Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Rani Elite written by Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The TARDIS arrives in the CAGE – not a trap, but the College of Advanced Galactic Education, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in colonised space. Not a trap. Or is it? The Doctor’s here to receive an honorary degree in Moral Philosophy. But there’s something rotten at the heart of the Medical Facility. Someone is operating on the students. Someone without a conscience. Someone with access to a Sidelian Brain Scanner – a technology that hasn’t been invented yet. That someone is the ruthless Time Lord scientist known as the Rani – in her new incarnation. But will the Doctor and Peri recognise the Rani’s hand before her trap is sprung?

Softer Six: I think Justin Richards was the perfect writer to re-introduce the sixth Doctor to the Rani after all of these years because he has a similar expertise with this incarnation of the Doctor as Pip and Jane Baker did, capturing his imaginative verbosity and his love of a learning environment. Both Richards and the Bakers write for him with a passion for vocabulary that brings the best out in Baker's performance and it is a good thing too because one thing both writers also share (which is odd for Richards because he always used to write the most convoluted and tightly plotted of books) is a thin narrative where the Doctor is needed to provide a great deal of entertainment. With some tasty dialogue and Baker fully engaged, that is more than achieved here. Peri brings out the sarcasm in the Doctor, he hasn't been this amusingly sardonic for ages. He's been bestowed with a degree in moral philosophy and he wont stop bragging about it even if he isn't entirely sure what it means. He can sniff out a mystery in an instant and dives straight in, dragging Peri in his wake. Whilst he can appreciate a digitised system, there is nothing like the smell of a real library. For all his brashness and posturing the Doctor always stands up for what is right. The Doctor can sniff out the Rani in an instant and his derision levels shoot up to maximum, the disdain for the scientist dripping from his voice. The Rani thinks the Doctor is quite brilliant but she can understand why you might not have that impression after a conversation with him. He has hundreds of thousands of millions of ideas all the time. The Doctor wonders if one day his sentimentality will be his downfall. It's astonishing how far he has come in terms of his humanity - once he was strangling Peri in the TARDIS and murdering his way through his adventures and now he is the spokesperson for all that is honourable about the human race. Listen to how passionately he argues with the Rani's accomplices, trying to find that seed of civilization within them that would allow them to see the error of their ways. Isn't it great how he lulls the Rani into a false sense of security, making her believe that he wouldn't condemn her to a life sentence in prison. We all know him better than that, he can be a right vindictive bastard when he wants to be. Thank goodness the music cuts in at the climax, the Doctor's speech looks like it is going to go on for a very long time.

Busty Babe: Peri can get under the Doctor's skin like nobody else but there is a level of humour to their mockery that keeps it gentle, rather than nasty as it could be on the television. Her Americanisms still rile him. Peri always meant to keep a journal as a student but never got around to it - fortunately it makes an excellent device for her to relay information to the audience whilst she is alone. She is completely embraced her life as a time traveller now, especially after her break. The simple fact is she likes helping people and there are a lot of people out there that need helping. She still feels as though she owes him for sacrificing his life for her and wonders if she will one day return the favour. In Masters of War the Doctor promised that he would never let Peri down again but here she is again at the mercy of another demented scientist about to have another consciousness shoved into her mind. Nicola Bryant plays Peri's fear during this scene palpably and given they have just found each other again it adds some weight to the procedure she is about to endure. Both Peri and the Doctor are awarded for their expertise in their various fields - it's nice to see them both rewarded for their skills.

Amoral Scientist: It's like the Elizabeth Sladen/Mary Tamm scenario all over again - what a shame that they couldn't have gotten the actresses involved sooner. Kate O'Mara was all lined up to return to the role of the Rani after all these years away and it was recorded too late for her to take part. The loss of such a memorable, glamorous actress is keenly felt and the realisation that we were this close to a reunion between O'Mara, Baker and Bryant is saddening. However the show must go on and with O'Mara's blessing the role was re-cast and we have been treated to a brand new version of the character. Whilst this does throw up some logical conundrums it does add a layer of excitement to the tale to see just how the new incarnation of the old character measures up. It's interesting to note that Steven Moffat deliberately included an acronym of RANI in Dark Water hoping to fool the expectant fan base into thinking that Missy was the latest incarnation of the scientist. Even he is aware of how fresh the character is in peoples minds after all these years. Siobhan Redmond is a great choice, just calm enough to show little she cares for principles but capable of getting out the claws when faced with the Doctor and his battery of derision. The Doctor will admit that she is a genius in her own field but beyond that he takes every opportunity to chastise her for her lack of conscience and barking mad schemes. While she is working covertly under a cover name, this time the Rani has the endorsement of those in the highest of power at the CAGE. She is offering something that anybody who is of a certain age would saw their right arm off at the opportunity - to be young and fit again. When experiments goes wrong she has absolutely no compunction about disposing of them. She'll even make a gag at their expense. She has no qualms about taking a laser scalpel to Peri's head to get the Doctor to do her bidding. She'll sacrifice anyone and anything to get what she wants - she has a complete disregard for life when it comes to science. In her Academy days she was the brightest star amongst them and one day he hopes that she will fulfil her real potential.

Standout Performance: Siobhan's 'curses Doctor!' moment at the climax made me punch the air. Gone is the delicate indifference and out pops some real venom. I hope we see more of that aggression in her sophomore story. Bryant played the possessed Peri just slightly left field so the audience can't tell whether she is still the Doctor's companion but confused and nervous or if she has been taken over by one of the Rani's clients.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Leather binding, yellowing paper. The knowledge of the centuries scratched out on parchment by men of learning.'
'Well it goes beep which is always a good start.'
'Goodbye, Doctor This little encounter has only served to make the memory of what I'll one day do to your current incarnation all the more enjoyable!'

Great Ideas: The CAGE (the College of Advanced Galactic Education) is one of the most prestigious learning establishments in the universe. New bodies for old minds, I can imagine that the Rani has a queue of clients going around the block for this treatment. The students that have been taken over are wired up to the system, their brains forming a complete network. Left to their own devices they will simply remain a crowd of individual minds, the Rani wants to link a living brain into the system to take control. The Rani took Professor Baxton's place to disguise the fact that the real person was plugged into the systems as the operator. She's dying, barely keeping the system in order and she wants a fresh, stronger mind to take her place. The mind of a Time Lord... I've read some allergic reactions to the idea of the Deca (which was first introduced in the obscenely awful Gary Russell novel Divided Loyalties in what can only be described as Gallifrey 90210 sequence) being carried across to Big Finish but considering it has no impact on the storytelling whatsoever and turns out to just be a cute reference I don't see what all the fuss is about. Should Big Finish capitalise on this and try and set a story in the Doctor's childhood my reaction would be quite different but to reference some of the Doctor's contempories when he was younger (the Monk, Vansell, etc) doesn't seem that big of a deal to me. The Rani calls those days ghastly so I'm guessing as the only female in he group she was given some stick. Maybe those on Gallifrey aren't as enlightened as I thought.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, chatter, aliens grunting, laughter, equipment smashing, dripping tap, babbling voices in the system, a rush of water, police sirens, applause.

Musical Cues: It sounds like somebody might have whispered in Andy Hardwick's ear and told him that he has been using the same musical cues since Zagreus because he serves up something quite different for The Rani Elite. It's a subtle score but one that gets under your skin with it's tinkling, off-kilter piano and wibbly wobbly electronic weirdness. It's a score that stresses the wrongness of the Rani's machinations before she has even been revealed.

Isn't it Odd: It was always possible for the Doctor to meet his foes out of order so to speak but it never really became a reality until Steven Moffat started playing about with the idea in the River Song debacle (and we all know how complicated that got). The Rani states that she was expecting to see the seventh Doctor (Sixie puts his fingers in his ears to prevent himself from learning anything about his future) so does that mean she goes through this story knowing that the Doctor cannot be harmed - given she would polish him off herself in her own past (I'm going boss eyed). I'm not sure that shouldn't have packed up her things as soon as Sixie arrived knowing that he was pretty much invulnerable until her former self has at him. Beyond the three central characters I found all of the guest cast pretty forgettable. Having finished it I can barely remember their names and they weren't characterised with any great depth. They served a narrative purpose (girl goes missing = mystery, students taken over by older clients = solution) but beyond that they are pretty bland.

Result: I'm sure I contradict myself on a daily basis, I'm sure we all do. But I am going to do so blatantly in terms of the main range when it comes to my review of The Rani Elite because it has a lot of the problems that I accused quite a few of the releases earlier in the year and condemned them for it; a lack of originality, a traditional plot, repetitive action. And yet I enjoyed this story immensely. I'm trying to put my finger on why I am more forgiving of this piece but I can only whittle it down to three characters that brought this story alive for me: the Doctor, Peri and the Rani. Much like The Mark of the Rani, it isn't the plot that impresses (Richards could churn an intricate and satisfying narrative out in his sleep so I can only assume he chose to deliberately kick start the Rani's tenure on audio with something this slender and conventional) but the interaction between the characters (and the actors). Baker and Bryant are on sparkling form and seem to respond to Richards' dialogue by delivering charismatic performances and it is a delightful first showing for Siobhan Redmond as the Rani. I was sceptical at first because she seemed almost robotic in her obscene medical machinations but come the end of the story she has sparred with the Doctor, almost killed Peri and sworn bloody revenge on them both. O'Mara would have been proud of her successor. I'm already excited for her second airing next year. Aside from their bitching and rivalry everything else is quite clichéd - lots of dashing about, escaping and being captured, brainwashing and double crossing - don't go into this story expecting anything fresh because you'll be mightily disappointed. However if you have had a tough day and are looking to relax with a solid Doctor Who story with all the trimmings, the current best Doctor/companion pairing and a cracking new version of an old villain then slip this story into your player and let it massage your cares away like good, time-honoured Doctor Who can: 7/10

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Christmas Invasion written by Russell T. Davies and directed by James Hawes

This story in a nutshell: Bring forth the Doctor! 

Mockney Dude: 'This new a fightin' hand!' Russell T. Davies was addicted to breaking new ground in the first series. He introduced a massive shift in emphasis in the series off screen (the Time War), he gave the companion unusual dominance, he played about with the idea of the Doctor kidnapping a companion, allowed their family to play a vital role in the series and for the first time ever made the regeneration a radiantly positive event (Logopolis doesn't quite count for all it's wistful optimism since half the universe has just been destroyed and the Doctor has had every bone in his body shattered). Topping off a fresh and original revival for the series we have an opening gambit for the new kid on the block and he barely features in the story whatsoever. You might think that Davies has gone insane but by removing the Doctor from the main action he goes to prove just how badly we need him and when he steps forth at the climax to save the day he ensures a rapturous reception given the world has gone to shit. It's a genius approach, the sort thing that might have done Colin Baker the world of good (if anything he was over exposed in his debut story). Whilst regeneration is something that we take for granted, we have to remember Davies was introducing the idea to a whole new generation of kids who have already fallen in love with Christopher Eccleston. In many ways this is just as important as the Hartnell/Troughton crossover because had the audience not taken to David Tennant it could have spelt the end for the show. Just like an entire generation fell head over heels for Troughton, Tennant is now revered by a huge section the general public as the ultimate Doctor. And The Christmas Invasion is responsible for that transition being as seamless as possible. Is he a different person or is it just another face? My husband thinks tea is the cure for everything so he was applauding at the notion of a cuppa pushing the regenerative process along. So what can we take away from this new Doctor? He's strong, snatching a cracked whip and breaking a staff in half. He can talk ten to the dozen, he even admits as much himself. He's funny, quoting the Lion King at a hugely inappropriate moment. He's not ginger, much to his disappointment. Sexy, looking hot even in a middle aged mans dressing gown. Intelligent, figuring out the plot in about two minutes thanks to keen observational skills. He's a hero, grabbing a broadsword and standing as the worlds champion. When Rose tosses him a new sword she is perfectly convinced that he is the Doctor...and so are we. Shiny and new and delightful. A man who kills with a Satsuma to save the world. Not perfect mind, there might be some who think he is a little too harsh in his indictment of Harriet Jones (who was, after all, just trying to protect the planet) but the shocking final sequence between them shows that this Doctor has teeth. Cuddly he might be but piss him off and he'll have you. I was chomping at the bit to see more.

Chavvy Chick: You could make an argument that some of the damage was done in The Christmas Invasion with Rose's character. Gone is the sexy, savvy, adventurous teen of series one and in steps a teary eyed emotional wreck who falls to pieces without the Doctor. Halfway through the story when the world has gone mad you want Rose to step up to the plate and do something spectacular but instead she blubs and whimpers. It might be a realistic reaction to the circumstances but it is hardly a heroic one. For once some of that Clara Oswald determination is needed. Rose's hugely embarrassing, continuity laden speech to the Sycorax to leave the Earth in peace shows her at least trying to do something. Isn't it wonderful how the Sycorax Leader laughs at her pathetic attempts to intimidate him and then orders her execution.

Jackie & Mickey: Thank goodness that Rose has the support of her family and friends, that's all I can say. At this point Mickey and Jackie are at the core of what the series is about. They bring humanity and humour to the programme in the way that shows off Davies' dialogue at its best. I love how excited they both get at the sound of the TARDIS - just as you should. Mickey has grown to the point where he can subtly take the mickey (hoho) out of Rose and her hero worship of the Doctor. You can already see the seeds sown of his ultimate decision to leave her and make a life of his own. Jackie babbling in panic trying to help out the Doctor is very funny, Coduri sharing instant chemistry with Tennant. Rose has come to see Mickey as a brave man, fighting against his natural instinct to run when the shit hits the fan. The Christmas dinner shared by all is about as joyful as the new series comes, like it has wrapped its arms around you and given you a big hug. The future seems very bright indeed.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Anything else he's got two of?'
'I'm going to get killed by a Christmas tree!'
'We're having a picnic while the world comes to an end. Very British.'
'You're getting noticed...'
'Run and hide because the monsters are coming. The human race.'
'Don't you think she looks tired.'

The Good:
* They would go on to better the TARDIS being used as an actual spaceship, bouncing off cars and hovering along a motorway in The Runaway Bride but we had never seen quite a landing as the one in The Christmas Invasion before. Crashing into walls and sending a post office van flying, the out of control Ship is a good metaphor for the wild, unpredictable Doctor. He won't softly materialise in your neighbourhood, he'll crash land and turn it into something of a wreck.
* You can't really go wrong with a good, old fashioned alien invasion story and this time Davies has neglected to include the farting aliens that seemed to drive the fans nuts. The central plot to The Christmas Invasion is extremely robust and full of exciting incident. In tone and content it reminds a little of the Virgin novel The Dying Days (except it is better) and the movie Independence Day (except it is better than that too). I like how the events of this story marry with those of Aliens of London/World War Three and kick start a new thread in the series - a world that is aware of alien life because the spectacle of invasion has been so public. I like the idea of the pilot fish as a portent of the imminent disaster (there's a blink and you'll miss it explanation as to why they are trying to kidnap the Doctor...but it is there). More firsts; an alien race seen by the masses, UNIT taking up residence in the Tower of London, Harriet Jones as a kick ass Prime Minister ('there's an act of Parliament banning my autobiography'). Somehow Davies had a away of presenting an alien invasion as a worldwide event in a way that Moffat has failed to do (even in The Power of Three and Death in Heaven). Perhaps it is his ability to so perfectly capture the media reaction or because we can see the impact on the public as people are dragged from their homes or maybe it is just because the scale of the show is so impressive. The sight of the enormous spaceship sliding into orbit above London accompanied by an awesome soundtrack truly sells the idea that the is the end of the world is nigh (the windows erupting as a portent of its arrival is phenomenal too). Sometimes spectacle is needed and The Christmas Invasion has it in spades but it also has a great deal of intimacy too (the reaction of the mother who is trying to convince her child to resist Sycorax control is genuinely upsetting).
* When Doctor Who Christmas specials were first mooted the internet went into meltdown thinking that we were due a pantomime of Nimon proportions every year. Were all the sets going to be made of tinsel? Would Santa make an appearance? Instead of falling into the trap of providing all style and no substance (that would come later in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe) Davies instead provides one of the most thrilling storylines yet and laces it with Christmas elements that remind you of the time of year without getting in the way. The yuletide touches are handled particularly well; the destructive Christmas band that open fire on an unsuspecting market (I love Rose's silently observing them before the chaos ensues and the mask that falls dramatically to the floor), the glorious, glorious scene featuring the Christmas tree coming to life and attacking Rose, Mickey and Jackie (not only is the Christmas tree shaped hole it saws in the wall a visual gag of epic proportions but this scenes is responsible for one my favourite ever lines in any TV programme - see above) and the Christmas dinner at the climax that reveals just how different from his predecessor this new Doctor is. Closing on festive cheer might not be everybody's idea of how a Doctor Who story should but I think it has been more than earned after the defeatist tone of the majority of this story.
* New alien races are tenapenny in Doctor Who and few of them make the impact that the Sycorax did, which is why I am glad they have only made one appearance in Doctor Who. They are the Zygons on the New least until Day of the Doctor. Lawrence Miles might feel a little hard done by (he created a race that used blood to control and had a real hardon for bone masks) there is no denying that both conceptually and visually the Sycorax make quite an impact. Not being able to contact verbally with an alien race (proving the existence of the TARDIS translator) is another intriguing idea, mis-communication at the negotiation stage could lead to the death of everybody on the planet. How twisted to take something as optimistic as the probe with all the feats of human endeavour and turn it into a weapon to bring the human race to its knees, taking a slice of the population and bringing them to a (literal) precipice. The Sycorax are a warrior race, negotiation through intimidation is their method of choice. Murdering two representatives (characters we are well acquainted with at this point) upon arrival in their ship shows that they mean business (and those whips are just cool).  Sean Gilder deserves a lot of credit for imbuing the Sycorax Leader with an identity of his own and stressing the hostile, unfamiliar qualities of the character. It always helps when an alien race has a mouthpiece and like Davros and Broton and the Gravis before him, the Sycorax Leader allows for an intimate dynamic between the monsters and the Doctor.
* I'd forgotten what an impact Torchwood made on this story without ever appearing. At this point the organisation is an ominous threat to alien life, equipped with some serious technology. No wonder I was desperate to find out more. It could have been so easy to have had the Doctor triumph and leave that as the climax but Davies pulls one of his best surprises out of the bag when the Sycorax spaceship is destroyed under Harriet Jones' instruction. What has she become since gaining power? Was she right to do so? The Doctor's condemnation of her character and that of the human race is a startlingly dark moment in what should be a triumphant culmination of the story. Her downfall is essential in order for he series three story arc to play out (was Davies thinking that far ahead?) and her decision would be re-visited (and vindicated) in The Stolen Earth. For now, bask in the drama and the surprise of the new Doctor mercilessly dragging his old friend from power. It's a powerfully acted scene.

The Bad: Harriet Jones giving a public announcement to request help from the Doctor is a bit much (although I love her guilty admission that the Royal Family are on the roof).

The Shallow Bit: Adam Garcia could be my right hand man any day of the week.

Result: The Christmas Invasion is a Doctor Who story that keeps on giving. I love how this story defies your expectations to churn out a Christmas pantomime and instead delivers one of the finest alien invasions the show has ever attempted. It starts off as an intimate affair about Rose trying to deal with the loss of her Doctor but continually gets more ambitious; revealing a UNIT base inside the Tower of London, the heart in the mouth sequence of the human race about to jump from a great height, the epic sight of the spaceship sliding across the sky over London, the transportation to the cavernous Sycorax spaceship and finally the glorious sight of the Doctor stepping from the TARDIS in his pyjamas and engaging in swordplay over the rights to the planet. It's expertly crafted to offer maximum enjoyment, deliver a spanking new Doctor to the masses, dish out laughs and scares and even manages to turn in a number of glorious Christmassy set pieces. The Christmas Invasion puts the other specials at a disadvantage by getting it so right the first time around. I can't think of anything else you might want for Christmas; a terrific new alien species that kills first and asks questions later, a charismatic Doctor who has a surprisingly dark side to him, a psychotic Christmas tree raging through Jackie Tyler's flat, Adam Garcia looking practically edible...even the first scandalous act of Torchwood. It's the final standoff with Harriet Jones that always thrills me the most, a shocking coda to events that refuses to let things get too festive. David Tennant couldn't have asked for to be introduced in a more flattering light and the overwhelming feeling that radiates from the first special is one of absolute optimism for the future. To be watched once a year on Christmas Eve with a big smile on my face: 10/10

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Runaway Bride written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Euros Lyn

This story in a nutshell: Get me to the church on time!

Mockney Dude: David Tennant gives an extraordinary performance in his second Christmas special, reacting to the delighted audience reaction to his first season. There is a definite shift between the squeaky voiced, bouncing puppy of a Doctor in series two and the more solemn and considered Time Lord of this story. He anchors the comedy in gentle tragedy, the Doctor missing his old companion and trying his best to cope with the latest mad woman to fall in his lap. The moment the Doctor puts his jacket around Donna's shoulders and she insults him pretty much sets up the template for their relationship. I love how this story is set up as a romantic comedy but it resists the urge to connect the Doctor and Donna in the obvious way. Their relationship constantly surprises like this. It's nice (in the new series) for the Doctor actually use his trusty device as a sonic screwdriver. You would imagine that Tennant would play this story to the hilt, a screwball comedy that allows him to play the goon but against type he goes looking for the darker moments and really sells them to the audience. When faced with a giant red spider that cackles you would imagine Tom Baker matching that level of lunacy or Colin Baker shouting his head off to be heard over the creature but Tennant plays those scenes with a quiet menace, gently breaking the bad news to Donna that her fiancé isn't who she thought he was and broodingly threatening the Empress. It restores a lot of sanity to the proceedings. The Tenth Doctor was often all mouth in his first season, talking the talking about retribution but rarely delivering on that promise. The Runaway Bride offers the first glimpse at the unforgiving part of his nature and it comes as a shocking moment when he stands back and allows mass infanticide take place. Water running down his face, a look of remorselessness and a companion begging him to stop the murder, this is a dark place to take the Doctor on Christmas Day. This ruthless Doctor would show up again in The Family of Blood and The Waters of Mars and these three points highlight him at his most powerful and shocking. To give him some credit he does offer the Racnoss an alternative. Donna's assertion that he can go too far and that he needs somebody to hold him back is valid and would be revisited to dramatic effect in series four.

Tempestuous Temp: 'The never-ending fountain of fat, stupid trivia!' I don't envy Catherine Tate in The Runaway Bride, having to fill in the gap of the extremely popular Billie Piper (whatever you might think of her, the response to her departure was overwhelming). What she does (aided by Davies) is quite smart, initially feeding on the audiences mistrust and lack of faith in the character and proving to be every bit as wretched and hysterical as we were imagining. The opening scenes with her screeching on board the TARDIS hardly enamour her to the audience and she comes as across as more like one of Catherine Tate's extreme sitcom characters. That's all part of the character comedy - how will the Doctor overcome his natural dislike for this woman and get her to the church on time. She's rude, overbearing, selfish and frightened. The antithesis of Rose. However both Catherine Tate and David Tennant are far too intelligent as performers to allow things to continue in this ilk and around about the time of their rooftop scene you start to see a relationship emerging between the Doctor and Donna (albeit a fractious one at this point) and it is a relationship that would go on to rival some of the best Doctor/companion partnerships in the history of the show. Her reaction to the TARDIS (the first companion to be beamed inside and experience the spatial discontinuity from inside to outside rather than the other way around) is to grab her mouth as if to be sick, utterly disoriented and completely natural. Donna failing to notice any of the alien threats that have struck the Earth over the past two years is a running gag that never gets old. Literally pursuing Lance down the stairs in order to secure his hand in marriage is hilarious - this is a woman who always gets what she wants through dogged determination. Watch as she pours on the fake tears to get away with murder, this is definitely somebody the Doctor wants on side. How can you help but feel for Donna as Lance vivisects her character so coldly and reveals what a shallow individual of the new millennium she is? 'Text me, text me, text me...' This is the point where she turns her life around, it isn't so much that she is ashamed of who she is but she knows that she is capable of so much more. You would imagine that at some point during this story that Donna would get changed but she obviously enjoys playing the action heroine in a wedding dress. Since when did the show pull off slapstick falls as confidently as Donna's as she swings across the set? The Racnoss' reaction is a scream. The final scene between the Doctor and Donna is quite beautiful and I can remember thinking at the time that it was a shame to have developed their relationship to such a point where they were delivery this kind of magic only to throw it away. Little did I know. When Catherine Tate was announced as returning to Doctor Who full time I was convinced that it was this Donna that would be back, the one who had learnt from this experience and learnt to restrain herself.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Skies over London full of Daleks?' 'I was in Spain.'
'We used to call him a fat cat in spatz!' 'My Christmas dinner!'
'This whole process is brilliant but only if it's being observed.'
'There's just one problem...we've drained the Thames.'
'You've seen it out there, it's beautiful' 'And it's terrible. That place was flooding and burning and they were dying and you stood there like...I don't know. A stranger. And then you made it snow, I mean you scare me to death!'

The Good:
* If you want a perfect example of how masterful Davies is with character then check out the opening scene of this story (the only Doctor Who story I might add to start with a wedding) and the number of reaction shots to Donna's walk down the aisle and subsequent kidnap. The director manages to get across the varying responses from the characters without a single word being uttered.
* Despite battling the fact that this has clearly been filmed in high summer (has Doctor Who ever looked this sunny when set on contemporary Earth?) Euros Lyn manages to brew up an energy to the scenes where the Doctor desperately tries to help Donna to get back to the wedding. Lots of inter-cutting scenes, moving cameras and reaction shots (I love the taxi drivers throwing insults at Donna) help to keep the pace up, cranking up to the glorious set piece where Donna is kidnapped and the Doctor affects his rescue in the TARDIS. You haven't seen this kind of elongated pace since The TV Movie's final set piece (and in classic Who, probably the final instalment of The Caves of Androzani). If you go with the flow, it is great fun to watch. The moment this goes from being frivolous to being frightening comes when Donna shakes the taxi driver and realises she is being driven by a robot. The switch in tone is very confidently done (Donna punching at the windows is quite dramatic) and then fluidly shifts again when the TARDIS bounces into view and the story becomes a heroic spectacular. The Doctor manages to prove his worth to Donna, pulls off an incredible looking stunt with the TARDIS (the two children watching coo in delight like millions of kids watching at home) and Catherine Tate hits some comedy highs ('Santa's a robot!' never fails to get me howling). It's easy to see why this sequence was chosen to trail to the special during the Proms. We've never seen the TARDIS used in quite such a frivolous way before and it is desperately exciting to see it bouncing off the rooftops of cars.
* I want to be the sort of person that isn't thrilled by a Christmas tree coming to life with exploding baubles and demolishing a wedding reception to the tune of Jingle Bells. But I'm not, I can think of several weddings that I have been to where this would have improved things exponentially.
* Check out my review of any season seventeen story to see that I like it whenever the show dares to do something a bit different when it comes to it's monsters. Erato the blob might not have been a success visually but conceptually he was a masterstroke, portrayed as a villain because of his size and his flattening of victims but actually an ambassador who has been trying (and failing) to communicate with people. Or the Mandrels, lumbering teddy bears that slaughter people that become an illicit substance once electrocuted. The Runaway Bride tries to do something different to the norm with it's central villainess, a full blown pantomime creature that the kids can hiss at and the adults can recoil from. A giant red spider that travels about in a Web Star, it is visually and conceptually about as crazy as Doctor Who can go with its monsters before it loses the audience completely to the madness. It goes to show how much of a committed audience that (there was barely a leap between the ratings of this story and the next) that it can get away with something quite this outrageously hammy in a culture that is obsessed with image and looking cool. The Empress of the Racnoss is one crazy mofo and Sarah Parish unleashes everything that she has.  The end result is something very funny and so extreme that she comes across as a credible alien threat simply because she is so different from anything we have seen before.
* Tying Torchwood into the story is a lovely touch, if there is one thing that Davies does very well it is developing his innovations once he has introduced them. And he loves a secret underground base as much as I do.
* People forget that there is a solid narrative in existence beneath all the frivolity of The Runaway Bride. Looking at the nuts and bolts of the plot reveals this to be one of Davies' more robust plots. Whilst distracting you with Bridezillas, igniting baubles and the exploration of Torchwood bases, Davies slips in Agatha Christie-esque clues almost invisibly (including Lance dosing Donna with particles when making her coffee explaining how it was done and making him the obvious culprit, the Doctor climbing out onto the Thames flood barrier and setting up the method of the Racnoss' downfall, the many visual and spoken allusions to keys and H.C Clements and the baubles wrecking Donna's wedding that allow the Doctor to create the flood). How all the elements come together (albeit with a greater amount of technobabble than usual) is really rather neat, in amongst all the comedy.
* If Doctor Who is about exploring the wonder of time and space and the Time Lord sharing that through the eyes of his companion then there are few scenes as perfect as the one where the Doctor takes Donna back to the creation of the Earth. Not only are the effects dazzling and the performances of Tennant and Tate pitch perfect but it introduces an important plot point too. It comes after Donna has received some devastating news and watching her tears vanish only to be replaced with an expression of wonder demonstrates to her the joy of what the Doctor is offering. It's dazzlingly emotive in a way that only Davies can deliver.
* Given that so much of Doctor Who is centred around the Earth it is a massive reveal that the Racnoss became the centre of our planet, causing its formation. It delivers a one finger salute to creationists. Let's be honest, it's no more ridiculous than the alternative offered in the bible.

The Bad: The bizarre segway sequence down the most gorgeously lit Doctor Who corridor in existence. At least Donna has the sense to laugh at the sheer daftness of it. Davies cannot resist a bit of spectacle and has the Web Star descend and begin attacking the Earth. Trouble is there is plenty enough drama taking place beneath the surface to satisfy and the realisation of these scenes feels like an afterthought. The most that we witness is a strobe of lightning cut up a high street which feels like a cut price invasion to me. It's worth it for the first mention of Mister Saxon, I suppose.

The Shallow Bit: I don't think there is a single point where David Tennant has looked more attractive as the Doctor. Charismatic, funny, dark and confident. He looks gorgeous too.

Result: I can remember being a little disappointed when I first watched The Runaway Bride and not entirely connecting with what Davies was trying to do. I don't think I realised it was a comedy until my second watch, which shows you where my mind was on Christmas Day (I think it was because I had come to expect another Christmas Invasion, which was quite dramatic for all it's attacking Christmas trees). However this story has been a real grower on me and I think with every subsequent viewing I have discovered more and more things I like and a rock solid plot that exists underneath all the frivolity. It's like the Peri of the Christmas specials, you don't expect an awful lot from it and quietly it manages to surprise and delight you when your guard is down. Catherine Tate starts exactly where you expect her to be; hysterical and annoying but over the course of an hour transforms into something quite unexpected - the perfect companion for Tennant's Doctor. Tennant himself is more confident than ever, feeding from the incredible response of his first season and searching out all the moments where he can add depth and darkness to his character. He goes on quite the journey too, starting The Runaway Bride as a hapless chauffeur to a mad harridan and closing as a mass murderer in desperate need of a friend. It is this pairing that makes this special work so well and as has been widely reported they would go on to become one of the most recognised and celebrated Doctor/companion pairings. All the groundwork is done here. I don't think this is Euros Lyn's best directed piece (that would go to The Girl in The Fireplace and Tooth and Claw) but he is attempting to pull off a Christmas special in one of the most glorious summers of recent years. The atmosphere is light and he maintains a great pace and some of the set pieces are thrilling (in particular Donna's abduction in the taxi and the Thames draining climax) - the only thing that spoils the mood is the persistent sunshine. Doctor Who was bold enough to go for the comic jugular and most of it works a charm (Donna's swinging pratfall makes me die) but what impressed me was all the dramatic moments that Davies slipped in (the creation of the Earth, Donna's tears at discovering Lance's betrayal, the Doctor realising that he has gone too far). Highlighted against the slapstick and farce, the darker moments standout even more. The Runaway Bride surprises me. It isn't the best Christmas special (The Christmas Invasion and The Snowman win out for me) but it has climbed the ranks consistently with my multiple viewings and now stands proud as a solid Doctor Who story (and not just a throwaway special as I first thought) with a great character pairing at its heart: 8/10

Friday, 19 December 2014

42 written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Graeme Harper

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

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

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

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Well done, very hot.'

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or for a more positive slant on this story: