Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Witch's Familiar written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie Macdonald

This story in a nutshell: The best Steven Moffat penned episode since Day of the Doctor...

Indefinable: This is exactly the sort of material that Capaldi was born to play; high intensity, vivid and blazing with emotion. He's quite extraordinary here. I doubt I will love this Doctor more than the moment he is revealed in Davros' chair, swings around into the middle of a group of shocked Daleks (whoever knew they could emote so much with just movement) and declares 'anyone for dodgems?' I felt that connection between the Doctor and Clara again when he brandishes a Dalek weapon and threatens the Daleks to tell him that she is dead. Isn't is strange that the Doctor never seems more dangerous than when the odds are stacked against him like this (think Davison in Androzani). You could say that everything that is shared between the Doctor and Davros is a falsehood but I think there is more than a grain of truth to their words (who is it that said that for a lie to work it has to be shrouded in truth?). So when the Doctor says that he is just a man in a box and yet some days if he tries very hard he gets to be the Doctor...that sounds like the same flawed man last year that was trying to figure out if he was a good man or not. Is this incarnation a good Doctor? Will compassion kill him in the end? He wouldn't die of anything else. Between them the Doctor and Davros nearly destroyed Gallifrey and all of its inhabitants so there is some weight to the Doctor's insistence that planet is safe from the pair of them. He insists that the planet is intact, to drive him that Davros has failed. The Doctor refuses to admit that he is helping Davros to see a sunset, he's doing it to help a little boy he abandoned on the battlefield. The Doctor warns Missy to run after he almost kills Clara at her bidding.

Impossible Girl: Hang on.. I though Clara was smarter than smart and able to solve any problem. Or is that just on Earth? How do you explain that she can go from managing to outthink UNIT in the last episode to falling for Missy's desperately predictable (but very funny) tricks in this one? After being tied up and pushed down a sewer I would think she would get savvy to the fact that Missy isn't a very nice person but she falls for another few tricks after that that makes me wonder if actually she might be the dumbest companion we have ever had. Typical Clara, no consistency of any kind.

You're so Fine: I think I might be a little bit in love and I never thought I would say that about one of Moffat's women. The odd thing is that most of them are supposed to be likeable and he pushes hard to make them uber cool and smart but they wind up morally bankrupt and smug as hell as a result (River, Amy, occasionally Clara). Missy is supposed to be a conniving bitch and Moffat plays that to the hilt and the result? She's delicious fun to be around and yes, very likeable to boot. Go figure. All he had to do to make one of his female characters work is to make her heartless. That's what it takes to make this mans representation of a woman click. Go figure again. The way she mistreats Clara appallingly was the only time I found myself chuckling in an otherwise grim episode, she's needed to provide that levity otherwise this would be serious stuff indeed. Tying Clara up and threatening to eat her if she gets hunger might have been a little OTT but I love the image of the two of them yomping over Skaro's surface to rescue the Doctor...for a second I could really see this pairing work long term. She's not just spouting one liners in The Witch's Familiar, she's a genuinely unpredictable and dangerous creation, willing to sacrifice Daleks and Clara to get to her man. And she'll do it with a smile too. Missy has no qualms about sticking her hand into a Dalek casing and removing the abomination inside. She also has no qualms about sticking Clara inside and handing her to the Daleks (canned as she puts it). What I love about this character is that even when she is in the worst danger she seems to be having a whale of a time. Surrounded by so many Daleks in the ruined City, Moffat puts the Master in danger just as the classic series always did to pay for his crimes but also gives her an out. Bravo and I hope she returns before the end of the season.

Scarred Scientist: 'You have slaughtered billions of my children and I have slaughtered billions of your race. We have exhausted the conventional means of communication.' One of the best ever Davros stories and when that list includes Genesis of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks on the TV and Davros and Terror Firma on audio (as well as his outstanding spin off series I, Davros) that is no small statement. Julian Bleach gives a performance here that threatens to rival Michael Wisher and Terry Molloy at his best and shows just how few opportunities he had in Journey's End to impress. I always find Davros at his most interesting when he is written against type as the ranting madman, offering up something a little more substantial instead (although it has to be said that nobody can rant quite like Davros when he gets going). Such as his psychological games in Genesis and Revelation and his gripping backstory in Davros (which interestingly is not contradicted or confirmed here, leaving the audios relevance intact). The deception here is that Davros has had something of a change of heart on the day he died and he wants to make amends with the Doctor before he goes and try and justify his actions. Almost as if he wants some kind of forgiveness from the one man he can consider a rival. If that sounds appallingly twee then fear not, it is delicately scripted so we understand that both men deplore each other but there is a heavy atmosphere that trapped together in the aftermath of the Time War they can finally talk about their shared history and come to some kind of consensus about it. Two rivals as old men looking at the battles they have shared and getting the chance to talk. We finally get a good glance at just what is left of the man who created the Daleks in a macarcbre effects shot, legs missing and a spine-like tendrils shooting from his body and looking for his chair. He's the twisted remains of a man, the result of centuries of prolonging his life and sacrificing himself to his creations. It's sick. To anybody who questions Davros' 'dying man' ruse, he does at least try and get the Doctor to touch the tendrils several times before slapping on the mask of repentance. People might question why Davros uses his electronic eye if his own eyes still work but clearly the technology surpasses that of a dying mans vision. It makes for a breathtaking moment, when he opens his eyes and tears flood free, I was captivated in the moment and barely dared to breathe. The most hated man in the universe shedding tears of happiness for his rival. Astonishing. The laughter that they share feels wrong but it's still a wonderful moment. It's not exactly a new ruse, preying on somebody's humanity to take what you need from them - it is exactly the same parlour trick that the Dalek pulled on Rose in series one.  But the way Davros exploits his relationship with the Doctor is gloriously vampiric.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'He's trapped at the heart of the Dalek Empire. He's a prisoner of the creatures that hate him most in the universe.'
'Nobody hates like a Dalek.'

The Good:

* The Dalek City really is a beautiful piece of design and seeing it rebuilt in such style and shot with such care by Hettie Macdonald gave e chills. It must be how fans of Star Trek must have felt when the episodes were remastered with sexy new model shots of the Enterprise inserted. Seeing every single Dalek gliding about the turrets and towers is unbelievable, the new series indulging in what the classic show could never afford. It's the mixture of the astounding design from the sixties and the modern day shooting techniques that give this hybrid of nostalgia and innovation its piquancy. Like staring back into the past as the characters saw it in The Daleks, as opposed to how the audience saw it. Seeing the grey and blue classic Daleks gliding through the cramped corridors of the City gave me chills. The only thing that is missing is that unnerving soundscape to the City that made the opening episode of The Daleks so terrifying. What a shame that it should be left in tatters, I would have loved to have returned to Skaro in future stories just as the classic series did from time to time. Mind you what a lovely kiss to Evil of the Daleks, having the Doctor and Clara watch the Dalek City burn and collapse from the distance.
* A Dalek sewer made up of the decaying Daleks, the hideous experiments that didn't quite go right, is precisely the sort of ghastly notion that Moffat excels at. He manages to use the idea in a clever way too, not just as a way for Missy and Clara to enter the City but as a solution to the plot as well. Screaming, pulsating, slick walls...disgustingly creative. Almost as sick as the abortive, mordent Daleks crawling up from the sewers and claiming the Dalek shells that they were denied, flooding them and drowning the mutants inside. It's Moffat at his most ghoulish, giving this SF tale a lovely twist of horror. 
* Haven't we seen Clara wired up to a Dalek before? Or Oswin. Or something. There's still a great deal of fun to be had with the idea though, especially the claustrophobia of being encased inside and not being able to express yourself. Daleks channelling emotion through a gun and only being able to scream 'Exterminate' rather than expressing their feelings is a fascinating insight into their world inside the shell. After all these years there are still new things to learn about the creatures.
* The consensus that this episode comes to is that it doesn't matter about friends or enemies as long as there is mercy. It's captured to disquieting effect with that superb final shot of the Doctor taking Davros' hand and leading him across the battlefield, through the mist. Visually and emotionally stunning to the last.

The Bad: One of the reasons this isn't scoring maximum points is the rather bizarre nature of the pre-titles sequence, rehashing the joy of the opening of The Name of the Doctor in a blink and you'll miss it cameo by the fourth and first Doctors and continuing that obsession with getting inside the Doctor's head and figuring what makes him tick that Moffat has. It's all a hugely elaborate way of Missy saying 'I teleported us out of there' which if she had cut it down to that would have wasted less time to get to the juicy stuff. At this point I thought The Witch's Familiar was going to be as indulgent as last weeks episode.
* The sunglasses. Just no.

Result: Proper old school Who done to perfection. I don't know what the wider audience will think of The Witch's Familiar but I cannot imagine a long term fan of the show not getting a great deal of satisfaction from this smart and emotional slice of classic Who. For Moffat, it is his finest stab at an episode since the anniversary, perhaps since the beginning of the Matt Smith era. I'm not blind to the talents of Hettie Macdonald's efforts, she does a lot to make the script look as impressive as possible, delivering some awesome set pieces and dialogue scenes that literally had me holding my breath. In stark contrast to last week this is a story that barely wastes a moment and plays games with the audience throughout. Clara is the only character that fails to make much of an impression but with the vivid completion of Capaldi's Doctor, a sexy and sassy Master and Davros playing mind games I am not at all surprised. And between her appalling mistreatment by Missy and her nightmare inside the Dalek casing, Moffat tortures her enough to make up for any blandest in her characterisation. I can't remember the last time I spent this much time discussing the characters in a Moffat script rather than the ideas, for once he scales back on trying to write a huge sprawling epic and focuses on the people involved and the result is an intense, disquieting and moving piece of work. The scenes between the Doctor and Davros are exactly the sort of thing I thought we would be getting on a regular basis when he took over as showrunner and it's a shame it has taken four series to get there. But now we are...more please. Don't get me wrong there is the usual Moffat trickery in here where pretty much everything is a con but on this occasion that is precisely why this all works so well...because the performances are so powerful you can believe what you are being told only to have that turning point in these characters lives snatched away. It's an extraordinary sleight of hand. Looking at the two part story as a whole I think this is overstuffed, particularly in the first episode (although the pre-titles sequences here was just as pointless) and it would have made a near-perfect 60 minute story had we reached Skaro a lot sooner. Most of the second episode is extraordinary though, and for the conclusion to top the set up is the rarest of things in any show. 8/10 for the whole piece but top notch marks for the concluding part: 9/10

The Magician's Apprentice written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie Macdonald

This story in a nutshell: 30 minutes of set-up, 15 minutes of plot...

Indefinable: Now it is time for Capaldi to have some fun with the role. He's still got a fair amount of that gravitas that made him such an electrifying presence (for me) in the previous year but it is tempered with some much needed humour and warmth. If my friends and family are anything to go by Capaldi's choice to play the Doctor as a complete and total bastard didn't exactly go down so well with the general public, who were used to David Tennant's geeky mania and Matt Smith's nutty Professor. Whilst the fans lapped it up, all I'm hearing is 'I don't like him.' It will be interesting to hear what they think of him after The Magician's Apprentice and the sequence where he rocks it with the electric guitar. 'What does Davros want with the Doctor?' is a chilling line because of how it sets your mind racing. Was the Doctor once a little girl? Missy does suggest that might be a lie but it's worth including the line just to wind people up. Clara is a little perturbed because the Doctor is laying on the charm and hugging of his own volition, it's such a contrast to last year they could practically be different characters. Even though he suspects a trap how could he resist an invitation from Davros? I love the idea that their rivalry, their conversations about morality transcend even the Time War. Davros still wants to hear the Doctor say that compassion is wrong but he will be a long time waiting, even if he strips the Time Lord of everything he cares about. The absence of the Doctor in the first half of the episode only serves to make his presence felt even more when he does show up. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

Impossible Girl: I don't think we will ever settle down to any kind of consensus with Clara. There has to be a reason that I have had such trouble warming to the character despite the warmth that Jenna Coleman imbues her with and I can only put that down to the terribly inconsistent writing that the character has been handed. She metamorphosed into a completely different person between series 7b and series 8 and despite some efforts to turn her into a person that people can relate to (fat chance when that involves pairing her up with the walking clothes hors Danny Pink) it was undone by some sloppy writing that showed her getting filthy angry about how the Doctor treats her one minute and then expecting him to treat her that way the next. It was a bizarre year for the character, despite some dramatic moments, where she failed to gel completely with her Doctor. Last Christmas looked as though she was about to embrace the life of a time traveller now that her affair with Danny has been mercifully cut short and here we are at the beginning of series 9 and she's back at school teaching, living her life on Earth. All that promise of a partnership in the TARDIS lost. And boy she's back to being a smug know it all again, someone who is unfazed by everything. If she is supposed to be the person that I can relate to (and given she is practically the only human character in this story), I have to admit I find her a little out of reach. If the rumours are true and she is going to be written out mid-series, I think she might wind up being the least successful new series companion for me. Don't get me wrong I had a reaction to Amy akin to a tropical skin rash but at least I understood who she was, even if I didn't like it all the time. With Clara, she's just too distant and mechanical for my tastes. She's presented as being smarter than UNIT here, smarter than practically anyone else on the planet.

You're So Fine: 'Let's have a goodbye selfie for your kids...' Absolutely my favourite part of this episode. I'm completely sold on Missy now and I was already fairly convinced last season. Moffat has dropped the snogging (but not the chance for her to make a sexual reference at every opportunity) and focuses on what the Doctor and the Master have always been about, a twisted friendship that is half the pair of them wanting to get along and half the pair of them wanting to thwart each others plans (with a little bit of attempted murder thrown in for good measure). I really got a sense of the shared history between the two characters in this story, especially since Missy doesn't need to play the central villain of the piece. She's not exactly upstaged by Davros and the Daleks...because nobody could possibly upstage a woman who freezes every plane in the sky just to say hi but she's doesn't have to fulfil the role of the antagonist and as such we can concentrate on the friendship between the two characters rather than their rivalry. It's so rarely done and the idea of having the Master along as a companion is so delicious you have to wonder why it hasn't been done more often. Gomez is clearly having an absolute ball with the character and she tones down a few of the outrageous excesses from Dark Water/Death and Heaven and the result is a character that it is an enormous amount of fun to hang around with. If she keeps this up she might just be the finest innovation of the Moffat era. 'I'm gonna need eight snipers!' is such a cheeky line but Missy has a point, unless UNIT feels like they are in control they will shoot her on sight. Slapping away Clara when she has pretensions of being the Doctor's closest friend made me chuckle, comparing her to the dog made me howl. When she started picking off UNIT operatives just to prove that she hasn't turned good I was almost falling off my chair. She's such a naughty thing. A friendship older than Earth has been civilised and infinitely more complex, that's what Missy shares with the Doctor. 'Let's make jam' is what she says when she opens an airlock and threatens to blow both herself and Clara into space. She even tickles a Dalek bump and mentions the dogs bollocks. I think I might be in love.

Scarred Scientist: 'Where does an old man go to die but with his children?' The twist in that pre-titles sequence quite took my breath away, not only because it was an excellent surprise that linked back to Genesis of the Daleks and the central moral dilemma at its core but because it was the first time in official age (probably since Oswin's appearance in Asylum of the Daleks) that the production team had managed to keep something that could have been a massive crowd drawer a secret. I could hear the collective gasp of Doctor Who fans nationwide. Anybody who feels that Julian Bleach didn't have a fair crack at the whip in The Stolen Earth/Journey's End must be delighted to see him back and giving a much subtler performance. I thought Davros worked a treat amongst the adrenalin fuelled madness of Tennant's third years finale but mostly when he was kept in the shadows and used for body horror. He was lost in the deck of so many returning characters at one point (a shame because his 'EXPLODE THE REALITY BOMB!' proved that he was still the finest batshit crazy madman around). The chemistry between Capaldi and Bleach is palpable but we don't get to spend enough time with them in this episode to see how far they can go. I imagine things are going to get intense in the second episode.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I try never to understand. It's called an open mind.'
'Hang on...Davros is your arch enemy now? I'll scratch his eye out.'
'Did the Doctor tell you that because you should never believe a man about a vehicle.'

The Good:

* Sweeping statement - The Magician's Apprentice features one of the strongest pre-titles sequences since the show has returned, ironically given last season was the one that Moffat touted as scoring the biggest hits in this regard. Dirty, dramatic, disquieting and's everything that Doctor Who should be every week. It also happens to be the best scene in the entire episode but that doesn't stop it being a moment of absolute perfection, stunningly realised by Hettie MacDonald. A child actor that can act is the icing on the cake (the Moffat era hasn't exactly scored high in this regard). Moffat wisely keeps those cue cards that informs us of the setting well away from the top of the scene to preserve the surprise, which means you have to go back and watch the whole thing again to spot the little details (Dalek extermination blasts, bows and arrows and modern weaponry as reference by Harry in Genesis). I love the way the smoke clears to reveal the Doctor, a powerful figure here to save the most hated man in the universe. Capaldi's reaction to Davros' name might be my favourite piece of acting to have come out of the show in a long, long time. If there rest of the episode had stuck to this level of intensity and focus we would have been in astonishing shape. That zoom in to the battlefield is quite breathtaking and a great to start the season. Hands slick with mud with feeling their way out of the ground and opening to reveal an eye in the palm? That's just nightmarish.
* I don't think Skaro has been given this kind of severity since Genesis so it's right that the episode refers to it so much. It was Missy's reaction that impressed me the most. When the woman that brought the dead back to life last year is this concerned, be scared. The attention to detail in the recreation of the Dalek City is the sort of thing that only fans can appreciate and the sight of those gleaming towers brought bang up to date with modern effects gave me chills all over. And as soon as we headed down into those cramped, claustrophobic corridors with the original Daleks gliding about...well I how could any fan of this show resist?
* Having Colony Saarf looking for the Doctor in a myriad of locations gives Moffat the chance to do what he loves doing, skipping from one place to another and making the story feel as epic as possible (in the same vein as The Time of Angels, The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, The Wedding of River Song, The Name of the Doctor...). Whilst it is quite an old approach now, this time it is being realised by Hettie MacDonald and she brings each location to life with real atmosphere. The Maldorium under her watchful eye is a seedy place, full of secrets and disreputable characters.
* Saarf himself might not be the most substantial of characters but the very notion of a man comprised of snakes that can slither apart and become one enormous serpent is enough to give me nightmares. I can handle anything but snakes. Well, I can handle the one in Kinda but pretty much no other. I love the fact that we see his transformation first from his POV to keep the suspense high. And the way he glides into each room tells you exactly what he is long before we find out. This time it is all in the realisation.
*It's a massive time wasting exercise but the realisation of the sequence in the European square is beautifully done. The sweep into the square to find Missy sitting alone, the snipers on the roofs, the plane casting a pleasant shadow in the Mediterranean breeze. It looks phenomenal.
* The Daleks have built the original Skaro to spec, justifying the use of every single Dalek at large in the City and this time given the appropriate exposure.

The Bad:

* Back to the Shadow Proclamation and Kelly Hunter still has difficulty with the little she has to do.
* I worry about the amount of continuity that has been amassed to kick start the season. Not for myself because I was lapping it up but for the audience at whole that might not know what The Shadow Proclamation, Karn, Missy, Davros, the Daleks, etc are all about. It must be alienating to decide to watch a new series and be assaulted with quite this much mythology in one whack. The telling factor will be the ratings this week. Of course you must expect that a show in it's ninth series to have raked up a fair amount of backstory in it's time but the joy of Doctor Who is that it can be re-invented over and over again and each story can be standalone. With this story, Moffat is pretty much making it for the fan boy in himself. If he took a step back as a new audience member he would see that each scene comes with a wealth of questions to a newbie that aren't answered.
* The planes feel like a wasted device that could have been used to prop up an entire story. It feels slightly reminiscent of the blood hostages in The Christmas Invasion, a gun being held to humanity's head but nowhere near as effectively staged. Let's chalk this one down to Missy being a big drama queen and wanting to make her presence known in as grand a fashion as possible. Anything to do with planes in fiction makes me slightly twitchy but I have to say this quite an attention grabbing mechanism that was thrown away in a story with much more impressive elements surrounding it.
* Should UNIT be used in such a throwaway fashion? I question when they did it in the Pertwee era (The Time Warrior) too. Although I love the use of Jaye Griffthis from BUGS. I hope she returns. 
* The Doctor is dying, his death comes with a whacking great prophecy yadda yadda yadda. Haven't we been here before? Don't you remember how well that turned out last time?
* Unfortunately the whole medieval sequence is pointless, daft and barely raises a smile. And it sits right at the heart of the episode when things should be hotting up. The jokes ('You said you wanted an axe fight') made me want to bury my head in the sofa. They procured a tank for that gag? We could have had the Doctor turn up and solve the plane crisis, meet Missy in the Square and Saarf catch up with them there. The episode would be better for it.
* The Daleks have  operatives in medieval times? Since when? Why? What the hell?
*  The cliffhanger should be shocking - this is the Doctor willing to kill a child after all - but like Smith's regeneration into Capaldi, it's rather like a sudden hiccup of a development because of how it is brought up and over with in a second.
* Shock horror! Missy is dead! Clara is dead! The TARDIS has been destroyed! Don't you remember this is the Moffat universe where nobody is killed? I await the inevitable reset with a throwaway line in episode two. How sad that moments like this have been rendered pointless because we know that the status quo wont be shaken up quite this much by a showrunner who is afraid to make those kind of decisions.

Result: Impressive moments scattered around a terribly indulgent episode, The Magician's Apprentice is possibly the ultimate expression of all of Moffat's strengths and weaknesses as a writer of Doctor Who. Huge creative ideas, individual scenes that take your breath away, a vivid Doctor and villain and moments that make you scream 'why didn't they do that before?' (especially the twist in the pre-titles sequence). Countering that you have some over generous humour (that pointless medieval sequence), few concessions to a non-fan audience (perhaps justifying the appalling overnight rating) and an episode that schizophrenically shifts tone and pace with alarming inconsistency. Moffat is one of the most fascinating writers to have ever written for the show, capable of refining what this show is all about with absolute clarity and delivering it to perfection but also capable of taking the show to places that where it cannot sustain itself and filling episodes with some of the most appalling scenes and blandest characters imaginable. He reminds me of Chris Carter over at The X-Files, both the best and the worst writer of the show he is writing for. Essentially what you have with The Magician's Apprentice is a morality tale about whether Doctor could kill Davros as a child - a bold way to open the season. The trouble is that this is only dealt with for about fifteen minutes and the slack is taken up with some of the most indulgent padding imaginable bringing our heroes (and anti-heroes) together. The plot kicks in around the 30 minute mark...and that should never be the case. This might be the first of the two parters this year but that doesn't mean you should waste the extra time that you have and still have to rush things. I don't want to be too critical though, especially when Hettie MacDonald is on board to paper over most of the cracks with her avant garde direction. She makes Missy's introduction in the square palatable despite the fact that it is completely unnecessary and if it does have some horribly unfunny moments there is a energy to the medieval scenes. However she does her best work on Skaro, giving the actors appropriate exposure and letting Capaldi, Bleach and Gomez flaunt their talents. There is certainly a confidence to how this story is presented and the second episode promises to be a fine companion piece to Genesis of the Daleks. Who would have ever thought that would come to be. The Magician's Apprentice is basically Attack of the Cybermen all over again; the opener of a season comprised of 45 minute two part stories, loaded with continuity and a little distracted in it's first episode, albeit with some tasty moments. Let's see if it dive-bombs in episode two in the same way. We're almost back where we were in the eighties, the show being made for fans: 7/10

Friday, 25 September 2015

Death of the Doctor written by Russell T Davies and directed by Ashley Way

This story in a nutshell: Sarah Jane Smith. Jo Grant (nee Jones). The Doctor. Oooh!

Until Next Time…Ms Smith: We are so lucky this story was written when it was otherwise we might have been denied the meeting between Sarah Jane Smith and the eleventh Doctor and it proves to be such an event it would have been devastating if we had missed out on it. When I hear that there was a planned cameo or role for Ace in SJA I feel a twinge of regret of what might have been but it doesn’t churn me up in the same way that this would if it hadn’t made it to the screen. I can still remember when The Death of the Doctor was announced and I got butterflies in my belly! Sarah Jane, Jo Grant and the eleventh Doctor! Could anything be any more exciting for a Doctor Who fan? I phoned Simon up at work in an incoherent babble of excitement and I could literally hear him tousling my hair sweetly as I went on! I built this up as something really special in my head so how itdidn’t disappoint still baffles me to this day!

Sarah holds firm to the belief that the Doctor is alive even when all the evidence points to the contrary. She always thought that if ever the Doctor died that she would know and that she would be able to feel it. What better way to get Sarah involved in the story than to get her journalistic fervour engaged in the heart of a very personal mystery? Its when she is confronted with his coffin and is told that he suffered terrible injuries that the first flicker of doubt crosses her face. I don’t know if she ever truly believed that he was dead but the mere thought of it must have stuck in her maw. Sarah admits that they used to tell so many stories about Jo at UNIT when she joined as though there was a hint of jealousy at the time, a feeling that she couldn’t quite match up. Her reaction to the Doctor is as joyful as ever, the only person who knows that this could be the Doctor turning up out of nowhere all youthful mad professor! Her ‘oh you’ve done it again’ is a scream. Its always funny when people criticise Sarah because she laughs in the face of their insults but Karim’s assertion that she has never met anybody as staggeringly pious as Sarah does hold some weight. When it comes to the Doctor it something close to hero worship. There is an acknowledgement at the close of this story that she is only one of many of the Doctor’s assistants and Sarah seems to accept that there is nothing special about her just as Elisabeth Sladen always thought. In both cases they couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Nutty Professor: We’re talking about the death of the Doctor here. His life has been put into danger plenty of times before, he has died ad nauseum to reach his eleventh regeneration and we have also explored the possibility of his death in an alternative world where a plethora of alien incursions stack up to create hell on Earth. All this is true but there has always been some really obvious get out clauses in every case. Cliffhangers were a staple of Doctor Who and you knew that there was going to be a hidden plot trick to get him out of the noose (metaphorically speaking), regeneration might be death but it has always been treated as a rebirth and on the odd occasion his death has even been a moment of triumph (The Parting of the Ways) and Turn Left could just jump back to our universe so the series could reclaim the Doctor (with a little help from Donna). This feels different. To have somebody from UNIT turn up and inform Sarah that the Doctor is unequivocally dead has an air of dramatic finality about that made me sit up and pay attention. The very idea is antithetical to my nature I rejected it outright like Sarah but Davies pushes on with the story as if this really was the case. The Doctor really is dead for 25 minutes. There is an Alien Bodies atmosphere to the early funereal scenes that are unique in this show and Doctor Who. Bravo. What’s more I never thought they would be able to top the Doctor gatecrashing Sarah Jane’s wedding but this is just about the only way they could have gone one better. When Davies said it would have been hard to bring the Doctor back into the series again he was telling the truth – what could be more cataclysmic than dealing with his death? The Doctor has no home planet to be returned to but his love of the Earth has become legendary and so the Shansheeth return him to his adopted planet instead. To be fair to them that is shrouded in just enough truth to work. To place him in a rocket and send him into space (‘as death as in life…’) would be very touching if this wasn’t all a big con. Turns out having an impromptu funeral for the Doctor means that not many of friends could be found.

He adopts his ‘come along…’ catchphrase to incorporate ‘…Smith!’ Sarah asks if it hurt when the tenth Doctor regenerated and he admits quietly that it always hurts. The Doctor admits once more that he cannot spend his life looking to the past simply because there is so much of it and that is all he would ever do with his time. In The End of Time he looked back on all of his old companions before he died as a gift to himself and he was so proud. Given the choice between saving the world and saving the children…the Doctor goes the wrong way! When the Doctor interacts with the SJA kids it reminds me of how well Matt Smith interacts with children and how much more fun Doctor Who might be had he ran off with the younger Amy than the deathly dull (and pretty irritating) older version. His wild, mad eyed plan to encourage Sarah and Jo to give the memory weave everything that they have in their memories, encouraging them to get lost in their memories of him is one of my favourite ever eleventh Doctor moments. There’s a delicious non reaction when Jo tells the Doctor that she will get him into trouble with the Time Lords – it’s a reminder of something that brought a great deal of drama to the Davies era but is barely mentioned in the Moffatt one. The way the Doctor brushes this off without contradicting her or telling her the truth is really lovely, whether its for his benefit or hers.

Hippy Chick: There was absolutely no need to re-invent Jo Grant the same way Russell T Davies did for Sarah Jane because this was only ever going to be a one off visit and it was all right there for the taking in her three years on the show. She bumbles her way into the funeral; a cuddly, scatterbrained old woman with enough sunshine in her personality to light up the dark side of the moon. Jo is marvellously characterised here and precisely the sort of grandmother we all wished we had. The Doctor has taught her well and instead of recoiling from the Shansheeth she marvels at how beautiful they are and admits that she missed seeing such creatures. Its been such a long time since she has been called Jo Grant and Sarah makes the logical observation that she turned up just after Jo left (its such an obvious point to make but having it spelt out that these two giants of classic Who are meeting still gives me goosies). Jo’s life was one of absolute fulfilment and has lived and loved every second of her marriage to Cliff with seven children and twelve grandchildren (and number thirteen on the way). Davies always manages to find something at the heart of his characters that will break yourheart and with Jo it is her quietly devastated reaction that the Doctor and Sarah have been reacquainted several times and that he never came back to see her. It makes you love her that little bit more when she refuses to hold that against Sarah and just says happily ‘he must have really liked you.’ Watching Jo and Sarah working together so effectively, never jealous of each other but basking in their shared history with the Doctor is one of the highlights of this series. Learning that the Doctor is now travelling with a married couple makes Jo wonder how it would have worked out if Cliff had joined her and the Doctor on their travels because she only left him to get wed. Admitting that she always was a bit dumb and that she still is heartbreaking especially when she actually asks the Doctor if he thought she was stupid. She’s waited her whole silly life to see the Doctor again and wondered if one day the TARDIS might appear in the middle of the jungle and he would step out to visit. Wonderfully the Doctor turns his absence in her life into something a triumph because Jo has fulfilled so many of her dreams and then some. She’s lived a life of adventure, or politics and morality and has been to most beautiful places on the Earth. Not even the TARDIS could pin her down because she is always on the move. When she thinks she is going to die Jo tells the Doctor that it was worth it just to see him again which she has waited for her whole life. Jo doesn’t care what the TARDIS looks like it is still absolutely the same ship she travelled around time and space in but she has to force herself to leave before she wants to stay for good. Heading off to Norway by hovercraft, telling Clyde and Rani they are gorgeous and imploring Sarah Jane to get a fella…it’s a fine farewell to a much loved companion.

Journalist in Training: There’s not a great deal of time to deal with Rani but she gets to stare at Clyde’s bum for a long time so its not a complete waste of her time!

Graphic Artist: Clyde and Rani are given some fine material here and its great that Davies uses his power that was bestowed on him in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith to suggest the Doctor’s return. I really giggled at his reaction to Rani’s insult about his height, Daniel Anthony has got these comic reactions down pat by now.

Boy Genius: Luke only gets a cameo at the beginning but his continued presence in the series is much appreciated (in any other show to writer out a character like they have would have meant closing the door on them but SJA has consequences and continuing tales to tell for Luke) and in the trusted hands of Russell T Davies his dialogue is sharper and his characterisation is better than ever.

Cute Nephew: It might be really wrong of me to say to say so but Santiago Jones is absolutely gorgeous. Honestly he could have been the dullest character on two legs because he ticks so many of my boxes. Just as the hat of fortune gets passed back and forth between Sarah and Jo (one has lived a very fulfilling life but the other has had fresh adventures with the Doctor) the same is also true of Santiago and Clani – he might have lived a far more travelled life but he barely gets to spend any time with his parents. It reminds us of how lucky Clyde and Rani are to be able to inhabit parallel realities and go back in time and then get home in time for tea with their folks.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Think of all the lives he’s touched. The whole planet should be in mourning…’
‘He can change his face!’ ‘I know but into a baby’s?’ ‘Oi! Imagine it from my point of view! The last time I saw you you were what Jo Grant? 21? 22? Its like someone baked you!’
‘Not as daft as they look for some batty old pensioners and a bunch of ASBO kids…’
‘Every planet, every face, every madman, every loss, every sunset, every scent, every terror, every joy…every Doctor. Every me.’
‘The coffin was the trap, the coffin was the solution…that’s so neat I could write a thesis!’ – Davies comments on the fact that he can write a satisfying ending!
‘Its daft though because we were both saying that we had this theory that if you ever died that we’d feel it somehow. We’d just know. But that’s just silly, isn’t it?’ ‘I don’t know because between you and me if that day ever comes…I think the whole universe might just shiver’ – this really nicely sets up series six of Doctor Who.
‘I can’t be sure but there’s a woman called Tegan in Australia fighting for Aboriginal rights. There’s Ben and Polly in India running an orphanage there. There was Harry, oh I loved Harry…he’s a Doctor, he did such good work with vaccines he saved thousands of lives. There’s a Dorothy something, she runs that company Charitable Earth and she’s raised billions. And there’s this couple in Cambridge, both professors – Ian and Barbara Chesterton. Rumour has it they’ve never aged, not since the sixties. I wonder…’ – Ian and Barbara did get it together! Bloody marvellous!

The Good:
  • How could they ever top this pre titles sequence? UNIT troops converging on Sarah’s house as she storms out and gives them their marching orders. For anybody who has watched Sarah’s three and a bit seasons on Doctor Who and seen her dally with UNIT or for anybody who has watched the first three seasons of SJA and her uneasy current alliance with UNIT or for anybody who just likes an exciting opening…this is magnificent. It gave me goosebumps when I first watched it and it just gave me goosebumps now (it might have something to do with the awesome Murray Gold UNIT theme too). As if that wasn’t enough the bombshell that the Doctor is dead is enough to kick start this story with one hell of a dramatic shock. That Russell T Davies, he knows how to make an impact!
  • Some people have to walk into children’s TV show and take hold of a part and make it broad but not ridiculous and others use it as an excuse to sink into melodramatic farce. Stand up Laila Rouass who does a remarkable job with what could have been an easy role to screw up as Colonel Karim. What’s especially impressive is that she shows no signs of duplicity in the first half and hour and could be our new liaison with UNIT for the Sarah Jane Adventures. In fact she better played and more interesting than most of the UNIT characters we met in The Sontaran Stratagem and Planet of the Dead! When she admits that there is nothing here for her on Earth anymore it hints at a dark backstory that we never get to find out. Karim dies in a massive explosion which is a much rougher ending than most villains get on this show but again marks this story out as something a bit different. We get to see her screaming in the flames just before she is taken out by the blast.
  • Intergalactic undertakers – what a great idea! The Shansheeth have a very logical reason for turning up in the story as the carers of the dead, trawling the battlefields of outer space and looking for heroes to bring home. It’s a very noble cause and a completely different kind of alien than anything we have ever met before so massive kudos on the score. When they turn up as Farscape style puppets I was clapping with delight…in a story that wants to bring together some of the best elements of the classic series (Jo, Sarah and UNIT) this is the most classic series looking monster we have ever seen. Farscape was a show with a hundred times the budget and resources of this show and they used to flaunt aliens like this all the time. I consider it a statement of their absolute confidence that they would happily place something this gloriously ridiculous in the heart of the story and (surprise surprise) get away with it.  Sarah’s incredulous reaction at their appearance is a nice wink at the audience. The Shansheeth plan to nab the TARDIS and prevent death in the universe and halt the endless weeping of millions is actually quite a noble cause but absolutely untenable. Its even understandable if they have devoted their lives dealing with the grief of the universe but death is necessary to keep the universe ticking over. Its great to see SJA making this statement, a similar one to that touted in School Reunion. Death defines us as much as living and it cannot be interfered with.
  • As much as I love the Attic it looks pretty shabby and domestic compared to the most impressive UNIT base than even Doctor Who has ever offered us. Hollowed into the side of Mount Snowden with nightmarish turrets sticking from the mountains stomach and a very Stargate style tunnel leading inside.
  • Continuity ahoy! Well Gary Russell is script editing! Some people might not like so much continuity being injected into a story but SJA has developed enough originality of its own to indulge from time to time and the very purpose of Death of the Doctor is to celebrate what has been and how we have ended up here. The Brigadier is stranded in Peru (The Sontaran Stratagem) and Miss Shaw is on the Earth’s Moonbase (nice to see that Liz wound up in an important position…plus the first confirmation of the base that the Cybermen attack in 2020 when the second Doctor and friends visit!). Sarah remembers the last time she saw the Doctor (The End of Time) and the way he looked at her as if he was heading off to die. She doesn’t even know if the man in the coffin has a face she would recognise. We get to see clips from a myriad of adventures – The End of Time, The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith (which helpfully reminds us of Clyde’s artron abilities), Pyramids of Mars (the fourth Doctor brooding in the console room), Death to the Daleks (the third Doctor on Exillon wandering off with an oil lamp into the gloom), The Masque of Mandragora (the Doctor in the secondary control room, Hieronymous), Carnival of Monsters (the TARDIS in the hold of the SS Bernice, Drashigs), The Time Monster (the TARDIS in a ditch, Chronovore, the Master), The Three Doctors (the first, second and third Doctors together), Death to the Daleks (the City of the Exxilons), The Time Warrior (Linx the Sontaran), The Curse of Peladon (Hepesh, Alpha Centuri, Ice Warriors), Pyramids of Mars (Sutekh invading the TARDIS, mummies), The Seeds of Doom (Harrison Chase), Planet of Evil (the Anti Matter monster), Invasion of the Dinosaurs (big man T-Rex, the Brig), Robot (UNIT surrounding Bessie), The Hand of Fear (the hand, Eldrad), Terror of the Zygons (Zygons), Genesis of the Daleks (Davros, Daleks), The Android Invasion (androids, Styggron), Planet of the Daleks (Spiridons, Daleks, spaceship descending, the Dalek army, the Supreme Dalek), The Sea Devils (coming out of the sea), The Daemons (Bok, the Master, Azal), The Mutants (Skybase, the Mutts, the Marshall), Frontier in Space (Ogrons, Draconians, the Master and the Daleks),     Jo mentions visiting Karfel (Timelash), Drashigs (Carnival of Monsters), Axons (The Claws of Axos), Ogrons (Day of the Daleks, Frontier in Space), the Daleks (Planet of the Daleks), Azal (The Daemons), Sarah mentions Italy (The Masque of Mandragora), Cybermen (Revenge of the Cybermen), Zygons (Terror of the Zygons). The way that exquisite harp music stirs up these memories really makes my heart sing because we can close our eyes and see all the excitement and memorable dangers that Sarah and Jo got into during the classic series’ peak. Its one reference after another that breaks down any resistance I might have to fanwank and forces me to surrender to the past. The smell of lapacho reminds Jo of the royal palace of Peladon and Sarah admits that she has been there too (but there’s none of that ‘rebound’ nonsense that we had when the Doctor took Martha to New Earth, merely a sense of them loving the fact that they both visited somewhere that special). Whilst we’re basking in the warm glow of classic Who its rather fitting that there should be some exciting ventilation shaft scenes but given a contemporary spin (‘shuffle for your lives!’). If all this wasn’t enough to get your fanboy heart beating faster then there is also a spanking new quarry bleached crimson with planets filling the sky! It’s the first time that either Sarah or Jo have stepped foot on another planet since they left the Doctor and if that isn’t worth celebrating then I don’t know what is. Isn’t it wonderful that a throwaway line that the Doctor can regenerate 507 times in this story was taking so seriously by both the press and the shows fans? It shows that you are allowed to blow kisses to the past but don’t you dare meddle with it! During the nostalgia infused climax we get to walk through a whole plethora of Sarah Jane Adventures too and realise that she has built up her own mythology too which is a fine statement for this story to make.
Result: ‘Echoes of the Doctor all over the world. With friends like us he’s never going to die, is he?’ Death of the Doctor is on the cusp of being my favourite Sarah Jane Adventure and there are so many treasures to be unearthed that during its first screening I sat there with a massive grin throughout. Most of those treasures are kisses to the past and as a celebration of everything that made classic Doctor Who great I can’t imagine this being bettered. The flashiest claim is that it brings the eleventh Doctor into orbit with Sarah Jane but astonishingly Davies manages to make the return of Jo as special and her interaction with Sarah just as important. Beyond that there are so many wonderful moments that will whip you up into a nostalgic frenzy including a quarry posing as a planet, chases through ventilation shafts, imaginative but daft looking aliens and enough mentions of the past (and glorious clips) to keep even the most ardent Doctor Who fan sated. You can also look forward to a continuation of the story that began in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, the astonishing notion of dealing with the Doctor’s death and a marvelously insane plot that forces our heroines to look backwards to give the villains the secret of time travel. Its absolutely packed with substance and so massive kudos to Russell T Davies for managing to make this so deliriously entertaining and not feel hurried and filling it to bursting with witty lines and glorious character moments. Its an astonishing achievement and for the chance to see him write for Matt Smith it is practically unmissable. The chemistry between Elisabeth Sladen and Katy Manning is so good you’ll wish Jo stuck around and Matt Smith’s gleeful interaction with the kids kicks ass and with both being juggled in the last episode you’ve got a story which keeps giving until its delightful final scene. Given the tragedy of recent years the moment when Jo cups Sarah’s face and tells her she is beautiful always brings a tear to my eye, its such a stunning statement about both characters and a fine tribute to Elisabeth Sladen. When so much of the Sarah Jane Adventures is about looking forward this is a gorgeous pause to look over its shoulder at everything that came before and acknowledge the weight of history that these characters share. Magnificent:10/10

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Criss Cross written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Bletchley Park. Britain's most secret weapon in the Second World War. Inside draughty huts, the earliest computers clatter day and night, decoding enemy transmissions and revealing intelligence crucial to the country's defence. Leading WREN Mrs Constance Clarke directs her charges to provide vital assistance to the boffins stationed in the Manor House. But a recent arrival among the code-breakers, the mysterious Dr Smith, has attracted the attention of MI5's spy catchers... Over in mainland Europe, Nazi agents are briefed, covert operations planned, and a German submarine embarks on a very secret mission. As encrypted radio waves criss-cross the planet, unearthly forces stir. And when certain ciphers are cracked, something will emerge to threaten all humanity, regardless of allegiance...

Softer Six: The first story to be released after the sixth Doctor's memorable swansong in The Brink of Death and I guess the question on everybody's lips is there anything new to say about the character? Criss Cross answers with a firm yes, introducing the Doctor firmly entrenched in the story as it begins, sans TARDIS and setting up shop at Bletchley Park. It's so out of the ordinary it gives the opening scenes a real sense of optimism for the sixth Doctor adventures. If they can continue in this vein 'ol Sixie will be in good shape for years to come. Adventuring on his own, he's in the market for a new companion and I can see precisely why Constance fits the bill as far as he is concerned. You can see the respect he has for her position and her ability immediately. He is driven and in a world of his own but he doesn't mean anybody any harm...sometimes he just forgets the niceties. By the end of their first conversation the Doctor states 'Thank you, Mrs Clarke. It's good to have you on board' when signposts their allegiance beyond this adventure. Even when he does plan to stick around for a while he tries not to display too prominent a profile. It's taken him a long while but he's come to realise that it pays to blend in (hence his sharp tweed suit on the cover). The TARDIS is as dead as a dodo, the Doctor is looking for an escape from history. He's bored and whilst he cannot leave the Earth he figures he may as well do some digging. It's a dangerous place to settle because suspicion is high of foreign spies and whilst he is a benevolent one he certainly does fit that description. Sometimes he makes the most undignified exits. The 'Mrs Clarke' affectation is cute but it serves a dramatic point too because when danger strikes the Doctor drops the informality and calls her by her name. He's signed the Official Secrets Act several times. For once he has been as discreet as he possibly can. The Doctor talks about having friends in high places and we'll be hearing from that particular politician in Big Finish adventures soon. Constance wonders if the Doctor should invent a better cover story than the notion that he is a benevolent alien from outer space here to aid the human race. Maybe she has a point. For the Doctor, Bletchley almost puts Logopolis to shame and human ingenuity never ceases to amaze him.

Constant Companion: 'I'll never cease to be amazed at what Britain can achieve with an ounce of gumption and a modicum of application!' The first we hear of Constance she is barking orders at her girls in a concise, clipped manner. It sums her up rather well. No-nonsense, ready for action and not willing to beat around the bush. Just like Evelyn, it looks like the sixth Doctor might have met his match. Constance wont be placated when she thinks an injustice is being committed and it forces the Doctor to be the gentler character as a result. I think she might bring the best out in him. The first conversation they have Constance is having a go at the Doctor and he apologises for his thoughtlessness - you see what I mean? She will look after her girls even if it means butting heads with the male boffins at work in the war effort. She knows better than to ask officials about top secret work...but it still doesn't stop her. Henry Clarke was posted to special duties last November and Constance hasn't heard a thing since the start of the year. Are his circumstances fatal? She feels a little giddy after her first trip in the TARDIS, especially since it lands on its side and yet she walks out horizontally. The Doctor practically lets slip that the war will be over next year but tries to cover his mistake but Constance isn't fooled. Constance is extremely proud of her girls and will take any opportunity to express her pride. In a period where men were sent off to war and women were expected to suddenly play their part professionally, it was a time to be proud of that emancipation. It wasn't a case that the Doctor allowed Constance on board, she practically press ganged him into it.

Standout Performance: Miranda Raison gives a wonderful performance as Constance, icy cool and professional for the most part but allowing that facade to slip when it comes to asking about her husband MIA or blanching at the insane notions that are thrown at her by the Doctor. Raison is a consummate professional and I'm sure she will continue to thaw as her relationship with the Doctor develops. But for now it is more like colleagues working together than friends which is certainly a new approach.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Mrs Clarke you might assume this ship was riveted together I Sunderland but I can assure you that the TARDIS and I hail from even further afield' 'What Gateshead?'
'Actually you've lost a few inches round the middle, haven't you?' 'I beg your pardon, Dr Smith!' 'My Ship, she's shrunk to fit.'
'Hande hoch, Doc.'

Great Ideas: Such an evocative time, such a fascinating location. Bletchley Park during the Second World War immediately perks my interest and gets things off to a flying start. In sharp contrast with Terror of the Sontarans there is a great deal of mystery and tangible plot to be had immediately; the Doctor tracking signals, the ambiguity of Constance's husband fate, a British explosives criminal being press ganged by the Reich and the conundrum of the dead TARDIS. A man being killed by radio waves, flooding his mind? Something in the ether has scrambled the TARDISes systems and it tried to the Doctor before dropping like a stone to the Earth. Where better for the Doctor to track coded signals but at Bletchley? He's been working around the clock to detect the path of the interference to trace it back to its source so he can free the TARDIS from its grip. There is an alien ship under the sea off the British coast and it has sent out reconnaissance beacons - the golden eggs. The question of which side Mr Flint is on weaves throughout the story. With him openly admitting to playing for both sides his allegiance is always in question. A war taking place on a plane of existence that most people aren't even aware of. I have always wondered why Doctor Who doesn't do more of this sort of thing, something a little more abstract and interesting beyond our comprehension. I have always been of the belief that if alien life exists out there that it is so far beyond our comprehension there could be a war going on all around us without us even knowing about it. Fitton has tapped into that in a war of sound waves, an intriguing notion that bears dramatic fruit given the location. Whilst it is certainly a novel approach, it might be a little too conceptual for some. Who else could betray both his own people and their enemies to the Choudray? Agent Criss Cross isn't a double agent but a triple one!

Audio Landscape: Scribbling, morse code reaching out, telephones, typing, creaking beds, a dripping tap, popping a cork, pouring wine, a growling staff car, rain falling, squelching through mud, the TARDIS coughing into life, sonar, the ship buffeting as it hits the bottom of the ocean.

Musical Cues: A dramatic, bombastic score for the most part with a strong militaristic theme. It's a little overbearing at times (again the polar opposite of Terror of the Sontarans) but it certainly provided excitement in all the right places.

Isn't it Odd: What was it I said about Big Finish and the variations of the line 'it's trying to invade my mind!' This is the second story in a row that the Doctor has exclaimed as much, released on the same day.

Standout Scene: For me it was the moment when the Doctor steps aside and lets everybody inside the dead TARDIS. What shocked me was the echoing silence inside, the dearth of any kind of life. I thought I had seen every kind of 'steps into the TARDIS' scene imaginable but this one was unusually disquieting and original, despite the fact that we had been pre-warned. The TARDIS, dead? What a terrifying concept. Constance's reaction is novel, questioning why he was storing the TARDIS in his office in Bletchley when he could have stored the whole of his office inside the TARDIS.

Result: Criss Cross comes with the added boost of introducing a terrific new companion and as such has a 'beginning of a new era' feel to it. As a story it is a tale of two halves with the first two episodes proving riveting because of the shed load of mysteries there are to solve and the uniqueness of the setting and the Doctor's predicament. The second half is far more traditional fare but there is still something quite novel about the cast of characters being caught up in a war beyond their comprehension. There's a naturalism to how the period setting is conjured up that excited me, something about the code breaking work during WWII really gets my engine revving. After The Wrong Doctors and Criss Cross I do declare Matt Fitton as the finest writer of the sixth Doctor on Big Finish's payroll at this time. It used to be Rob Shearman and Jac Rayner but they have been nowhere to be seen for years in the main range. Fitton has risen through the ranks and stands tall as the writer he understands how to take the controversial incarnation and give him a deliciously prominent role, fill his mouth with characterful, witty and smart lines and put him in some unusual and enjoyable situations. Sixie's role in episode one is an absolute delight and pairing him up with the equally formidable Constance Clarke gives Criss Cross a very strong foundation before we even reach the plot. Beyond the introductory episode there is nothing groundbreaking going on in this adventure but it is an engaging historical piece, crackling with energy and packed with fine performances. If you thought the main range had abandoned producing this kind of rock solid affair then think again, this is a fine Doctor Who adventure where the regulars compliment the story being told perfectly. I can't wait to see what Colin Baker and Miranda Raison bring to the table next month, it's a relationship that I think will yield some interesting results: 8/10

Friday, 18 September 2015

Terror of the Sontarans written by John Dorney & Dan Starkey and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Once it was a mining facility. Then later its corridors rang with screams generated by grotesque military experiments. However when the Doctor and Mel arrive on a hostile alien world after detecting a distress signal, the base they find themselves in is almost deserted. But not for long. Soon the Doctor's old enemies, the Sontarans, have landed, and are searching for the remnants of their previous research team. Before long they uncover evidence of strange occurrences on the planet. Of madness and death. They are warriors bred for war, strong of spirit and unafraid of death. To fear the enemy is an act of betrayal. Nothing holds terror for the Sontarans.

The Real McCoy: I've always said that McCoy seems at his most comfortable during the light entertainment period of season 24, being much more of a showman than an actor. This trilogy has given that argument some weight as torn free of the continuity and burdens of the Hex arc, McCoy is turning out one energetic, enjoyable performance after another. It does us good to remember that the seventh Doctor wasn't just the cosmic manipulator, juggling the fate of a thousand worlds but also something of a jolly showman who too great joy in adventuring the universe in his first year on the job. It's the seventh Doctor I prefer if I'm honest. When has he ever been cautious, even when answering a distress beacon? The Doctor hypothesises that if they had time to launch a distress beacon then they can't have been in that much distress at the time. I'm not sure if the Doctor wants to head into potential danger because he genuinely wants to see if their are people that need help or simply because he loves something of a mystery. Probably a little of both. When Mel suggests that people in cells are usually dangerous the Doctor chips in that he has been in cells throughout all of his lives and he is little more than a puppy dog. Does he play the clown to lull you into a false sense of security? Despite having spent a great deal of his life bringing down men with dreams of avarice, the Doctor will never understand them. He never thought he would compliment a Sontaran on the nature of aesthetics. There's a lot in the Doctor's head that a psychic creature would not want to see. Is this the first suggestion of the darker Doctor to come?

Computer Programmer: Mel is not combat trained, she has only had a few self defence classes in the village hall. She's brave enough to stand up to Sontarans even when it is clear they could do her great harm.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Present arms. Present legs.'

Great Ideas: IMC often springs up in future based Doctor Who stories, a mining conglomerate that is set upon mining the wealth out of every civilised world to line their pockets with credits. Naked fear in the face of adversity, entreaties for help and clemency...what could possibly cause a Sontaran to act in such a way? The idea that there is a greater menace than the Sontarans at the mining facility and that they have to work together with the humans is a novel one, I suppose. I love the assertion that the Sontarans use over elaborate vocabulary to make their points because that was certainly a gift that Robert Holmes instilled in them. They are obsessed with the hollow myth of their own superiority and their lives have little meaning beyond empty parade ground bombast. Psychic creatures feeding on everything around them like a newborn, learning about it's surroundings. The gemstones are part of a larger organism, using the people here to carry them from the mineral seams below into the atmosphere above. Like corral polyps and the dust cloud pollinates them. Whilst the summation of how these creatures came to be makes sense of all the elements of the plot (the power cuts, the dust, the statues), the culmination of a species that leeches on emotions is hardly a thrilling (or original) prospect. It works insofar as it dovetails all the plot points together but it never threatens to raise an eyebrow of interest.

Musical Cues: Quite minimalist, I thought. Sometimes Big Finish stories are wallpapered with music and it smothers. Sometimes they get it just right, creating a unique atmosphere and pace. And sometimes the story is too quiet for it's own good and the dialogue dribbles on interminably. This is definitely a case of the latter. A more dominant musical score might have pushed things along a little. It wouldn't revolutionise the story but the nearest comparison I can think of is something like The Stones of Venice. That was a similarly verbose tale (albeit with much crisper, frutier dialogue) but it was supported by a stunning musical score that enhanced the dialogue and made it bloom like a beautiful flower. The near silence that accompanies the wealth of words in Terror of the Sontarans flattens the atmosphere even further.

Isn't it Odd: The first episode is nothing special and if I'm honest I expect something a little more attention grabbing from John Dorney given his past form. Whilst I was perfectly prepared for this story to develop into something a bit more substantial there was no real attempt to pull off another 'the Doctor answers a distress call' which is one of the most obvious ways of kick starting a Doctor Who plot. Despite the presence of IMC, a mining facility isn't the most inspiring of settings either. I got the impression that the frightened Sontarans and growling nasties in the darkness were supposed to send chills down the spine but neither worked out of context. I always say that a story should grab you from the off to prevent fatigue from setting in. Most Doctor Who stories ace their introductory instalment and run out of steam as they progress. Terror of the Sontarans reverses that trend. A common complaint that I have had about Big Finish audios is how they use old monsters as a marketing ploy (an absolutely sensible approach) and yet still try and plot their appearance as a surprise within in the story itself. There is no mention of the word Sontaran throughout the first episode and so their appearance at the climax is clearly supposed to be a anybody but those who have read the title (more than likely) or looked at the cover (again there is a damn good chance). I also question how effective the Sontarans can be on audio as they were originally devised - a clone army of thugs. Audio tosses aside visuals and so the most memorable hook of the species (their stature and hideous masks) cannot be factored in and so to make them more memorable than stock military heavies you have to deviate from the norm to make them stand out. But if with every appearance you have to stray from the original concept of the race...doesn't that mean you might as well use a different species anyway? I've lost track of how many Big Finish stories have featured the line 'it's inside my miiiiiiiind!' A silicon based (groan) psychic (groan) life form. Hardly a novel idea in Doctor Who. Halfway through the third episode and I was still a little unsure what this story was all about aside from an awful lot of waffle about the Sontarans. The plot kept being halted by lengthy dialogue scenes about what it means to be a Sontaran, which isn't as thrilling as it sounds. With an ending that is practically blink and you'll miss it after four episodes of posturing without atmosphere there is a general feeling of 'is that it?' at the climax.

Result: Middling without ever being inspiring, Terror of the Sontarans continues the current popular trend to turn the Sontarans into something rather more gentle than we are accustomed to in classic Who. Your reaction to this story might depend on what your opinion is about that development. I'm on the fence. Whilst I enjoy Strax in small doses on the TV, he's little more than a one trick pony and I'm starting to get scared that that is how the Sontarans will be remembered, as comedy buffoons rather than an impressive military force. The last time I felt that the race was treated as a serious threat was Sarah Jane's reaction to Kaarg's presence in The Last Sontaran. Even Big Finish have jumped on the bandwagon with comedy Sontarans propping up stories like Heroes of Sontar. Terror of the Sontarans wants to paint them as individuals rather than a clone race and give them personalities, something that would be a laudable goal with any other species but this essentially continues the redefinition of the species. What I was hoping for with this story was for them to claim their title as warrior badasses and to get on with some mass slaughter to show that they can still mean business. Instead what we get are a number of uninspiring dialogue scenes that attempt to define what a Sontaran is whilst displaying examples to the contrary. Whilst the trilogy format can still be used effectively, I'm starting to wonder if shaking up the schedules might not be the way forward with the main range. After the initial excitement of the return of the seventh Doctor and Mel in standalone stories in We Are the Daleks the rest of this trilogy has suffered in comparison. What generally happens is that there is an initial buzz of excitement as we switch regulars in a new trilogy and then unless something out of the ordinary is done with them it is same old, same old for the next two months. McCoy and Langford have done solid work in all three adventures it has hardly seen the most inspiring use of either of their characters. Imagine if each month we were treated to a shake up. Given that these are stories unencumbered by an arc there is no reason at all that they couldn't be spread out amongst the year. One concession though (and I think I have mentioned it in each release) is that McCoy seems far more at home in his debut season than he has been for some time, revelling in the mad professor rather than playing the master manipulator. It is nice to hear some other actors get the chance to play Sontarans but this feels like an indulgent exercise for Dan Starkey to play an array of new Sontaran characters. He's superb, but I don't think we really needed a four episode story to indulge that kind of whim. Terror of the Sontarans is a clichéd story that contains some interesting characters. Rather than a return to form for the race, it confirms that they have mutated into something quite different from what Robert Holmes originally envisioned. But with a story that is two episodes too long featuring a lifeless setting, plot and resolution it's hardly the best vehicle to do so: 5/10

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Last Christmas written by Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

This story in a nutshell: It's all a terrible dream...

Indefinable: 'I'm the Doctor, not your mam!' I've heard the rumours that Capaldi is going to be softened slightly in his second year (I can't count how many times people have said to me that they don't like his Doctor because he is too frosty/unlikable/moody/like my Grumpa) and whilst I found his grouchy approach extremely refreshing in series eight (after the 'I've just downed twelve packets of Skittles and look I'm a crazy naked all singing all dancing Caretaker with wavy hands and a sonic screwdriver hanging out of my butt' 11th Doctor) it might be the right thing for the series. It is the same approach that Colin Baker wanted to take with the sixth Doctor, initially impossible to like but peeling away layers like an onion with each adventure so you can see what is at his core. A good man and a good Doctor. Capaldi practically glowered his way through the last season with some brilliantly acerbic lines but there was so little joy in his performance at times you had to start asking where the Doctor's zest for life had gone. So the whole idea of partnering up the grumpiest Doctor with Santa Claus isn't quite as mad as it might have seemed at first because they bring things out in each other that are quite surprising. Under the paranoid gaze of the Doctor Father Christmas becomes a potentially sinister and manipulative character (not a sentence I thought I would have to write) and after being saved by to the jolliest man on the planet the Doctor cannot help but take the reins of his Sleigh and whoop with delight as he experiences something delightful that he cannot resist. It might be insane but it is a character defining moment and I was whooping along with him - suddenly he is a man with a lust for the finer things in life again. It comes as no surprise to me that by the end of this story he is grasping the hand of his best friend and dancing his way to his next adventure. It is a long time coming, and whilst I still want to see those moments of darkness from Capaldi, it shows that he is going to be much more than just a one trick grumpy chops. The Doctor is greeted with a scream and described as a 'skeleton man' as though he is the product of somebody's nightmare. Just about sums him up. This Doctor is a natural cynic so he can cut through the nature of a false reality like a pair of rusty scissors, he has a naturally suspicious brain and it is keenly adept at solving mysteries within mysteries like this one. His trouble is trying to boil it down to a simple enough level so that the people around him can understand, hence the first word at the top of the page in the book. There's a delightful moment when the nature of the dream is revealed when Santa suggests that a time travelling alien is all part of the landscape of the lie...after all how can something as absurd as that be true? As soon as he walks away from a scenario, this Doctor deletes all the useless information from his brain including the people he has mucked in with. To tell them that is ice cold.

Impossible Girl: Something astonishing happened whilst I was watching Last Christmas. I'm sure it cannot have escaped your attention that I haven't been Clara's biggest fan despite the terrific efforts of Jenna Coleman. It's not just that the character had to be completely rebooted in series eight after her disgraceful mishandling in the latter half of series seven (the 'impossible girl' arc being the worst since the show started sporting running storylines) or that Moffat seems to favour the character more than the shows titular character (to the point where her name comes first in the titles and she gets to play Doctor whilst he's relegated to the TARDIS, Nyssa style) my biggest problem is that the character seems to transform with each new writer into somebody quite different with different values and motives (check out her opposing views in Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night). However...and it's a big however I feel as though we have been on a development period with Clara and she is now ready to take her place as a fully fledged companion at the Doctor's side. Danny has been wiped out and this story serves as an effective coda to their relationship and so with any luck all of this hopping back to Earth can be forgotten. My biggest surprise (of many) in Last Christmas was that I am genuinely excited to see that Clara is back for another season and that I am looking forward to seeing what come next for these two. Capaldi and Coleman have developed a great rapport and this could be one of those golden years for the series (like Tom and Liz or Tennant and Tate) where the relationship between the Doctor and companion transcends the stories and becomes something unique and special in its own right. We'll have to wait and see. But let's strike that as a massive win for Moffat - when The Caretaker aired I couldn't wait to see the back of the character so that is a huge turnaround for me.

It's impossible (hoho) to imagine Clara turning up on Santa's naughty list at any point because she is such a four square kind of girl. Of course she never grew out of fairytales, it is her belief that the Doctor is pure magic that kept her going throughout the more trying moments of the last season. Clara never thought she would step back in the TARDIS again and she realises just how much she loves that silly ship. How like this Doctor to use something like Clara's love for Danny Pink against her when she needs to be distracted to prevent the face huggers from attacking. Clara faces the pain of that moment head on because she was the one who lied about his fate. It is a little ironic that Clara should make elfist remarks, given her stature. I loved loved loved the scene where Clara was menaced by the Dream Crab - finally she is genuinely, shit-your-pants afraid and has no one liners and attitude to rescue her. I felt more for her here than I did for her plight at the end of Death in Heaven. It's important to remember that Moffat is invested in the Clara/Danny romance even if I am not so of course Clara chooses the warmth of her Christmas day miracle with him than being stuck on a cold, terrorized base with the Doctor.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I will mark you Santa.'
'There's a horror movie called Alien? That's really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.'
'Every Christmas is Last Christmas.'
'Have you ever woken up from a dream and realised that you are still dreaming?'

The Good:

* I love the fact that Moffat is willing to let you think that Doctor Who has gone insane in the first couple of minutes of Last Christmas with Santa visiting Clara and having a domestic with his elves. I was sure this was going to turn out to be a dream at the time (the music and the way the scene is framed makes it appear so) until the Doctor arrived and I thought 'oh shit, this is real.' The fact that Moffat leaves until much, much later to reveal how much he has hoodwinked the audience and that this episode was a lie from the off knocked me out.
* More fool me. I thought I was going to spend most of the Christmas special resisting Nick Frost's Santa Claus because the whole notion of his existing in the Doctor Who universe as an actual person caused my brain to short-circuit. Instead Moffat has found an extremely clever way for him to take part in a story without throwing all sense of logic and good taste out the window. And isn't Nick Frost superb? Like bold as brass, in your face superb. Barry Letts always said that no matter what they were presenting the audience with during the Pertwee era they always insisted that it was played for real and Frost takes that approach to the nth degree - there is no sense that he is playing a mythological character but a living, breathing person who genuinely has to wrap up this adventure as soon as possible because he has a wealth of presents to deliver before morning. The moment when he makes his entrance with an army of toys leading the way might just be the most jarring shift in tone from one scene to another in any Doctor Who story (it comes immediately after our heroes are attacked by the face huggers) and it tells you everything you about the confidence of this storyteller that he leaps from The Thing from Another World to Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium with such unapologetic brazenness. It probably got the hardened fanboys in a tizzy too, so much the better. The moral of the story (and the whole reason for including Santa) is a doozy, believe in magic one last time. Why would you ever stop?
* An isolated base in the Artic under siege. It's a setting so clichéd that by the end of the episode Moffat has the nerve to reel off his influences. But it is also the sort of location that a Doctor Who story thrives upon, especially when it is designed and lit this well and the menace that threatens it's characters is as tangibly frightening as the face huggers are. I love how Moffat exposes the emptiness of these kind of stories, this is a base under siege story because that is what the characters expect a Doctor Who story to be. Is it the Doctor's influence that is the strongest and is this the environment that makes him feel most comfortable, fighting against a foe in close quarters? It boils down the essentials of a Doctor Who to it's most basic form; an enclosed setting, scared characters and a monster. As we realise what is happening it is clear there is no substance beyond that, that the whole point of the story is that it is a glossy front to the terrifying brain devouring that is really going on. And yet it still works. Beautifully directed, genuinely scary with some enjoyable characters, those essentials of Doctor Who work even when they aren't supported by foundations. Can you imagine a more Doctor Who like scenario than the Doctor and his companion dashing out into the snow for the TARDIS being pursued by nasty monsters and at the last second monsters emerging from the TARDIS and barring their escape. Topping that even further, those monsters turn out to be them.
* What do we learn about the face huggers? Not a great deal but who cares when they are as icky and as mind-bendingly fascinating as this. Disgusting, crabby, gooey nasties that spring from the ceiling and envelop your face and feed on your desires and fuck with your reality so they have time to devour your brain. What more do you need to know? It's not an original idea but the concept of creatures that have weaponised dreams against their victims is terrorizing. 
* Proof, if it was needed, that guest actors can bring a huge amount of personality to the screen even when they are handed empty characters. That's not a criticism, they are supposed to be silhouettes of real people and yet to me they had more substance to them than a whole list of supposedly 'real' characters that have appeared in the Moffat era. It comes down to a committed cast, some delicious twists about the nature of reality the truth of who these people really are when they wake up. Colour me impressed - a Moffat era story with a dramatis personae that impressed me. I thought we were past all that. Faye Marsay was particularly impressive as Shona, the sort of character that usually gets right on my tits for undercutting the tension of a scene but instead of that she uses her enormous personality and ability to bring a sense of normality to the situation to her advantage. I really fancied that reunion at the climax and I felt she would have brought a great deal of charm and humour to the TARDIS had she gotten her way to hop on board. The little character reveals at the conclusion are bittersweet (the wheelchair) and heart-warming (forgive Dave). It's the sort of little moments that Davies was so good at.
* My favourite type of film is a really good psychological thriller that gets under your skin and twists and turns in intense ways. Inception, Identity, Shutter Island. As such my favourite part of an extremely good episode was the sequence that featured my favourite (note the sarcasm) character, Danny Pink. It took for Clara to suffer horribly within a perfect dream of their existence together to feel something for this relationship. It's a trippy and surreal set piece that sees Clara running away from reality to get comfortable in this snapshot of perfection with Danny only for the Doctor to slap her out of it by reminding that by staying she will be killed. Heart-warming, playful and genuinely frightening, especially the moment when Clara is confronted with walls of blackboards exclaiming the word DYING. Also very worthy of note is the moment Moffat draws the curtain back and reveals who the victims of the face huggers have been all along - the same character the Doctor and Clara have been sharing this adventure with.
* Clara as an old woman works beautifully because it feels like one twist too many in a story that has already allowed Moffat to be clever clever over and over again. Despite the warmth that exudes between her and the Doctor, it feels like Moffat is boxing himself in a corner with this scene because he will have to worked around it in order to write Clara out (of course this was originally supposed to be her last story and it would have worked much better in that context). So when this turns out to be one last face hugger dream I was clapping with delight. Moffat acknowledges that this is a step too far. Hurrah, he's become his own critic.

The Bad: I will knock a point off because the episode doesn't go into much depth about the nature of dreams themselves, it simply uses them as a method to plot out this labyrinthine story. Whilst I'm not looking for dream analysis (because there is little that is more tedious than listening to somebody spell out their entire dream in painstaking detail) I was hoping to get a little more insight into the essentials of dreaming itself, maybe even get a unique Doctor Who spin on why people dream (why not, the show has offered up explanations for plenty of other things we take for granted). As the Doctor spells out, dreams are the weapon of choice of the face huggers and that's pretty much all there is to it. Wouldn't it have been wonderful if Santa's sleigh danced around the TARDIS in the last scene as the Doctor and Clara depart to make you question if the whole next season is reality. Realistically Moffat could do absolutely anything with the series now and pull off a JR in the shower/Crossroads hotel 'it was all a dream!' - as unsatisfying as that would be.

Result: 'Do you know what the biggest problem between telling fantasy and reality apart? They're both ridiculous...' Last Christmas tosses originality in a trash and for once it is a good thing. The dream within a dream plot is something that every science fiction show has to have a pop at at some point but it usually works within its rigid formula. Star Trek, Buffy, The X-Files...nobody is exempt from trying this kind of episode out. But Doctor Who nails it by making it as funny, scary and quirky as possible. Moffat subverts all the clichés by refusing to acknowledge at any point that what we are seeing is the truth once the cat is out of the bag. He plays the same trick over and over and over until I was giddy and wondering if we will ever see reality again. Even when the Doctor and Clara hop off in the TARDIS at the end of the episode I was still waiting for one more twist that this happy ending wasn't authentic. That's how much he made me doubt what was fiction and what was true. I especially love the knockout twist that the entire 'base under siege' scenario is a massive con, so much so that what happens during this episode marks it as one of the least relevant in the shows history because everything that we experience is a lie. Escaping that lie is the entire point of the story. Don't mistake my words though, on a character level this is one of the most relevant stories in the whole of the Moffat era. It gives the Doctor and Clara a chance to reveal their deceptions from the end of Death in Heaven and part company in an honest fashion where they acknowledge exactly what they think of each other. Moffat's final twist is that they don't wish to part company at all and as they dash into the TARDIS in an excitable fashion I felt as though I was being catapulted into series nine with boundless enthusiasm. I had a huge smile on my face. I have given up try to guess what Moffat will deliver at Christmas. Will it be something as visually stunning and as morally corrupt as A Christmas Carol? Or a gorgeous fairytale like The Snowmen? Or something so boring that I never found the enthusiasm to revisit it like The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe? Or something that re-defines how not to end an era like Time of the Doctor? Last Christmas is his best Christmas special yet, one which confidently springs from set piece to set piece, which surprises and innovates as it progresses and contains much amusement and moments of terror within. Fantastic guest cast too. It's all wrapped up in polished direction too. I absolutely love it: 9/10