Monday, 30 June 2014

Destroy the Infinite written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The colony planet Delafoss is occupied by the army of a rapacious alien force known only as the Eminence. These slave armies of terrified humans are commanded by the dreaded Infinite Warriors - impervious to most forms of firepower, voices like icy death. The Doctor and Leela arrive expecting to find Earth’s most successful, unspoiled colony. Instead, they are confronted by a planet choked by industrialization. And at the heart of it all, the construction of something that the Eminence intends will wipe out all human resistance once and for all. For the first time in his life, the Doctor confronts the Eminence… and things will never be quite the same again.

Teeth and Curls: Unbelievably this is a story that has Tom Baker's Doctor possessed by an evil gaseous entity and doesn't do anything remotely chilling with it. Beyond the shock factor of the Doctor being taken over (which is rather spoilt by the cover) it merely seems to result in Baker droning out his dialogue like a roboman straight out of Dalek Invasion of Earth. I would have given him carte blanche to really go for it and growl out his dialogue but instead Briggs seems content to rein him in. Given how genuinely frightened Colin Baker played his fear of the Eminence in The Seeds of War I was expecting something a little more than this. Wouldn't it be dramatically more satisfying if the Doctor committed unspeakable acts under the influence? Instead he is just pretending to be under their spell so he can get close and affect their defeat. How...obvious.

Noble Savage: Leela is perfectly convinced that the TARDIS never lands where the Doctor thinks it is going to. Given that she is from a human colony herself, it is rather sweet that the Doctor has brought to Leela to one of her races most successful examples. It's a chance for her to bask in the glory of what humanity can achieve. Leela can sense war even before the shots are fired. Is it wrong to celebrate a victory? Leela wants to bask in the defeat of the Eminence but the Doctor's forlorn attitude reminds her that good people have died. Her conscience is developing.

Standout Performance: This is an astonishing cast featuring Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Michael Fenton-Stevens, Clive Mantle and Ian Hallard...none of whom are remotely challenged by the hollow characters they are inhabiting. Hallard probably makes the most impact because he gets to play his 'what-ho, old bean' Biggles character to the hilt.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'What can be so powerful that it makes a man forget the people that he loves?'
'Sometimes I think you humans take to war with a little too much vigour.'

Great Ideas: Can you think of an opening that screams of Doctor Who more than the one that kick starts Destroy the Infinite? A subordinate being called before his almighty rulers, being praised for his good work and then tortured out of recognition as he becomes an Infinite Warrior. There are shades of Timelash, The Sun Makers, The innocent member of this planet being summoned against his will. A planet of unnatural clouds, burdened by heavy industrial pollution. People say the Eminence has no physical form, that it travels as an orange mist in caskets that appear from nowhere. People have started to think of them as Gods or demons. Many life forms have evolved into gaseous states (if the Doctor is to be believed in Utopia then the human race suffered that fate at some point in its future). The Doctor saw terrible visions of the future when he was at one with the Eminence, visions of entire galaxies consumed by the Eminence.

Audio Landscape: Marching jackboots, rain lashing, shots fired, glass crashing, electricity crackling, mine workings, alarms, bullets bouncing, going up a hatchway, a ship screaming in the sky, cocking guns, bleeping scanners, explosions, applause.

Musical Cues: More wonderful music courtesy of Jamie Robertson. His soundtracks are absolutely one of the highlights of the range.

Isn't it Odd: It is strange to return to a point where the Doctor hasn't met the Eminence before given that as an audience we have already seen the sixth (The Seeds of War) and eighth (Dark Eyes II) Doctors come up against them. Rather than play this as a story where Briggs acknowledges that this might be where the Doctor first meets them but we already understand their raison d'etre this is played as if we have no knowledge of the Eminence at all. It feels like a debut for the race all over again. It might feel authentic to tell a story of conflict through the eyes of a handful of people given what Doctor Who's resources were like at the time...but didn't we just do that last month with Last of the Colophon? This is definitely a case of poor juxtaposition and Destroy the Infinite comes off worse as a result because Briggs doesn't quite have Morris' excellent ability to capture characters with a few lines, there is relatively little humour or personality to this bunch on Delafoss. Tillegat is a thankless role, a character constructed out of pure cardboard (or should that read plot convenience) and killed before we get to know a single thing about him. How can we care about these people if we haven't been given the chance to get to know them? Isn't it bizarre how a war on an alien planet can be staged to appear to be a direct riff on the Second World War complete with stalwart upper class soldiers and military generals? Wouldn't you go for something a little more alien than this? Defeat of the Eminence is effortless...are they really a credible threat?

Standout Scene: When the Eminence tell the Doctor that he is the same as them are they letting on more than we are aware of? Are they somehow linked to the Time Lords? Are they the Time Lords in the far flung future? Watch this space...

Result: War, possession, gaseous many clichés can you pack into one Doctor Who story? I think it is a little unfair on the era that this story is supposed to be aping to suggest that Destroy the Infinite is merely going for the nostalgia jugular. It's something that I have heard a lot lately with regards to the 4DAs (especially in my own reviews) and I think it is worth remembering that the Hinchcliffe/Williams eras are some of the most innovative and imaginative periods of the show. Certainly there was nothing that surrendered quite as much to formula as The Evil One or Destroy the Infinite. The producers would simply not allow anything this predictable to screen. What Briggs is doing it pulling a number of Doctor Who clichés out of the bag (Master + companion gone bad, war + possession) and applying them to the bare bones of a narrative and injecting it with a sense of adventure. Superficially fun but the merely the essence of a Doctor Who story rather than a substantial one. Destroy the Infinite feels like one long action set piece rather than a plot that has been well thought-out and given they are as blankly characterised as the guest cast this story could pretty much feature any Doctor/companion combination. The Doctor and Leela could easily be excised and the third Doctor and Jo or the sixth Doctor and Peri slipped in. I'm not saying that every piece should be uniquely carved to a particular set of regulars (although some more the of the probing of this pair would be welcome after flirting with the idea in The Heroes of Sontar/White Ghosts) but they should never be this throwaway. This is passable filler (I seem to keep saying that about Nick Briggs' 4DAs, easily the most expendable stories of the range because they never attempt to think outside the box) but as an Eminence story The Seeds of War was more intriguingly structured and detailed (with a stronger cast of characters) and Time's Horizon in the Dark Eyes II box set was much more frightening. I had no problem listening to Destroy the Infinite but I wont pretend it challenged me for a moment. Listening to a 'written and directed by Nick Briggs' story at the moment is like enjoying a Chinese buffet; instantly fairly gratifying but you will have forgotten all about it within five minutes and never be able to distinguish it from the other meals you've had for the rest of your natural. Sometimes it's nice to chow down on something memorable: 5/10

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Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Sound of Drums written by Russell T Davies and directed by Colin Teague

This story in a nutshell: The new Prime Minister of Great Britain is...the Master!

Mockney Dude: There is something very dynamic about the team of the Doctor, Jack and Martha walking the streets, hanging out in her flat and going on the run. I love the fact that this is a urban geek Doctor who fits in very nicely hanging out with regular people on the street. Colin Baker made a fantastic point when he said that if you were an intelligent Time Lord you would chose an image that allowed you to fit in as much as possible wherever you visit. And since the Doctor spends so much time on Earth it makes sense that he should adopt a contemporary, chic image for himself. This might go against what other people think, perhaps preferring the Doctor to stand out from the crowd (although that Ronald McDonald coat is perhaps taking things a step too far) but as a one-off incarnation, I think the tenth Doctor does a great job of retaining his quirkiness and alien qualities whilst also managing to blend into a crowd. The frisson between the Doctor and the Master when they first talk on the phone is spectacular, with the Doctor desperate to make him understand that they are the last of their kind and they need each other. David Tennant and John Simm do superb work together, it's interesting to note that when they finally talk it is the moment where Simm's stratospheric performance calms right down to a low menace. You get the sense that the Doctor is so relieved to talk about the Time War with one of his own kind. It's great to see the Doctor cobbling together a device that will hide them out of some old tat again; he’s been a bit out of practice. The Doctor is trapped in an impossible situation of wanting to save the Master because he is the only other Time Lord in existence but the more acts of slaughter he commits the harder that becomes to justify. It's horrible to watch his torture at the conclusion. What with his agonizing transformation in Human Nature and a similarly vicious procedure inflicted on him here, the tenth Doctor is physically tortured more than any other Doctor in the third series. Are we going to be stuck with this geriatric version of the Doctor from now on?

Marvellous Martha: Back on Earth and in the throes of political madness that wraps her family in a veil of evil, Martha is on top form throughout The Sound of Drums. Agyeman is back in that red leather coat but somehow she looks like a completely transformed person for her travels (maybe it is just the hair). Throughout the year we have seen Martha gaining her confidence in the face of the Doctor’s insensitivity and when her family are threatened as good as tells the Doctor to go jump and she is going to protect them no matter what. I remember watching this at the time and punching the air with delight that she finally put the smug, Rose-pining Time Lord in his place. Martha’s fury as her family are kidnapped and she is helpless to step in is terrifying and her anger towards the Doctor is long, long overdue. It must have taken all of her patience to stay still and watch as the Master mocks and manhandles her family as she desperately wants to walk up to him and kill him.

Hunky Hero: Jack is nervous to tell the Doctor that he is working for Torchwood now considering his history with the organisation but finally bites the bullet and says that it is now being run in his honour. He gives his life once again for the Doctor at the climax. What a loyal man.

Nutball Villain: The Master is the Prime Minister of England? What an awesome idea and one that could have been happily exploited during the seventies when Roger Delgado played the role. Imagine this kind of story set then, Delgado puffing away on his cigars and setting nationwide traps for the Doctor. Still Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts' loss in Davies’ gain and this attention grabbing idea gives us a strong hook and contemporary twist for the freshly introduced villain. This is a new, younger, cuter Master for the next generation and Simms is clearly having a whale of a time playing the psychotic Time Lord. I find his childish face pulling just before he murders his entire cabinet pretty chilling because it is clear that this overgrown child is dangerously unpredictable and utterly silly. It's a touch of Ainley lunacy, happy to crack jokes whilst he commits mass murder. The shot of him tapping out his rhythm of four strapped into the gas mask, completely unmoved by the death that surrounds him haunts me. Simms pleasingly goes for the homoerotic angle as the Master and flirts outrageously with Tennant’s Doctor (‘I love it when you say my name…’). It turns out that the Time Lords resurrected the Master because they knew he would be the perfect warrior for a Time War. Another little piece of the puzzle filled in. He was so scared of the War that he ran and made himself human so he would never be found. That gives the Time War even more impetus, if it managed to frighten one of the most evil men in the universe. He gets enormous pleasure from the idea of the Time Lords and the Daleks burning all the way to hell. Watching the Tellytubbies on a laptop is a terrific modern day nod to the work Letts & Dicks. Davies doesn’t include the Master just because it is a cool thing to do but he actually builds upon his mythology and teaches us new things about the character. Looking into the Untempered Schism is said to be where his madness began, with the whole of time and space opening up for him and tempting him with its possibilities. The drumming in his head has been there ever since he was a child and it has driven him to many murderous acts over the years. Is it a signal? Something calling to him? Something driving him on? It is fascinating to learn things about the character so many years after his introduction, it allows us to see him in a brand new light but doesn’t contradict anything we have seen before. Bravo.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Its as if he’s mesmerised the whole world!’
‘The man who makes people better. How sanctimonious is that?’
‘You and your little gang…which by the way is ticking every demographic box so congratulations on that.’
‘I thought you were going to say your secret brother or something…’

The Good: It's another season that has quietly whispered its arc secrets to us along the way. Mentions of Mr Saxon and the slow poisoning of Francine against the Doctor. Now it is time to pay off the audience. The idea that Martha has only been away for four days considering the places we have visited this year is a lovely idea that only Doctor Who (with its time travelling possibilities) could pull off. I love the way the Jean Rook scenes go from a media frenzy to a dire warning – this is Davies’ characterisation at its best with Jean running rings around Tish, Lucy outmanoeuvring her and the Master entering quietly to murder her. A terrifically marbled scene. The obligatory celebrity appearances are well thought through this year with Sharon Osbourne, McFly and Anne Widdecombe (an evil group of celebrities if ever I heard one) all giving the Master their endorsement. You realise with cold horror that the Master being in power is all the Doctor's fault, his first act after his regeneration was to instil a vote of no-confidence in Harriet Jones. What a simple idea the Toclafane are, floating orbs with child-like voices and psychosis that weild scalpels and lasers to cut people to pieces. I think they look very impressive on screen. Watching the Master’s speech to the country makes me remember just how good Davies was at world building; the way he segues the events of Aliens of London, The Christmas Invasion, Army of Ghosts and The Runaway Bride into his speech to highlight how much public contact the human race has had with aliens of late is inspired. It’s clever how these exposed invasions are exploited to make contact with a new alien species a massive, world changing event that genuinely whips the world up in a storm. Colin Teague's direction really comes into its own during the explosive scenes in Martha's flat, all skewered angles during the exposition and a marvellous low angle shot in slow motion when the bomb showers glass onto the street. This is a very new kind of danger where the Master has the back up of armed police forces that can tear people from their homes and open fire on them on the streets. How gripping is the sequence of Martha trying to contact her family and watching as they are captured by Saxon’s forces, closing in on them like an iron grip? I was on the edge of seat again (much like the climax of Utopia). I get goosebumps every time I watch the standoff in the road as the car screeches to a halt and the police open fire. It feels like we are back in season seven territory again but with a very contemporary feel. The Doctor has been on the run from armed forces before and it feels as wrong now as it did then...but in the most dramatically satisfying manner. Who didn’t get a genuine thrill of excitement to see Gallifrey brought to life with such stunning beauty? This is the Gallifrey that we have always dreamed of but never had the resources to realise before. It is hard to think those dismal corridors and cafes from Arc of Infinity are a part of this magnificent structure. I felt like a seven year old who had been given a bag of sweets when I saw the Valiant. This is Doctor Who, Spooks style on acid. More dark concepts in the idea of the TARDIS being raped by the Master, a blood red interior with the console locked away behind an iron cage. It hurt the Doctor to see the TARDIS violated in such a way. Great to see that The Lazarus Experiment was setting up a future developments (although I found it perfectly watchable in its own right). It does give the story extra credence, however. The ageing of the Doctor wouldn't be half as harrowing to watch if it wasn't speeded up. The final set piece has to be seen to be believed with the Master creating a hellish rip in the sky and allowing the Toclafane to come pouring through and rain down on the Earth. Voodoo Child rocks on and even the TARDIS starts dancing as the paradox machine kicks in and Hell descends upon the Earth. It's utterly brilliant lunacy and the furthest Davies could take an alien invasion without destroying the show itself (indeed he has to rewind it all later but let's not worry about that now).

The Bad: The only point I feel the comedy is pushed to the edge is when the Master opens the door several times and we hear Jean screaming as the Toclafane tear her to piece. It really isn’t very funny and threatens to spoil what has been a wonderful character scene. Speaking as someone who lives nearby, Leo really isn’t in Brighton.

The Shallow Bit: Martha looks absolutely gorgeous with her hair down, it's almost as if she has deliberately dressed kick ass just as she it is needed. I especially love how the Master stands proud in a black and red velvet cape, full of his own pomp and circumstance to mock the Doctor’s third incarnation.

Result: The Sound of Drums is basically a massive kiss to the Pertwee era with politics, international intervention and first contact with alien species all coming to the fore in spectacular ways. But underneath that you have the thrilling Doctor/Master relationship, which veers from violent enemies and perhaps too-close friends in the aftermath of the Time War. And underneath that you have Martha gaining her independence and fighting to keep her family safe from the grip of terror that has seized Britain. There are so many stand-out scenes it would be impossible to name them all but with highlights such as the flashback to Gallifrey, the murderously childlike Toclafane's first appearance, the very real threat of guns and bombs threatening the Doctor and the awesome reveal of the Valiant this is a hard episode to top. It's an episode packed with incident, character drama, action and revelations and closes on one of the best ever cliff-hangers in the shows history – the Master misquoting the bible as his killers descend upon the Earth and begin slaughtering one tenth of the population. I re-watched this episode so many times after it was first transmitted and it doesn’t matter that the wrap up had a mixed response, it is a perfect slice of contemporary Who and coming on the heels of Human Nature and Blink manages to continue to up the game of series three. The last ten minutes are near flawless with superb direction, music and effects combining to make the mother of all climaxes: 10/10

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Utopia written by Russell T Davies and directed by Graeme Harper

This story in the nutshell: ‘You Are Not Alone…’

Mockney Dude: A great episode for the tenth Doctor, Utopia gives him some wonderful opportunities to be sly (materialising the TARDIS before Jack can get on board), upset (discussing Rose), intelligent (getting the Footprint Engine to work), fiercely angry (practically shaking and screaming at Martha when she gives him the news about the watch) and desperate (as he discovers which Time Lord has survived). Coming on the back of the near-perfect characterisation in Human Nature and Blink it would appear that all of the writers (but especially the showrunner) have mastered the character of the tenth Doctor. The last time he came to Cardiff and defeated the Slitheen and he was a different man, literally. Not even the Time Lords travelled this far out into the future and he grins with excitement at being able to explore the unknown. The ninth Doctor's relationship with Jack was a very cut and dry affair, he helped to redeem the crook and put him on the straight (well not quite) and narrow. Things with the tenth Doctor are much more interesting. It's clear that neither the Time Lord nor the TARDIS trust what Jack has become one inch and they are feeling their way into their relationship throughout Utopia. Watch the scene where they discuss Jack's developments since The Parting of the Ways, there is a dark, flirtatious chemistry between the two characters that is riveting to watch. And how like two men to wait until they are in a life and death situation where one of them might not walk away to open up about their feelings. When Jack asks why he abandoned him the Doctor callously explains ‘busy life, moving on.’ The end of the universe is very humbling for the Doctor since nobody can even remember the Time Lords, not even their myth. He’s known about Jack’s strange powers ever since he ran away from him and instinctively cannot face him because everything about him is wrong. Jack suggests he is prejudiced and the Doctor smiles cheekily. He is still mourning Rose’s passing much to Martha consternation. He is so desperate to see another of his kind that he sprints over to the Professors laboratory but he is terrified of just who it might be (and with good reason). You have never seen the Doctor quite this hysterical and terrified before and it is quite frightening to watch him lose control as he faces up to the presence of his greatest enemy. He sabotages his own TARDIS at the end of the story to prevent the Master from travelling where he likes and is well and truly stranded…

Delicious Doctor: Considering how much I adored Donna I always kind of shrug now when I think of Martha or Rose and yet every time I have revisited a season three story I get a real wake up call of a reminder of just how good Freema Agyeman was. This was the beginning of a three part storyline that saw her character go from mooning companion to a fully fledged, series transitional character in her own right. Utopia is the exquisite first step in that journey, a trip to the end of the universe for Martha and her first exposure to the man who would go on to turn her world into a living Hell. When she finds Jack lying outside the TARDIS she ignores the Doctor’s protestations and tries to revive him anyway. She is training to be a Doctor, after all. Upon discovering the Doctor’s hand in a jar she states that there is still so much to find out about him to learn. Good old Rose, you really feel for Martha here as the Doctor and Jack enthuse over their ex, she is well truly the odd one out at that point. Martha’s cheeky relationship with Chan’tho is wonderful, especially the swearing scene which really draws you close to both characters.

Horny Hunk: Finishing off this very fine ensemble, I would probably go as far to say that this is the strongest Jack story because it give him a great deal of focus and there are so many interesting things to talk about. Jack is determined to catch up with the Doctor and sprints at the TARDIS (tying in with the end of season one of Torchwood) and rides the police box through the time vortex. It is such an insane idea but one that is given full justice in the realisation (I wish he had still been clinging on during the titles) and is adequately explained as we see him die and survive several times throughout the episode. He used his vortex manipulator to bounce from the Game Station to Earth in the 20th Century but got his figures a little wrong and ended up in 1869 and had live through the entire 20th Century to meet a version of the Doctor that co-incided with him (he must have missed him in Tooth and Claw, The Idiots Lantern, Human Nature, etc). Jack is perfectly willing to shoot the future kind (Torchwood training exposed) but the Doctor stops him, claiming he is his responsibility. Rather wonderfully he flirts with men, women and aliens in this episode and none of them seem to mind very much (and I can’t say I blame them, he looks damn hot in the white T-shirt and braces). Jack sacrifices himself to jump start the override, willing to experience the agonizing pain of dying of radiation to save the human race. Little did the Doctor know that he was watching a portent of his own death. The scenes where he discusses his supposed invulnerability whilst surrounded by stead radiation are loaded with tension and sexual chemistry, as mentioned earlier both Barrowman and Tennant acquit themselves beautifully and really spark off each other. He learnt he was the man who can never die after he was shot; fell of a cliff, starved, hit by a stray javelin, etc… He went back to visit Rose in the 1990’s, just once or twice, just to see her again because he figured she was dead. The Doctor, Martha and Jack wouldn't have been a ensemble I could have seen working before this episode...and it's one I wished had featured in an entire season afterwards.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The call came from across the stars. Come to Utopia…’
‘Now I can say I was provoked…’ is one of the scariest lines to have ever featured in Doctor Who.

The Good Stuff: What a coup it is to get Derek Jacobi to play Professor Yana and he is instantly likeable in the role. Another thing I think the Davies era was much better at was securing fantastic guest stars and giving them something meaty to play. The Moffat era has seen fit to waste the talents of Richard E. Grant, Celia Imrie, David Warner, Ian McKellan...Jacobi transforms throughout Utopia from sweet old Professor Yana to the most powerful and dark Time Lord who has ever existed and he makes the transition look effortless.  Chan’tho makes a fine foil for him, similarly delightful and and featuring some clever and subtle prosthetics. Come on, who didn’t get a little buzz seeing the TARDIS sitting alone in that bleak quarry? The FX of the conglomeration is both subtle and epic, it looks genuinely alien. I know Davies fancied the whole episode being set in amongst the warrens of the conglomeration but I can't help but get a secret thrill to enjoy an old fashioned story that devotes so much time to running about in a quarry. Even if it is the sexiest quarry we have ever seen. I love how low budget this story is, it feels more like classic Doctor Who because it trades in imaginative ideas rather than just using money to tell a story and the simplicity of the situation,. The huge notions of stars going out and the last of humanity having to face an eternal night is quietly rather astonishing and nightmarish. Yana’s face when he first sees the TARDIS reveals a world of confusion and clarity. has the Ship ever been photographed so lovingly? Death by stead radiation looks very nasty is akin to your body exploding into little pieces of paper. Great work by the Mill, it's not a way I would want to go. As soon as Yana shows Martha his watch this episode steps up a gear, becoming unbearably tense and exciting with possibilities. If you have been watching series three then you will understand the gravity of the watch and if you haven't the director stresses it enough for you to pick up on it anyway. When Yana snaps opens the watch and the lights flood through I was literally on the edge of my seat, this being a pivotal, dramatic piece of direction. Jacobi is simply the most frightening Master we have ever seen; his performance is unforgettably scary and feral. The regeneration is bold and unforgettably dramatic and John Simm leaps free as a younger, cheekier Master. We'll have to wait and see how he turns out in the next episode but as a mirror to Tennant's Doctor he certainly shows a lot of promise.

The Bad Stuff: There is an assault of continuity in the first scene that reminds me of a JNT story. In fact great chunks of this episode consists of exposition and continuity. Fortunately it is all extremely interesting and even better, it all converges in the last third to push the series onwards in an exciting direction. I thought Russell T Davies said he wanted to avoid grunting, Stargate style natives?

The Shallow Bit: Tennant, Agyeman and Barrowman, what a gorgeous team.

Result: Featuring the return of Jack, an gripping end of the universe scenario and a chance to see what David Tennant is made of, Utopia is one of my favourites from series three. The concluding fifteen minutes are the some of the most snappily edited and dramatically powerful material we have ever seen in the show. I'm left breathless, no matter how many times I have seen it. The return of the Master has always been an event, but for once I was unspoiled and able to bask in the reveal as it was broadcast. This one went out on my 30th brithday and I watched it in the dead of night after I had finished celebrating and it was the best present I could have asked for. There's fantastic work from John Barrowman who gets a chance to underplay his material and show what he is made of as an actor. David Tennant and Freema Agyeman are on fire at this point in the season and the characterisation of both the Doctor and Martha scales higher than the rocket that screams towards Utopia. I especially like the cute moments between the Doctor and Professor Yana. It is such a shame that we didn't have more time with the Jacobi Master because this is about as sinister as he has ever been but the fresh faced version hints at promise too. This is the NuWho episode for classic Doctor Who fans. It has primitives hanging out in a quarry, a great big rocket, the return of an old foe and relatively little of the innovations that seem to wind a certain section of fandom so much. The reason this works so well rather than feeling like a throwback is Graeme Harper's extraordinary direction which keeps things moving at a rate of knots, fills the screen with stylish imagery and allows the viewer to cut through all the exposition and continuity with some strong visual clues. The concluding scenes are all a bit too much for an old fanboy like me and I was tearing my hair out with excitement: 9/10

Friday, 27 June 2014

Human Nature/The Family of Blood written by Paul Cornell and directed by Charles Palmer

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor is on the run from the Family of Blood and finds an ingenious way to hide away…

Mockney Dude: As if David Tennant needed any more excuses to display his talent, Human Nature dishes up his most challenging material yet and he rises to the occasion in phenomenal style. Midnight aside, I get the sense that he was never more challenged in the role and embraces it wholeheartedly. He seems perfectly at home in the character of Mr Smith, the prim and proper schoolmaster who dreams of a more exciting life and nervously tip toes around women. Given the last time he faced a bunch of school kids in Doctor Who was in School Reunion when he was playing the hip Doctor about town he carries an enormous amount of authority in a very different role. Joan feels it is like he has left the kettle on, that he knows there is something for him to get back but he doesn’t know what. Tennant looks as though he is really in pain during the transformation sequences, he’s so convincing its almost uncomfortable to watch. As a human he has moments of weakness like allowing Latimer to be beaten by his fellow pupils. Something the Doctor would never sanction. It is pointed out that England can find heroism in smaller deeds as Mr Smith ably proves in the superb sequence when he rescues a mother and child from an accident with a rogue piano by displaying some formidable cricket skills.Cornell showing his affection for Davison's Doctor there. It is this act of bravery that gives him the courage to ask Nurse Redfern out and she can only answer with ‘you extraordinary man!’ You witness the real difference between the Doctor and John Smith – when they are threatened one would stand alone against the monsters and the other would rouse a school full of children to take arms against an enemy that is on their doorstep. Interesting that in the face of the scarecrow army John holds up a weapon but never once fires. Watching John Smith break down and admit that this is the only life he wants is devastating and Tennant breaks your heart in these scenes. Worse, the lovers get a glimpse of the extraordinary life they would have had together if he had remained as John Smith. The worst thing imaginable happens once he finds out who he is, he is given the watch and has to make the choice to become the Doctor again. When Tennant slips between John Smith and the Doctor in a heartbeat you can see the skill of this actor shining through. What sort of man does falling in love not even occur to? When the Doctor returns and dishes out punishments to the Family we have never seen him so cold and menacing. In a story where he is twisted so far out of character it is interesting that once he regains his identity his behaviour is about as dark and uncompromising as it gets. A question that would come back to haunt the Doctor in Journey’s End is how many people that he met in his adventures would die if he had never popped in to visit and that is dealt with head on in The Family of Blood. The fact that he cannot answer that question is what costs him his friendship with Joan. She tells the Doctor that John was the braver man – he chose to change but John chose to die. Tough questions are being asked about the Doctor here and the resulting drama is unforgettable.

Marvellous Martha: Both Tennant and Freema Agyeman give their best performances of the year in this tale simply because the material is so strong for both of them. I was already halfway in love with Martha at this stage but pushing her into such a protective role sealed the deal for me and because our sympathies are naturally with her character you are torn between the two ladies in Mr Smith’s life. Quietly she is devastated that even when the Doctor has turned human he didn’t chose her as his lover. She doesn't make a big splash about this but instead chooses to suffer in the shadows. That's one up on Rose's attitude and pouting. She's funny too, Martha heading back to knock on the door after she interrupts the Doctor's intimate moment with Joan made me chuckle. There's a lovely acknowledgement that she has come to think of the TARDIS as her home when she says 'hello' as she walks in. Martha looks as though she has been physically struck when she catches John and Joan kissing. Probably my favourite Martha scene of the year comes when she interrupts their time at the village ball and apologises to Joan for what she is about to do - hand him his real identity back. It is loaded with feeling and purpose and Agyeman absolutely nails it. Not many companions would be able to hold together as she does when she faces the entire family of blood with a gun, she shows that great strength of the best companions of being brave and frightened at the same time. In the face of Joan’s questions Martha admits that she isn’t a rival in the Doctor’s world even if she wishes she could be. Throughout this season we have seen the Doctor be thoughtless with Martha, selfish even, but it is only as John Smith that he is vicious with her (‘What exactly do you do for him?’). She admits that the Doctor is everything to her and she loves him to bits even if he doesn’t feel as strongly about her as she does about him. Martha holds onto Timothy as the bombs fall close by. I think she would make a great mother. I am pleased that Paul Cornell chose to address the colour of Martha's skin during a period where it genuinely would be an issue (until now it had only been mentioned in a positive sense - in The Shakespeare Code - as it should be). As the first televised black companion (I know, I can’t believe it took this long either and I'm on the fence as to whether I count Mickey as a companion or not) she is a milestone character and I am pleased that they left the commentary for a story set in the past like this one because it really hits home how different acceptance was at the time. For children watching this story who go to school in mixed race classes it must have felt quite unusual to see Martha being judged based purely on her skin colour. The casually racist comments Martha receives about the colour of her hands whilst cleaning really hit home because these are normal boys who just happen to behave disgracefully around black people. Joan’s comment that ‘hardly one of your colour’ could be training to be a Doctor took my breath away, especially since our sympathies are supposed to be with her. All the characters in this piece are flawed in one way or another which is why it is such a fine piece of drama.

The Missus: Jessica Hynes is an actress I have long admired ever since I first saw her in the role of Daisy in Spaced. I was astonished when I watched Human Nature because I had never seen her take on such a mature role, one where she has needed to command the audience’s attention so completely and act so believably straight in the role. You fall in love with Joan immediately as she ask John if he is thinking of going to the dance and humbly admits that nobody has asked her. There is something a little about somebody who has been put back on the shelf due to circumstances and is too chaste to do anything about it. I really like the fact that they don’t make Joan completely likeable, having her remind Martha of her station in life and the rivalry that builds between them keeps her the character grounded in reality rather than setting her up as a holier than thou beau for the Doctor. A widower who is angry with the army that took her husband away from her but is working at a school which is teaching children how to kill, Joan has a fascinating back story. Her modesty when she sees John’s beautiful drawing of her melts the heart, especially when she says she thinks she looks more like a Slitheen (‘You’ve made me far too beautiful’). It's heartbreaking to see Joan seeking facts about John’s childhood so she can dismiss the idea that he is a man from another world when the audience is privy to the inevitable truth. She shows a remarkable strength of character when convincing John to reclaim his life as the Doctor even when she knows that if he makes that choice that she doesn't want him to love her any more. She was married once and never thought she would fall in love again so these few days of happiness are an unexpected bonus. We leave Joan crying because she has lost the man she loved and telling the man he has become to leave. It's not the typical way to end a romantic tale and it is all the more poignant for it. This tale enjoys defying your expectations. I'm pleased that we learn in The End of Time that Joan found love again though and was happy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘All those images of mud and wire. You spoke of a shadow, a shadow falling over the entire world.’
‘Widows aren’t supposed to be beautiful, I think the world would rather we stopped’ says everything you need to know about Joan to make you fall in love with her.
‘Have you enjoyed it Doctor, being human? Has it taught you wonderful things? Are you better, richer, wiser?’
‘Lets go to school!’
‘We are the Family of Blood…’
‘He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and a storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns in the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.’
‘The Time Lord has such adventures but he could never have a life like that.’
‘We wanted to live for ever so the Doctor made sure that we did.’

The Good: Talk about grabbing your attention from the first frame! The opening is immediately arresting with the Doctor and Martha on the run from an unknown menace before cutting unexpectedly to the Doctor apparently very at home in a human life with Martha as his maidservant. The way the story immediately wrong foots you and leaves you with so many questions goes to show how much Davies and Cornell trust their audience. Setting this story just before the First World War is a masterstroke because it automatically gives the material extra depth. The Journal of Impossible Things is enough to make any fan of the show squeal with  delight at it's gorgeous content, scrawling handwriting telling astonishing tales with beautiful drawings and pleasing a whole generation of Doctor Who fans by canonising the 8th Doctor and the TV Movie. This is a tale told through incredible images and my favourite might be the most simple -  the shot of the spotlight running across the English countryside in the evening. Cornell wisely disposes of the irritating villains that appeared in his original book and goes for a far more insidious threat in the Family, disembodied voices seeking bodies to inhabit. A ridiculously cheap idea for a Doctor Who nasty (all it requires is an actor capable of pulling off the wrench from period character to purring villain) but startlingly effective. A massive hand for Harry Lloyd who almost threatens to edge Jessica Hynes out of the position of most accomplished guest star, as Baines he is an obnoxious brat who thinks rather a lot of himself but as Son of Mine he positively spooks me out. The way Lloyd holds himself once he is possessed and switches between calm menace and moments of childish insanity really stresses that alien nature of this unpredictable alien. Given the last time I saw him he was playing a rather precocious youth in Love Actually Thomas Sangster gives a remarkably mature performance and the production team were lucky to find a child actor this strong. Remember Kenny from School Reunion? Or Chloe Webber? Or Angie and Artie (THE HORROR!). The sniffing is a great scare tactic, a natural tic and yet pronounced like this it is perfect for playground mimicry. If the performances of the actors playing the Family aren't enough to creep you out then Cornell has another ace up his sleeve in the form of the scarecrows. With their stitched up mouths, angry faces and drunken walks, they are enough to scare the adults, let alone the children watching. There is something about their lumbering gait and fake faces that sends a chill down the spine. Charles Palmer constantly finds eye catching ways of shooting his scenes, check out the ominous lighting as John and Joan enjoy a stroll across the countryside and the shots of the vertiginous scenery behind them. The Dance scenes are so unlike Doctor Who and they have a unique atmosphere all of their own – here we have the Doctor as a human being, enjoying himself at a dance and two women fighting for his attention. Human Nature features such a modest cliffhanger with an impossible choice for the Doctor, the whole episode has been building to that moment and it easily ranks as one of the finest endings because I could not see which way he was going jump. What a lovely image the little girl with the red balloon is, such a harmless sight in the right light but shot with menacing precision she is a deadly presence. Doctor Who is educating its audience again and it isn't about to paint a pretty picture of the Second World War that is on the horizon. One uncomfortable moment presents itself when Son of Mine asks the Headmaster if he thinks the boys will thank him for teaching them that war is glorious when they head to the battlefield in front of them. Hutchinson is such a fascinating character, all bullyboy tactics when he is safe at school but when the building becomes a battlefield he sheds tears at the reality of having to kill. They're just boys, that's what the episode keeps telling us and a lot of them are going to die. Palmer stages a deeply unpleasant image of the battlefield; mud, wire, rain and explosions ripping up the land. It is shot at night to make it look even more inhospitable. Scenes of children biting back tears and shooting down an advancing army in slow motion are of an emotional intensity that Doctor Who (thank goodness) usually shies away from. The show has never dared to venture into such mature waters since. They are almost unbearably tense. Father of Mine is wrapped in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star, Mother of Mine is imprisoned in the heart of a collapsing galaxy, Sister of Mine is trapped inside a mirror and finally Son of Mine is left standing in a field as a scarecrow, suspended in time. What terrible, unforgettable punishments. Paul Cornell cannot resist a coda and here he includes three and the tribute to those who fought in the War is so beautifully done it is one of the few times that Doctor Who borders on visual poetry (see also Vincent and the Doctor). I always get a lump in my throat during these scenes and it is great to see the Doctor and Martha wearing poppies to show their support. Who cares if it is making a point, it is a point worth making.

The Bad: There has only been about a hundred times when the chameleon arch would have come in handy in the past and we only hear about it now? Rebekah Staton does a wonderful job as Jenny and has a very cute friendship with Martha so it’s a pity when she is possessed by Mother of Mine and becomes a CBBC villain. Its no where near bad enough to sink the show but she fails to play menacing playfully with the same skill as Lloyd.

Musical Cues: I don’t usually have a section for the music although I do mention it fairly often but the score for Human Nature is so good it deserves it. Murray Gold’s music for Doctor Who has been an absolute triumph since the series returned and some of his musical cues (Rose, Donna and Martha’s themes) will be long remembered. On the series three soundtrack there is a version of the piece when Martha heads to the TARDIS on her bicycle which is whistled in its entirety but it would appear that the producers vetoed this version in favour what was broadcast. Both versions are uplifting and gorgeous but I think I prefer the whistling because it is so unusual. The way this piece becomes darker and more menacing is sublime. Great, heart-warming music for the waltz. This is the first instance of a genuinely beautiful violin score when two characters kiss, usually it is mushy as hell but this is wonderfully understated. Sharp violin stings at the cliffhanger mark it as a special moment. The scarecrows marching to war is accompanied by a cross between a military march tune and a nursery rhyme and it makes their approach all the more exciting.

The Shallow Bit: Harry Lloyd carries a certain appeal as a villain. Freema Agyeman somehow gets more gorgeous with each passing episode.

Result: Breathtakingly good throughout, there isn’t one part of this story that isn’t firing on all cylinders. Over the course of two episodes we experience a charming and ultimately heartbreaking love story, an affirmation of Martha’s love for the Doctor, a tear jerking character study of the John Smith, an exciting action adventure, some delicious scares and a touching commentary on the First World War. The production values are to die for with Charles Palmer proving a stand out director and his handling of the material is first rate, pushing the actors to the fore and giving them plenty of room to express their talent but also providing some striking set pieces and splendid location work. Whether it is moments of romance or terror the tone of the piece is absolutely convincing and helped immeasurably by one of Murray Gold’s finest scores. I have watched this story several times since its first transmission and my admiration and enjoyment has only increased over time. Showcasing the talents of David Tennant, Jessica Hynes, Freema Agyeman and Harry Lloyd, it is also one of the finest acted stories with the central romance in particular proving a masterpiece of character drama of the kind the show simply doesn't deliver any more. A story that proudly stands in my top ten Doctor Who stories; truly a visceral, emotional experience: 10/10

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Lazarus Experiment written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by Richard Clark

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and Martha come up against a man who wants to turn back time…

Mockney Dude: Just how insensitive has the Doctor become? Even the ninth Doctor at his worst wasn’t as ill aware of people’s feelings as the tenth Doctor is here. Mind you there is no reason why he should be a master at handling human emotions, as Colin Baker repeats ad nauseum he isn't human. He might be hurting from losing Rose (whilst the rest of us are still cheering after her character assassination in series two) but he has never gone as far as kicking somebody out of the TARDIS before and especially not somebody who has proven to be as loyal and as resourceful as Martha. Tennant is trying out for the role of Bond in his black tuxedo and despite his lanky frame he manages to pull it off. Tish describes him as a science geek in a derogatory sense but in this, the era of the Geek, that can only be taken as a compliment. I enjoyed his assertion that he has had some experience with this sort of transformation. Martha equates the sound of an explosion with the work of the Doctor - if you look back over his past lives that is quite a sensible conclusion to draw. I really enjoyed the image of him in black tie bashing away on the church organ like a mad gothic genius. The mothers do like to give him a good slap – maybe he should take a good look into why and try and avoid this fate again. Cruelly the Doctor doesn’t pick up on her feelings and once again offers Martha one more trip and after they sort out their misunderstanding he admits she was never really just a passenger to him. It is ultimately a rather sweet closing scene but I think he might need to work on his patter if he is going to tempt anyone else through the TARDIS doors.

Marvellous Martha: Is it true that Freema Agyeman brings more enthusiasm than acting talent to the role of Martha? No, I don't think that's fair (especially after her solid performances in Human Nature and The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords) but she certainly does bring a great deal of enthusiasm to the role which, divorced from her unrequited love story, is rather lovely to watch. This was the point where we had adjusted to the idea of 'a trip of a lifetime' (whereas it was a giddy thrill in season one, it's the status quo now) and the traits of the character have to justify their selection. The Lazarus Experiment follows on directly from Smith and Jones (I believe it has only been a day or so - important plot point this, not just a cute idea) and Martha picks her life up from where she left it. Her mum angry at everybody, her dad flaunting his trophy girlfriend, her (impossibly gorgeous) brother trying to stay out of it and her (impossible cute) sister trying to forge a career. Whilst I don't think they gelled in quite the same way (the series owes a great deal to the Tyler's), the Joneses do deserve some credit for having to come next and still managing to be quite distinctive and enjoyable to watch. Clearly middle class (compared to Rose's working class roots) and yet even more dysfunctional. Francine terrifies me in a way that Jackie and Sylvia never could...somehow the other two always seem to have their daughters best interests at heart but Francine strikes me as somebody who is really angry with the world that has slapped her in the face so badly (her husbands infidelity is embarrassingly public and extremely eye catching) and will act out accordingly. It is such a relief to take her out of the same clothes she has been wearing all season and give her something gorgeous to wear. Apparently Martha was married to her career choice because going out two nights on the trot is a rarity and coming dangerously close to having a social life. Martha takes charge when things get dangerous and her family cannot believe how confident she has become. The Doctor will do that to you. Clearly Martha is used to disapproving of Tish’s boyfriends and makes her feeling very clear about pursuing Lazarus. During the climax Martha lets out a few belting screams which reminded me of companions of old. I really enjoyed the last scene where she stroppily asked him to leave because she doesn’t want to be a passenger any more, someone who comes along for a treat. I always punch the air with delight when I see this moment - it is six episodes in the making and about three episodes overdue. This is where Martha really finds her voice and she doesn't stop having her say right until the point that she walks out of the TARDIS. Series three charters Martha's confidence and her ability to voice that she isn't willing to be sloppy seconds and The Lazarus Experiment is a vital step in that journey.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re just a vain old man who thought he could defy nature!’
‘Avoiding death – that’s being human. Its our greatest impulse.’
‘There’s no such thing as an ordinary human.’

The Good Stuff: Everything the Doctor and Martha did (Judoon, Carrionites, Macra, Daleks) they did in one night – it's remarkable that this little show of ours can have tiny moments of joy like that just as throwaway lines and we barely even notice. That would be the central premise of another show, on Doctor Who it is just another day at the office. I still get a tiny thrill when I see the TARDIS landing in a domestic setting like this (until Moffat spoilt the idea by having the Doctor land in Amy's bedroom and her try and jump his bones). I've been working with the elderly for the past year now and I can say with some certainty that being young and beautiful can make people cruel as this story seems to suggest. It's an idea that is touted but isn't explored in enough depth. I love it when music from the soundtrack somehow makes its way live into the finished programme and the orchestra playing Martha's theme is a great touch. Visually this is a great show, offering a high-tech setting to show of the Lazarus experiment and capturing all the young and beautiful onlookers in the best possible light. Weaving insidiously into the main arc plot of the season is Francine's turn to the dark side, being manipulated into believing that the Doctor is a bad influence on Martha and getting her into dangerous scrapes (there's an element of truth in the idea which making the deception all the more believable). In this episode I would go as far as to say it is the more interesting plot although it is mostly dealt with as a side issue for now. It certainly adds an extra layer of menace and interest. The Master getting his clutches on the Doctor through the planet he loves and the people he travels with and their family is beautifully realised by the end of the season and it great to go back and watch how much is set up almost invisibly without ever giving away the identity of the mastermind behind this whole operation. This is how to pull off an arc without getting too mired in plot mechanics and still having space for plenty of decent standalone stories. Despite the cumbersome nature of the CGI Lazarus creature (can something that is computer generated be cumbersome?) there are still some wonderful touches to the effects work. I particularly like the bisecting mouth dribbling with fluid and the flawlessly achieved mixture of CGI and physical effects when Lazarus jumps over (and smashes) a glass balcony. The entire set piece in the church is expertly handled and probably the highlight of the episode, bathed in creepy moonlight, featuring intense performances from Tennant and Gatiss and featuring some excellent music courtesy of Murray Gold. Gatiss deserves a lot of credit for imbuing Lazarus with dignity and pathos, despite being carved in the mad professor mould. Watch as he is writhing around the church in pain...this is a man giving his all for his big chance to own a Doctor Who episode.

The Bad Stuff: I remain unconvinced by Thelma Barlow’s unusual delivery and the first transformation of Lazarus (where she is killed) is handled so confusingly it is hard to figure out precisely what is going on. I thought we had entered b movie territory when Lady Thaw's skeleton was discovered (the Davies era is full of dessicated bodies like this). Remember Davies' stunning The Second Coming? Taking a huge idea (the resurrection of Christ) and studying the reaction of the world as it tries to come to terms with the idea. Or Miracle Day? Which, for all it's flaws, studied the idea of the Miracle (nobody dying) in a very sophisticated way. The Lazarus Experiment sports an intruiging premise (never growing old) and instead of exploring the catastrophic consequences of such a revolutionary notion (think Miracle Day without any wrinkles), the writer decides to boil it all down to a chase around a laboratory with a crap CGI monster. Talk about boiling away all the intelligence and going for the least complicated route to tell this story. Tish completely loses credibility when she falls for Lazarus (not because Gatiss isn't attractive but because of the icky transformation hat he has just undertaken). There is an unforgettable extra who looks like she is choking on an olive just before Lazarus takes her out.

The Shallow Bit: Leo is so pretty I find his presence quite distracting. Is this the first case of full on nudity in Doctor Who? Does Jack in Bad Wolf count?

Result: An intriguing opening ten minutes and a gripping final ten minutes with a whole lot of running around in between, The Lazarus Experiment is an empty but superficially entertaining episode. The trouble is all the extraneous material dealing with Martha and the Doctor’s will they/wont they travel together and Francine being turned against him is far more interesting than the monster mash up that is on the prowl. Fortunately the director approaches the story with a light touch and so it bubbles along charmingly enough and the unnerving arc plot looms in the background suggesting there is a whole world of pain to come. Mark Gatiss does a great job as Lazarus, a pretty thankless role given the character is merely a tool of the real villain of the season but he imbues the part with real menace and a degree of pathos too. Despite the Doctor behaving in the most appalling fashion towards Martha (in human terms anyway), the episode is kept afloat by some fantastic interaction between Tennant and Agyeman and by the end of the episode they are finally ready to step out into the universe as equals. Because it is so unambitious I feel as if I should be harder on this episode but there is enough talent on display (a pleasingly old school setting, a fine Murray Gold score, nice performances, arc relevance, the church scenes) to kept me entertained: 7/10

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Charlotte Pollard: The Viyran Solution written by Matt Fitton and directed by Jonathan Barnes

What's it about: Charlotte Pollard’s adventures are over. She escaped death aboard the R101 and travelled in time and space - but now in the service of the monolithic, unknowable Viyrans, their unending mission is stifling her. An encounter with would-be adventurer Robert Buchan, near the mysterious Ever-and-Ever-Prolixity, provides the opportunity Charley needs for escape… So, the adventuress is abroad once more: meeting a lost expedition in uncharted forests, solving enigmas, and hoping beyond hope to see the people she misses most: her family. But Charley cannot run forever. The Viyrans know the power of the ‘Lamentation Cipher’ and they have a solution… for everything.

Edwardian Adventuress: 'I've been to a lot of places, I've been to a lot of times and the one thing that's always there, the one constant...people die. Everyone dies.' There is an air of finality to Charley's opening monologue that speaks of this being her closing adventure. Cleverly Matt Fitton sets this up so it could be a very satisfying finale for her but also leaving open possibilities to pick this up at a later date. As far as her character is concerned there is only really one story that fully exploits all the potential of the past (The Fall of House Pollard) and the rest have been less probing and more showing how Charley reacts in certain situations. Regardless, she has been excellently written throughout and given some thoughtful moments and strong dialogue. If the idea of this set was to prove that Charley had to the ability to go it alone then I would call it a complete success. However since the events of this story also scream of closure it would have to return as something completely different.

Charley is grateful for the chance to see her parents one last time. She never knew how much she missed them until they were there in front of her. She wished she could have seen him too before the end. She's been to more places and seen more sights than most people ever get to experience in a lifetime. Charley feels as though she has lived several lifetimes, even though she is barely older than when she started. In a moment that quite choked me up Charley admits that she never got to have a child...and she doesn't know how that makes her feel. She discovers just how disposable she is when the Viyrans inform them that they have found a new human agent...and somehow I knew it was going to Robert Buchan. Charley has some understanding of temporal causality. Described as being a little bit ordinary looking (I would have thrown something back at Millicent for this but I suppose she has every right to be angry given she is Robert's long suffering wife). The bitchy tension between Charley and Millicent is delightful to listen to ('Charley to my friends. You can call me Miss Pollard...'). Her travels with the Doctor taught her that thinking that life cannot be wiped out because we are here already doesn't mean a thing - everything can change. The Web of Time can shake apart and break in a strong breeze and the Viyrans are sending a hurricane. She certainly picked up a great deal of temporal knowledge during her travels, I would say (Romana aside) that she is the most knowledgeable individual in the mechanics of time travel to have ever travelled in the TARDIS.

Standout Performance: India Fisher has come so far from the naive slip of a thing that first appeared in Winter for the Adept. I remember I leant a few of the early Charley adventures to a non fan who wanted to see what the fuss was all about with Doctor Who on audio that was worth me creating an entire blog for. She enjoyed the stories but found Fisher's performance to be a little earnest and overdone. Going back and listening to that first season I can see what she means (but I still love the character in those early days anyway). Fisher has come on in leaps and bounds, she's a remarkably sophisticated performer these days (just listen to that opening monologue) and she has the confidence to command your attention over four hours worth of material without feeling as if we have gone over old ground. And given the prolific amount of material featuring Charley that is no small achievement. I would be very open to a second series of Charley adventures, frankly after her efforts here I think that Fisher deserves another crack at the whip. Marvel in the fact that at the end of this adventure it is Fisher (Charley) versus Fisher (Viyran) and the two performances couldn't be more diverse.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'You idiots. You haven't got any idea of what the Viyrans are capable of when they're being reasonable and you've just antagonised them.'
'You don't have to go back and end all life...because it's going to happen anyway.'
'I know life can have some pretty awful symptoms; greed, revenge, fear  but there are people out there treating them. Doctors if you like. And I do what I can. But there are good symptoms too. Side-effects like joy, love, adventure!'
'I'm never serious...but I'm always shockingly sincere!'

Great Ideas: Many species are now converging on the Prolixity and require decontamination. Original Amethyst strains have adapted and mutated. The Viyrans are drawing all viruses in whilst tracking them to their source. Not the Amethyst Station or even the war that the Viyrans were created to tidy up after... The Viyrans are convinced that they can complete their mission to destroy the viruses without moving from the Prolixity since they all seem to be converging here. They also think that the Lamentation Cipher is something that is inside Charley and it frightens them. The Viyrans created the Prolixity. When a aggressive strain of virus escaped the laboratories it made for the Prolixity, having developed some form of sentience. They captured it inside a containment field and decided to detonate an incendiary within the field. As a feature of the time virus, the Viyrans can now travel in time. In the Prolixity they can traverse time through a portal via the power of thought. When the containment incendiary was detonated the virus attempted to avert its own destruction backwards through time. The virus is the Prolixity, a tear in space-time extending back as far as can be measured. That might be one hell of an info-dump told in a fashion that if you haven't been paying attention in the previous stories (shame on you) then you will be completely lost but it does at least find a clever way of clearing up how the Prolixity came to be. The Prolixity provides a window on history, one where they can analyse and track every virus back to Amethyst and beyond. Many viruses were dispersed further back in time, beyond the beginnings of this galaxy. One virus escaped beyond the beginnings of life in the universe...and that is the new Viyran mission. A self proliferating, self replication virus...that we happen to call life. Evolution, the constant capacity for change, that is the infection. I think this a rather clever development because it uses the rather cold and clinical backdrop to this series to generate a serious threat for Charley to deal with. The Viyrans are just about obsessed enough with their work to be willing to wipe out all life in the universe to ensure they have stamped out every virus, especially if life itself happens to be one. The unique Viyran amongst their number is from pre-pre-history, the time when the Masters first sent the Viyrans out in the universe. If necessary, the Viyrans will deploy deadly force to ensure that their work Robert Buchan learns when his men are all eliminated. The Viyrans were frightened that Charley would terminate their mission by summoning the Pre-Viyrans. Charley is being used as a carrier of a virus that will take the Viyrans back to the same condition as they were in the early days. Bert Buchan features in one of the more disturbing deaths in an audio for some time...screaming as he melts away to nothing.

Audio Landscape: Stomping Viyrans, the eye that hums backwards and forwards, Cylon style, slaps as Mr Buchan enjoys his massage, drill, screams, walking on gantries, shuttle taking off, Viyrans shooting people down, stuttering, infected Viyrans, the ship falling to pieces, the Prolixity exploding.

Isn't it Odd: You would have had to have been paying very close attention to the rest of the set in order for The Viyran Solution to make any sense. It is almost entirely plot driven and has a great many expository moments that push the series towards its epic climax. On criticism of the series would be that it seems to have split its stories into two categories; plot and character with two stories revelling in the former (the opening and conclusion) and two focussing on the latter (the two stories in the middle). Whilst there are elements of both in all stories I wouldn't say there is one adventure that has an equal amount of both, like all the best stories.

Standout Scene: Matt Fitton opens with a revealing speech and a dramatic set piece featuring Charley about to open an airlock and commit suicide. After the title music we are several hours in the past and the entire story is about to lead up to this conclusive decision. How on Earth did Charley get to this point?

Result: 'All in all it's been...rather marvellous.' I think I realised a long time ago (around about the time of The Apocalypse Element) that I really enjoy stories that stress big ideas, especially when the plot itself and the explanations are dense and thoroughly explored. Brotherhood of the Daleks is one such example and there were plenty more in the first three series of Gallifrey.  You can add The Viyran Solution to that list, a series of complicated explanations that might bring out those who enjoy light and fluffy adventures in hives but manages to  pull together all the intelligent ideas that have been generated by this set and create a dramatic and universe-wide threat to be overcome. This is conceptual storytelling at its most striking, posing some insane concepts such as asking you to consider that life in the universe sprang into existence accidentally as a consequence of temporal tinkering at the other end of time. It's bat shit crazy, but it works and what Barnes and Fitton have done is to carve out a fascinating new corner of the universe for more Big Finish stories to be told in. I loved the further exploration of the Viyrans (although I still think there is more to be done with them...I would like to meet the Creators), I have loved the chance to tie up so many loose ends from Charley's time in the TARDIS and I have really loved the opportunity to be reminded of what a great director and musician Nick Briggs is. This timey wimey (shudder) epic wouldn't be half as good if it wasn't for the stunning production values. My one complaint about The Viyran Solution is that it seems to be building to a real crescendo but it lacks the biting climax that four hours worth of storytelling demands. I was expecting something a little more dramatic (although it does end on a big bang). Let's hope that means there is more to tie up the spanking new loose ends that have been left hanging. I was a fool to question the integrity of this series, it has far exceeded my expectation by being above average at worst and excellent at best: 8/10

Charlotte Pollard: The Fall of House Pollard written by Matt Fitton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Charlotte Pollard’s adventures are over. She escaped death aboard the R101 and travelled in time and space - but now in the service of the monolithic, unknowable Viyrans, their unending mission is stifling her. An encounter with would-be adventurer Robert Buchan, near the mysterious Ever-and-Ever-Prolixity, provides the opportunity Charley needs for escape… So, the adventuress is abroad once more: meeting a lost expedition in uncharted forests, solving enigmas, and hoping beyond hope to see the people she misses most: her family. But Charley cannot run forever. The Viyrans know the power of the ‘Lamentation Cipher’ and they have a solution… for everything.

Edwardian Adventuress: Trapped in the swirling mass of the Prolixity, Charley is properly scared and that makes her the most alive she has been in years. She has no regrets about escaping the Viyrans because she was slowly dying day by day. There was a time when she thought that a hundred lives wouldn't be enough to do all the things she wanted to do, meet all the people, visit all the places...but the way she has been living with the Viyrans is stifling. Living on somebody else's terms is not living. Charley is so used to having her guard up these days that she wilts like a flower denied light when she achieves the impossible...finding her parents again. Louisa can barely believe it is her daughter until she looks into her eyes and then slaps her hard around the face for all the pain and misery that she has caused. Probably not the reaction that Charley was expecting but an understandable moment of anger from her mother given the misery that has followed in the wake of her disappearance and suspected death. Clearly Charley was always a dreamer, always talking about running off and having thrilling adventures. Louisa genuinely wonders if Charley has only returned home from her travels because she has run out of money. She never wanted her time with the Doctor (either Doctor) to end but it did. Charley is still under the impression that the last time she saw him that the eighth Doctor died - there is a finality to their parting. Charley is a little blaze about her attitude when she was eighteen, young, headstrong and wanting to see the world. Whilst there is nothing wrong with that it might have been a little less catastrophic had she taken a look over her shoulder from time to time to think about those she was leaving behind. Charley knows the Viyrans and their methods and so agrees to go with them as long they leave her parents alone. She asks them to tell her they are proud of her before she goes, knowing that they will have their minds wiped.

The Parents Left Behind: We have caught up with Louisa Pollard in the past but this the first time we have been able to see what kind of man brought Charley up. Richard Pollard is a shell of his old self, having lost one daughter to politics and another to and with no news to suggest that his youngest didn't die on the R-101. Richard's financial decisions are a farrago of bad decisions and downright lotteries and like so many men he finds it easier to bury his head in the sand (or rather in his studies) rather than face up to his responsibilities. Louisa has finally had enough of his evasiveness and makes him face the responsibility of their financial ruin. She tells him in no uncertain terms that he is not the only one who misses their daughters but she has had to pull herself together and try keep their estate in one piece whilst he loses himself in academia. People are advising Louisa to leave Richard but she feels it her duty to stay behind and look after him. She made a commitment when she married him and that is just the sort of woman she is. She's even considering sending Richard to a sanatorium, somewhere where he can be made to eat and have some respite from his dusty old books (just not somewhere in England where he might be recognised). It is heartbreaking to hear Louisa admit that she failed as a mother, not indulging Charley in her romantic fantasies so she headed off to revel in them as soon as she could. After the news of the crash of the airship there were interminable evenings where Richard would stare at Louisa in an accusatory fashion. Charley dismisses her mothers self criticism, she genuinely believes that Louisa gave her children everything they needed to leave and find their own way in life. She made them strong enough to set off. It is glorious to watch Richard throw off his fugue of despair once he is reunited with Charley and to thank Louisa for being such a rock for him. We leave Richard and Louisa in a much better place, the former having found his place in the world and lust for life again and the latter basking in their new good fortune.

Standout Performance: Terrance Hardiman and Anneke Wills are perfectly cast as Charley's parents, one is gravel voiced and stubborn the other gentle, understanding but with a layer of steel that is admirable for a woman of the age when little was expected of them. As well as two imperial performances from the heads of the House of Pollard, this story also features two excellent turns from Charlie Norfolk and David Dobson as Violet Warren and Michael Dee. I would very much have liked Michael to have stayed on as Charley's companion if that could have been arranged somehow, he's cheeky and likeable and would make an excellent foil.

Stories Mentioned: Since there is so much to catch her parents up on much of The Fall of House Pollard turns out to be a love letter to Charley's travels with the Doctor. If you are a fan of that period (and let's be honest you would have hardly picked this set up otherwise unless you are subject to whims) then this is will be a real treat.
'Edith, that was her name' 'I believe so, sir. A spinster, wasn't she? When she did what she did' 'Such a waste. Louisa found her, you know. As if that winter weren't bad enough for Lotty...' - The Chimes of Midnight
'Said a chap in Singapore swore blind he danced with Charlotte on New Year's Eve at the Raffles hotel. Grayle...' - Seasons of Fear
'The boy came to you himself in the end, didn't he? What was his name...Medford?' 'Merchford.' - Storm Warning
'I know the name of every person on that manifest. From Lord Tamworth to the lowliest cabin boy.'
'We haven't heard from Sissy. Not in a long while. She's fallen in with rather a rum lot.' - Gallifrey: A Blind Eye
'You've had Agents looking for me?' 'Everywhere you may have arrived. Everywhere the Prolixity touched. Viyrans with the time virus could be placed at the appropriate junctures' 'Where?' 'London. Malebolgia. Karachi. Singapore. Endrara. Simerian System. Gallifrey.'

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The way things stand I can't even pay for this telephone call!'
'I was on the airship but I was saved before it went down. Whisked away by an unbelievable, impossible, marvellous man.'
'We all thought Lotty was lost but I never realised I was too.'
'Thank heaven there were only the two of them. Whatever would we have done with three!' 

Great Ideas: The money has run dry at House Pollard and there is a reasonable offer on the table for the estate. It would appear that Richard spent a great deal of money looking for Charley after the airship crashed into France, any clue that might suggest that she didn't make it on board was followed up. Time was Christmas used to be such a noisy affair at the House of Pollard, the girls giggling and laughing and running around but now the House is a deserted, cold draughty place that will be taken up with academic study come the Yuletide season. Richard and Louisa have been taken in by all manner of cheats and false spiritualists who claim to be able to get in touch with Charley from the great beyond, which caused the haemorrhage of another incredible sum of money. There was a time when Richard Pollard associated with the top brass in politics, Louisa genuinely believes that he could have tackled Wallis Simpson in his heyday. Since the crash Richard sold off his gold stocks unwisely, had an awful run with the currency markets, gave some bad advice to some unsavoury types and had to pay a considerable settlement to avoid being dragged through the courts, not to mention the Doctors bills and Detectives. Charley cheekily informs her father of what the next big things might be to improve his financial situation. I'm not sure the Doctor would approve but it is the least she can do given her flight was the catalyst for his financial ruin. Apparently motor cars are the way to go...

Audio Landscape: Going through books, the rumbling, screaming Prolixity, scrubbing vegetables, running water, horses clip-clopping in the background, wind, scattering papers, Viyrans expunging knowledge (how do you make a sound effect of that?), hydraulics, memory adjustment screams, Viyrans stomping into view.

Musical Cues: Delicate, subtle, barely registering at times because the drama that is unfolding does not require any bombast.

Isn't it Odd: Mrs Warren turns out to be nothing more than a pleasant, accommodating maid servant but there is something about how she is written for/portrayed in the early scenes that made me think that she was trying to seduce Richard Pollard: 'I did it how you liked it last time.' I was convinced she was up to no good when nothing could be further than the truth.

Standout Scene: Richard remembering that he got the tip about investing in motor cars but not having a clue where from. Heartbreaking.

Result: Character drama of the highest order and satisfyingly tying up threads from Charley's time with the Doctor, The Fall of House Pollard is by a small margin the most accomplished story of the set. The soundscape is minimalist because the action is scaled right back and this story is given over to a great deal of talking, conversations that are long overdue between Charley and her mother and father. The first half of the tale reveals just how badly things have fallen for Charley's family in her absence and delays the reunion that I was foaming at the mouth for. At one point I wondered if we were only going to be exploring the ramifications of her failure to return to her parents and tell them that she is alive without them ever meeting but Matt Fitton is simply make you wait for the really good stuff until you are well into the second half. There are questions to be answered, truths to be faced and bridges to mend and I would say that the long dialogue scenes between the family justify the existence of this set alone. There is a great deal more to recommend but this serves as a poignant coda to Charley's adventures with the Doctor. India Fisher, Anneke Wills and Terrance Hardiman excel and I truly believed that this was a genuine (if dysfunctional) family unit. If the ending seems unjust after all the therapy that has paid off then that is further testimony to how well these three characters work together and that it would have been nice to spent some more time with Richard and Louisa. I hope the injustice of the Viyrans interference is rectified one day, I would like to see Charley back home with her parents and settled eventually. The extra ten minutes are justified and very welcome. I didn't expect anything as rewarding as this in the set: 9/10