Monday, 29 September 2014

Nightmare in Silver written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Stephen Woolfenden

This story in a nutshell: The Cybermen are back…

Nutty Professor: One of Gaiman’s advertising promises for his episode was that he wanted to have written a part for Matt Smith that would secure him an BAFTA next year which shows a real confidence in both the lead actor and his own writing. Unfortunately on this occasion neither are quite up to scratch. Gaiman writes a battle of wills between the Doctor and the Cyberplanner that should have tested the Time Lord to his psychological limits (he can’t really do that anyway because Simon Nye pulled that one off in Amy’s Choice when the Doctor butted heads with a far more formidable opponent) but instead what we get is a schizophrenic evaluation of his character which seems to suggest that the Doctor is actually some horribly sexist old letch. In Steven Moffat’s world, maybe, but not mine (there was an interesting note in The Writer’s Tale where RTD notes that Moffat cannot help but write his characters as sexual beings, which might be another reason why he feels a little out of character on occasion during this era). ‘Squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little to tight…ummm.’ Worse, Matt Smith doesn’t seem to be quite up to the task of pulling this acting feat off and the scenes of the two ‘Doctors’ arguing get tedious very quickly but pollutes practically the entire episode. What worried me initially was that I preferred the darker, more menacing Cyberplanner Doctor than the usual goofball that we are travelling the universe with of late. I like my Doctor to have a touch of darkness to him but of late he seems to be channelling Mr Magorium from the Wonder Emporium; all flapping arms, silly tricks and magical twirls of the sonic screwdriver and very little substance. But before long the menacing Doctor starts channelling Angie, all petulance and tantrums. Ban Matt Smith from ever playing his predecessors again, it’s abysmal. The Doctor re-iterates that Clara is a mystery at the end of this episode. Gee, thanks for that, like we haven’t had a reminder in every single installment this year. Get on with resolving it already!

Closed Book: It’s getting beyond a joke with Clara now, and I’m saying that with the hindsight of having watched The Name of the Doctor last Saturday and having born witness to the twist behind her mystery that singularly failed to explain the reason that she has had so little personality and character to this point (I’ll leave the explanation of the actual twist until I get around to reviewing that installment). Who is Clara Oswald? Well it is clear that this version of her character is a shallow vacuous non-entity who is pretty much whatever the writers want her to be on a weekly basis. It really hit home in Nightmare of Silver that the writers are actually as clueless about her identity as we are and are just making it up as they go along. The way that she suddenly turns into some kind of military commander who can handle open warfare with the Cybermen is just taking the piss. There is no sense that this kind of responsibility (the sort of which she would never have experienced before) bothers her or makes her doubt herself, nope she takes to the stage like General Custer and barks orders like she has been doing this all of her life. It wouldn’t matter quite so much if there was some humour to all this, that she got some things wrong. Imagine Donna in this role? She would be hopeless and trip up every five minutes but it would be funny and it would be believable. She’d probably pull through in the end but through luck rather than through judgement. Clara is a little too perfect in my eyes, in a way that makes her blend into the scenery rather than standing out because she is a real person reacting to insane circumstances. If what Neil Gaiman says is true and Clara was originally supposed to the Victorian version from The Snowmen originally then I could imagine this working out much more convincingly (there was something very cheeky and cocksure about that version of Clara from the off) and it would have given a decent reason for the children to be involved in the action. Instead because Moffat’s masterplan insisted on a contemporary Clara to be the Doctor’s assistant (honestly I think that is season 7b’s worst decision) we had to suffer that retarded scene at the end of The Crimson Horror where Angie and Artie blackmail their way into the TARDIS and their hideous involvement in this installment instead (I don’t remember much about the two children in The Snowmen, but I don’t remember them irritating me in the way that these two manage). If I were Clara I would have quit nannying this pair years ago. Bizarrely Clara seems to have no compunction about shooting ordinary looking people with her giant gun. I really thought the twist we were heading towards was that she wasn’t human because at times she barely acts like one. Faced with the prospect of an entire army of Cybermen, Clara barely breaks a sweat. I fail to comprehend how she could cope so straightforwardly with this situation or have any experience of combat on this scale. She simply doesn’t react like an average Joe on the street, which is what she is supposed to be. Going through the whole business of Clara discovering she is the impossible girl again (except handled nowhere near as effectively – in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS she was properly scared at the Doctor’s insinuations, here she just looks a little bored) is treading familiar ground. If they hadn’t reset the events of Journey it wouldn’t have to be awkwardly inserted into a story where it is completely irrelevant. Plus she seems to have conveniently forgotten at the end of the tale and wonders off to her old life with no questions. This arc has just been bizarre, polluting stories with unnecessary information, lacking any significant development, forcing the Doctor and his assistant into a perpetual dance of mystery which ultimately proves to be meaningless and leaving a massive hole where Clara’s personality should be. Not Moffat’s finest hour. Porridge’s marriage proposal isn’t funny or touching or backed up by any great interaction in the episode (she gives him a cup of soup but that’s hardly Romeo & Juliet) – it’s just another bizarre anomaly in an episode full of them.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’ve been eliminating yourself from history. You know you could be reconstructed from the hole you’ve left?’

The Good:
  • My favourite moment in this entire story and the only moment that made me sit up and pay attention was the Cyberman that snapped into action and grabbed Webley’s hands and deployed the insidious little Cyber-insects. These sleek little electronic bugs, like slivers of quicksilver, that slip through the ear and attack the brain are the finest innovation in a story that plunders all of it’s best ideas from other stories.

The Bad:

  • Children can be a fantastic asset to stories. Go and read The Famous Five or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the Harry Potter books or anything written by Roald Dhal…they all feature children in pivotal roles who take us on colourful, imaginative and exciting adventures. The main different between the protagonists in those novels and Angie and Artie (I physically shake when writing their names they are just so abominable) is that they are likable, believable children and if you watch the TV/movie translations of those stories you will notice that they have been cast with that in mind. The only reason for Angie and Artie (but especially Angie) to be as obnoxious as they are that I can think of is that it was a deliberate move. I have never met children in my life who are quite as stubborn and insufferable as this. They are taken to one of the most exciting places imaginable (a theme park in space) and instead of revelling in wonder of what has been opened up to them they slouch about, whinging about how bored they are and getting into mischief. Why we are expected to care about the fate of such abhorrent juveniles puzzles me – as soon as they were kidnapped by the Cybermen I actually punched the air with joy. I hoped that the next scene would feature them as converted, emotionless drones because that was infinitely preferable to another round of ‘Put me down! I hate you!’  which has become Simon’s default quote to define everything that has gone with Doctor Who in this mini season. Choice dialogue includes: ‘Your stupid box can’t even get us to the right place!’‘Magic!’ (said with disdain, of course), ‘It was okay…’ (says Angie of being able to space walk…man this girl is hard to please), ‘How long do we have to stay here?’‘I hate the future, it’s stupid! There’s not even any phone service!’ , ‘I don’t think Clara would like that…’ ‘She’s not our mum!’‘I’m bored!’ , Clara, she’s not my sister, she’s stupid…’ , ‘One day, I’ll be Queen of the universe…’ Think about the children in The Sarah Jane Adventures (Maria, Clyde, Rani and Luke), they were all engaging, well acted, credible characters. I would have thought that during the Moffat’s era (given that he has children himself) that the younger characters would be more engagingly written than during RTDs time (who doesn’t have children) but that has simply not been the case at all. The former seems to edge towards children simply being children where’s Davies seems to work from the starting point that they are young adults. The difference is extraordinary.
  • It might be the most lackadaisical pre-titles sequence since The Doctor’s Daughter and for similar reasons – it feels like the Doctor, Clara and the barely explained children turn up and every element of the plot suddenly comes at them at once. Enter Webley stage left, enter the army stage right and head through a door and there is a Cyberman playing chess. There is no attempt to generate tension or to seed a mystery, it’s an awkward attempt to throw everything at you at once so Gaiman can get on with telling the story. It’s just weird.
  • The idea of setting a Doctor Who story in an abandoned theme park that has decayed is marvellous – like the Bernice Summerfield audio The Grel Escape it should capture a sense of something fun and childish having turned sour. It should have a faded dreams atmosphere all of its own. There are a few faintly unconvincing CGI shots of the park that try and suggest the scale of the planet but I feel as though they could have gone a lot further in driving home the feeling of a candy coated location that has gone off.
  • Let me get this straight, an Emperor of a thousand galaxies (try and get your head around the sheer size of that for a moment and consider how that could have even come about) has decided to take a vacation on a deserted theme park playing chess inside a gutted out Cyberman suit. Erm, why exactly? If it was supposed to be a place to hide away from his responsibilities I can imagine fifty better destinations off the top of my head. He should have tried out the Argolis Leisure Hive, for one.
  • The whole sequence with the Cyberman playing chess was clearly supposed to jar by putting the metallic nasty in an unconventional situation but it doesn’t come off as directed. The Doctor is trying to discover the trick behind the magic rather than letting Artie simply enjoy himself.
  • Listen up current production team because if I have to say it again I may have to switch my allegiances to Warehouse 13 or some other tripe – stop wasting your terrific guest cast on forgettable, underwritten roles! Jason Watkins is a superb actor that I have seen in a wide variety of equally good roles on British television and film. Doctor Who gets hold of him and what do they do? Turn him into a Cyberman, gut him of his ability to emote and write him out halfway through the episode. Unthinkable. Warwick Davis is also a favourite of mine but he provides little more than wallpaper in his poorly written part. The dialogue that he was given after planet exploded made me want to vomit, talk about trying to drive the sentiment home.
  • Where is the Emperor? So asks Tamzin Outhwaite’s Captain. The only other character we meet is Porridge. Ooh, I wonder who the Emperor is then?
  • I think the problem is the lack of time (although in reaction to that I can think of loads of examples where this isn’t the case) but this is another instance in season 7b where the guest characters seem to be entire devoid of personality or presence beyond their general character spec. The Captain is butch and shouty, the Emperor is kindly, Brains is socially awkward and geeky, Angie is a stomp-your-feet-and-have-a-paddy kid, Clara is the standard Doctor Who companion…they are walking ciphers, with no substantial personality to grasp hold of and no sense that they exist outside of this adventure.
  • As far as I am concerned Gaiman has completely failed to understand the core strength behind the idea of the Cybermen. It’s not their super strength or ability to move at the speed of light (why people have been so excited about Cybermen running is beyond me…they are much more effective as a marching presence; relentless, unstoppable and not taking their time because they know they can take you down) or their ability to take over your mind (the Cybermen are taking inspiration from the Mara now?). It’s the body horror that has always been the most chilling aspect, taking hold of a human being and threatening to turn them into machines. And it’s one that the show has been desperate to shy away from ever since the creatures were first invented, with rare occasions such as Tomb of the Cybermen and Attack of the Cybermen where they really drive the concept home vividly. Sticking a light on the side of Artie’s head isn’t enough, if they wanted to really grind in the idea of conversion then both children should have been lost, metal embedded in their faces. Instead it feels like a wave of the sonic screwdriver will be a quick cure all. I’m not keen on the redesign either, they look a little too sleek, almost feminine and they still look like they are laughing off the greatest joke they’ve ever heard. Next time forget the tricks like autonomous hands and heads that swivel and instead capture the real fear of having your identity stolen and your heart replaced by a block of technological ice.
  • I think the scene that summed up my current disdain for the show better than any was that of the military types, Clara and Porridge under attack from the Cybermen. You’ve got a badly executed location, a badly thought out threat coming to seize badly written characters that it is impossible to give a damn about. There doesn’t feel as if there has been any great thought has been put into any of this. Instead of clenching my butt with fear that the Cybermen were coming I was groaning at the reveal that there were twelvety million of them (what is the obsession with huge numbers?), instead being thrilled at this taking place in a fairground attraction I was baffled at how such a location could be so awkwardly translated on screen (filming at a castle feels so mundane when this should have been set in a much weirder, imaginative and dilapidated location) and instead of hiding behind my pillow at the thought of losing these characters to the enemy I was encouraging them to be converted because it might make them a little more interesting. I couldn’t have been more indifferent.
  • Wouldn’t it have been more effective if this had been a smaller squadron of Cybermen and they managed to take control. Giving them these kinds of numbers doesn’t make them an effective force, it means the fact that they lose is embarrassing. It feels like the worst excesses of the RTD era to wake up an entire army of upgraded Cybermen only to wipe them all out a heartbeat later. This could have been a new beginning for the creatures but instead it is as much of a shoulder shrugging reset as Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was. It left me thinking – what was the point?
  • Shoving a bit of gold leaf against his face? Huh? How would that block a mental link?
  • This story features all three of my least favourite plot resolutions in SF because they are easy get-out-clauses rather than actually working out a satisfying and clever conclusion – the random technobabble that saves the day (the Doctor slams some bit of tech against his head and the Cyberplanner is kaput), the teleportation that gets people out of trouble at the last minute and the explosion that rids the heroes of having to deal with the problem. Actually if these quick fix solutions were available from the beginning doesn’t that make Porridge a bit of bastard for not getting everybody out before people started dying?
Result: The trouble with stating categorically that you are going  to ‘make the Cybermen scary again’ is that you better be damn sure of yourself because if you fail to live up to your promise this show has a fan base that will consume you quicker than a boa constructor can swallow a rabbit – fur and all! Poor Neil Gaiman, fresh from the undeniable success of The Doctor’s Wife (of which I am given to understand was primarily the work of Steven Moffat – although I have no proof to back up that claim) and faced with his difficult second album tries to throw everything at the wall in the vein hope that something will stick. Unfortunately it slides to the ground and winds up congealing on the floor in an unpleasant mess. It’s another story I was very much looking forward to watching – Gaiman and the Cybermen was a delicious idea in prospect – and I cannot really explain my disappointment as the story mundanely progressed from one plodding set piece to the next, taking in vacuous, motiveless characters, Cybermen who have been watching too many episodes of Power Rangers and Star Trek, hinging on irritating, unsound twists and wrapping up with three (count them – three!) lazy resolutions to bring the whole thing to ‘was it worth it?’ ending. I remember Simon and I wrestling for the remote throughout to pause and trash the implausible mess that was unfolding before us. Some people have targeted CBBC as a way of criticising this episode, as though it has been watered down for a younger audience. Let me tell you there is nothing wrong about writing for a younger audience and it in no way means you have to gut your writing of all the things that make a good story (a strong plot, interesting characters, imagination, fine dialogue) and even the weaker episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures had better story structure and ingenuity than Nightmare of Silver. I haven’t even spoken about the bizarre use of Clara (this week a military commander of some years service), the most irritating children this side of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but without the humour, the dreary repetitiveness of having Matt Smith argue with himself for half and hour that drags possibly his worst performance out of him and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the Cybermen scary. It’s one of those rare Doctor Who stories where nothing seems to be working, where the director and the writer seem to coming at the story from entirely different angles. This is the closest I have ever come to giving up on Doctor Who, almost abandoning all hope given the current standard of what the show is producing. It breaks my heart to be slaughtering my favourite show so unapologetically but in order to maintain any level of integrity on the blog I have to say it how I see it. I put off writing this one because I know I am starting to sound like one of those mad ranters on Gallifrey Base but I hope I have at least given my criticism some substance and explanation. Fortunately the week after had enough gold running through it (whilst still being weighed down with some problems) to whet my appetite for more but season eight has try much, much harder than this if the show is going to maintain its position as top dog in the schedules: 3/10

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Caretaker written by Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Murphy

This story in a nutshell: The Lodger with a dirty anorak...

Indefinable: You can tell that Capaldi has gotten ahold of the schizophrenic nature of the show because he adjusts his performance just enough this week to so his curmudgeonly Doctor slips right into the situation comedy well. In precisely the opposite way that he felt like an interloper in Robot of Sherwood, the way he grabs his mop and sets about insulting humanity to the nth degree was just like Eccleston domesticated. Decked out in caretakers overalls and wielding scathing judgement on humanity, he's like a grotesque Time Lord version of Caretaker Willie from The Simpsons (accent and all). It is the Doctor's treatment of Danny that grates. There is nothing clever or witty about his abusive of the Maths teacher (the PE gag is flogged to death) and he comes across as a spiteful playground bully telling him to shut up and go away all the time. I don't understand why he has such an aversion to soldiers. It has been revealed in the past year that he was one himself, for many, many years his best friend was one (the Brig) and he has been seen to be close to many over the years (Benton, Yates, Ross, Malcolm, Kate). In the previous episode in a shock twist it was revealed that the Doctor hates himself (perhaps not such a shock given it was the point of the episode Amy's Choice too) and so perhaps it isn't Danny's previous profession that he hates but the fact that he holds a mirror up to the terrible things the Doctor did during the Time War. Am I reading too much into this? Is the Doctor simply prejudiced? Let's see where this goes...but for now his mistreatment of a man who has served in the armed forces just because is appalling.

Impossible Girl: Hold on to your hats guys because this statement is going to stun you rigid...Clara was the best thing about this episode by a country mile. And do you know why? All I have been asking for is for her to be written and played in a mode other than smug self assuredness and hyper smartness (because nobody is as confident and insightful as Clara has been since her introduction) and Gareth Roberts delivers an episode where she is genuinely perturbed throughout. She comes across as a real person trapped in a personal nightmare - her best friend and her lover coming to blows. Finally something she can't control. It's glorious watching her sweat and panic and stress out - I genuinely didn't think she had the ability. And Coleman plays it all to the hilt. I thought I could see something special emerging in Listen and Time Heist between the Doctor and Clara that sparkled but that was fully realised in the opening scenes of The Caretaker. They've made it. It took 6 episodes but Moffat has managed to churn out a Doctor and companion that bounce off each other very well. If only Clara could jettison her love life and embrace the life of a companion we would be in great shape. I loved the moment when Clara (already declared a control freak by the Doctor) insists that she has everything under control and moments later the Doctor invades her professional life in a way that is about cause major disruption. She asks the question that is paramount: 'Are the kids safe?' I really respected that. The scene that made me laugh the most was the Doctor popping during class at the window and pointing out the factual errors that Clara is teaching the children - there should have been much more interaction like that throughout. The more he winds her up, the more I laugh.

Pinkster: Danny is stumbling block in The Caretaker and given he is the central purpose the episode exists, it is a massive problem. I mentioned in earlier episodes that I liked Anderson's restrained performance but it is far too reserved for this episode - it is like somebody forgot to whisper in his ear that he is appearing in a light comedy. His reaction to all the outer space madness is to barely show a flicker of emotion. Even the companions who took the whole bigger on the inside than the outside malarkey in their stride expressed a sense of awe and excitement. Danny? Nothing. And as for asking Clara why she travels with the Doctor? Erm...hello? All of time and space at your fingertips? He makes the whole travelling in time business seem like a tedious chore that Clara gets up to in between her dates with him (when it is completely the other way around...or should be). Why would anybody question the mission statement of the show? And with the Doctor and his companion already analysing the Time Lord to the nth degree and back do we really need another companion to join in and put a massive negative spin on the results? Perhaps they should call the show Doctor Who? Because it is more about the question mark than the storytelling these days (certainly in Deep Breath, Listen and The Caretaker). Danny needs to smile more, loosen up and show a bit of personality - he stomps around the school with less animation and emotion than the waddling robot. Clara and Danny's relationship is one of the dullest I have ever seen on TV. Lacking the charm and humour that would allow us to see these two relaxing in each others company, it feels like an expertly staged reproduction of a relationship without any of the things that make it worthwhile; depth of feeling, the getting to know you period, warmth and passion. When Clara says that she loves Danny it supposed to be big emotional moment but it left me cold because we haven't been able to watch this relationship evolve naturally. We've only had scant peeks at its development in between all the robots and bank jobs. Had Danny been along for the ride this season and we had experienced Clara reaching the realisation that she loves him because they have been stepping into danger together it would have had much more an impact. Instead it is the emotional culmination of scraps of a love affair and it left me questioning Moffat's bizarre timey wimey approach to relationships. Never allowing them to evolve as you would expect (two people meeting and spending time together in the right order) but instead telling them in snippets and clever narrative tricks that omits all the emotion. Bizarre. I'm not sure that unrestrained hatred between the Doctor and a potential new companion is the right approach to take, either. How can this relationship can repair itself after the fireworks in the TARDIS unless they are both in a very apologetic mood?

Am I Bovvered: A gobby kid companion? Let's hope not but to be fair we don't see enough of Courtney to make much of a judgement, although I am definitely picking up potential vibes of Angieness.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Human beings are not otters!' - good to know.
'Who asks for homework? Amateurs...'
'No, it says go away humans' 'Yes it does. Never lose your temper in the middle of a door sign.'

The Good:

* I know I have banged on about those busy busy busy pre-titles sequences that Moffat enjoys, taking us to a myriad of locations to make what is usually a very small point but just this once it really worked on me. I thought the transitions worked extremely well, with Clara getting more and more perturbed and knackered as she juggles up her life on Earth with her life with the Doctor. It's a funny situation (which this episode masters) and is played to the hilt. It's this sequence that unveiled the newly formed gorgeous chemistry between Coleman and Capaldi and the lack of chemistry between Coleman and Anderson. Seeing the two highlighted against each other bolstered one and obliterated the other.
* Fish People? Did the Doctor and Clara go to Atlantis and hang out with Zaroff?
* The Doctor under the mistaken impression that Clara has fallen for the teacher that closely resembles the Eleventh Doctor is chucklesome and it's another acknowledgement that it was the wrong approach to take last season. At least Moffat is learning as he goes and ripping the piss out of those errors. It's certainly more a more subtle and amusing way of handling the criticism than 'I'm not your boyfriend.' Still the worst line ever.
* More of an observation. The music feels more Sherlock than ever. It's such a distinctive pace and style of music I had to question whether I was watching Doctor Who at times.
* You haven't seen fireworks between two men in the TARDIS quite this explosive since the climax of The Massacre. Or Earthshock if you count the Doctor and Adric's E-Space domestic. Danny comes across as a complete douche, pressing all of the Doctor's buttons (he clearly has a problem with being treated like a soldier so why push it unless Danny wants a fight?) and bringing out the more violently side of his personality. It does feel a little like playground shoving and I'm not sure if I buy the tension completely but what really works is Clara's desperate reaction - she is completely out of control of the two men in her life now and is pleading with both of them to stop. That's where the real drama is in this scene and it made me sit up and pay attention more than any other point. 
* Perhaps they should have set the final showdown in the school gym and Danny could have been seen to use the trampoline that Anderson clearly avails himself of to perform that stunt. Still, what a stunt.
* The robot floating off through space, fizzing and sparking, is the most hilarious thing in the whole episode. Poor bugger.
* Without a doubt the most interesting scene is the coda set in the Neversphere. How unfortunate for The Caretaker but at least it leaves us on a positive note. I'm looking forward to seeing where this story goes.

The Bad:

* I understand that The Lodger was a surprise success. As both a comic strip and an episode but why is Gareth Roberts flogging the same horse with diminishing returns with each episode he has written since. Go and check out his work on The Sarah Jane Adventures (Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? and The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith in particular) and some of his books (The English Way of Death, The Plotters, Only Human), he is a writer that is capable of producing much more than a duplication of the 'Doctor goes undercover as a human' scenario.
* One of the deadliest killing machines in the universe waddles like a great duck and waves its arms about alarmingly. I couldn't help but waddle along with it every time it appeared and jiggle my arms about in sympathy. It might be cynical of me to see marketing opportunities where there is probably just a cute design but if this isn't on the shelves come Christmas I will be very surprised. Without taking the robot by the nuts (hoho) and de-circuiting it further let's just say it is far more Styre's robot than Drathro.
* Was this the budget saver of the year? After the expensive CGI landscapes of Listen and Time Heist and the glorious location work of Robot of Sherwood, this felt very contained within Coal Hill School. That's fine, that's where the story is set but even Coal Hill School felt like it was little more than a classroom, a tiny courtyard and a corridor. Remember that enormous playground in Remembrance of the Daleks?
* The robot blowing the coppers arm off and it charring away in shot would have been a much more effective place to end the pre-titles sequence. I realise that the episode is much more about the Doctor's ability with a mop than it is about the worlds wobbliest killing machine but from a dramatic standpoint him meeting the faculty is the waste of a cliffhanging moment.
* Go watch the Clara/Danny scene in the middle of this episode where she reminds him it is parents evening the next day. Explain to me why these two should be together. There is nothing there between them. It is a vacuum of a relationship.
* Some of the humour fell on its face and was unworthy of Gareth Roberts. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The New Adventures of Superman both used to play the 'let's pretend' game where the heroes would have to make up insane excuses to try and explain away why they are in uncompromising positions without giving the game of their real lives away. Doctor Who has a go at it here with Clara's 'it's all an amateur dramatics production.' It's awkwardly scripted, like the writer didn't even believe it and it never dares to approach being funny. Clara is improvising a load of bollocks and even she can't quite buy into it - the whole scene pendulously drags between failed comedy and failed drama (Danny's reaction to all this not react). It's discomfiting to watch everything unbalance so spectacularly. The parents evening sequence is clearly supposed to be a cleverly worked out farce, the teachers juggling up dealing with the students parents and the possible end of the world. Again it kind of falls flat; the dialogue isn't witty enough, the pacing is off, and the performances are a little too knowing. Real farce should have an element of unpredictability and madness to it but this plays out in consecutive, easy to guess stages. Buffy pulled off the parent's night going horribly wrong with a much more successful blend of comedy and drama in School Hard. There aren't enough gags and the threat isn't credible.

Opinions are such a subjective thing but I find myself reading through the rate/review thread on Gallifrey Base in incomprehension. There seems to be as many people declaring this the best Doctor Who story ever as those who think it is the worst piece of television they have ever clapped eyes on. To my eyes this inoffensive character piece hardly deserves a swing in either direction. I'm not sure how it can be considered perfection (it isn't great drama, especially probing, thought provoking or laugh out loud hilarious) or complete garbage (the performances elevate it to something at least watchable and there are some great lines). The pendulum swings dramatically for some when these middling episodes are dished up. It's fascinating. I wonder once this slip of an episode is digested a couple of times if it will provoke such extreme feeling.

The Shallow Bit: Anderson's one redeeming feature is that I want to snog his face off.

Result: It's the robot I feel sorry for. Billed as the most deadly killing machine ever, it waddles into action like a hyperactive duck waving it's arms about... I couldn't help but go 'beedy beedy beedy' every time it showed up. It belonged in another episode too, like Robot of Sherwood it was another superfluous splash of SF in an episode that was trying to stay grounded in another genre altogether. I'm not sure Waterloo Who has legs to stand on; the school bound drama concerning two teachers, the alien caretaker that interferes with their love affair and the gobby student who stands in the background with her hands on her hips unimpressed by everything. If Moffat is trying to recreate the magic of the original TARDIS line up he has quite a way to go. What to think of The Caretaker? It was entertaining enough, but I did spend most of the hour wondering why I was watching this instead of something more engaging. 45 minutes passed harmlessly enough; some of it made me smirk, some of it made me clock watch and most of the relationship stuff fell flat because it was told without any joy. It's all character development, a story is barely considered. This is proof, if it was needed that I wont watch any old kitchen sink domestic drama and give it a free pass as some seem to think. This is what Russell T Davies was trying to achieve without the charm to make it work, this is domestic drama played for real without the entertainment value of warm and funny characters that makes getting close to them worthwhile. I am a long way from being convinced by Clara and Danny's love affair, which might just be the most sombre relationship I have ever witnessed on television. It's missing two things that would really make it work, humour and passion. In contrast the Doctor/Clara relationship has really started to gel for me now and they share a number of moments in The Caretaker where the characters sing together. It might have something to do with how Clara was wrong footed throughout, how the Doctor constantly kept her on her toes. They just work, in a way that Coleman and Smith never really did for me. The Caretaker is another episode this season that left me quite ambivalent (just like Deep Breath and Robot of Sherwood), I question whether this is a story that needed telling. Danny's integration into Clara's other world did not require an entire episode and if it was necessary I question whether it was told with enough pizzazz. There were some funny lines and moments but this wasn't a patch on Aliens of London (secondary characters drawn into the Doctor's world), School Reunion (the Doctor undercover in a school that evolves into the ultimate love triangle), The Lodger (the Doctor posing as a human and interfering with a blossoming relationship) or The Power of Three (companion who hops from one life to the other trying to reconcile the two). It was an awkward hybrid of old episodes, like most episodes in season eight, struggling to say something new but passing the time amiably enough. A situational comedy, that's where all the humour is (in the situation) and there is none left over for the characters, a fatal error: 5/10

Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Sun Makers written by Robert Holmes and directed by Pennant Roberts

This story in a nutshell: Robert Holmes was stung by the tax man...and so he fought back.

Teeth and Curls: This is the ideal situation for the Doctor to stand up for the little people (I'm sorry but you cannot help but think of the work force on Pluto as victims). Nobody has actually died (although if Cordo is anything to go by some may have taken their own lives) but a whole race of people is being exploited and driven to despair. How could the Doctor do anything but interfere and put a stop to it. His moral centre is engaged and his sense of duty kicks in. He might be swanning through this adventure with a huge smile on his face as though he isn't taking anything seriously but that just makes the moments when he goes stony face and viciously confronts the Collector all the more impressive. He takes on a corrupt government, bullies and an exploitative financial system - he's every inch the hero of the people. The Doctor moos like a cow when he sits up in his straight jacket - you could be forgiven for thinking you have wandered into an asylum with the patients in charge. When he realises he is too late to have saved Leela he slumps backwards, defeated. In the same breath she's doing everything she can to extradite herself from Mandrel and rescue him. They may not show it all the time but they care for each other deeply. This is the sort of Doctor who will make cheap hairdressing gags ('Don't leave it in too long, it goes frizzy') as he is about to be brainwashed, he's that confident that he can overpower the technology. There is a scene in the DS9 episode Call to Arms where the representatives of two opposing sides on the brink of war (Sisko and Weyoun) meet to negotiate some terms. They are all smiles, concern and amiability. It is an attempt to lull each other into a false sense of security because they both know that war is inevitable and everything they are talking about is moot. There's an identical feel to the scene that charts the first meeting between the Doctor and the Gatherer, the protagonist who is going to crush this system of exploitation and the man who is propagating it. And yet to watch them you would imagine they are sparkling acquaintances having afternoon tea together. It is quite delightful subterfuge on both their parts and Baker and Leech play it to the hilt. I don't think we have quite left the casual sexism behind though, Baker clearly checks out Marn's behind when leaving the Gatherer's office but poses it as a chivalrous bow. He's facetious to a fault with Mandrel until the thug shoves a red hot poker in his face. Is Holmes making a comment on the least endearing Doctor Who cliché when the Doctor's plan to bring down the Company involves a duplicitous bit of corridor wandering? 'Why don't you girls listen to me' is his response to Leela's recklessness.

Noble Savage: 'Before I die I'll see this rat hole ankle deep in blood...that is a promised thing.' Things might have been tense between Tom Baker and Louise Jameson but it doesn't affect their chemistry one jot, at least not in this story. They are bantering playfully in the opening scene as they argue over why she didn't mention earlier that the column had stopped moving and she has a twinkle in her eye at the thought of their next destination. Don't you just love the way that Leela dashes off at the sounding of the Gatherer's horn despite having no clue what it means? The Doctor literally has his own personal assassin for company these days, Louise Jameson might be saying the line with a knowing wink but Leela is perfectly prepared to cut out Mandrel's heart when he threatens the Doctor. When his restraining influence is absent, she has real trouble holding herself back in some excellently scripted scenes. This isn't a blow for female emancipation, Leela isn't a poster child for the sexual revolution, in the hands of Louise Jameson Leela is simply a strong female character that the show should be proud of. One of a handful to have accompanied the Doctor in the 70s. I just love watching her in episode two, standing alone, proud and crushing Mandrel's nuts with her cutting remarks ('You? You have nothing Mandrel. No pride, no courage, no manhood...even animals protect their own! You say to me you want to live? Well I'll say this to you, if you lie skulking in this black pit while the Doctor dies then you shall live but without honour!') I wanted to cheer with delight that a companion should be given material this powerful and commanding. Elevating Cordo to a hero because he is the only one willing to try is just the icing on the cake. Leela tickles K.9 behind the ear when he takes out some guards and later asks him if he wants a biscuit as a reward for taking out another. What a cute couple they are. As soon as gets the chance to get her hands on the mobile tanks the guards drive she's all for storming the barrier and causing some carnage. Unfortunately she cannot drive in a straight line. As much as I love the scene where she emasculates Mandrel so eloquently I think I like her first meeting with the Collector even more. Jameson is in full on panto mode, Leela screaming her head off and practically tearing free of her straightjacket to spit in the face of the devious little toad. She's more frightening than any monster we have encountered with her. When titled a 'gangster terrorist' it is hard to disagree with the description.

Villains: It's rare to find one villain as grotesque and as amusing as the Gatherer in a Doctor Who story but with the Collector involved too you have two to feast upon. Dealing with them in the order that they are introduced means the Gatherer gets the spotlight first and what a monstrous and hilarious chap he turns out to be. He is the ultimate capitalist, bleeding the life and money out of his workforce, inventing more and more ridiculous reasons to extort them of everything they have. He does it with a smile on his face too, whilst telling the people they should be grateful for the opportunity. He's a leech in the worst possible way because he thinks he is utterly justified in his approach of sapping people of everything that is worth living for whilst all the time feasting on luxury goods, working in deluxe surroundings and cashing in on his dividends. You might think that given the majority of the audience are likely to be working class (I certainly am) that it would be easy to despise a character that we I see as someone who encapsulates everything that is wrong with society (and particularly in the employment) but you haven't factored in one thing. He is being played by Richard Leech on absolute form, half Frank Spencer campness and half Kenneth Williams naughtiness. He's a devious little troll with a twinkle in the eye and Holmes gives him all the best lines. Despite my natural inclination towards the underdog, I simply cannot find it in my heart to hate somebody this funny. Wonderfully he has a bloated sense of his own importance and of everybody else incompetence so with every duff decision he makes he manages to spread the blame away from himself. He toadies up to the boss in the most sickening of ways, calling upon a myriad of butt licking compliments at his disposal to smooth the Collector's brow. Speaking of the Collector...what a bravura performance from Henry Woolf, who manages to somehow both underplay (he's a lot quieter) against Leech and overplay (the Collector is far more grotesque than the Gatherer could ever hope to be) against him too. Talk about having the rug pulled from underneath you. What an instantly vivid character; hunched over his console of numbers, requisitions and percentages like he's a biological component of the financial system, hands gnarled because all they have been used for is number crunching, sallow palour, sweaty brow and a voice like fingernails down a blackboard. Whoever was involved in the realisation of this twisted, shrivelled midget sitting at the heart of this exploitative Empire was a genius. Or quite mad. The Collector is curious enough about Leela while she might have some financial benefit and considers her little more than meat to boiled alive when that clearly isn't the case. He's such a twisted little degenerate, he is visibly excited by the shared experience of a live execution. He's very like Sil in that respect, practically dribbling with exhilaration and orgasming with delight at the though of somebody dying in horrible agony just within arms reach. In fact thinking about it he is a proto-Sil in most respects. Are you sure Philip Martin never caught this story in the late 70s?

Sparkling Dialogue: Few Doctor Who stories sport dialogue as quotable and as rich as this one. Robert Holmes was often on form but in his last handful for adventures (Talons, The Sun Makers, The Two Doctors) he's perfected dialogue to fine art.
'Oh the taxes, my dear fellow all you need is a wily accountant!'
'Can't make ends meet. Probably to many economists in the government' 'These taxes are like sacrifices to tribal Gods?' 'Roughly speaking, but paying tax is much more painful' - this dialogue is absolute gold.
'Perhaps everyone runs from the tax man..'
'Prove you have a heart as big as your mouth.'
'To err is computer.'
'What have we got to lose?' 'Only your claims.'
'005, Time Lords. Oligarchic rulers of the planet Gallifrey. The planet was classified Grade Three in the last market survey, it's potential for commercial development being correspondingly low.'
'You hugeness infamy!' 'I can explain your amplification!' 'In what way your voluminousness?' 'No you omnipresence!' - Hade's compliments get more hilarious as the story goes on.
'This is a moment when I get a real feeling of job satisfaction!'
'The account will be swiftly settled!' 'With interest, Commander! They must be made to pay!'
'Outrageous! Sacrilege! The work units are absolutely forbidden to see the light of the sun - it's far too good for them!'
'Don't you think commercial imperialism is as bad as military conquest?' 'We have tried war but the use of economic power is much more effective.'

The Good:

* The ultimate dystopian future, life on Pluto in the future is a grim and productive environment where there is no time or money for anything beautiful or silly or comforting. I've heard some people complain about the aesthetic of this story, suggesting that it is dull and ugly. Isn't that rather the point? These workers toil without reward and aren't even afforded the luxury of the sun or any kind of natural beauty. The cold, artificial world of the under city is fortunate enough to be shot on location with gives it a sense of grim reality. Pluto really isn't the sort of world you want to chose for your next vacation, in case Concrete 101 is your idea of a good read.
* The tax system is a trap and one which as soon as you are caught up in its workings you are unable to escape until it has helped itself of everything shred of humanity you have left. It's a bit like IKEA in that respect. The Company will exploit your efforts to do your best by your family too, even something as simple as paying for a funeral could lead you to bankruptcy. The debts rake up and up in the most exploitative of ways and if you can't pay them back then Company charges compound interest on unpaid taxes. You cannot extradite yourself from this web of financial abuse. Whether this is a comment on the parasitical taxes of the time, the claustrophobia a low paid worker must feel in order to keep his head above water or the mockery of how the rich seem determined to exploit the poor I'm not entirely sure...but I am sure that many in the audience can sympathise (and thus be amused by) the stifling financial situation that Cordo and his fellow workers suffer in this story. 
* The ultimate Doctor Who victim, Cordo is working a double shift (with only three hours of sleep, which the Company expects him to do without until his inflated debts are paid) to make ends meet and is at his wits end. There is no way out of the red tape he is caught, no way to pay back what the Company tells him he owes. In a daring move on Robert Holmes' part he allows Cordo the terrifying decision of attempting to commit suicide rather than continue to be exploited in an endless cycle. It's played for real too with Cordo appearing in the background of the Doctor and Leela exploring the setting for this weeks adventure and threatening to jump off a vertiginous building.
* You know something has happened to the tone of the series when Dudley Simpson introduces the Doctor and Leela with a comedy theme. The musician is aware that we aren't in horror pastiche territory anymore and adjusts his style appropriately, proving how versatile he is.
* You've got a decent sized mystery in the bizarre mistreatment of Pluto and it's Earth-like atmosphere. What possible reason could somebody have to alter the natural environment of the smallest planet in the solar system (or at least it was still considered a planet when this was made). Like most Robert Holmes stories he manages to generate a history around the setting using only words, tales of Kandor attempting to defraud the Company in the past and Morton an Executive who was particularly adept at dealing with insubordinate rabble suggests that they have been around long enough to generate their own myths and legends. There is even a correction centre to deal with any possible rumblings of dissent. Holmes has built a very robust and detailed setting on Pluto, such was his skill at doing so. It's there too when the Collector lays out the utter depravity of the Usurians scheme, having figured out the perfect way to redecorate a solar system, to invade worlds, to enforce slave labour and make a profit. The history of the Company's expansion that he recounts is epic in its scale without having to show us a thing. Impressive.
* To this day I cannot put a cash card into a hole in the wall without fearing I am about to be gassed to death by putrid green gas.

* Corridor P45, the Inner Retinue, the hole in the wall that bites back ('Ten's please'), 'You run a purely fiscal operation', ' shy scum in the Under city', a two hour holiday (without pay), the Company benevolent fund, - so many glorious stabs at the system that made me chuckle.
* When you already have Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Henry Woolf and Richard Leech fronting your story then you are a director who has won the jackpot. It means that Pennant Roberts (a director who has understandably come in for a lot of flack for his work in the 80s but I maintain was one of the best directors when it comes to casting in the 70s) has the luxury of trying his luck on some unusual faces with the rest of the cast. He strikes gold again in that respect. There's Michael Keating pre-Vila playing Goudry dirtied up and sarcastic (I would have liked to have seen Vila played more like this, with a few more shades darker to his character), Roy Macredey who is the cutest thing on two legs going on a journey from beaten victim to confident revolutionary throughout the course of the story as Cordo, bringing in Jonina Scott in was an unusual move to cast a male character with an actress but it pays off in spades because Marn is a much more interesting prospect as a result, physically repulsed by the Gatherer's advances whilst having to suck up to him and one of the most natural performances in Doctor Who during the 70s from William Simons as Mandrel, a man so sure of himself that he can barely be arsed to get up and contribute towards the rebellion. He's so laid back at times I want to high five him for simply turning up. It's a peerless cast assembled by Roberts and they work real magic with Holmes script.

* The Doctor's plan to bring down the Company takes on several forms and shows what a Machiavellian plotter he can be when he tries. False scanner readings, clearing the drugs from the air, sending out a fake message that the rebellion has been successful, spreading mutiny amongst the workers in the walkways...and of course dealing with the spider at the heart of the web, confronting the Collector himself in the Palace and sending apoplectic by convincing him that he has gone bankrupt. Topping it all off is how the Gatherer is finally dispatched, taken to the top of the tallest building and thrown off. The Doctor doesn't even admonish them for that, the old devil. The only one who comes out unscathed is Marn, who elects to join the revolution as soon as she sees which way the wind is blowing.
* It is an odd situation at the climax, despite being packaged as a triumph. The Doctor is leaving a bunch of exploited workers to their own devices, people who have been repressed and turned into violent bullies as a result. Not only that but the guards who have been committing the most appalling of acts are left there too. They are all waving the Doctor and Leela off. How are this bunch of misfits going to become an effective community? Is anybody going to want to get on with this hard work that the Doctor talks of? Will they ever get back to Earth or all turn on each other and wipe each other out? I rather like the ambiguity of it all. And the lingering question of whether some of these people deserved saving. It's Holmes most fascinating scripts in that regard, where there is no black or white answers.

The Bad: A barer than bare corridor, a head popping awkwardly from the wall, an awkward sound dub...looks like we are in for an ugly, cheap adventure. Much like Carnival of Monsters before it, The Sun Makers opens on an unfortunately economic and undramatic handful of shots that gives you completely the wrong idea about the story. The awesome engineering achievement that the Doctor speaks of is a discordant lego mish mash of coloured blocks - not the architectural feat it was clearly supposed to be. Holmes is clearly quite keen to exploit the fun of the newest addition to the TARDIS team but I don't think anybody could have been quite prepared for how noisy and cumbersome the first incarnation of K.9 was. He clunks and clatters and whirrs and wobbles. He's the least dynamic robot on television at this point. Next season they would perfect his design and his cement his position on the show. Notice how aggressive and resistant Tom Baker is to the tin dog this season, a box of tricks upstaging the main man. At some point between The Invasion of Time and The Ribos Operation Tom Baker realised how popular K.9 was and his attitude completely changes between seasons. During the Key to Time onwards they are the best of friends. When Leela sends him off to hide he is so loud I'm not sure how the guards find his shock attack a surprise! Some of the action sequences can't really be described as such...Leela doesn't bravely storm the barrier as chug amiably past it letting off wet fart fireworks. That bizarre moment when everybody is calling for K.9 and the director forgot to say cut and reshoot.

The Shallow Bit: So many close ups on Louise Jameson and why not? She's beautiful to look at with her extraordinary blue eyes and brown hair. Marn is quite a draw too. On the surface Cordo is nothing to look at but I just can't help but fall a little bit in love with a man who finds his confidence and runs with it.

Standout Scene: The moment when the Doctor and the Collector finally come face to face. It is exquisitely performed by Baker and Woolf and delectably scripted by Holmes. I think it is one of the highlights of the Tom Baker era. The Collector is not above playing the unarmed card and playfully tugs at the Doctor's curls whilst spilling about his exploitation of Pluto and its shipped in inhabitants and in a moment of high drama the Doctor turns very cold declares him a bloodsucking leech. He might have been casually witty throughout The Sun Makers but this is the point where we realise how much he cares and how much human suffering means to him. When Douglas Adams was talking about inherently absurd situations suddenly becoming very serious, one exacerbating the other, this is exactly what he meant. One of the best Doctor/villain confrontations that is made all the more unique when the bad guy dissolves away down the toilet into a pool of snot when he realises that he has gone bankrupt.

Result: Any comedy that was written by Robert Holmes was going to make you laugh and hurt you as it does so and The Sun Makers has a real sting to it. Not only is this story not dressed as a comedy (except perhaps the Gatherer who looks as though he has wandered in on the wrong story in his swishing velvet cloak), looking for all the world as bleak and as featureless as every other Blake's 7 episode it also features a near suicide, one of the most excruciating method of murders the show ever presented the audience, a sadistic toad of a villain who enjoys exploiting and hurting his victims, a government that drugs its populace into complying with slavery and exploitation, a heroine who threatens to skin people alive and guest heroes who live in squalor by choice and enjoy throwing their weight around, threatening to violently abuse women and slit the Time Lord's throat or burn his face with a poker. The exploited population are violent, rude and obnoxious - you have to question whether they are worth saving! If it wasn't for the cutting subject matter of cutting through the red tape of paying taxes (and even in that there is an element of attack) and the wealth of outrageously funny lines I would question whether this is actually a comedy at all. Even the villains like Hade are malformed parodies of professions we should respect (there's an element of sexual perversion in his wandering hands with Marn). I like this dark tone, it gives the story an unusual feel of a hybrid of something we should be laughing at and something we really shouldn't. It's the sort of uncomfortable humour that Rob Shearman has made a career out of, making you question whether you should be amused by something that is making you belly laugh. In the right light (and there isn't a lot of that in The Sun Makers so it's hard to decide) this could be spun as the ultimate drama, albeit as a feel good one, as the people overthrow the oppressive government. Despite all this muckiness, The Sun Makers is screamingly funny in places, Holmes going to town and back in his ruthless criticism of the tax system and taking absolute delight at crushing it from within. It is something we can all get behind and cheer. This is a man who is famous for his colourful and characterful dialogue and these four scripts are amongst his best in that respect. I could probably quote them all ad verbatim but that would be a fruitless exercise since you may as well watch the story. There you will also be greeted with charismatic performances, a fine Dudley Simpson score (easily his most playful), some fascinating lens work from a director who isn't shooting this in the way you might expect him to (its all about giving the actors maximum exposure, not the action) and a Doctor and companion at the height of their powers, commanding the audience and providing a thrilling ride. There is so much to love about this story but what always impresses me the most is the superb work that is done by the actors. It's a formidable guest cast and they acquit themselves beautifully, providing countless memorable dramatic and funny scenes. It's a story that favours the quirks of performance and writing over effects and thus it holds up very well for those reasons. The Williams era might have taken a knock at the time but it has been re-appraised since as pushing the series in new directions after three years of (admittedly excellent) horror pastiches. Whilst I question whether the show was as visually competent during Williams' time, it was certainly a more varied and imaginative field for the show to furrow. The Sun Makers is the first major leap in that direction, following on from three possession stories that could have sprung from the previous era with relatively little tinkering. It's bold and refreshingly different, bolstered by razor sharp wit (watch out, it might slice you open), genuine drama and great characters. It's the beginning of the revolution (insofar as recognising the format is limitless) for the show and is as unique and wonderful as the era it spawned: 9/10

The Night of 1000 Stars written by James Goss and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Leela is back! With a murderous beast on the loose, Jago, Litefoot, Ellie and Leela are trapped in Baker Street. There is a story to tell, and the four of them put on a show for each other. Their pasts will be unfolded, secrets will be told… And the last act will be a killer.

Theatrical Fellow: How interesting to see that when you force Jago away from his lifestyle comforts and have him withdraw from the society he craves he becomes quite insular, self-centred and the loses the sheen from his personality. Jago is starting to miss how old life now, the hustle and the bustle of the theatre. He's turned to drink to self medicate even more than usual as a result of his ex-communication from his profession. As a theatre owner you sometimes have to make unfortunate choices in order to keep up appearances and let people go who threaten to give the place a bad name. He was less sanguine about his decision to let the member of the Chorus Line Company go when she wound up dead a few days later. Now he is a defrocked pathologist his world is no fun. I've heard Christopher Benjamin get his mouth around some awesome alliteratory articulation but none as verbose dextrous as that that James Goss gives him when he introduces none other than...Henry Gordon Jago himself! He mentions all manner of countless capers that the four of them have been involved in and have come through unscathed, fate can throw whatever it likes at them and they will tackle it head on with a song in their heart. They are survivors. Granted their reputations are in ruins, they have lost all their money, they are hiding in someone else's house and they aren't even using their own names. Somehow Jago cannot believe his own bluster and wonders what the point is anymore. If this is their reward...was it worth it? When he was a child he as given a rare treat of being taken to the theatre by his mother, sat on a velvet seat and looked up at the stage in amazement. What seemed like magic as a child became something quite different when he stepped in front of the curtain as an adult, it lost its lustre somehow. The woman who had said yes to every other man said no to Henry Gordon Jago, laughing in his face endlessly. He's spent too long behind the scenes not to know how an act works. The first day he met Leela was the last day his life was normal. I love the fact that it is Jago who figures all of this out, the one that everybody else assumes isn't paying attention. Even after seven seasons, this character is still surprising.

Posh Professor: Some vital information about Litefoot in this story, uncovering why he is prefers to work with the living over the dead. Elizabeth was the first and only patient that Litefoot ever lost and after that he couldn't face operating on the living ever again. He turned to the bodies of the dead as a career path. He didn't want the risk, contenting himself with the dead. Litefoot thinks London is an empty city, full of dull lives and dull deaths. Most of the time he doesn't even have to open them up, he's just doing it to fill the time. Killing Lizzie (however inadvertently) is a crime of which he can never acquit himself. When the Professor drugged her with his expertise with the opiates he was planning to restore her to her god health...little did he know that she would never wake up again. Shunned by his colleagues and having lost faith in himself, he withdrew from the profession. Without Jago in his life and the investigations that followed it is clear that Litefoot would have been a quietly very sad man who was content to cut up the bodies of the dead. Together they complete each other and enrich each others lives.

Noble Savage: Leela is dumped rather unceremoniously into the story in the first scene without much of an explanation of where she has come from and why. It took me a while to reason there was a reason for that. She is learning to look before she leaps and is trying to understand menaces before she kills them these days. She would love a portrait of every person that she has killed, it would be very useful (and crowded). Leela the dog faced boy? The unusual creature, the freak? Her tribe would leave such people out on the mountain but in this time and place they would pay to laugh at freaks. She finds that quite bizarre. She tries her best to be a part of this world and yet she is still considered an aberration. The day of her first kill was the last day of her childhood, a day her father said he was proud of her even though she was crying. To be an adult is the hardest thing of all. Leela only kills for a reason.

Standout Performance: Christopher Benjamin and Trevor seem to seize the opportunity to pay something quite different to the norm. Instead of the heart-warming relationship between the two men, there is a fair amount of disquieting tension between them. Benjamin in particular is quite animated and violently emotion in this story and Baxter enjoys a few moments of uncomfortable reflection. It shows what terrific actors they are, the unusual script offering them a chance to play down their parts and indulge in some real drama.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Let's do it all singing and dancing! Except without the singing or the dancing...' - might have spoken too soon there...
'This the work of remorse. This is the beast that stalks us.'
'You need to hold a mans heart in your hands to weigh its sins.'
'In order to be impressed you have to not want to see how commonplace everything is.'
'Have I not shown you all that your lives are worthless. You are consumed by loneliness and failure.'

Great Ideas: Everybody sees something that they fear in the painting, something that makes the shudder and squirm. Remorse captured in canvas. For Litefoot it is the murder of a patient when he was still a Professor of medicine, for Jago it is a common slattern who was terrible trouble he had to sack from his theatre and wound up dead a few days later, for Ellie it is a regular customer at the Red Tavern, a drunken old soak who let his family burn to death in a fire and was found dead in her public house, his face contorted with fear and for Leela it is the tears she shed the first day she killed. Goss paints a tragic picture of the Lizzie, the victim of Litefoot's erroneous scalpel. Forgotten by her family and laid to rest surrounded by dolls, there is an air of melancholy around this character that we will never meet. Remorse grabs hold of these characters and makes them behave in unpredictable ways. The point where Litefoot abandons his manners and Jago violently attacks him you recognise that this insidious entity has its claws wrapped around them both. It's shocking to see the two amiable chaps behaving in such a foul way towards each other. Jago exposes everything that is fake and tawdry about the theatre, proving that every exotic act is being performed by common slatterns and regular Joes and the New Palace theatre was anything but, the site of an old kibble factory. The answer of which one of them is an impostor is obvious in hindsight but the script involves you so much with all four characters that they seem equally as real. The creature fed on their darker thoughts and they laid on quite a banquet for them. It never does well to dwell on the past when you can look to the future.

Audio Landscape: Opening a bottle, something banging on the door, applause, a bird out of a hat, a rabbit out of trousers, laughter, crashing cymbals, rain, a ringing bell.

Standout Scene: The climax, which sees all four of them pointing the finger at each other in a whirlwind of paranoia. Ellie thinks that Jago is the remorse creature because he has been getting them down throughout (plausible given how out of character he has been), Jago in turns throws suspicion onto Litefoot who discovered the trail of corpses in the first place (again true), Litefoot dares to suggest that Leela is the one most adept in murder (absolutely spot on) and Leela suggests that Ellie spends herself surrounded by the sad and tales of despondence. This quarter, once so tight, are now trapped in a state of mistrust and looking at each other for answers. It's quite stifling. 

Result: Time for something completely different. James Goss is emerging as the King of the spin off material, having tackled Bernice Summerfield, the Companion Chronicles and now Jago & Litefoot and offering a unique and thrilling spin on all of them. The Night of 1000 Stars jettisons all the pomp and circumstance of your average Jago & Litefoot tale and focuses intensely on the four characters it chooses to lay bare. Over the course of an evening Jago, Litefoot, Ellie and Leela have to confront their greatest fears and in doing so we learn a great deal about each of them. For the actors it is the chance to play something so far out of the ordinary that it defies comparison from the rest of the series. Benjamin and Baxter get to play remorse, fear and anger, all manner of unconstructive emotions. If you come to this series expecting to leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart then you might be disappointed with this release. However if you are invested in these characters and want to learn more about what makes them tick and might enjoy taking a peek at the darker side of their souls then this could be right up your street. I thought it was a fascinating exercise, superbly written and played that added a great deal of depth to the regulars and threw up some startling imagery. The climax which sees them all at each others throats and threatening to tear themselves apart, is quite mesmerising. The final scene refuses to undo all the good work that has been done to add shadow to the titular characters which I thought was a very brave move. Goss could have rewritten all of these dark revelations as a fiction created by the creature but instead has more integrity than that and leaves Jago & Litefoot much more rounded characters because of his script. You wouldn't want this series to be as psychologically probing as this all the time but it is a riveting one off: 9/10

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Monstrous Menagerie written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Jago and Litefoot are on the run! Framed for a crime they didn’t commit, the infernal investigators seek refuge in a house on Baker Street owned by their old friend, Professor Dark. That’s when Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle enters their lives. Tired of his popular creation Sherlock Holmes, Doyle has moved onto other works that he considers more worthy.

Theatrical Fellow: Jago has neither the temperament or the physique for going on the run but they have no choice but to lie low until they can clear their names. All they have done in a couple of days skulk about in back alleys. Henry is used to a certain level of comfort and a constant stream of delicious repast since he first met Litefoot and his stomach now feels as though it has been cut. Jago immediately gets into the role of Holmes, tugging on his lapels and displaying a robust sense of arrogance. Jago's interpretation of Holmes is to use complicated language and to gaze enigmatically into the fireplace. His attempts at deductive reasoning are hilariously inept. Sweetly Jago offers to lay down his life so that Litefoot can escape the pack of ravening hounds that are pursuing them.

Posh Professor: Litefoot suggests that Jago's physique can politely be termed stout, which is a damn sight more polite than his medical opinion. In return Jago suggests that Litefoot is too old to lay Watson, Holmes' sidekick was supposed to be 30 years old. I guess time on the run has made them snippy. As far as he is concerned all you need is a roaring fire and all is right with the world whereas for Jago it is a fully stoked larder. In their bolt hole they are both satisfied. Whereas he was practically allergic to the work of Oscar Wilde, Litefoot is a keen admirer of Arthur Conan Doyle's output, much more a fan of detective fiction than camp wittery. Litefoot cheekily points out that it will be a great hoot reading The Hound of the Baskervilles when it comes out knowing the real reason it was written.

Standout Performance: Steven Miller gives a fulsome account of Arthur Conan Doyle, sporting a very sexy accent and not shying away from the arrogance of the man. As Litefoot said he has received critical acclaim at a very young age and that affects a man but in Miller's hands he isn't completely narcissistic, there is an element of humanity to the man too.  

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The only reason it's still standing is because the woodworms are holding hands with the deathwatch beetles.'
'They're just shilling shockers.'
'You know what authors are like. They have to praised all the time or they fall into a deep depression!'
'My hounds prefer their meat to be fresh and they haven't had a decent meal for 150 million years.'

Great Ideas: Jago & Litefoot wanted for the attempted assassination of Queen Victoria? The very idea! Ellie's cryptic message (sweetly she risks her freedom to give it to them) appears to have come from the Doctor seems to suggest that they should go to Baker Street and play Sherlock Holmes. Why is it that some authors and actors like to try and forget all about the books and television shows that made them household names in the first place, considering them almost a little humbling compared to their next great works. In some respects I do agree with the adage if it aint broke then don't fix it and Doyle was onto a sure fire winner with Sherlock Holmes, a literary character so popular he had his own obituary when he was finally written off. Why somebody should turn their nose up at something that is populist and provides a great deal of entertainment baffles me. Why simply offering people a good time rather than using your works to change the world should be seen as something less important even moreso. It's like critics that turn their noses up at populist works, considering them less worthy because they can be enjoyed by the masses. Pompous lot. So initially I found it quite hard to warm to this interpretation of Doyle, one who is trying his damndest to distance himself from his trendiest work and throw some light onto his less well known (but in his eyes more commendable) output. I know Doyle was quite ambivalent about Holmes and his continued existence and this is the period where he almost seems to regret bringing him to life in the first place. He wants to write something that will last and he thinks that Holmes is keeping him from that - not realising that Holmes will be the character that keeps him a household name forever. I also find it bizarre that rational people can find themselves writing to fictional characters expecting a response (with children it is a different kettle of fish entirely). It's exactly the same sort of people who have lost their grip on reality and phone up Manchester Emergency Services when they see a tram come off the rails on Coronation Street. Letters fall into three categories; people pointing out mistakes in the stories, people asking for more Sherlock Holmes stories and people writing to Sherlock Holmes about their problems and case they would like him to solve. The Doctor has a very droll sense of humour, sending Jago & Litefoot the right outfits to play Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in a scenario where a pretty slip of a thing is convinced that they are perfectly real. It almost seems like Jago & Litefoot are trying to wind Doyle up by pointing out the many ways that Sherlock Holmes could still be alive; the fact that we are never privy to his descent down the Reichenback Falls and the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Time travellers from the future heading back to the Jurassic period to study dinosaurs. Their study of dinosaurs has had disastrous consequences, allowing their monstrous menagerie to wander into the East End of London and prey upon its inhabitants. Doyle is shocked to learn that in the 63rd century that people are still talking about Sherlock Holmes, that his work genuinely does endure. Even if people have started believing that they were real people (in the same way that modern generations figure that Robin Hood was). Morris does give Doyle a sound reason for wanting to leave Holmes behind. Losing his mother to an asylum and his wife to incurable consumption he realised that no one is long for this world and it is better that you make the time that you are given matter. He wanted to write serious historical novels so he would be remembered long after he has slipped off the mortal coil. The events of this story being the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskerville is such an obvious idea and one that I have seen done over and over again, especially in Doctor Who. That doesn't stop it being a fun idea though and it is handled in a rather smart way here where the book has to be written in order to affect the future and set all the events of this story in motion.

Audio Landscape: Rat squeaking, street callers, bells ringing, a train in the distance, rumbling thunder, rain, a squeaky door, doorbell, smashing a window, gunshots, Big Ben sounding, horse whinnying, clip clopping hooves, a dog barking, crickets in the undergrowth, hounds barking, a vivid jungle setting, apes hooting, lions growling, Baskerville being ripped apart, stepping through the temporal force field.

Standout Scene: I will never forget one very funny afternoon when my mum came to visit me and we went into town to grab some DVDs and snacks to watch and picked up what we both thought was the first Robert Downey Jnr Sherlock Holmes movie. We stuck it in the box and prepared ourselves for a big budget, Hollywood version of the Holmes universe. To our everlasting mirth (and we still laugh about it to this day) we were confronted with a dinosaur roaming about Victorian London, gobbling down prostitutes in back alleys. Turns out we had bought some low rent b movie version of the same film (it wasn't until we actually studied the cover that we realised there was a robot and a dino adorning it). Dinosaurs in Victorian London? What a bloody insane notion! Imagine my surprise then when this story manages to not only head down the same path but to pull it off with a great deal of style. The less said about Steven Moffat's application of the same idea, the better. Needless to say I am starting to wonder if this period and location is a stomping ground for a menagerie of Dinosauria.

Result: 'Why didn't you write any more Sherlock Holmes stories?' Whilst I am not entirely sure that this story fits comfortably within the 'Jago & Litefoot on the run' sequence, The Monstrous Menagerie is exactly the sort of classy, insightful and entertaining story that I have come to expect from Jago & Litefoot. This could have simply been an homage to Doyle's work (which ultimately it does turn out to be) but Jonny Morris uses the opening 20 minutes to introduce Doyle into the world of the dynamic duo and paints him in unflattering, yet fascinating colours. Anybody expecting a love letter to Doyle might be quite surprised, this is an author who is trying to move away from 'shilling shockers' and attempting to produce world-changing works that will endure. The conceit of the series regulars pretending to be the real Holmes and Watson is a massive giggle and as ever Jago gets all the best lines. Halfway through it transforms into quite a different story, shirking off its Victorian roots and turning into something more akin to the recent sixth Doctor adventures with the intrepid twosome, whilst still showing off its Holmesian roots all the while. The soundscape throughout is quite extraordinary and I felt as if both settings were evocatively brought to life. Howard Carter has emerged as one of the finest sound designers and musicians and Jago & Litefoot is very lucky to have him on board. A great opening for the box set; one that provides a fun ride, says something profound about its subject (Doyle), playfully uses his works to pay tribute and reveals how this series can skip genres with absolute confidence. Bravo: 8/10