from his need to protect his crew and his desire to consume them is convincingly played and an awful lot to ask of an actor. Moore barely breaks a sweat, really throwing himself into the drama of the characters possession. This is one time where holding back would really damage the integrity of the situation. When struggling against infection, Moore's anguish is so compelling it sounds as though he is throwing up at points. The halfway point between human and Wirrn looks suitably gruesome, the infection seems to be spreading into Noah's uniform itself and his arm has transformed into a pathetic green stub and the slime is spreading across his face. The Wirrn costumes themse;ves might be quite cumbersome but there is something skin crawling about the sound effect of their mandibles tearing free of their cucoons. Noah's possession is the event about which the entire story hangs; if it succeeds then he carries with him all the knowledge of the human race for the Wirrn to work their way through the rest of humanity. It creates good character drama because he was pair bonded with Vira in the new world. And it provides the solution to defeating the Wirrn as the Doctor stirs memories of his old life on the Earth in order to engage his sympathies and lead the swarm into space and destroy them. I can't think of another incident of possession that is so keyed in to a stories success (not even The Seeds of Doom).
·         Having the Doctor tap into the Wirrn Queen's memory and watch her advance on the Ark is not only a clever and ghoulish idea but it also fills in a great many gaps in the plot to be able to see the events that led up to the Ark being on red alert during episode one. Robert Holmes is a clever man, this could have all been shown in episode one but by holding back the information and showing the effects after the cause I was instantly gripped as everything fell into place.
·         Episode four is much more familiar base under siege territory than the three episodes preceeding it but it shows you precisely how this sort of thing should be done, bringing the lights right down, only sighting the monsters in quick shots and keeping the action tight on the reation shots of the actors. At this point the Wirrn have been built up as such a nauseating threat that their advance would have been gripping whatever their appearance. As it stands the costumes work for what is asked of them here.

The Bad: The empty caskets in the Cryogenic Chamber are immediately apparent. You would have to be blind to miss them. I’m not convinced by the end of episode one, which could have been a real jump out of your skin moment but instead just looks as though an old prop has fallen out of a cupboard. All colours, all creeds…a rousing speech but not back up by the evidence of my eyes.  What a shame that bubble wrap has become such a staple of packaging because at the time Noah's infection probably looked rather special (the spread of bubbles does look somewhat like a horrific infection) at the time but now is exposed as packaging material spray painted green which almost (Moore's performance is so good) ruins the effect. Fortunately the story has built the Wirrn into a credible threat by the stage the Noah grub turns up because it is clearly a man writhing about in a bubble wrap blanket. Such a bright set exposes the boom mike shadow more obviously than normal.

Result: You will never see a more convincing example of everybody pulling together and making a story come alive that is beyond the resources of the series’ kitty. The writer, actors, designer and musician are all working overtime to ensure that The Ark in Space is an epic yet claustrophobic SF chiller that really get under your skin. Despite some effects that fail to make the grade, the story is so authentically brought to life that I was rivetted to my seat the first time I watched and I have remained as gripped with each subsequent viewing. The Ark itself is a magnificent setting, brought to life with rare vision by Roger Murray-Leech and proving the perfect pristine environment for this graphic tale of possession to take place and really make an impact. Tom Baker is a revelation in his second story but saying that the material is so strong and instantly attuned to his more dangerous portrayal it would have taken a poor actor to fail to make it work. Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter provide fantastic support and it is immediately obvious that this is going to be a team to watch. It's such a shame that they didn't last any longer than six stories together. The Wirrn are one of the nastiest Doctor Who foes ever conceived, a breed of insects that require human incubators to plant their eggs in to gestate and tear free, the knowledge of their breeder stolen.  We get to witness this process at every stage (except the digestion of human tissue, thank goodness) and the appalled reactions of the cast do a lot of the work for us. As a script Roberth Holmes once again shows how it should be done, The Ark in Space is packed full of great ideas, it is gorgeously plotted and structured, gains momentum throughout, is full of drama and great lines and has a solution that is sufficiently set up and satisfying. It is a great piece of writing. A triumph of imagination, of performance and of design, this is a story that proves that it is necessary to push yourself to the limit because sometimes you might be surprised at what you can pull off: 9/10

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The End of the World written by Russell T Davies and directed by Euros Lyn


This story in a nutshell: Planet Earth’s last day…

Northern Adventurer: Its wonderful to see the Doctor’s smiley reaction to the weird and wonderful aliens that are here for the show and he almost seems to delight in wierding Rose out. The gift of air from his lungs manages to be very funny and flirty, this is how it is done without turning the Doctor into a sleazebag.. His sudden, unexpected anger when Rose starts prying into his background is shocking at first but it is just unpeeling the first of many layers as we start to discover that he is a damaged last survivor of his race. You begin to understand how much the Doctor must have been enjoying the chance to start again with a new companion who doesn't know anything about his past. Rose offers him a chance of beginning life again free from the constraints of the past but she insists on finding out more about him and that makes him uncomfortable. We go through the same situation again in Gridlock when Martha insists that he opens up about his troubled history...but at that stage he has started to come to terms with what he has done. At this point it is all still so raw. Eccleston, who was a little at odds as the Doctor in Rose, suddenly has a rich emotional hook to tap into and he is nothing short of magnificent. The new Doctor shows his teeth when he drags Cassandra back to the Platform One after her near murder of all the guests and watches unflinchingly as she dies before his eyes. You really don’t want to get this guy angry. The Doctor’s quiet admission that his people are all dead and he is the last of his kind is a eye opening moment for fans and all the more impressive for being underplayed so beautifully. I bet nobody was expecting Russell T, Davies to change the landscape of the series quite so dramatically or as quickly. The dramatic opportunities of the loss of the Time Lords and the Doctor's tragic status as the last of their kind are immediately apparent. There are so many questions about the war that bubble up from this revelation which will all be answered later but watching this episode now shows Davies making his mark changing the landscape of series for the better. Gallifrey always was such a dreary place, or at least it was in the eighties. Bravo. Here he redefines the level of emotion that can be dealt with through the character and it makes you wonder why it has taken this long to explore these kinds of avenues.

Chavvy Chick: In terms of image and attitude, Rose in her most basic form is Ace done realistically. She’s a London girl, a bit of a drop out with a mother that tends to hamper her chances of being anything more than she is. Billie Piper is able to dress down and enjoy a proper London accent and even Sophie Aldred has admitted she got to do all the things she wasn't able to do in the eighties. Through Rose I an suddenly see how Ace could be made to work. With some tweaks (calming her down a little bit, cutting out some of the cod-EastEnders hysteria and obliterating the florid street slang)and dress sense, the McCoy era could be played out again without half of it's exasperating and shameful moments. Rose has so many questions to ask and observations to make about being brought to the death of planet Earth chief amongst them that she is the last human being left in this time zone to witness its destruction. When the initial excitement of running away with the Doctor is over Rose suddenly realises she knows nothing about him and she is so far away from home. That strikes me as a very realistic situation to be in; initially enticed and flattered into an exciting position before the reality of what she is doing and the anxieties set in. She has terrible trouble trying to get her head around the casual way the Doctor deals with aliens because the concept is so new to her and more importantly wants to know who the Doctor is and what species he is from. She is also trying to get her head around some pretty weighty concepts like her mum being dead in the time period she is in now. The biggest question is why has nobody asked these sorts of questions before. There is an awful lot of that during the Davies era, especially when it comes to a realistic look at the role of the companion, their absence at home and their place in the Doctor's life. The Doctor heads off with another woman on his arm and Rose doesn’t batter an eyelid. Wouldn't it have been lovely if they could have kept that up in the second series instead of turning Rose into a green-eyed monster? In her own brilliant human way, Rose reacts to the Doctor’s heartbreaking news about the loss of his planet by seeking out a portion of chips. It’s a moments like this you can see exact why he travels with human beings. They bring a sense of distraction and of living in the moment rather than obsessing with the past. Both the Doctor and Rose come of far more appealingly in The End of the World and show much more depth of character but I guess that comes from not having to have their entire life stories spelt out in their introduction. Suddenly they can breathe as characters in the now. Chris Eccleston and Billie Piper already feel made for each other.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You never take time to wonder the impossible. That maybe you survive.’
‘I am the last pure human. The others…mingled.’
‘This whole event was sponsored by the Face of Boe! Talk to the Face! Talk to the Face!’
‘The Adherence of the Repeated Meme! J’accuse!
‘At least it will be quick! Just like my fifth husband!’
‘There was a war and we lost.’

The Good Stuff: Very, very few moments before or since suggest the sheer giddy thrill of being offered the chance to go anywhere in time and space as the first scene of this adventure. Rose looks delighted, scared and completely bowled over by the experience. Listen to how the TARDIS creaks like a sailing ship, a lovely touch. Whilst it's possibilities are infinite there is still a sense of a machine that is barely keeping itself together. I love that. As a way of showing the new audience the extreme possibilities of the TARDIS taking Rose to the day the sun swallows the Earth is a pretty deft example because it connects with them both visually and emotionally. We have never seen special effects quite like the shuttles docking at Platform One in Doctor Who before and so fresh opportunities are being shown to old fans of the series too. Not content with preserving places of heritage, the National Trust eventually owns the entire planet. The idea of re-decorating the planet, forcing a continental shift to a 'classic Earth' is the sort of madcap, throwaway line that Robert Holmes used to toss in and Davies adopts throughout his tenure. Zoe Wanamaker was a big draw because she was so well known for her role as Susan Harper in My Family and she is one of those famous guest stars that simply gets how to play a Doctor Who villain; camp, crazy, slightly over the top, very funny and yet dangerous with it. She gets all the best lines and she relishes them. With the ‘IPod’ playing Tainted Love as Rose stares at the crazy creatures around her and the Earth broils in the windows behind them it is like the insane ingenuity of the Graeme Williams era (a personal favourite of mine) brought to life in the new century. It was quite a gamble to throw this much madness at the audience so soon (like the insanity and freakish imagination of Williams' The Invisible Enemy after the sombre nature of the Hinchcliffe years) but it is one that paid off in spades. It feels like NuWho can do anything and that is freeing and exciting. How impressive are those CGI spiders scuttling around Platform One? There is so much for the eye to follow around they sets as they scuttle about the Station and the one that bump into the camera is a brilliant, brilliant touch. A time travelling mobile phone with boundless signal through time and space - can you imagine a better way to dazzle the youth of today? It's only the tiniest of things but the camera angle from inside the washing machine is a great example of the creativity in the execution of this episode. It could have been so easy to stick the camera in the doorway and shoot that scene in a mundane fashion but Euros Lyn is trying to make his make and continually thinks of creative and unusual ways of bringing The End of the World to life. Cassandra's casual racism is a nice touch and stops things from getting to madcap, a touch of realism amongst all the imagination (‘Do you know what I call them – mongrels!’). I really like the subtle suggestions that make the Tree People feel like a real race including the birdsong technology, talk of forests as breeding grounds (or more accurately roots) everywhere and the resourceful extras such as the liana vines. This could have been a bog standard species but Davies has put some real thought into bringing a race based around topiary to life. Come The End of Time his imagination was a little exhausted (understandably) and the Cacti people aren't conceived or realised with anywhere near the same amount of effort. The episode expertly weaves in hints about some devastating event befalling Gallifrey suggesting that the planet has passed into mythology these days. The secret about what has happened to the planet is enticing and gives the Doctor rare prominence. Galaxy Quest went to some effort to take the mickey out of ridiculous hardware that serves to complicate plots in science fiction tales such as the humongous fans in this story...but that doesn't stop them being a splendid visual anyway. Doctor Who has often thought in cinematic terms but this is the first time it has really been able to actualise those ambitions on screen. I still get a giddy thrill when Britney Spears’ Toxic plays over scenes of Rose waking up in the greatest of dangers because it is like two worlds colliding spectacularly – that of Doctor Who and pop culture. Whilst you are never once convinced that the villain isn’t Cassandra, her plan to rake in the compensation after sabotaging the defences is deliciously greedy and heartless and her motive pleasingly vacuous (‘Flatness costs a fortune!’). She’s such a naughty thing! Jabe's sacrifice is extremely potent considering we have barely spent any time with the character. It is the Doctor's heartbroken and angry reaction that gives it so much weight, Eccleston bringing a great deal of gravity to the script. There is a great deal of scope and content to the episode before the Earth is consumed by the sun so had it been omitted I would still rank it highly but the fact that The End of the World builds to such a haunting, exciting and visually stunning climax caps off a great episode in real style. I especially love the moment a massive chunk floats past the window. I said in my review of Rose that Davies' calling card is the contrast of the magic (the Doctor and Rose silhouetted against the observation platform showing the debris of the Earth gliding past) and the mundane (walking out of the TARDIS into a bog standard British high street) and it is a potent mixture that he would return to again and again. It is such a shocking contrast here it might give you whiplash and I am pleased that Davies chose the latter as the location for the Doctor to spill his secrets about Gallifrey, on his adopted home planet with his new best friend.

The Bad Stuff: Rose chatting with Ruffalo the plumber is the first of many moments that sees Russell T Davies and his army of writers trying to stress the normality of the guest cast. Father's Day is especially horrid in this regard. Oddly Jackie’s kitchen seems to be twice the size than it was in Rose. Cassandra says ‘when I was a little boy’ – is she a bloke then? What an odd line about Ipswich, proving that Davies' ear for memorably dialogue sometimes goes a little astray.

Menagerie: It's worth discussing the effectiveness of the various aliens that show up in the course of this story because it shows how far Doctor Who has come and how things have stayed the same. The Steward is quite a cheap example of alien with nothing but a painted blue far and yet his cat like contacts do give him quite a unique look. The Moxx of Balhoon is precisely the sort of the make up job the Sylvester McCoy era was very good at conjuring up – good in close ups but less so in long shots.   Blue midgets (read children) in helmets are very naff. The make up for Jabe and the tree people really stands out (naturally since she gets the most to do), half make up and half costume with a seamless bridging in between. Somehow they manage to make a creature made of bark look highly sensuous. What an unbelievable sight The Face of Boe is! If anybody where to tell me that the showrunner of the new series would take a character who is basically a giant head pickled in a jar and over the course of three stories he would become one of the central figures of the series and one whose death would have me reaching from the hankies I would probably have laughed in your face. The first truly successfully completely computerised alien in Doctor Who comes in the shape of Cassandra and it is through her that you see what is possible creatively with the use of CGI. A thin sheet of veiny skin with a face built in the centre, this is an unforgettable sight that was so instantly popular she was pencilled in for a return visit as soon as possible. It might have had something to do with her electric personality too but this is one scoundrel you are not going to forget in a hurry. Even the touch of the two masked attendants who moisturise her works a treat. I always laugh my head off when Rose says ‘quick word with Michael Jackson’ because the cut to Cassandra is rather cruelly made to look just like him. She gets one of the ickiest death scenes ever that manages to be as funny as it is gross. Davies is clearly having great fun running riot with his imagination and this menagerie of oddballs manages to encompass the best of the classic (costumes, detailed make up) and the new (CGI creations) new series.

Result: After introducing the basic elements of the series in Rose, The End of the World needed to show that the series meant business and it achieves that in spades. It’s a potent brew of some heady characterisation, oodles of creativity and an astonishingly expensive looking production that like a fine wine has only improved with age. It's with this script that I realised just how much Russell T. Davies understands his new audience and is trying to reach out to as many people as possible; there’s monsters and cool gadgets for the kids, an emotive character arc with Rose for the more sensitive members of the audience, a destabilising shock in established continuity for the geeks and pretty production values for those who just want a good time on a Saturday night. It really bugs me when I see a book like Mark Campbell’s guide driving a stake through a story with as much imagination, humour and drama as this just because it has a few moments that you might describe as being ‘a bit silly.’ It’s a Graeme Williams tale with a huge budget and offers a hefty emotional wallop at its heart, The End of the World is massively entertaining and really makes you think as well. I can still remember the excitement this episode gave me when I first watched it, Doctor Who was most definitely back, it was better than ever and the possibilities were endless: 9/10

Rose written by Russell T Davies and directed by Keith Boak



This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who returns to the small screen after a lengthy spell away and picking up the thread that started with Survival, urban sitcom seems to be the approach...

Northern Adventurer: Looking back on series one is interesting in the light of Christopher Eccleston’s comments after he finished playing the role. What seemed like a confident performance at the time (and compared to David Tennant’s self-assured portrayal) now seems…awkward in his opening adventure. Eccleston reminds me of Sylvester McCoy (bear with me) in that he looks very stiff and embarrassed when asked to perform something that plays against his natural personality. The shows I can remember Eccleston playing roles in are Cracker and Heroes and in both of those he was an arsehole and he also had memorably dark turns in The Second Coming and Shallow Grave. Clearly he enjoys playing shadowy characters and shoehorning him into playing the Doctor is fine when he gets to dig under the surface and see what makes him tick but when asked to crack jokes and lighten the mood he isn't really in comfortable territory. But that's fine, it's good for an actor to play against type and by the end of  the season (and despite the fact that he has given up on the role), Eccleston had completely embraced all aspects of the Doctor's personality and was clearly having a great deal of fun with him. Like a whirlwind he enters Rose’s life and straight away we see him running down corridors and letting off explosions. Sums up his lifestyle in a nutshell really. He certainly hasn’t lost his flair for melodrama, telling Rose to ‘run for your life!’ When studying himself in the mirror it appears he has only just regenerated (or not looked in a mirror since he has regenerated) but we never do learn how long it has been. I'm guessing given the reveal of Hurt's Doctor that he heads straight for the Henriks after Day of the Doctor with his makeshift bomb. I loved the image of the Doctor through the cat flap, playful and quirky. ]Eccleston is especially impressive during the Doctor's 'turn of the Earth' speech, one of the first times when I realised just how much gravity that he was going to bring to the part. He makes that speech count, it is a rare glimpse into how the Doctor sees the world. Rose is one of the only Doctor Who stories that is specifically built around the mystery of who the Doctor is, a necessary and fascinating step after the series' long absence from the small screen. Davies manages to paint a vivid picture of the character; appearing in conspiracy theories, political diaries, online blogs and ancient artwork. It's great that there are obsessive Doctor Who within his universe that accumulate as much data on his activities as we do. Davies would take this theme to extremes in Love & Monsters. He was at the Kennedy assassination, the eve of the launch of the Titanic and at Krakotoa. I'm starting to wonder if there isn't a single historical event that the Doctor wasn't present at. As much of a myth as a man (you can see why he asked Mickey to erase all trace of him online in World War Three). This begins Russell T Davies' obsession with turning the Doctor into a mythological icon, which was picked up by Steven Moffat and led to insane depictions of the character in stories such as A Good Man Goes to War (where entire armies tremble at his name). But that's for later. There are lots of intriguing hints about the Doctor fighting a war and not being about to save worlds. What could all this mean?

Chavvy Chick: Billie Piper plays Rose far more naturally than any of the companions of the 80’s but even she hasn’t quite got it right this point. It really bugged me how she kept getting on her high horse (‘and you forgot him again!’) with the Doctor and having a go at him. For a second I thought we were going to get another Tegan in the TARDIS but her acerbic attitude soon calms down. Rose pretty much lives up to every working class stereotype; being brought up in an ugly council estate with an absent father (okay he died) and a scrounging mother who is as common as muck and keeps going on about compensation and handouts. Jackie goes one step further by being a total tramp, coming onto the Doctor (a complete stranger) in her dressing gown. But what salvages all of these characters is the natural good humour that they express and the fact that they all seem so real. Comparing the Tyler clan (including Mickey) to Clara's family introduced in Time of the Doctor just goes to show how much better Davies is at bringing real people to life than Moffat is. Davies is a great observer of people, of their quirks and flaws. It humanizes them. Jimmy Stone was the reason Rose left school and look where he ended up. Rose has a very natural reaction to the TARDIS, running around its exterior and nearly breaking down when she comes to terms with its size and reality. It is probably the most natural reaction since Ian and Barbara's (Tegan's might have counted if she wasn't so hysterical). The eighties was full of people barely raising an eyebrow when they are shown the magic of the TARDIS ('Strike me pink!'), it is almost enough to take such a glorious device for granted. She has no A Levels, no job and no future – perfect companion material then. The Doctor can whisk her off into time and space with no real hang ups that she is missing out on anything important. Or so they both think... Strange how she turns down his first invitation into the TARDIS to stay with Mickey when he has behaved like such a chimp but as soon as she learns that it can travel in time she has uncoiled herself from her boyfriend and hops aboard. Father's Day seems to suggest that it was the opportunity to go back and visit her father that was the clincher but as directed it doesn't look as if that much thought has gone into her decision.

The Good Stuff: Murray Gold has written a great, punchy version of the theme tune. I love the rush in on the Earth, effortlessly taking us from the magical to the ordinary. That's Davies' approach in a nutshell. Without a word of dialogue we have an impressive character building montage, which tells us everything we need to know about Rose (mum, boyfriend, job). He does pretty much the same thing with Martha when she was introduced, summing up the character vividly in about a minute. Try hard as I might I've spent over half a season with Clara and I'm still searching for who she is and why she might want to travel with the Doctor (because she fancies him, apparently). The scenes of Rose locked in the basement are rather wonderful, opening the show with a decent scare. Looking for the Doctor online is a great contemporary spin on the mystery of the Doctor. I really liked the Mickey Auton getting a cork in his face and then having his head yanked off, finally we get some fun with the monsters (plus the headless Auton tearing up Pizza Express is wonderful - nothing as exciting as that ever happens when I go out for dinner). The new TARDIS set is gorgeous; warmly lit, cavernous, with the outer doors visible on the inside and a mushroom like growth for a console. It feels like it is alive. Doctor Who has never been shy of using famous London landmarks and the London Eye stands proud next to Westminster and St Paul's as iconic imagery. Much of the condensed Auton rampage didn't work for me (the static direction sabotages most of the material), but I did like it when they took the streets and starting bursting from windows.

The Bad Stuff:  What the hell are those Autons doing mechanically stretching through the bars? Keith Boak is clearly not the most dynamic of directors and this is the sort of bizarre inconsistency that really fails to come off. The Doctor and Rose arsing around with the Auton hand fails to convince as either slapstick or horror, it looks cheap and embarrassing when the show should be coming back with an expensive bang. There is an impressive tracking shot that follows the Doctor and Rose as they leave the Powell Estate but it is a shame that the backdrop is so plain and uninteresting. Doctor Who has never looked more like a cockney soap opera, two commoners strolling through some garages. Noel Clarke really fudges Mickey in this episode; he’s at his worst when he’s grunting at Clive’s neighbours for no good reason. Mind you there is something to be said for starting low because the character undergoes an incredible renaissance in the second season. ‘She’s read a website about the Doctor…and she’s a she?’ – humour doesn't work for me when it is that obvious. Davies proves time and again over the next five years that he is better than that. A homicidal wheelie bin? It feels like such a cheap trick. You can understand why the critics might have been reluctant (although I have a sneaking affection for the burp).  It is still a remarkably mundane way of suggesting the Auton’s ability and the effects are a little rough at this stage. Fake Mickey is where I wanted to turn this episode off, a horrendously played sequence where Clarke is made to look like a ken doll and so obviously fake that it serves to make Rose look completely clueless. The anti plastic resolution lacks any finesse; the solution to the episode is an unnamed substance that the Doctor just happened to be carrying with him. The Consciousness is another failed special effect, looking like something from a low rent b movie. There really should have been somebody for the Doctor to butt heads with because chatting away to an amorphous blobs fails to come off with any great panache. The Autons come to life mechanically in the shop windows, it isn’t scary or exciting and certainly isn’t a patch on Spearhead from Space’s far more effective sequence. The baby dolls dancing around the food court look especially unconvincing. We keep cutting back to lots of scenes of the Doctor struggling ineffectually with the Autons. I started to feel as though I was in a time loop. The bride Autons look distinctly unthreatening.

Result: Not the classic that everybody makes it out to be. I sometimes think we were so happy to have Doctor Who back we could ignore the manifest of flaws in this story, especially in the direction. There’s a real feeling of everybody feeling a little uncomfortable in their roles and the decent character work comes at the expense of the lousy, barely glimpsed plot. I can see exactly what Russell T Davies was getting at; seeing the story from the point of view of the companion, learning about the basics of the show for the new audience but the direction lacks fluidity and dynamism and the story lacks atmosphere. Compared to later season openers it really underwhelms and despite a rare moment of choking depth it’s a remarkably quiet episode. The invasion plot barely gets started before it is over and the story is far more interested in the personal lives of it's characters than it is in exploring this latest threat to the Earth. Christopher Eccleston has yet to perfect his character but shows a great deal of promise, Billie Piper is a revelation in an episode that gives her a great deal of exposure but Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke do possibly their worst work in their first appearance. I can remember being underwhelmed when I first watched Rose back in 2005 but subsequent re-watches have introduced me to some of it's charms. The Eleventh Doctor makes for a far better introduction to the world of Doctor Who than this and anybody who reads this blog on a regular basis will know that it is rare for me to favour anything from the Moffat era over the Davies one: 6/10

Friday, 24 January 2014

Survival written by Rona Munro and directed by Alan Wareing



This story in a nutshell: Ace almost succumbs to her wilder instincts as the Doctor battles with the Master…

The Real McCoy: I’m unconvinced that this Doctor works within the domestic setting especially when he is off buying cat food and trying tempt evil felines by hiding in old women’s gardens and being chased around the streets. McCoy is pretty average in this story - I never lose the impression that I am watching an entertainer rather than an actor and later scenes on the planet bomb thanks to his hideous overacting. To prove my point the Doctor looks far more convincing juggling silver balls to try and distract the Cheetah People than he does screaming at Ace. Watching McCoy crawling around some old dustbins is as cringeworthy as it sounds. The ‘one finger can be a deadly weapon’ trick is forgiveable as a comedy set piece but I can just about think of a million other times when that might have come in handy. His ‘Don’t run! Stay still!’ scene is dreadfully embarrassing. There is one moment in this story that really surprised me and that was the look on the Doctor’s face when Ace falls back into his arms after running off with Karra – if looks could kill she would be another corpse for the Cheetah’s to feed on. I very much enjoyed his exchange with Ace about making the choice to send them home and I wish there could have been more of that sort of subtlety for the Doctor in the story. The less said about his enthusiastic yelling at Ace whilst jumping on a motorbike as an action hero the better. His bottom sticking in the air and his face smothered in a dirty old couch pretty much sums up his contribution to this story because he is much more convincing at that than the acting bits. If the Lost Stories over at Big Finish are anything to go by it is a good thing that the series was put to pasture at this point. Cartmel, Aaronovitch and Platt worked together on the audio series and it really didn't offer the character or the actor many challenging or exciting opportunities. Given McCoy's uneven turn in the role, perhaps it was for the best that it came to an end here. Certainly there hasn't been a weaker performer in the role, before or since.

Oh Wicked: Survival is the last of three adventures to centre around Ace and her turbulent childhood and after experiencing her fears in Ghost Light and dealing with her domestic problems in Curse of Fenric now we get to visit the home town she was so eager to escape from. Before the new series no other companion was treated to development and exploration like this and it makes a very refreshing change to see a female companion giving the series such a boost. When Ace talks about kids hanging around on fields on a Sunday I can completely sympathise – I used to do the very same thing when I was a teenager and we seemed to spend a whole lot of time not achieving anything at all. Teaming up with old friends Midge and Shreela fleshes Ace out even more and I like how she takes control of a bad situation and tries to pull them into some kind of fighting force. The quiet scenes of Ace succumbing to the attraction of the planet are the shows best – you don’t need any dialogue to make these work and Sophie Aldred works wonders with her face. The planet makes her feel unafraid and exciting…and really hungry. It's Ace’s sorrow over Karra’s death that gives the finale its potency. Aldred has been the real revelation of the seventh Doctor stories, only failing when the material lets her down and outclassing McCoy at pretty much ever stage of the game. A shame that her performances in the Big Finish audios have proven to be far more inconsistent, but that comes from trying to convince to be eighteen when are turning fifty...that would be a challenge to any actor.

Feral Villain: Anthony Ainley tosses away all his old tricks and gives a concentrated and intense turn as the Master and it is by far this incarnations most effective turn in the series. Alan Wareing is determined to make the Master as scary as possible and I really like the feral eyes glowing out of the darkness. For once it is not a ridiculous disguise or hideous plot convenience that reveals the Master but an expert building up of suspense. I love the impotency of the character when he screams at the Doctor that he controls the Cheetah People and then ducks scared into his tent as they advance hungrily on him. Trapped, infected and unable to escape the planet, the Master suddenly has a fantastic hook to make him really creepy. His speech about the planet bewitching him sends a shiver down the spine. If he is to become an animal then he wants to succumb completely and hunt and kill the Doctor. I love the vicious way the Master stabs Karra to death, it’s the sort of thing you expect to see somebody as evil (or as we are told he is) the Master to do but rarely does. Interestingly this story and the next one both feature the Master, like the transition between Baker into Davison the character is used to remind the viewer that they are still watching Doctor Who and the latest incarnation still has a nemesis to fight. Ainley has been a fun experiment but if anything Survival proves that he has been wasted throughout his tenure, forced into a ridiculous costume and made to strut his stuff like a panto villain when he was capable of intense menace all along. Whilst his insane performances in The Five Doctors, The Mark of the Rani and The Ultimate Foe are all fun, you also have to put up with his obscene scenery chewing in Time-Flight ('Shazam! Shazoo!'), The King's Demons and Planet of Fire.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the seas asleep and the rivers dream. People made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on Ace, we’ve got work to do.’

The Good Stuff: This might not make me very popular but I think the McCoy theme tune might be my favourite because it is the one that I grew up with. I still get that tingle of excitement when I hear it and it is the version that makes sing allowed whenever it comes on. Shoot me now. It's lovely to see the series straying into suburbia, it is long past time the Earthbound adventures had a more personal touch. The Hale and Pace scenes are amusing but I’m not sure this is a serial that needed a comic touch when the rest of it is so deadly earnest. Alan Wareing’s direction is often stylish and apparent – I love the camera sliding around the shop corner when Ace meets up with Ange. A huge round of applause for Dominic Glynn’s exotic score which is one of the best the classic series ever presented. His use of electric guitar and piano are both sublime and I love the screeching, scratchy theme for the abductions. Low budget as it is I love the scenes of Ace being savaged in the play park because it feels rather dangerously like a place where anybody could visit and be threatened. The close ups on the horse and Ace’s legs as one pursues the other and the sudden cut to the Cheetah Planet are very dynamically realised. Rona Munro might not have been happy but I find the Cheetah Planet a truly volcanic location and the use of electronic effects and props (skulls and bones) suggest a savage and harsh wilderness (the music again really helps to sell the atmosphere). As the story progresses the skyline effects get better and better, suggesting the anger of the planet building. From Midge turning feral before them right up until Ace’s reveal, the lead up to episode twos cliffhanger is superbly handled by all concerned. It's nice to know that it is one of my heroes, Lisa Bowerman, bring Karra to life so expertly even when the costume lets her down. There’s a particularly grisly looking animal corpse that I am very glad we didn’t get to see Ace feasting on. The final confrontation between the Doctor and Master is really well done and I like how their rivalry is personified on the raging planet.

The Bad Stuff: Dear dear...those animatronic cats are terribly unconvincing. I’ve heard all the excuse before…time, money, etc but that doesn’t alter the fact that the potentially gripping opening scene of Survival is hampered by an effect that takes you out of the drama straight away. Nice to see even at the climax of the classic series the show could still cough up an effects disaster like this. As presented Perivale really does feel like borderm capital of the universe. The Cheetah People look mighty on their horses but the costumes are far too cuddly to be effective and a more subtle makeup job would probably have driven the point home more directly. Oh bless, the little Kitling is supposed to look as though it is eating the car cleaner but it's clearly just licking his face. I'm not sure what David John has to contribute to this adventure given that he barely contributes a single line of dialogue. Apparently on this near-mute performance he convinced several people that he would be the perfect person to play Ace's brother in the Big Finish audio, The Rapture. Just when the atmosphere on the planet is really hotting up the milkman appears and starts screaming which sets Sylvester McCoy off (‘DON’T MOOOOVE!’) and there is much tossing of polystyrene rocks. Much like Howard Cooke in Paradise Towers I think Will Barton is miscast as Midge when the role demanded somebody of a much beefier figure to pull of the terrifying transformation. I’m not sure how convinced I am about this weedy bloke and his sabre tooth knife. His meowing on the sofa is bloody funny. That is one unconvincing dead cat in episode three…and the little girl isn’t much cop either. Midge pushing his way into the circle of guys with his macho posturing doesn’t work at all again thanks to Barton’s slim physique – these blokes could eat him up for breakfast. Patterson was a useful tool for showing how bravado can be a big front but it is disappointing that his character doesn’t really go anywhere and he gets an off screen death. Whose idea was the colliding bikes? It’s so ridiculously camp and unrealistic it destroys any credibility the finale might have had.

The Shallow Bit: A couple of the lads in vests perked my attention up in the last episode.

Result: At this stage of the McCoy era Ace was a far more interesting character than the Doctor and Survival scores big time by pushing him to the sidelines and exploring her sexuality and bestiality. Alan Wareing proves once again why he was responsible for a minor renaissance for the show before its demise and his atmospheric and emotive direction is aided by Dominic Glynn’s terrific score to make this a much more affecting experience than it would have been in lesser hands. To this day this still feel like a contemporary piece given that the new series apes the domestic approach Survival took. The two major faults with this show are the physical effects (the electronic ones are pretty impressive but the Cheetah People and the Kitlings are both really cute and unrealistic) and Sylvester McCoy who is trying his hardest but spends the first half of the story acting like a comic buffoon and the second half shouting his head off unconvincingly. Thank God Sophie Aldred and Anthony Ainley are there to take your mind off him and the latter in particular gives his strongest performance as a more feral, less pantomime Master. There are loads of great moments scattered about and the pacing is excellent but it shamefully devolves into a bit of a farce in the last episode with some ridiculous stunts. I want to be kinder to a story that takes these sorts of risks and pulls off some real sensuality but the end result lacks some finesse: 7/10

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Curse of Fenric written by Ian Briggs and directed by Nicholas Mallet



This story in a nutshell: The Doctor defeats an evil from before the dawn of time…

Master Manipulator: Since The Curse of Fenric is Sylvester McCoy’s penultimate adventure it is a good chance to see how he has progressed since Delta and the Bannerman, which I reviewed a short while ago. In some ways he has evolved out of all recognition becoming a much darker, brooding, melancholic sort of man, one with a plan up his sleeve for every occasion and has everything sorted before the story has even begun. It's something of a backhanded compliment to say that the Doctor might be a lot more interesting in this mould but Sylvester McCoy isn’t. McCoy is much more of a convincing performer than he is an actor and from listening to him on commentaries it is clear that he is a genuinely funny, entertaining sort of guy. But forcing him into the deadly serious role of the Oncoming Storm plays against his strengths and whilst there is the odd moment of dark intensity (his performance in Ghost Light is mostly sublime) for the most part we get McCoy gurning, spitting and growling his way through a histrionic script. So perhaps the Doctor has grown into a more responsible character but I feel that the material pushes McCoy too far and the result is an unbalanced, cumbersome performance. I genuinely believe the most natural performance we ever had from McCoy was in Delta and the Bannermen; dancing, running around the countryside and being sweet and gentle. The Doctor strolls into a top-secret military base and starts barking orders - he has certainly come a long way since pratfalling around in Time and the Rani. Is the Doctor the Prime Minister and Head of Secret Service at some point or is he just an excellent forger? He walks around the base at night time, quietly brooding and keeping secrets. His ‘eyes watching’ moment appears as though he is trying to be deliberately creepy, rather than simply making an observation. I love the gentler moments between the Doctor and Ace (such as when they wrinkle their noses at each other), McCoy and Aldred’s love for each other comes bleeding on screen. He gently ruminates over his family in a dark moment that proves that McCoy was at his best when kept quiet in the shadows rather than screaming his head off. The Doctor spitting ‘go!’ to the vampire girls comes across as exactly what it was, a children’s presenter trying to be scary. When the lead actor in a show can't even say a single word like that convincingly, we're in trouble. It's great to see that the Doctor draws his strength from his previous companions, although I would say that the moment isn't stressed enough (you'd have to be a real fan to understand the names that the Doctor is mouthing). It’s such a shame but McCoy completely fails to convince during the ‘evil since the dawn of time’ sequence – it's exactly the sort of speech that Colin Baker would have excelled at but McCoy simply does not have the gravitas or believability to bring such a portentous speech to life. It makes me worried that Ace should so readily be fooled by the Doctor’s condemnation of her character because it’s so sudden, improbable and preposterous. It gives the conclusion an emotional sting but given their unspoken affection everywhere else, isn't the slightest bit convincing. I think one of my problems with The Curse of Fenric is that the guest cast are so strong they rather show up McCoy and Aldred as amateurs and it is painful at times to watch them trying to match their standards.

Oh Wicked: On the other hand Sophie Aldred’s Ace has managed to somehow managed to deepen throughout Ghost Light and she seems perfectly comfortable with the more sombre material. She looks gorgeous in her period costume and its wonderful to get her out of that horrid badge strewn bomber jacket. Her relationship with Jean and Phyllis is very sudden, they meet and they are instantly the best of friends and having a great laugh together. If only life was so simple. I don’t like the way they overwrite her emotions all the time, when Ace discovers the baby’s name is Audrey she practically hurls her at Audrey. Once upon a time Ace would have dropped anything for a bit of excitement but now she’s thinking about people. She used to think she would never get married but now she’s not so sure. Finally Ace pulls the Doctor up on his manipulation of her and its great to see somebody finally take him on. The idea of her creating her own future and sending her mother to address she was brought in was lovely, very subtle but it's derailed by agonising moments of theatrics (‘I didn't know she was my muuuummm!’). Ace’s metaphorical baptism in the sea is perhaps a little too deep for Doctor Who but I appreciate the effort. Ace's scenes sit much more comfortably in this story than the Doctor's (except that dreadful 'wind whipping through my clothes' flirting scene) but the material stumbles towards the hysterical far more often than I would like. Some of the domestic drama is subtly played and at other times I felt as though I was watching a particularly hysterical episode of Eastenders. It's an odd mix, which appealed to me much more when I was a teenager (because they are all a little hysterical) but now I wish we could jettison the latter moments and simply enjoy the gentler ones.

Sparkling Dialogue: Amongst all the histrionics there are some brutally thoughtful moments and the dialogue has the ability to wind you on the odd occasion.
‘But whose thoughts will they think?’
‘There is a storm coming.’
‘I was hoping for something a little more, well…Aryan.’
‘How English. Everything stops for tea.’
‘Ah the sound of dying. When it comes to death quantity is so much more satisfying than quality.’
‘I feel this is what Dr Judson would have wished…’

The Good Stuff: The opening scenes feel like a movie in their scope and location work, Russian soldiers coming to shore through a mist swathed coastline. After Battlefield’s lousy production and the studio bound Ghost Light this feels like the expensive story of the season. Dinsdale Linden and Anne Reid create a fantastically nasty patient/nurse relationship with relatively little screen time. The soldier being stalked on the beach at night is some of the creepiest scenes of the era, an unknown presence pursuing him across the shingle. Nicholas Parson completely aces (hoho) his role as Wainright almost to spite those who might have doubted those that thought he didn't have it in him. There’s no hint of a game show host in this impressively intense performance. The vicar’s conflict of faith is the strongest character work on display in this tale, even if it did upset a friend of mine who couldn't quite get his head around the fact that a devout Christian might lose his faith during wartime. Given the atrocities that were committed I would have thought that was the one time you could justifiably lose your faith in humanity. There are some wonderful locations selected throughout the story including the sun blistered graveyard and the vertiginous cove overlooking the coast. Sometimes Doctor Who would pull some truly spectacular location work out of the bag and The Curse of Fenric is the best example of that in the McCoy era. The pull back to reveal Millington in his Nazi surroundings is startlingly dramatic. It says a great deal about his character before he utters a word. The effects of the runes writing themselves manages to be both simple but highly effective, especially in the special edition version. A natural source of lethal poisons, chemical warfare is a very nasty business and not the sort real world ugliness that Doctor Who dabbles in. That's commendable. One of the stronger ideas is the ULTIMA machine as bait for the Russians with a chemical bomb at its heart that will be used to poison Moscow once the war is over. I’d like to say Ms Hardaker is an overwritten religious zealot but unfortunately I have met a fair few Ms Hardaker’s in my time. We are treated to one of the iconic moments of the eighties when the Haemovores rise from the ocean. What is it about Doctor Who monsters rising out of water that tickles me so much? Is that really what we are going to evolve into thousand of years into the future, creatures with an insatiable hunger for blood? It's a grim portent of what will happen if the Doctor doesn't intervene in Fenric's plans in this story. The Haemovore attack on the church is very well staged, using the location to full effect and accompanied by a thrilling Mark Ayres score. Is this really the same Nicholas Mallet that gave us Paradise Towers? There is plenty of hysteria pretending to be drama in Fenric but Kathleen discovering her husband has been murdered is a real moment of tragedy that hits home. Linden’s Fenric is superb, a silky voiced villain with some wonderful lines.Just as people say about Jacobi's Master, I could have done with much more time with this unnerving villain. I find the rain lashed firing squad sequence a moment of winding realism. It really feels as though the Doctor and Ace's time has run out and they are going to be dispatched almost as an afterthought. How frightening are those vampire girls advancing on the soldiers in the tunnels after they have been shot in the stomach? Smoke pouring from their mouths, nails outstretched, Fenric grinning like a madman...Doctor Who hasn't pushed horror content like this for years. Nurse Crane’s death is very nasty because you know Judson and Fenric is enjoying it. Sorin carries the baton from Judson and makes a very different but just as terrifying version of Fenric.

The Bad Stuff: The script for The Curse of Fenric is troublesomely disjointed and cluttered as though Ian Briggs had a million ideas but no clue how to dramatise them. The storytelling really doesn’t flow smoothly, it’s like a needle in a record jumping over the place constantly adding new elements and not dealing with those that have already been presented. Joann Kelly and Joanne Bell both give two of the least convincing performances in the shows history (‘You should ave cum inta the water with us’ and ‘Ooh its like electrick!’). As London based evacuees I get that they are supposed to be as common as muck but this really is overstating the case - maybe it is a good thing that Ace never had the opportunity to sport a decent cockney accent if this would have been the result! They are also the least sensual vampires you are ever likely to meet, looking like the crowd that recently appeared on Channel 4's Benefit Street. I certainly wouldn't be enticed into the freezing cold English sea to sample their goodies. Nicholas Mallet is an odd choice of director for this piece given that his last work on this show was Paradise Towers. You have to wonder if JNT ever looked back on the work of his long term directors and judged what worked and what didn't and allocated them appropriately. I'm guessing not if the work of Ron Jones, Pennant Roberts and Nick Mallet are concerned. Whilst Mallet does pull off some surprisingly complex sequences, there is also a remarkably sloppy feel to some of the scenes in Fenric that occasionally feels like some fans took a camcorder out to a misty coastal village and decided to film their own Doctor Who story. Overall it would have been far more professionally shot had it been Alan Wareing or maybe even Andrew Morgan bringing it to life. The transition of scenes is very odd; there is nothing smooth about how the story leaps from one scene to the next (compare and contrast with Ghost Light) and there are some sudden reaction shots within scenes that you can tell have been filmed aside and inserted in jarringly. Whoever was editing the piece needed a crash course in his trade (and I'm not just talking about the hacked together story as originally transmitted, the Special Edition has serious, stuttering problems too). As good as the location work is it is such a shame it is shot on video because it looks far more like it has been filmed on a home video camera. Imagine how atmospheric this would be on film? We could have done without the excerpts of the parish records, which hold up the action interminably. Cartmel was a great ideas man but he wasn't always hot on cutting out extraneous material that slows down the action. I might be stupid but I never figured that Audrey was Ace’s mother when I first watched the story but I am reliably informed by everybody from my mother, my husband and several friends that it is significantly signposted as to make it obvious. There are too many co-incidences in the script, the Doctor and Ace discovering the body, Millington finding them in the crypt. Why does the Doctor start talking in cod Norse mythology…who on Earth would start a conversation like that? The vampire girls in the water should have been really scary but their obsession with their nails distracts from their generally ghoulish appearance. How on Earth did Ace work out that the encryptions are a logic diagram for a computer programme? Characters make the most random of conclusions to push the plot forwards. Unfortunately after their dramatic reveal the Haemovores stroll along the beach like geriatrics on a day trip along Eastbourne front. The references to Judson’s accident are irritatingly vague, why introduce plot elements like this if you aren’t going to follow it up and give us some sort of explanation? Why does Ace pick up the flask and why doesn’t she mention it? There are some dodgy POV shots on the Ace's climb up the church tower. Where does the romance between Sorin and Ace come from – like her friendship with the girls it is taken as a given after their first meeting that these two are deeply in love when no time has been given to make this even slightly plausible. Lust at first sight? Why does the Doctor chastise Ace for carrying explosives when they come in handy in Remembrance (blowing up the Dalek in the junkyard), Silver Nemesis (destroying the Cybership), Battlefield (‘Ace we need a hole’) and here? How precisely does faith work as a deterrent against evolved human vampires?  Ace’s cod existentialist dialogue when flirting really makes me vomit, why doesn’t she just snog him? One of Doctor Who’s ugliest moments comes when Wainright is killed; it’s the death of faith. What the hell is Millington talking about at the end of part three? It's astonishing that they would hire an actress of Anne Reid’s calibre and not give her anything to do after her first few scenes. If Fenric is such an ancient evil why didn’t the Doctor kill him when he defeated him? He had no trouble destroying Skaro in Remembrance. There is a whole army of vampire girls with stupid nails and red lippy…Simon hates that ridiculous scene. Melodramatic shrieking does not substitute genuine drama and there is plenty of the former in the last episode (‘Haaaaaace!’ 'I didn't know she was my maaaaaaaaam!'). As Simon pointed out to me the solution of the pawns working together makes no sense whatsoever. Whenever Fenric gets mentioned he always brings up the nonsensical conclusion. The Great One is another element added to an already crowded script. He comes with complicated and nonsensical explanations of a paradox where he poisons the oceans and creates his own future. How did Fenric manipulate anybody when he was trapped inside the flask? Did he really set all this up just so he could beat the Doctor at chess? Why such a convoluted answer to explain Ace’s embarrassing time storming backstory? I prefer to think of it as an accident. What is the point of the chess set in Lady Peinforte’s study? This 'arc' is as made up and narrative strangling as one of Moffat's! ‘He can’t penetrate Ace’s psychic force!’ – Fenric is occasionally adult enough to let us figure out things for ourselves...and occasionally feels like it has to point out the obvious. Surely if the Great One kills Fenric and doesn’t release the chemicals then none of this should have happened and the Haemovores shouldn’t exist? What is Millington’s motivation? Why does he go from investing so much into trying to plan the next fight with Russia and then on a sixpence decide that everybody is fair game?

The Shallow Bit: Of all the babes of the McCoy era Sorin is possibly the best looking. I never could resist a man in uniform. The soldier that Ace flirts with is another hottie. This story certainly doesn't scrimp on eye candy.

Result: I don't want you to get the impression from the section you have just read that I am not a fan of The Curse of Fenric. It is a frustrating story because it comes with a shopping list of problems but its better moments are so good that they automatically elevate it to something that is way above average. It has trouble juggling it's shopping list of plot elements but gets some of them so very right it is hard to argue with those people that consider this the best story of all time. The characters are vivid and (mostly) played to perfection, the production is packed full of terrific location work, action sequences and genuinely thrilling and scary moments. However it feels like this story is continually throwing things at you until you submit...curses, ancient evil, war, poisons, vampires, paradoxical mutations, domestic drama, politics. It’s a remarkably sloppy piece of writing, proof that if complicate things needlessly you tie yourself into knots of illogic, poor motivation and unanswered questions. And yet the dialogue is frequently excellent and delivered by such strong actors it almost makes you forget how slapdash the narrative is. The Curse of Fenric has a fantastic number of resources which it uses well and Nicholas Mallet's decision to take the story out on location was the best one he ever made when helming a Doctor Who story. The last episode in particular is the most exciting and slick single piece of Doctor who since the last part of The Caves of Androzani, furiously paced so that you are left clinging onto its coattails. A flawed piece of horror that provides a thrill ride on a scene by scene basis but doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny: 7/10