Monday, 17 February 2020

The Haunting of Villa Diodati written by Maxine Alderton and directed by Emma Sullivan

Oh Brilliant: Hold the Phone! I have heard people saying that they are waiting for the episode where Whittaker truly gets to embrace the part and prove herself as the Doctor. Frankly, I think she has been more than successfully doing that for this entire season but if you still have any doubts that Diodati should allay any fears and cement Whittaker as a Doctor of some gravitas and standing. She’s electrifyingly good here, bouncing from one scene to the next in a manner that can only be described as pure Doctor. Whittaker has shown darker aspects of her character this year and this is the (so far) pinnacle of that; she’s no push over in the face of a new type of Cyberman and literally spits that she will not lose anybody else she cares about to them. Even better is the scene where she steps out of the shadows of her ‘fam’ and admits that she is ultimately the person who has to take responsibility for their adventures and make the tough choices because she knows the bigger picture and the consequences if she gets things wrong. This is a standout scene with her companions because they are all paralysed with fear when she demands they make the choice about Shelley and she is pretty angry in the face of their impotence. That doesn’t mean there is no space for humour or levity though and the early scenes where they are exploring the villa and she is interacting with Byron are some of finest lighter character moments she has had as well. In the face of the lone Cyberman she is quick-witted, intelligent and brave. In every way, Whittaker impresses. I remember saying to Ludo out loud ‘that was a terrific acting challenge and she aced every part’ towards the end. When the Doctor is banging on about having a quality historical experience (after all Mary Shelley had just screamed in their faces) I thought we were in for another fun but flighty episode of historical high jinks (think The Shakespeare Code, The Unicorn and the Wasp, Robot of Sherwood) with the Doctor playing tour guide. This settles on something much darker and weightier (more The Fires of Pompeii or Rosa) where she has to step out of the shadows and take real accountability. Described as the most baffling creature that Byron has ever been acquainted with. Whittaker’s ‘what happened? They get bored halfway through or something?’ to the half formed Cybermen could only come from her Doctor. ‘Bit embarrassing’ made me laugh out loud. If the Doctor takes the Cyberium from Shelley and gives the Cyberman what it wants then armies will rise and billions will die…but she will save that one life. The Doctor is physically struck by Ryan suggesting that Shelley is only one life against all those others, but ultimately he doesn’t want to have to make that choice. Step forward the Doctor in a hell of a temper, railing against the madness of the universe that keeps making her go through these choices. ‘Words matter! One death, one ripple and history will change in a blink! The future will not be the world you know. The world you came from, the world you were created in won’t exist. So neither will you. It’s not just his life at stake, it’s yours. You want to sacrifice yourself for this? You want me to sacrifice you? You want to call it? Do it now. All of you.’ That happy go lucky wanderer from series 11 has gone. She’s pissed at the universe thanks to the developments this year and sometimes she has to strike at the heart of her friends who don’t understand what is at stake. Of course the Cyberium chose her, she is the ultimate guardian of the universe. Did she make a mistake by giving the Cyberman what it wants? For now, no. But I think there are huge consequences to come. Now she is going to fix the mess she has created – heading to the end of the Cyber War to try and stop the Cybermen from being reborn.

The Fam: So much fun to see them dressed up as romantic heroes of legend. Unlike series 11 which allowed the companions to walk around history in normal clothes there is a real effort this series to let them fit in. Yaz talks about someone enigmatic and different in her life without ever confirming that she is talking about the Doctor. I still have my doubts about this one and that look she gave the Master at the gambling tables in Spyfall. Ryan gets a moment to tell Mary Shelley to stick at what she is good at (against the Doctor’s express wishes) and then truly puts his foot in it when Dr Polidori challenges him to a duel. He once again proves to be a bit of a coward too, becoming something of a shrinking violet when things get creepy whilst Yaz tears ahead. Graham is so relatable; looking for the toilet and happy to stumble across food. He’s who you or I would be in one of these adventures.

The Fam (1816): Byron is one hell of a historical character to bring to life and Jacob Collins-Levy is more than up to the task. He’s utterly self-absorbed, self-centred and ready to woo men and women even when their lives are at stake. You can’t quite hate him because he is charming but he does have an irritating obsession with treating everybody as less than himself. I love how the Doctor has to tell everybody not to snog him and his hilarious insistence on calling her ‘Mrs Doctor.’ We’ve avoided the obvious trap of making the Doctor a sexual figure thus far into Whittaker’s run but if anybody was going to try and break that rule, it was going to be Byron. He takes the limelight away from Mary Shelley slightly because he is a more colourful character but I was still impressed with Lili Miller who is immediately enticing as the creative writer and mother who is look for a little more horror in her life. Trust me she is going to get it. A mention for Stefan Bednarcyzk, who ducks effortlessly in and out of scenes as the creepy butler. I was sad when he bought it because he was often the highlight of any scene he is in (his resigned sigh when Polidari chooses him as his second was hilarious).

The Lone Cyberman: All I have ever asked of the Cybermen is for them to truly capture the body horror that the premise suggests and not just lean on them as stock robots. Unfortunately, the latter has often been the approach taken by the different production teams over the years and we end up with bland automatons like those of The Wheel in Space, Revenge of the Cybermen, Silver Nemesis and Nightmare in Silver. The few times the body horror has been stressed – Tomb of the Cybermen, Attack of the Cybermen, The Age of Steel, The Pandorica Opens – they have been so much more interesting. As a twisted version of humanity that has become too reliant on technology and lost all of its emotions, that is an idea that is ripe for drama that Doctor Who (thanks to its family audience) often chooses to shy away from. Chibnall’s own Cyberwoman from Torchwood shows how comical the idea can be when taken to a childish extreme. Diodati takes its own approach; a partially converted Cyberman who still has half of his face showing and can still emote (mostly hate) and is a remnant of a species that has all but been wiped out. It’s here to find the Cyberium that has been hidden away in human history; all the knowledge of Cyber-technology and development to help them start again. That’s not only a great premise for the rest of series but it’s a brilliant character in its own right. Grisly and half formed, he’s a fine instigator of Frankenstein’s monster. A rusted suit and scarred face – what the hell has happened to turn the Cybermen into this? I can’t wait to find out. The scene where it picks up the baby is a direct steal, and gripping scene. For a moment I thought they were going to go through with it. And then in one of the darkest moments of NuWho the Cyberman admits that as a human he was a monster who killed his own children.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘One Cybermen, but then thousands. Humans like all of you changed into empty, soulless shells. No feeling. No control. No way back. I will not lose anyone else to that!’
‘Don’t be afraid, little one. You will be like us.’

The Good: A creepy pre-titles with a comic sting for a magnificent episode – hooray! I wish they would keep the pre-titles for every episode because they do give us the opportunity to find a cliffhanging moment in each episode. The establishing shot of the villa on the shores of Lake Geneva sets the scene beautifully, an isolated location being lashed by a storm. The dance serves as an amusing scene in itself but a very clever way of filling in the gaps about the large guest cast without it ever feeling like we are being info-dumped. It’s a gossip palooza and it feels right and proper that this would be happening at a social occasion. Creepy skeleton hands that roam about the house and attack, apparitions that seem very fond of Graham and a house which is folding in on itself…the first third of this story keeps throwing out the scares in very effective way. The haunted house story is so old fashioned by now that to pull it off this atmospherically is a huge feat. Certainly, Hide didn’t have this kind of atmosphere.

The Bad: This remind me an awful lot of The Banquo Legacy from the BBC Books range. What is promised as a pure historical with a supernatural twist becomes a prelude to a much bigger story that will have far reaching consequences for the Doctor. How it twists from something quite contained and claustrophobic to a much more epic tale is very similar.

The Shallow Bit: Percy Shelley. Phewie, he’s hot.

Result: Breathtakingly good, The Haunting of Villa Diodati is further proof that series 12 has been the best season of Doctor Who for many a year (I would say as far back as series 5). An atmospheric haunted house story, a riveting continuation of this seasons arc (and whetting the appetite for the next two episodes), a great character study of the Doctor, fine comic moments, real scares and a feeling that everything is coming together for this production team. In a series that is obsessed in having a large guest cast to make the swarm of regulars even more of a crowd this is easily the best set of guest characters we’ve had (although I would say that Spyfall and Praxeus come close) although they do have the advantage of being hand plucked from popular history. Actually, that might be more of a hindrance because it means they have a lot to live up to but Maxine Alderton (in a stunning debut script) ensures they are both faithful to history and great fun to watch. They are paired off very well with the companions who each get moments to shine as they are spooked the fuck out. I like how the story sets out to promise a haunted house mystery and early scenes of the Doctor and friends exploring allow the clich├ęs to be done extremely well before the whole piece turns on its head as the Cyberman appears and becomes both an influence on Shelley’s Frankenstein and a kick start into the two part finale. There’s a real Ghost Light vibe about the direction (something to do with being trapped in a house in with secrets in Victorian times) which plummets into all out horror in the final act and we’re introduced to the best (no exaggeration) Cyberman I can ever remember seeing in the series. This is the equivalent of the Dalek from Dalek. Half formed, revelling in its own body horror and relentlessly on a mission to save his race, this is one scary brute and it’s out to complete its mission whatever the cost. I was certain we were in for one of those godawful Moffat ‘love conquers all’ endings at one point but in a moment of bone chilling horror it snatches away from that and makes the Cyberman somebody who was a monster long before he was converted. This and Fugitive of the Judoon were the cheapies of the season and it is further proof that Doctor Who does not need a globetrotting budget to tell a great story as they are the highlights in a brilliant season. Given that four of the six episodes this year are two parters it means that the season feels truncated but if that is the trade of for such exceptional quality in the individual episodes then sign me up for this each year. I rate these stories on how I react to them on first viewing because that is the only truly faithful reaction to a tale. If I’m feeling mild indifference, it will get a 5. If I was blown away but it had a few flaws then an 8 or a 9. The Haunting of Villa Diodati kept me on the edge of my seat throughout; thanks to the peerless direction, the twists and turns, the character interplay but mostly for Whittaker’s supreme performance. She owned this and then some: 10/10

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Chase the Night written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The TARDIS lands in an alien tropical rainforest at night where the Doctor, Adric and Romana discover a set of rails stretching through the undergrowth. These tracks carry a long-crashed spaceship that’s been converted to run along them like a train. The ship has to keep moving because only the night-side of the world is habitable. The sun on the day-side burns so hot that everything on the surface is turned to ash. But the stress and strain of the constant movement is beginning to take its toll on the ship. Parts are starting to break down, and the relentless heat gets ever closer - but the greatest danger may be on the inside...

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor teaches Adric that the universe is not only stranger than we can suppose but it is stranger than we can suppose, which is a take on Shakespeare. Do they have a moral responsibility to take them away from this planet as the Doctor thinks, or is it a mistake to take criminals on board the TARDIS as Romana thinks or was the strict military justice system that they have instigated the only way to survive the situation they have found themselves in as Adric thinks? Everyone has something to say, proving the effectiveness of this trio and the conflicting opinions they bring. The Doctor refuses to pick and choose who they save and who they don’t given what they have done. It’s all or nothing. It’s a brilliant moral debate. The Doctor’s life is pretty much saved because he is the only person (Romana excepted) that can get the Tantalus going again. I love the Doctor’s coldness at the climax. He can barely bring himself to try and convince the Pilot to save herself and when she stubbornly refuses he as good as screams ‘stuff you then’ and scarpers. He’s got no time for time wasters when the situation is desperate. When Romana says the Doctor is the most frivolous person she has ever met he thinks that is the nicest thing that anyone has ever said about him.

Aristocratic Adventurer: Romana firmly believes that no matter how extreme the situation, you always have a moral choice. Listen to how Romana screams ‘K.9! Stun Adric!’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard Lalla Ward exclaim a line quite so passionately. Just because they are Time Lords it doesn't give them the authority to impose their moral law on the universe. The don't have a right but they do have a responsibility to help out where they can on an ad hoc basis whilst aimlessly wandering the universe. She's been thinking of something a little more purposeful and less frivolous.

Boy Genius: Adric is trying to adjust to the idea of landing on alien worlds. He’s enthusiastic but cautious, as anybody would be in these circumstances. He’s rather more than ‘good’ at sums, as the Doctor remarks. He manages to convince the Pilot that keeping the Doctor and Romana would be a good thing to do…without joining forces with them! In season 19 he would be feigning (or otherwise) an allegiance. Here he just uses his intelligence to provide an argument in their favour. Cutting through all the pomp and discussion of the previous story when it comes to finding a way for the Doctor, Romana and Adric to work together, Jonny Morris includes a scene where it appears that Adric has died and we get to see their responses to that. Romana is quietly accepting but the Doctor is desperate and refuses to give in whilst K.9 sounds sorrowful. It really does suggest the strength of bond between them in a very profound way. It was nice for Adric to be part of the gestalt for a while, a collective where he felt he belonged.

Standout Performance: Jane Asher is such an underrated performer and she has delivered two extremely good roles in her brief time in Doctor Who. I will never forget her star turn in Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? It turned out to be one of the high spots of the entire series and for anybody who followed that show, the standard was high and that is firm praise indeed. Here she gets her teeth into an outwardly villainous role but instead of playing the lines in a pantomimic way, she trades emotion for hard logic. It means that when she is talking about murdering some of her crew to ensure that the rest survive, it is simply a matter of keeping a rational head and doing what is best for the majority. She doesn’t think she is insane, just obsessed with getting as many people safely off this planet as she can. It’s a single-minded fixation that happens to allow her to commit murder to fulfil it. By the end of the story she is beyond paranoid, spitting out threats and ready to kill everybody if they disobey her orders.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m just saying we should put ourselves in their shoes…would we have been able to do things differently? I’m not sure we would.’
‘You need to keep both of us alive so that you can threaten to kill one of us if the other one doesn’t do what you want!’
‘Everyone lives…after a fashion.’

Great Ideas: Since they have entered E-Space they have encountered vampires, convicts and all manner of space thuggery…how can they be sure that the source of the distress signal on this planet is benign? Because it is always dark, the flowers and the trees on this planet have found a way to create their own light. It’s very season 18 for the travellers to land on an alien world and explore its alien properties. With a stranded crew (Warriors’ Gate) and a planet of lush aggressive vegetation (Meglos), this feels very much of its era. I would love to see for real the concept of a spaceship that has been converted to run along on wheels. It is a matter of necessity because the parts of the planet where the suns touches the surface turns everything to ashes…if they don’t keep on the move then it means certain death for everybody. What a terrific premise. Much like the film Speed, movement is of the essence otherwise its curtains for everybody. The Dauntless has been crashed on this planet for 114 years and they have adapted to the dangers of the planet expertly. The species have evolved to endure an environment of extremes. The Tantalus is brought to a halt by Romana to save the Doctor, and throw it in reverse…which means they are heading back towards the Dawn. There’s a built-in suspense in this story that makes it irresistible. The Acklyss is the forest of the planet, a lifeform that defies classification. A gestalt, a pshycic network. The creatures, the trees, they are as one. The bioluminescence that the Doctor detected was proof of pshycic activity. A synergetic super-organism, perpetually self-renewing as the planet rotates. Ultimately they have a choice between joining the gestalt or being burnt alive, a choice between life in a different state of existence or no life at all.

Musical Cues: A fantastic score that feels very Paddy Kingsland and suggests a feeling of momentum throughout – the story would just be a bunch of people in a desperate situation if it wasn’t for Robertson’s music that really pulls the whole thing together.

Standout Scene: The first episode builds to a brilliant cliff-hanger where Romana discovers what happens to those who question Dena’s martial law…they are sedated and left to face the sunlight. Bodies hanging in the open, helpless, as the sun approaches…it’s unusually gruesome and in your face for Big Finish these days (since the series came back it has been a little neutered) and the cliff-hanger itself is grippingly realised. Lalla Ward’s reaction to the nightmare is bang on.

Result: ‘It is time for us to welcome the Dawn…’ A tightly constructed, dramatic tale with an awesome premise and a hell of a pace, Chase the Night is a top five 4DA and a very welcome knockout for this range. A story with four episodes worth of dynamic plot that flaunts a memorable setting and a reason for the narrative to race on. Monstrous antagonists are tenpenny in Doctor Who but Jane Asher’s Pilot is something twisted and different and Asher doesn’t disappoint in delivering the cold logic and homicidal tendencies of a woman who has sold her soul to save her life. You might think that the story that sees the TARDIS crew constantly on the move might trade intelligence conversation for action but there are a number of terrifically written debates between the Doctor, Romana and Adric. I can always tell when John Dorney is in the script editors chair because there is an insistence that the strengths of the regulars used are tied into the story. And Jonathan Morris is adept at bringing ALL Doctor and companion teams to life so bringing these two Big Finish legends together means we are getting the best of both worlds. It’s like when Steven Moffat would write a story under Russell T. Davies. Featuring a planet with unusual properties that propel the story, this screams season 18 too. Unusually, the third episode is the most gripping as the Tantalus is stranded and the Dawn spreads across the planet and gets ever closer. It’s a real race against time to get moving. In any other range this would be impressive for its ability to keep you rivetted for 2 hours but in the 4DA line this is what I call a miracle. I kept waiting for the ball to drop but it just didn’t happen. Very, very good: 10/10

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Who Back When - A Podcast you need to check out...

A decent Doctor Who podcast is hard to come by. For me I have difficulties in liking the presenters or the format or simply how dismissive they can be at times. I have found two or three that I love (I'd like to put a shout out for Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who as well) but my absolute favourite in terms of content and amiability is Who Back When, which has an impressive back catalogue of content and I have yet to walk away from one episode feeling shortchanged. The guys and girls who contribute are very excited about what they talk about, and that is infectious and for the most part they come to the stories that they discuss with no previous knowledge or fan wisdom, which is just about the smartest thing they could have done. It means that the opinions are fresh and untainted, and often not at all what you might think. They will write up Inferno as above average but The Mutants as excellent.

The contributors are Leon, Drew, Marie, Jim, Nik, Rory, Jack and JD and the mix of contributors gets shaken up to keep things interesting. The one thing they all have in common is that they all love talking about Doctor Who and that love of critical appraisal comes over in spades. They might laugh at the gaudy fashions of the 1970s one minute whilst admiring the work that has gone into the dinosaur miniatures the next. I find the episodes are never entirely predictable but intelligent discussion resounds, and there are often laughs to be had as they poke their way around all corners of the Whoniverse.

The team have covered the classic series up to Underworld, the New Series up to Capaldi and many Big Finish efforts too. They have additional content, videos and a rating system that shows what they thought of each story at a glance. It is a hugely comprehensive website that has clearly been put together with a lot of love. One of my favourite elements is the Vindex - which pictorially links characters, companions, monsters and so on.

A quick word for Leon, who is clearly the mastermind behind this operation. Rarely will you hear a man who has such love for what he is doing and be so effortless in letting him drag you along in his wake. He's on every episode I have listened to and his masterful discussion of the stories he watches is impressive. The conversations rarely stray off topic (and if they do, it is discuss something even more interesting) and he has a great rapport with each other contributors. He goes by Ponken, which isn't confusing at all.

Who Back When had me at their ridiculously catchy ditty at the beginning of the episode. It is the perfect illustration that they don't take themselves too seriously, but that there is smart work happening here. Check it out, you won't be disappointed.

Purgatory 12 written by Marc Platt and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Still searching for a way out of E-Space, the TARDIS crew land on an isolated space rock... and immediately find it drawn towards a nearby asteroid. The asteroid has air and gravity unequal to its size and is strewn with the wrecks of spaceships. Veins and pools of rust are everywhere. Stuck on the asteroid away from his friends, Adric discovers that it’s a penal colony housing a gang of alien convicts - but resources are low, and they’re starting to starve.
 But escaping the prisoners is only the first part of the traveller’s troubles. Because there’s a sinister presence at the heart of the asteroid... and it won’t release them quite as easily.

Teeth and Curls: Hilariously when Adric makes a big show of leaving them, the Doctor tips his hat and says ‘bye bye and good luck’ and materialises as soon as he steps off the ship. He’s trying to make him learn that he belongs and not to be so rash. He’s been a determined youth too and but now he is more seasoned and mature. Sometimes the Doctor means the precise opposite of what he says. When it starts to rain he complains that he left his umbrella on the planet Karn. He speaks with hope about E-Space being a young universe and suggests that N-Space rings with the opinions of the ill-informed. The Doctor tries to apologise for leaving Adric the way he did but winds up rejecting him again, calling him little more than an uninvited stowaway. He really has to work on his interpersonal efforts. He’s out of jelly babies at the moment but greedily brandishes a bag of Bombay mix. It’s stated that the Doctor is a fan of practically every kind of music. There’s a moment when the Doctor spits a threat at Darklish – I really wouldn’t want to be on the sharp edge of his tongue. In a truly breathtaking moment, the Doctor reveals to Adric the sadness of growing old and everything it means.

Aristocratic Adventurer: Still grumpy sounding, still behaving as though she doesn’t want to be in the TARDIS. The biggest note that could be given to Lalla Ward is to ask her to slap a smile on her face. Now Ward is back acting alongside her ex-husband and an actor who she has had nothing nice to say about for the past 30 odd years. Romana says she likes Adric in a way that suggests otherwise. Romana is still on the run from the Time Lords and thinks her time is running out. The summons was a bit of a shock. They never talked to Adric about Varsh’s death but then alien psychology was never on her curriculum – it was too diverse. There’s a wonderful moment when Romana drops the attitude and marvels in the variety of life forms in E-Space. Everything is so alive and newly fledged. Romana and the Doctor have exactly the same reaction to ‘the gullet’ (‘that’s not ominous at all!’). She fights to protect her thoughts and fears as her own. By the end of the story, Romana and Adric are whispering to each other and working together very effectively. Somewhere in the second episode, Lalla Ward remembers how to play the character without the huge chip on her shoulder and is much more enjoyment for it.

Boy Genius: Bringing Adric in to join the Doctor, Romana and K.9 was a smart idea on the part of John Nathan-Turner in the way that crystallises them as a family (of sorts) rather than a pair of autocratic smart asses travelling the universe having a giggle. It’s hampered by two things; Matthew Waterhouse was hardly the best choice of actor at the time to play the role and the result is a very awkward character that at times looks uncomfortable on screen and the trio only lasted two stories before Roman chose to leave and join the Tharil cause. Step in Big Finish, pluggers of all continuity gaps and the company that will look across the broad spectrum of Doctor Who and see any untapped potential and breathe some life into it (or explain why that line of enquiry was never pursued). Waterhouse is far more assured these days (although he still continues to do that lilting voice that is his attempt to pretend that he is still 18) and with writers like Marc Platt and Jonny Morris on board it is a chance to truly see how this set of regulars could have flourished. Adric thinks he is disruptive to the Doctor and Romana’s life and wants to leave wherever they have landed. Romana suggests that they can find somewhere for him to go. There’s a very sweet moment when Adric laments the loss of his brother and asks why it had to be him to go and why he couldn’t keep him alive. It’s the sort of emotional material that was denied the series in 1980 but is all the rage in 2020. It’s very quickly obvious that Adric is not suited to surviving on his own. He needs the Doctor and Romana to protect him from himself. He wants somewhere to call home and I doubt Purgatory 12 is the ideal environment for him. Like State of Decay, he soon finds a place for himself amongst the natives simply by being a little helpless. Adric can empathise with Darklish because they are both alone in the universe. He left Alzarius because he had nothing to stay for after his brother left. He misses his brother so much. He always had a plan and he can’t understand why he couldn’t hold onto his hand when the Marshmen attacked. He realises that he has the ability to make a copy of Varsh and have his brother in his life again. It's suspenseful because we have already been privvy to how much he misses his brother and know he has the technical ability to do so. Astonishingly the characterisation of Adric is the best thing about this story and it is extremely effective.

K.9: Override one is that nobody knows better than the Doctor, or at least that is how the Doctor has programmed him. Listen to the noise K.9 makes when he is denied anymore dog biscuits. Bless him. Fibbing, lying and deception are not in his programming. Platt and Morris are the two writers that love giving John Lesson charming moments of character, despite the fact that he is playing a robot. You’d think that would be a thankless task but Leeson has such an attractive way with his dialogue that he imbues the little tin dog with as much character as everybody else involved in this story. He has self-awareness and worries that he might be sent away like Adric. When he admits he has never had a friend, my heart went out to him. He would do anything for a biscuit. He wasn’t perfect; he could be obstinate, pedantic, irritating and impossible according to the Doctor in his eulogy. He had such a sense of wonder and a sense of analytical joy. No wonder could outsmart K.9 at chess…he even beat the Doctor (from time to time).

Standout Performance: Why is Tom Baker always so charming when he is paired up with robots and aliens? It tends to bring out the child in him. Lalla Ward plays a fantastic nasty. Her evil laughter really chilled me. There’s a moment when it seems that K.9 has perished and thanks to all the performances it is simply the most moving moment I have heard on audio in some time.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We are unforgiven’ ‘Do forgive me.’
‘We could while away the hours looking at my collection of wanted posters. They do say I’m irredeemable but here I am, full of remorse and turning myself in!’
‘You’re not turning my TARDIS into a soup kitchen…the hens have already had my Bombay mix!’
‘Even in a herd we are all of us alone.’
'Adric, there's a point in veryone's life, a tipping point, where we start losing more than we gain. Memories, people, loves. They all fall away and it gets worse the older you get. And by the time you're my age you can cling onto the things you love but it starts to get awfully cluttered and sometimes you just have to let go.'

Great Ideas: The issue that the previous attempts at season 18 from Big Finish was that the stories felt utterly inauthentic and far more like the knockabout run-arounds of season 17 with the 18-title music plastered on at the beginning. I think it is best to consider that run of stories (only feature the fourth Doctor and Romana) as the interim between the two seasons and this as being the first fully authentic adventure to take place in the Christopher H. Bidmead era of Doctor Who. The humour is stripped back, Adric is on board and scientific fantasy is very much the order of the day. Domestic TARDIS scenes kick off the story, which automatically feels far more like 18 than 17. People suggest that Eric Saward brought that element of conversations in bedrooms to the series but Bidmead’s season kicked all that off. Having stories set entirely on alien worlds in E-Space is a huge step in the right direction because this season was bookended by sequences set on Earth but otherwise was far more content to explore exotic alien worlds. Purgatory 12 is a penal colony and adrift, stolen by the darkness that lives at its heart. The TARDIS is described as a ‘large, shabby container.’ Fancy being inside a creature that is digesting you alive and you have to try and figure out what kind of creature it is. Romana describes the creature as a thoroughly spoilt child with no manners (but then she has just been swallowed). A whole army built out of rust to protect its children. After a few episodes on non-incident the last episode pulls this story together with some pleasing action.

Isn’t it Odd: At some point in the third episode you realise that Platt is having a lot of difficulty padding out the plot because we listen to Adric playing a game of chess for several minutes to win Romana back. That’s hardly thrill a minute. Weirdly enough this scene ends on one of the best moments in the story; where Romana realises they are in a mausoleum surrounded by bodies.

Standout Scene: At the climax the Doctor gets to conjur up an entire army out of rust to tackle Darklish’s forces and play a game of chess write large. It’s a brilliant sequence that sees Tom Baker at the height of his powers. Varsh banging on the door, back to haunt Adric.

Result: There’s an argument to be made in Purgatory 12 that the fourth Doctor adventures should have always have been four parts long because they give much more time to let the characters breathe, to explore the setting and to build up an atmosphere. The first episode is given over almost entirely to character development that could (and should) have been dealt with in season 18 and the build up of mystery surrounding Purgatory 12 is very nicely done. In your average two-part 4DA this episode would be half of the story and have to get to the point far more quickly. On the other hand, there is also an argument for the two-episode format because the information is eked out over the four episodes at a very relaxed rate, and there isn’t enough incident to join those moments of revelation. There are huge stretches of all talk and no action. A penal colony on an asteroid with living rust that can manifest itself into people and a mouth at its heart that consumes is precisely the sort of potent imagery that you look to a Marc Platt script for. The extra time allows Platt to spend some time considering Adric’s place in the universe, the loss of his brother and how he fits in to the Doctor and Romana’s life. It’s the sort of character development that the series turned away from at the time (there are several moments in the eighties when the series was ripe for terrific character work – the death of Nyssa’s father, Adric’s death, Turlough’s redemption, Peri’s death – that were just skipped over) that has fuelled Big Finish adventures for the past 15 years. Tom Baker is better than he has ever been; aggressively disappointed with Adric, enjoying his exploration of N-Space and using humour to worm his way into the trust of the inmates to try and figure out what is going on. Purgatory 12 isn’t the most accomplished story Big Finish has ever put out but it has some enjoyable elements and with Platt at the typewriter it means there is plenty of memorable dialogue and imagery to see you through. The characterisation of Adric and K.9 is especially good, two characters that usually get the short shrift: 7/10

Monday, 10 February 2020

Can You Hear Me? Written by Charlene James & Chris Chibnall and directed by Emma Sullivan

Oh Brilliant: I’ve heard some grumblings online about how the final scene between Graham and the Doctor is played and I think there is something far more profound going on than an amusing (or insulting) scene between the Doctor and one of his companions. This isn’t the Doctor refusing to comfort somebody who is opening up to her. Because that would be a pretty awful thing to do. This is somebody who doesn’t know how to react to the horrible, personal truth that is being spelled out to her. Trust me, as somebody who has battled with mental health problems and somebody who has worked in mental health, I have both been the Doctor in this scene and experienced her awkward silence. That’s the point of the episode, I think. Can you hear me? Do you want me to say it again? Someone is trying to explain their fears and anxieties…and sometimes you just don’t know what to say, or you’re not equipped to give an appropriate answer and so just make some awkward excuse to extradite yourself from the situation. It’s worth remembering that the Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey and not a social worker from Barnsley. Yes, she makes big grandstanding speeches about humanity because it is easy to step in a make sweeping generalisations about things but when one person is looking you square in the eye and opening up about their doubts, in a beautifully flawed way she simply doesn’t have the answers. That feels very real to me because I’ve seen it.

The Doctor is rubbish without her companions, she simply doesn’t know what to do. The TARDIS letting her know about an emergency on the other side of the Earth distracts her so she doesn’t realise what her biggest fear is. Being alone. If leaping from the TARDIS and talking to himself is good enough for Tom Baker in The Face of Evil, it’s good enough for Jodie Whittaker in Can You Hear Me?. The Doctor talks to the TARDIS in this episode and she is answering. Described as the living definition of impossible. The Doctor is bound to think that somebody locked away is a victim (she’s been in that position more times than she would care to remember) and doesn’t stop to think that there might be a very good reason for why Rakaya is being held. Blundering is at the top of her CV, along with plays well with others and excellent tap dancer in a crisis. Zellin brilliantly uses the Doctor’s friends against her. He targets them specifically to get the Doctor involved, the only person that could free Rakaya from her prison. He put the images in their mind precisely to get her here and now and to think that she was a prisoner of his making. It says something that she is the only person smart enough to release her, and empathetic enough to do it willingly. The Doctor magically summoning the sonic screwdriver irks but I was immediately distracted by the finger she winds up walking away with.

Yaz: The one episode where nobody can say that Yaz is underserved! At first, I thought that it felt like this was retrospectively inserting development into Yaz by heading back into her past and adding dark details that have never been hinted at before. Then I thought about if somebody met me fresh for the first time today and if they would be able to figure out if I have had mental health issues in the past. I’m a pretty jolly and confident sort of chap so I very much doubt it. Suddenly a lot of information about Yaz does make sense when you watch Can You Hear Me? Her willingness to jump on board the TARDIS this quickly, her desire to be a policewoman, her need to prove herself to the Doctor…all makes sense when you find out that at one point, three years ago, Yaz was going to commit suicide because life piled on top of her in so many ways and she could not see a way forward. She’s such a happy go lucky companion so to learn that there is an underlying sadness and revelation underneath all those smiles deepens her considerably. How this episode reveals her worst day is done with great delicacy and the dialogue manages to hit hard without being exploitative or disrespectful. It’s very sweet that Sonya chooses to mark the day that Yaz nearly took her life by being with her sister and celebrating the fact that she is still alive. When you reach that point and you manage to claw yourself back, it is worth marking that day each year. It’s a huge achievement. The sequence where Yaz is haunted by her suicide attempt is powerfully realised; her sister taunts her by telling her she should ‘do it right this time.’ ‘Nobody is coming this time, you’re alone in the dark.’ That’s some of the most frightening dialogue in all of Doctor Who. That smile that Yaz gives the police officer who saved her life is one of the most heart-tugging moments in NuWho. There are incredible people out there who make a difference and the 50p is a little reward for all the hard work they do. They deserve to see the fruits of their kindness. I’ve been the person who needed help and the person giving help. And both are challenging. I’ve never felt more connected to Yaz. What a triumph this episode is for her character.

Graham: It’s like somebody has looked at the three companions and decided to throw up two years’ worth of development in one episode. This is the sort of material we have been crying out for for these three all season. It’s very well done, as well. Very personal and frightening, and very human. Last year I felt all three companions were very human to the detriment of them enjoying their adventures. It felt like three soap opera characters had dropped into Doctor Who for a year. This year we have seen the three of them having a lot of fun and engaging far more with the Doctor’s lifestyle, and so development like this feels more like a reward. I lost my mum to cancer and know what a horrifying thing that is to go through for a person and so Graham’s fear that his condition might return feels very real to me. It’s something that a lot of people are terrified of, whether they have previously been diagnosed or not. For Grace to be the one who taunts him with a relapse in his nightmare, and to accuse him of not saving her is very cruel.

Ryan: He gets a massive wake up call in this episode, and realises that whilst he is off gallivanting the universe, his friends are back home moving on without him. Or in the case of Tibo, stuck in a rut without him. His friend needed his help because he is finding life a struggle and Ryan has not been there to see his life falling apart.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m that little bit smarter than you thought I was’ sums up the Doctor perfectly.

The Good: Another female director, more astonishingly atmospheric work being done. Just take a look at the opening few scenes to see how much effort is being put into making the show look as stylish as possible. The recreation of Appello (complete with a realistic CGI shot of the entire city), terrific lighting, convincing sets, a seriously creepy monster (with enormous fingers that wrap around your face) and well-cast parts. What I love is how this is just a side issue, it’s not even where the meat of the episode takes place and this much effort is put into making it as convincing as possible. It’s nice to see a pre-credit too. I guess the show only does that when it feels the need to now. With his creepy score, detachable fingers, and Ian Gelder’s sinister presence, Zellin is the most effective bad guy that Whittaker’s Doctor has stumbled across. The way he can whisk into a room and stir up your nightmares so insidiously is really quite a scare for children. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and seeing him standing there, smiling, and sending his icky fingers at you to bring your phobias to life? Brr. It’s really chillingly done. The musical sting and screeching violins help sell the horror of the home invasion. Some fun in having everybody call the Doctor at once and having her merge the call. It’s a nice way of pulling all the threads together in one bunch to propel the story forwards. I adore the set for the Control Hub with its Top of the Pops style scaffolding, creepy lighting and harpsichord scanner functions. It’s a designer putting that little bit of extra effort into what could have been a very functional bit of set dressing. Instead its visually very imaginative. Two planets colliding in an extinction event holding a destructive God in a stellar prison being fed nightmares. That’s the sort of premise that would give Douglas Adams a hard on. It’s not often that the Doctor meets the elementals that can play about with the fabric of the universe and it always forces her to up her game when she does. It’s nice to make the villain of the piece so epic because until now (the Master aside) it has been second rate bad guys like Krasko and Tim Shaw. The animation impressed me because it was a creative way to spell out exposition whilst making you go wow. Two Gods walking down a misty street at night sucking in people’s nightmares and feasting. This is Moffat style nightmare fuel.

The Bad: Dash, dash, dash. Series 11 was practically standing still. Series 12 hasn’t stopped running. Not for one single episode. It’s always running from one scene to the next. I like a fast pace and momentum but it would be nice to put the breaks on for a little bit and take a look around. Even in an episode as introspective as this there is a sense of urgency and movement throughout. They are built up as an epic Big Bad but the Elementals are brought down rather quickly and easily by the Doctor pulling the threads of the narrative (the prison, the monster, the fingers) around them. It’s clever but feels like a humiliatingly brief defeat for two villains that have been so well built up.

Result: Dark, schizoid, imaginative and brave, Can You Hear Me? marks a turning point for Yaz, Graham and Ryan in a huge way. How this episode fools you into thinking it is going to be all about people’s phobias and then winds up saying something profound about mental health in general, and how we need to talk is hugely impressive for a family show. With racism, environmentalism and now mental health under his belt, Chibnall isn’t afraid to have a point whilst it is entertaining you and I will keep saying this until I am blue in the face but these things are real, they’re out there and they are worth discussing as families. I’m going to say that that is the most vital and individual proponent of Chibnall’s vision of Doctor Who. It has a point. I have seen loads of fans opening up about their own mental health issues, sharing stories, supporting one another and healing some of the hurt in the day since this episode aired. That a piece of entertainment and a community that enjoys it can take that away is incredible, especially when fandom of television shows in general is getting pretty toxic. Can You Hear Me? has a real punch to it because of its character work. It’s the most accomplished character piece in years, especially when it comes to the regulars. The plot works extremely well to a point, but ultimately that is wrapped up with little ceremony (and to its detriment) to allow for the ten-minute coda, which is where all the striking material is. Last week it wasn’t the monsters that affected me, it was what I learnt about our reliance on plastic and what it is doing to the planet. This week it isn’t Ian Gelder and Clare Hope-Ashitey that scared me (as fantastic as they are), it is the idea that people are struggling invisibly around me and I might realise too late to help them. Mandip Gill is astonishingly good in her first real showcase but the rest of the regulars are only a heartbeat behind her. The Doctor is still a weird, quirky, awkward alien having adventures and trying to keep herself together in the knowledge that her planet has gone up in flames. But her companions are real people; struggling, asking questions about their existence and coming to terms with the demons of their past. They feel so much more real to me now as a result of this episode. Stunningly realised and acted, watch this more than once, it benefits several viewings. I make no apology for loving an episode that spreads a message that I have banging on about for years. If you’re struggling, talk: 9/10

Sunday, 9 February 2020

TOS – For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky

Plot – A huge bio dome spaceship that is dressed up as an asteroid. Say what you will about the third season of TOS, it wasn’t afraid to flaunt some pretty big ideas. To have been travelling for so long that your people have forgotten you are on a spaceship and believe it is a world, is another powerful concept. The mystery derives from why the people on this spaceship are forbidden to discover that this isn’t a world but a means of travel.

You see Kirk is smart enough to completely dismiss the Prime Directive if he thinks that the alternative is the annihilation of a species. Picard would probably opt for the latter and Janeway would mull it over for ages. Sisko would probably kill them himself. Ultimately, he decides in a critical moment to explain the situation but he tries to make it as gentle a transition as possible.

Character – How galling it must be for Dr McCoy to have to report to Kirk that the only person to fail the medical examinations…is himself. And that he only has a year left to live. It’s an unusual dilemma for a character to find themselves in on Star Trek where medicine has reached a stage when most terminal illnesses have been cured (or certainly they are never mentioned). The way the episode immediately deals with the news might not be dramatically satisfying (Kirk informs Starfleet medical and requests a replacement CMO) but it does make a lot of good sense. Given he only has a year to live, it seems very reasonable that McCoy would want to get on with his work rather than surrender to his illness.

There’s a very funny moment when McCoy admits that it shows great taste for Natira to be more interested than him than Kirk or Spock, where Kirk finds that highly questionable. There are plenty of Trek episodes where characters make what seem to be hasty decisions to stay with people they have just fallen in love with (Dax in Meridian is a particularly unconvincing example) but McCoy’s decision to remain here with a beautiful woman makes perfect sense when you factor in the knowledge that he only has a year to live. If somebody was offering the chance of love and a community and a religion when you have so little time I can see why somebody, even McCoy, would embrace those comforts. Had this society been presented as a warmer, more welcoming one and the romance angle been more overtly sexual and less cod-romance I really could have bought into McCoy’s desire to stay.

We know that McCoy isn’t really going to stay on this suicide planet but the script spends some considerable time convincing us that it will, and the other regular characters as well and you can feel the bond between them when they think they are going to have to say goodbye.

Production – Fortunately they can use the usual stock planet’s surface set for the asteroid since for some reason it is posing as one.

Bask in the enjoyment of the doors opening on the surface and men dressed in brightly coloured ponchos attack Kirk, Spock and McCoy. This might be one of those occasions where you would wish you had beamed down a ton of redshirts to avoid the embarrassment of first contact.

Best moment – I really like how they have a profound effect on the people that are living here. No longer will they be heading towards their destruction and they understand the true nature of their ‘world’ now. Kirk, Spock and McCoy have had a real impact on their society in (hopefully) a positive way. I wish they had let McCoy’s illness linger for a few more episodes because it would have been interesting to have seen that played out long term and to see him coming to terms with the implications. However, another good reason for going to this asteroid is the fact that they can sew up this blind alley medical dilemma in the same episode. It’s quite a neat package, even if it is ignoring the dramatic possibilities.

Worst moment – If it hadn’t been a sentient computer behind this whole thing I would have been truly surprised but instead (and no matter how well staged it is – with Kirk and Spock doing a particularly tricky Crystal Maze task) when Spock leapt through the wall to discover a bank of flashing lights I crumpled in my seat. This is TOS, what else would it be?

I wish they hadn’t done that – What a shame that an episode that flaunts such intelligent ideas should indulge in the usual TOS romance nonsense. Especially when McCoy and Yolanda have zero chemistry and the scenes are padded out with very cod starry-eyed dialogue. ‘Until I saw you there was nothing in my heart to sustain my life…now it sings!’

A reason to watch this episode again – A pleasing sense of ambition pervades this episode, with some excellent high concept ideas and a chance for the trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy to have an adventure in an unusual location. What lets it down is the soppy and limp romance angle and how it refuses to scratch beneath the surface of the powerful philosophies in play. For the third season of TOS this is a middling affair, but with just enough intrigue to get a passing grade. If nothing else it does try to open your mind to some strong SF notions and Star Trek should always be commended for doing that.

*** out of *****

Clue for tomorrow's episode:

Friday, 7 February 2020

ENT – Observer Effect

Plot – The most fun aspect of this bodysnatching episode is how the aliens aren’t evil, just spectators and how they manage to shift from body to body effortlessly and without the hosts knowing they have been taken over. It means from scene to scene we are watching different pairs of actors playing the aliens, which keeps things lively.

The conclusion the episode seems to draw is that the crew on Enterprise is more surprising and spontaneous than any of the other species the Observers have watched over 800 years. It’s waving a flag for this bunch, saying they have survived this long out in space because they are very good at what they do. Humans are stubborn and intuitive and intelligent. It’s a very optimistic outlook.

Character – Hooray for some character development for Ensign Hoshi, who we have to literally trap in a confined space in order to get some backstory out of her. The story of how she was kicked out of the Academy for running an illegal poker game offers some promise that there is more to her than meets the eye. Perhaps it should be revealed that she was doing the same thing on Enterprise all along, running a secret gambling ring, a slicing a profit right off the top. Trip thinks she’s a genius, how she can take a snippet of a language and adopt it to communicate. I really liked the observation that maths is just another language that she can crack and that when pushed she can override safety protocols.

Archer, with tears in his eyes, visiting Trip to let him know that as of yet they haven’t managed to find a cure. Scott Bakula plays the scene as though he is convinced that his friend is going to die, despite what he is saying. It’s surprisingly affecting for what isn’t said. ‘Right now Enterprise needs a Doctor more than it needs a Captain’ says Archer selflessly. They really started getting his character right in the final season, didn’t they? Archer trusts T’Pol to such an extent that he will hand Command to her without a second thought and he insists that she keeps hold of the Ship and doesn’t let any red tape bound Admiral take it away from her. It’s a surprisingly affecting scene where the camera lingers just long enough on Jolene Blalock to be affecting.

Performance – Dominic Keating plays the Observer with the same unbearable smugness that he does Reed, and yet somehow it is even more intensified.

Production – Alien beings at loose covertly on a Starship is just about the hokiest Trek stand in I can imagine and yet Mike Vejar directs this piece as though it has never been done before. Since this is a bottle show he gets the chance to explore the standing sets in quite a refreshing way, the camera swopping through the corridors and taking long, luxurious looks around decontamination, Phlox’s lab and the Bridge.

Best moment – The aliens choose to reside in the body of Mayweather. A decision that I am very grateful for since I haven’t seen him do anything particularly useful or memorable until this point. Okay, this may not be insight into the guy himself but at least it utilises Anthony Montgomery and at this stage I will take anything I can get. He plays the Observer with a zeal to learn about humanity, with a glint in his eye that is quite infectious. I’m starting to wonder that Montgomery has a fair amount to offer as an actor as long the writers give him something to do.

This is Enterprise directly having an impact on TOS, somewhere that the fourth season dared to venture quite a few times. I don’t pretend to know much about the Organians, just that this encounter with Archer means a shift in how they think about interfering with other species that would come in handy for Kirk in the future. Archer’s desire for the Organians to experience compassion as a way of understanding them more fully is not only a development of a TOS created race but a reasonable conclusion the episode as a whole. It ticks both boxes nicely.

Worst moment – ‘Someone always dies’ says one of the aliens at every available opportunity to try and ramp up the tension. ‘Someone always lies’ could be the tagline for the episode.

I wish they hadn’t done that – This is Star Trek after all. If one of your shipmates turns up and starts asking unusual questions then report him immediately to your commanding officer. There’s a good chance there is a non-corporeal lifeform in there rather than the fact that they might just be out of character.

A reason to watch this episode again – More interesting than it has any right to be given it is a bottle show featuring non-corporeal beings observing the Enterprise crew, Observer Effect shows how the fourth season is delivering the stock Star Trek stand-ins with much more panache than the first two seasons. Everyone gets a chance to play the witnessing aliens and the best performances don’t always come from those who you might expect (Anthony Montgomery was my favourite) and the script uses the fact that there are no guest stars to tell a reasonably engaging tale of alien interference. You’re not going to walk away from Observer Effect feeling as if you have watched a revolutionary episode of Star Trek, but I’m fairly certain you’ll be entertained and have learnt a little about the characters in the meantime. When to this show I can’t really ask for more than that. Mike Vejar deserves a medal for making such cliched ideas seem so fresh.

***1/2 out of *****

Clue for tomorrow's episode: