Monday, 26 October 2015

The Woman Who Lived written by Catherine Treganna and directed by Ed Bazalgette

This story in a nutshell: A big fat letdown from one of the strongest writers of Torchwood...

Indefinable: Whilst I would never say that Peter Capaldi had the ability to phone a performance in, I never felt he was in any way stretched by the material this week or even especially engaged by it. It's the first time that his presence in the series has failed to bolster an episode, despite the quality of the material elsewhere, for me. And can we drop the electric guitar and shades please. Last year he had a bit of style about him, a cloak of sombre class. Now the Doctor is coming across as an old man having a mid-life crisis. All this pondering over the nature of immortality might have a whiff of interest if we hadn't covered this ground to the nth degree over the past decade. When the Doctor brought up the nature of an extended life and losing the ones you love in School Reunion it was a razor sharp observation fresh off the press, now it feels like we are obsessing about the same anxieties with each successive incarnation. Like a gossip mag consumed by the same celebrities each week, what was hot news has become yesterdays business. What about letting those fears go when you change bodies, having a new perspective on immortality? Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and Capaldi have all sensitively played the idea of the man who lives too long but I question whether this depressing thread should have run through each of their lives. Is being a Time Lord such a chore? What about the joy of being able to travel through time and space, righting wrongs and meeting new people? What about the great things that make up his life? The Doctor spends a whole episode avoiding the answer of why he cannot take Ashildr with him (unless you find his reasoning of 'it wouldn't be good' in any way satisfying) and he cannot come up with a good answer. That is another massive flaw to add to this episodes missteps, there isn't a good reason why not. Only that we need to get rid of Clara first and Ashildr will be appearing later in the season. But without being able to say that directly we're left with a Doctor who puts the Earth in danger when he doesn't have to. It doesn't convince. There is a gaping hole where the Doctor's motive for denying Ashildr access to the TARDIS should be. At least if there was some tangible purpose, some hidden twist that explained his stubbornness, this episode might have built to something worthwhile. Emotion got the better of the Doctor and all he wanted to do was save the life of a terrified young girl. But people die, something Clara understood that in the previous story. The conclusion that The Woman Who Lived reaches about the Doctor playing God is that he is pleased that he made that choice. At least The Waters of Mars dished out an agonising punishment for his arrogance. The disturbing appearance of Ashildr in the photo at the climax offers a glimmer of hope that that Doctor might yet learn to regret playing with the natural order of things. Because the only conclusion that I can draw from all this at the moment is that Capaldi's Doctor has become the ultimate Mary Sue, aping his creator and his free hand at murdering characters off in his plots and bringing them back to life. And justifying it to himself. Sometimes people die, both Moffat and the Doctor need to learn that lesson.

Impossible Girl: Let's stick with the same subject header that I use for Clara to expose how Moffat has an obsession with female characters that have a twist in their timelines that make them stand out, rather than simply writing an interesting female character in their own right. River Song and her scattered narrative, meeting the Doctor in the wrong order. Amy Pond, the Girl Who Waited. Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl who was scattered through the Doctor's timeline. And now Ashildr, the girl who lived forever mopping up the consequences of the Doctor's adventures. All of these women have something vital in common, beyond the hook they are hung on they really aren't very interesting. River is constructed of kinky innuendo and violence, Amy Pond is morally corrupt and selfish, Clara practically becomes a new character each week such is the nature of her facelessness and Ashildr, who had the potential to be a fascinating character is merely the female version of the Doctor, weighed down by the angst of an immortal life. Beyond the pain of her having and losing children she's covering the same ground as Jack Harkness with about a tenth of the interest. A massive part of the problem was the performance by Maisie Williams, which surprises me a great deal because she has always impressed me in everything else I have ever seen her in. This is the first time I have felt that was out of her depth as an actress. Occasionally she is excellent, especially when she let's the fire in her belly erupt but more often than not I simply failed to believe this was a woman who had lived for eight centuries. She doesn't convince as a highwayman, as a lady of the manor and certainly not as an cold blooded immortal who has a sudden change of heart in the middle of an alien attack and decides she does care after all. That last scene in particular was atrociously handled, Ashildr seemingly having a change of heart just because rather than reaching an epiphany that is bourne out of development in the script. She has to regain her humanity in order for the story to leave her in a certain position to return later in the season but did that transition from 'I don't care about anyone but myself' to 'I do care! I realise I do care!' have to be so unbelievably swift and unconvincing. Plus isn't Ashildr like twelve? I thought she couldn't age which surely means her body cannot mature? Doesn't that make the idea of her as a parent rather mucky and the Doctor's suggestion that Jack will 'catch up with her' even moreso? Am I looking forward to a return visit from Ashildr? I think there is some mileage in the ambiguity of making the character neither a friend or foe of the Doctor but having her own agenda, yes. But Williams needs material that plays to her strengths and to appear in an episode that is tonally more sure of what it is trying to be. The character was adrift here, let's see if we can bring her back to shore and make something of her.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I didn't know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating.'

The Good:
* Beyond question my favourite scenes were the flashbacks to the most traumatic moments in Ashildr's prolonged life. If I could dissect this episode I would remove the Leandro plot completely and spent the first ten minutes extending these flashbacks into full scenes. To explore those moments in more depth might have allowed me to reach out to Ashildr further and sympathise with her plight more and it would have approached the immortality theme in a more refreshingly original way than just talk.
* Rufus Hound's Sam Swift provides a few moments of levity and he's the one actor who seems to understand that he's appearing in what is supposed to be a coarse comedy. Or partly a coarse comedy. If all the performances were dialled up to ten like this it might have given the comedy some thrust...but Williams and Capaldi are far too subdued in comparison. 

The Bad:
* Murray Gold has written some of my favourite musical scores of any Doctor Who stories, including The Girl In the Fireplace, Blink, Turn Left and The Waters of Mars. He's capable of taking me to emotional highs and to the precipice of my seat in excitement. He's mastered the use of an orchestra in dramatic television and has been justly recognised for his talents. And after listening to his efforts in The Woman Who Lived I start to wonder if it is not only a Time Lord/Viking child that sticks around too long. The only thing worse than comedy that is ill at ease is farcical music that stresses every painful gag. Murray Gold is so busy trying to convince you what a joy this episode is he overplays his hand, probably because he realised that it needed all the help that it could get. The result is a score that is at odds with the tone, suggesting something rousing and delightful when what we are being presented never gets off the launching pad.
* The pre-titles sequence is just...weird. I have nothing against a good old fashioned robbery by a dangerous highwayman. The only problem is this is nothing of the sort, Ashildr's fake masculine voice completely at odds with her appearance and throwing the scene into bizarre territory. The Doctor trips onto the scene like a space tramp who stumbled out of a local hostelry and Capaldi plays the whole scene like this is the sort of thing the Time Lord does every week. There's no drama, no comedy, no real substance to the material. It looks like it has been improvised by the actors. What should be a shock to the system - the return of Ashildr in a completely different time - is blunted by her rapid reappearance in the series (how much more effective would be if this episode was placed after the Zygon two parter). 'You've bungled my heist!' indeed. The Doctor's arched eyebrow mirrored my own...this was going to be a long hour.
* Leandro, a villain so half arsed he has to growl out his backstory in a great clump of rapid exposition because it has no impact on the episode whatsoever. It's simply getting it out of the way. It doesn't matter who he is or why he is there. This is Doctor Who and somebody seems to have decreed that the show cannot survive a week without a fantasy element of some kind. Season nine continues it's trend of naff original villains, every one of them forgettable in the wake of Davros' presence in the opening story. I hope we get at least one monster/nasty that is worth remembering this year. He's dispatched in such an off hand fashion he may not have appeared at all.
* Could Clara's departure be anymore foreshadowed?

Result: 'You know what they say, big nose...' '...big handkerchief!' Noel Coward, eat your heart out. It's an observation that has been made before by myself and others - Doctor Who can survive anything (even being totally crud to the point of b-movie entertainment) but being boring. Even In the Forest of the Night wasn't dull, even if it was frequently excretal to the point of Simon and I reaching for the pause button to let off another string of expletives. And to be honest Doctor Who by it's very nature of shifting moods and genres, countless settings and times and transferable guest characters, monsters and villains is one of the few shows that rarely settles down for long enough to become dreary. So when I spend an entire episode wondering when it is going to move into first gear, I am genuinely surprised. I can see the intention of what is being attempted here, capturing the tragedy and horror of immortality in a child but something fell way short of that in the execution. Thanks to a half-arsed science fiction plot that might just count as the least substantial since the show returned in 2005, it is clear that Catherine Treganna has much more interest in writing a character piece than a Doctor Who story. What baffles me is why she didn't stick to her guns and jettison the pointless alien threat and do just that, write the equivalent of a romantic novel about a girl trapped in amber whilst time moves all around her and truly engage with the heartbreak of that theme. I'm not sure that I would find it any more appealing (because there are also huge performance and direction problems within the sequences that give Ashildr focus) but at least it would be a less schizophrenic and awkward piece. Heartless comedy in one direction, ponderous musings on the nature of an eternal life in another with the faint whiff of science fantasy drifting in under your nose, that's the essentials of The Woman Who Lived. Confident direction might have papered over some cracks but instead the inconsistent tone and uncomfortable comedy is compounded by a director who cannot bring together so many tonally jarring and disparate elements into a coherent whole. The biggest shock for me was Maisie Williams, her inability to convince in the titular role was the greatest barrier to the episodes success. Occasionally making me feel something but more often giving the impression of a child trying to play an adult, I was struck (like slap to the jaw with a wet fish) at how little chemistry she shared with Peter Capaldi. They are both strong performers so technically this should have been a recipe for gold but for the most part it felt as though they were acting against stand-ins because they couldn't both be there at the same time, when clearly that wasn't the case. The extended dialogue scenes might be well written (if sporadically a little florid) but with actors that mix like oil and water they do not play out at all smoothly. And with no atmosphere to them they fall horribly flat. Like I said, I was bored. And that was before reaching the appalling conclusion at the stocks with some crass jokes and a blink an you'll miss it attack by aliens. The rarest of things, a Doctor Who story where practically nothing worked for me at all. It's trying to be emotional but the approach is more intellectual, which doesn't surprise me in this era. Most damning of all, this was so vanilla that the appearance of Clara at the climax actually raised the quality of the piece. Utopia summed up everything this episode is trying to say in a five minute two hander between the Doctor and Jack except it was better written, better performed and far more assured. I defy you to find something new this has to say on the theme of immortality. Even Ashildr's new role as the clean up agent after the Doctor is essentially what Jack and Sarah Jane were doing in their respective series for years: 3/10

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Red Lady written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: An anomaly in time brings the Doctor and Liv to London in the 1960s, where they meet a young lady named Helen Sinclair - desperately trying to make a name for herself in the face of sexism and prejudice. Whilst the Doctor tried to uncover the secrets of a mysterious artefact, a far deadlier mystery awaits Liv and Helen in the collection of a recently deceased antiquarian. Because that's where they find the Red Lady. Because if you do, you might not like what you see.

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor talks about living in this period for several onces - is he talking about both his exile to Earth post The War Games and his amnesiac period in the eighth Doctor novels? He's appalled at his companions suggestion that he land the TARDIS on top of the temporal anomaly, although in reality he has no clue what will happen. Maybe it would solve the situation without them even stepping outside the Ship. An unknown language is a bit of a problem for the Doctor because the Time Lords know a lot of languages. Fortunately it brings the Doctor in the path of language scholar Helen Sinclair and despite the fact that she thinks he is completely insane, it's clear they are going to hit it off. A linguistic genius or a lunatic?

Liv Chenka: She's the voice of reason, she stops the Doctor being too reckless and she ensures that they make it through the day unscathed. Sometimes the Doctor needs somebody to gently point out the flaws in his plans. She thinks the Doctor needs to learn to explain about the TARDIS a little more delicately. 

Helen Sinclair: It's been some time since a pair of ladies have featured in the TARDIS without a male companion, not since the heady days of Peri & Erimem. On TV it was the rarest of things (only Arc of Infinity, Snakedance and Dragonfire, I think) and so this is a rich field to be furrowed. Helen gets a strong outing here with she gets to show a host of emotions and prove that she is going to be quite the firecracker as she gets more involved in the Doctor's life. Her boss, the curator of the museum thinks that she shouldn't fill her head with silly notions like promotions when she should be concerning herself with settling down and starting a family. After all, she doesn't have long left. What an outrageously sexist thing to say but this was the 1960s. She's surrounded by fusty old men in a work environment where everything moves at a glacial pace...given she will be having hair raising adventures with the Doctor perhaps she should be careful what she complains about. I like the fact that Helen is initially stubborn and wants nothing to do with the Doctor (although with his sexy new haircut I would at least have a superficial interest if I were her) but as soon as evidence is presented that proves that he is right she puts aside her objections and helps him. She's intelligent and she's willing to admit when she is wrong. By the climax the Doctor considers Helen a very valuable member of his crew and invites her to join him, an offer that she cannot refuse. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I think I just heard a man being murdered...'
'How do you study a creature that kills you when you look at it?'

Great Ideas: Straight of the bat there is an engaging discussion of the nature of art that suggested this was going to be an intelligent piece; suggesting that the more secretive you are about a piece of art, the more attention that you get. Pieces of art featuring a distant female form are Mcallum speciality. Locking away your art in a vault and demanding that it is forgotten about is only going to stimulate interest and rumour. To the masses, it is the ultimate tease. It is the same woman in every piece of art and there is a dark secret at the heart of her appearance. To get too close to the Red Lady invites the kiss of death. Every second the Doctor and Liv delay, the Eleven is free to roam the universe which puts it in the most terrible danger. Smartly, the Doctor realises that it is isn't the language itself that is important but the spaces between them, it's an Ancient Greek record and with the stone age equivalent of a grammarphone they will be able to play it back and hear what it says. So far, so plausible. And an idea that has the ability to frighten on audio if the recording played back is sufficiently spooky. When the message is played it proves to be nothing of the sort but an intruiging link into the next adventure. Mcallum didn't die of grief per se but he couldn't live once his family had been cruelly taken away from him. Not even his wife and son saw his artwork. He began building up his collection when he was very young, after his mother and father died. The twist that he was a blind art collector makes perfect sense of the insistence that nobody else has a nose at his collection - if he can't see it then nobody can. The Red Lady never got to him because he was blind. It's horribly plausible that his wife and son caught a look at this secretive material and the Red Lady took their lives and filled with remorse Mcallum took his own in personal retribution. She took his parents too and that's why he continued to buy the pieces that featured her, trying to prevent it from happening again. Monopolising her. Is it possible Mcallum blinded himself to stop the Red Lady from attacking him? Trapping her in a poem and stick figures is a genius idea, she can be transferred into any work of art (which is entirely subjective) and has to be locked up to prevent any more deaths. Will we hear from the Red Lady again? The fact that the nature of her existence is left unexplained is probably the best solution all round. Can you imagine some creaky SF explanation for her power? No, much better to keep us guessing.

Audio Landscape: The heavy breathing down the phone after the murder by artwork is seriously creepy...I considered turning the lights on at that point. After a light atmosphere for the first 20 minutes (subtle rather than scarce), a party kicks into high gear and it might just be the most impressive transition between two scenes in a while. Ken Bentley is a consistently strong director but the quality usually depends on the worthiness of the script he is presenting. I think he has upped his game to deliver some of his best direction in this story.

Standout Scene: I love love love how the climax of the story uses blindness in such a creative way. It's a quintessentially audio notion because when listening to these stories we are effectively blind, playing out the stories in our heads and creating pictures with words. I first listened to this story in the dark (I had a feeling it was going to creepy looking at the cover and wanted the full experience) and how I was as effectively blind as the regulars at the climax made this a shared experience of horror. I would suggest you listen to this in the same way. I had goosebumps and it's been a while since a Big Finish story has done that to me.

Result: 'She's here...' Coloured me impressed. Remember I said that Paul McGann seemed revved up at the beginning of a brand new epic in my review of the first instalment of Doom Coalition, well wait until you hear how engaged he is with the second piece of the puzzle. I can only think of two times when he has blazed quite this brightly before, in the height of the Charley Pollard days (throughout most of season two) and when the Lucie Miller stories kicked into high gear (series four). There was no part of Dark Eyes where I felt he was this impressed with the material he was presenting. The build up of suspense surrounding The Red Lady is so expertly handled and John Dorney delivers a humdinger of a climax, one of his finest. And anybody with even a passing interest in his work will be able to quantify that statement. The titular piece of art is a dangerously compelling image, one that will lure you in and seduce you to your last breath. It's an marvellously creepy notion that provides some moments of cold sweat of the kind Big Finish hasn't knocked out in a while. I'm not sure how it ties into the overall narrative but as a standalone story to introduce Helen Sinclair you really couldn't ask for more. Hattie Morahan makes a fantastic impression as Helen, initially skeptical but smart enough to know when the Doctor is right and then able to step in and help to save him and Liv at the conclusion. Doom Coalition has completely revolutionised the eighth Doctor range. The first two instalments have been near perfect in themselves. providing some thrilling material and a terrific new team of regulars. But what has impressed me the most has been the confidence, the life that has been injected back into the range. Dark Eyes was sporadically brilliant but it rarely had this kind of assurance. I'm eager to hear where this story is going and for more adventures with the Doctor, Liv and Helen. That's a great feeling: 9/10

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Girl Who Died written by Jamie Mathieson & Steven Moffat and directed by Ed Bazalgette

This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who has found the fun again...

Indefinable: 'Start winning, Doctor. It's what you're good at...' A far better utilisation of Peter Capaldi's comedic talents than Robot of Sherwood last season. What astonishes me is that it has taken this long to have another stab, another sign that the show (whilst pretty decent in quality) has been blacker than Dracula's scuddy underpants lately. Capaldi understands the nature of this episode from the off and runs with it, skipping about the village like a psychotic pixie, having a great laff rousing the Vikings from their slumber and understanding precisely when to turn on the frown. Even his hair seems freer and more uncontrolled this week. With irreverent lines to say, this Doctor is very funny indeed. It's taken a season and half to realise that and hope it doesn't take the same amount of time again before he is allowed to work on my funny bone again. How he seems to have completely forgotten about the people they are trying to save in the pre-titles sequence whilst doing several clever things at once made me chuckle, so did his reaction to the Vikings appearance (which entirely mirrored my own - it's not that I have anything against Vikings, it's just not a period that would be near the top of my list of places to visit if I had a time machine. In fact it would be somewhere near the bottom). He never used to be a hugger but now he's wrapping his arms around Clara at the first opportunity. Does this mean that Capaldi has lost that vein of assholeness that made him so unique last season? Love how he is working his way through the previous Doctor's wardrobe though, he's rocking those Troughton-esque trousers this week. We've experienced the Doctor having to stir the underdog countless times before but I have never seen it played for laughs so broadly (except perhaps his rousing speech in State of Decay). 'It's just one village' declares the Doctor, perfectly willing to leave until Clara massages his guilt and convinces him to help out, pushing his buttons in a way that only somebody who has gotten to know him well could. He's sick of losing good people in his adventures. It always seems that somebody has to be sacrificed. I rather like how off-hand the revelation of why the Doctor chose this particular face is, I was expecting a laboured explanation at the heart of a wanky episode. It works rather well in the context of the episode, although it is a bit of a big ask for the casual audience to understand the significance of Capaldi's previous appearance in Doctor Who. To hell with anyone who gets in the way of him saving the lives of those he chooses...aren't we entering Waters of Mars territory here? Let's hope next weeks episode gives him the slap on the wrist he needs to prevent him from playing God in the future.

Impossible Girl: Bestill my heart, an episode that doesn't bend Clara out of shape from the woman I recognise and manages to do interesting things with her. This is the best representation of Miss Oswald since...Flatline last year. Now what do these episodes have in common? She's quick into action, that's for sure. When faced with the prospect of being turned into Viking pulp on the alien ship she soon springs into life to save her skin. When she gentle touches the Doctor's aged face and tells him he decided to stay, you know that nobody knows this Doctor quite like Clara. We could do with more moments like that. The Doctor as good as admits that Clara has injected some humanity back into him so at least we have that to thank her for. When he tries to tidy Clara away before the fighting begins it feels like the first real conversation they have had since Christmas. She never asked for the Doctor to protect her and she can look after herself. Are we seeing the seeds being sown for her departure. Is she getting a little too cocky about her survival? I've been saying that all along, you know. Interestingly their roles are reversed once Ashildr dies, Clara is the responsible one who tried to convince him that he just has to accept it and the Doctor agonises over the one casualty of his (rubbish) plan. She shows remarkable maturity throughout. I was impressed.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I'm not actually the police, it's just what it says on the box...'
'You're Noggin' the Nog.'
'Immortality is not living forever, that's not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.'

The Good:  
* Somebody snapped the sonic glasses. This episode instantly scores at least an eight.
* Whilst I am sure that plenty of this episodes content has come straight from a Ladybird Book of Vikings (much like Amy's Cavalier nightmare in The Pandorica Opens), this is a far more entertaining take on the culture than the last time they rocked up on the shores of a Doctor Who story.
* I'm going to make a sweeping statement about Doctor Who now and the kind of Doctor Who that I really seem to enjoy. This is a show that excels at being funny. There you have it. By it's very nature Doctor Who is absurd, a rational person would look at the nuts and bolts of the series (Liz sums it up rather nicely in Spearhead from Space) and laugh until a little bit of wee came out. I'm not talking about the sort of material that is trying to be dramatic and winds up being blissfully unintentionally hilarious (see The Chase, Warriors of the Deep and Time and the Rani) but the thread of humour that runs through the show like Blackpool through a stick of rock. It's a show that doesn't always take itself seriously (which covers a multitude of sins) and it is also a show that when it goes all out for the comic jugular (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, The Two Doctors, Boom Town, The Unicorn and the Wasp) it often ends up being some of the most entertaining material the show has to offer. So why oh why is there is this Bidmeadish obsession with some fans who declare 'STOP THIS SILLINESS!' followed by 'FUNNY DOCTOR WHO IS NOT REAL DOCTOR WHO!' They are the kind of people I would imagine who want the series to stick to a rigid formula of corridors, monsters and quarries, who favour science over emotion in drama. If the show was dark all the time it would have no texture to it and if it was serious all the time it would be as preachy and dreary as every other drama on telly. The Girl Who Died is the first episode that I have wanted to watch again after transmission because the experience of watching it was such a delight. My critical faculties were numbed by the wealth of genuinely funny gags, light-hearted banter and enjoyable characterisation. So I'm going to list a few moments that made me genuinely laugh out loud because I think it is worth remembering that Doctor Who is a show that can be laughed at without losing respect for it in the slightest, without it losing one drop of integrity. Odin turning up and upstaging the less-than-Godly Doctor and his yo-yo is straight out of Monty Python, made all the more amusing because the head in the clouds is like something out of Tellytubbies. The scene where the Doctor assesses his line up of fighters is ripped straight out of the Red Dwarf episode Meltdown only one thing is missing (Ghandi is not doing press ups in this episode, more's the pity). The cut to the aftermath of his practice battle had me in stitches. But that's nothing to the inclusion of the Benny Hill theme tune in the recording of Odin crapping himself at the sight of an immobile piece of wood. I fear that might be the comedy tipping point for a lot of people but I thought it was sublime. My friend Jack and I were sniggering like school kids with their hands on their first porn mag.
* Doesn't the show look beautiful at the moment? The restrained texturing in the cinematography and lighting is providing a series full of memorable images and lashings of atmosphere. Whilst I love the bold colours and vivid flashiness of the Russell T Davies era, I can see the logic in pulling away from that kind of comic book visual pallet into something a little more nuanced. Director Ed Bazabette directs with plenty of energy and pizazz but he remembers to fill the episode with beautiful images too; the gentle pan over the sunny Viking village, a strident cut to the atmospherically lit alien spaceship, the thoughtful conversation between the Doctor and Clara at dusk and that remarkable slow motion circle around the freshly immortal Ashildr all impressing me greatly.
* Bizarrely enough the hulking great robots that stomp through the village impressed me more than the Fisher King last week, despite the fact that he clearly had more work go into him. There is something very dress up and go about them, something very classic Who. You can imagine a kid shoving together some cardboard boxes and making a decent replica. They're a bit rubbish, but so is the villain and so they go together like pie and mash.
* So much has been written about the appearance of Maisie Williams appearing as an enigmatic character that will have an impact on the Doctor's life that it is possible that you might have bought into the hype (the ratings raised slightly this week so there's a good chance your mate did too) and felt slightly let down by her lack of prominence in the episode. Until the climax, where she takes centre stage and promises to have a much stronger role next week. It reminds me of the promise of Daleks invading London in their second ever appearance in the show only to put out an episode where they only feature in the closing seconds, rising out of the water. Williams is a fine actress who has wowed me in countless programmes and what works magic with her gentle characterisation this week. But it's next week when the fireworks are going to explode. Despite the title, I was unprepared for the impact of Ashildr's death. How the episode lurches suddenly into a morality play on the back of the hi-jinks demonstrates real assurance and trust in the audience. Should the Doctor save one life? Would it have any consequences? Tune in next week.

The Bad:
* The original villains of season nine have been a bit half arsed, haven't they? Odin is essentially there to get his butt kicked and he's the first comedy bad guy we've come across in a while. David Schofield doesn't give a bad performance but it's all pretty bog standard chest thumping and bawling about his own magnificence. That's the writing to blame rather than the actor. I can't stop going on about lists in this review but 'Odin' would rank somewhere in the bowels of a ranking of best villains. Next week you wont even remember him. Although I do love how the Doctor makes him bugger off by essentially threatening to load a video onto his Facebook and show all his thuggish mates the guy shitting himself in battle. That's new.
* Talking baby was cute the first time around, if a little laboured. The Doctor changing his mind on the strength of a baby chatting away to him lacks significance.
* I wouldn't be the first person to recommend the Doctor for the post of chief tactician if the best he can come up with is barrels of eels and a projection of a big snake. It says something about the nature of their opponents that this is enough to scare them away. I was expecting something more somehow. When Clara says it is rubbish, I don't think she's talking about the shield.
* They shouldn't feature clips showing David Tennant and Catherine Tate at their radiant best. It invites comparison, and when one of your regulars is Clara it's a battle you cannot win.

The Shallow Bit: Jenna Coleman looks older and more edible than ever in this episode. Visually at least it appears that Clara is growing up. Astonishing that I should be entrenched in an episode that throws a bunch of sweaty, muscled fighting men at me and I shouldn't feel the slightest twitch. It must be the filthy, matted beards. Although Lofty is worth a second look. 

Result: I haven't supped down on a crisp and sweet glass of lemonade in a while when it comes to Doctor Who, it's been all full bodied wines and black coffee. Actually with all the thigh slapping, sweat and cheering going on I guess this is more like a glass of frosty beer, straight from the fridge. For the first time ever I watched an episode with a friend, 12 hours flight time away and 9 hours apart and I'm really pleased that it was this episode because more than any other this season The Girl Who Died is the kind of sunny and witty piece of fluff where it is better to share the laughter. Our consensus was that it was the most enjoyable the series had been for some time. The new series of Doctor Who has taken on a bit of a Friends approach, where you can sum it up with a casual description. This was the one with the Vikings and robots. To describe it like that is to do the script a disservice though, which throws in some interesting curveballs and remains unpredictable and entertaining throughout. It's not often that I don't have a clue where a story is heading for it's entire length. The mood shifts in the flash of a rapier too, from comedy to drama and back again, exuding the sort of confidence I don't often see on television these days. Interesting that by ejecting all the timey wimey clever cleverness from the series for one week allows for more time for the show to breathe, for the people to come to life and for the Doctor and Clara to engage in real conversation. Factually inaccurate they may be but the Vikings were a likeable bunch and I genuinely cared about their fate. I really like the nature of this episode as well, a one part adventure with consequences that spill off into another individual piece next week. When Steven Moffat said he was going to mess about with the nature of the two part story he wasn't kidding. Some of the elements didn't come off; the Doctor's plan is genuinely naff and the chief villain of the piece is so forgettable I don't think I will remember him beyond the length of this sentence and the CGI snake isn't a patch on the one we witnessed a few episodes back. But The Girl Who Died rises above those problems by remaining so damn sunny throughout, putting a great big smile on my face and giving me moments to consider too. There's nothing quite like it in Doctor Who, which is something of a rarity these days and for that alone it should be celebrated. Especially the Benny Hill sequence. The bulk of this episode deserves a solid 7/10 but thanks to the additional weight of the last ten minutes: 8/10

Friday, 16 October 2015

Doom Coalition: The Eleven written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The Eleven. A Time Lord whose previous personalities live on in his mind: arguing, plotting, jostling for supremacy... He is also Gallifrey's most dangerous criminal. And he has escaped. The Doctor is recalled to his home world to lead the hunt. As they search the Capitol's corridors of power, the Academy halls and the cells of the highest security penitentiary, Liv realises the worst monsters may be among the Doctor's own people. For inside his fractured mind, the Eleven has a plan. And its deadly consequences will extend through space and time...

Physician, Heal Thyself: It would appear that the Doctor and Liv have been up to all kinds of scrapes since we last left them in the Dark Eyes box set, we catch up with them here in desperate peril and attempting to extradite themselves from harm. They have a natural chemistry which is enjoyable to listen to, something that was cultivated in the latter half of the Dark Eyes series. Arriving on Gallifrey usually begins with the Chancellery Guard pointing guns at him and it all goes downhill from there. Funny that the Doctor should be so facetious about Gallifrey and yet before the end of his next incarnation he would be fighting desperately to save it...and in his three incarnations after that he would be desperate to set foot on his home world again. He likes to think the best of people until he is proven wrong. Liv thought that she had met all the insane Time Lords (she has, after all, spent a great deal of time with the Master) but she can see that the Eleven is in a league of his own. The Eleven has always been fascinated by the Doctor's story and that is why his ultimate aim is to steal a TARDIS and escape from Gallifrey. But where the Doctor sought to learn about the universe, to observe, God only knows what damage the Eleven will do to the threads the bind the universe together. The 'one with the hat and the umbrella' wont let the eighth Doctor live with himself knowing that the Eleven is out there and he let him slip through his fingers. The Doctor has a mission, to find and stop this madman. It's certainly a more substantial link between the stories than the first Dark Eyes box set had.

Liv Chenka: Liv becomes the most useful person on Gallifrey when it turns out that she is the only person who can see the Eleven. Suddenly those pompous Time Lords start taking her seriously and stop patronising her. Nicola Walker has a very natural delivery that makes her perhaps the most down-to-earth audio companion we have ever had. She brings a genuine earthiness and realism to the part that is very refreshing. Travelling with the Doctor opens your eyes to the universe. Being touched by the Doctor changes your life forever, all of the Doctor's companions have been enlightened by the experience and most of them have gone on to fulfil their potential, becoming warriors, leaders, defenders of worlds. It's a little too sedate on Gallifrey for Liv, she's with the Doctor every time.

Standout Performance: Mark Bonnar as the Eleven. One of the most terrifying nasties to appear on audio for some time. He manages to make each incarnation that screams in his head a separate entity, especially number eight. I was bowled over by his efforts.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The Eleven need you but we don't need your tongue...'

Great Ideas: The opening sequence grabs you by the throat immediately with Sylvester McCoy making an uncredited appearance and delivering one of his most impressive turns, gnashing his teeth and revealing his hand in the capture and punishment of the Eleven. He admits that in this regeneration he sees his role as mopping up after the mess that corrupt individuals leave behind. What an astonishing notion the Eleven is, a Time Lord who's entire eleven lives remain active in his mind and vying for dominance. I have seen a similar sort of thing played out in a much more playful fashion in Lawrence Miles' Interference and Lloyd Rose's Camera Obscura (although that was with a psychologically disturbed medium) but that doesn't stop this from being an insanely dramatic device that brings forth one of the most memorable and disturbing villains we have seen on audio in a long, long time. There is a definite Clarice/Lecteur feeling to the initial meeting between Kiani and the Eleven and you cannot help but feel that his is a dangerous presence, even on audio. Perhaps it is the music or the build up to his appearance or perhaps it is Mark Bonnar's stunning performance that has the ability to send shivers down your spine. He's responsible for eviscerating armies, incinerating worlds and Kiani is trying to understand his motive for his behaviour. His eighth incarnation was the aberration, the break in psychosis - what was the reason that one of his selves was so out of place with the others? This is such a fascinating idea you have to wonder why nobody has explored the concept before. The President is not on Gallifrey at the moment, Romana is off world securing relationships with over temporal powers. In her first term of office, Romana made many sweeping changes and brought Gallifrey in to a New Age. One which allowed aliens to study on Gallifrey. Before he had shown any signs of criminal tendencies, the Eleven was invited onto the High Council which gives him the right to invoke the highest office whilst the President is away. If that happens, I dread to think what the consequences for Gallifrey might be. Absolute chaos reigns once the Eleven is free, revealing just what a dangerous influence he can be. One man can destroy the equilibrium of an entire world and when that world is as powerful as Gallifrey then problems lie ahead. The Time Lords have devices that can tear a living mind from its brain thought by thought, they can rip whole worlds from the Web of Time or excise a single soul and the universe wont remember either one existing. Because we have been able to get so accustomed to Gallifrey and it's people I think we forget just how powerful this race is. They aren't just ancient, dusty senators, they're Lords of Time. The purpose of the Regeneration Codex is shrouded in mystery like so many Gallifreyan artefacts...but I am sure we will discover it's purpose before long.

Result: Gallifrey and I have had an on/off relationship over the years. When introduced in The War Games I thought it was the most terrifying place that the Doctor could possibly visit and The Deadly Assassin re-invented the world as a gripping, political nightmare. But stories such as The Three Doctors and Arc of Infinity revealed how badly the Doctor's home planet could be represented if the writers imaginations and the budget failed to rouse to the occasion. The Gallifrey audio series yo-yoed between offering stunning political drama and tedious parallel world tedium and the novels took it upon themselves to blow it up long before the television series. It's been a chequered history. Matt Fitton proves without doubt that there is definitely room for fascinating stories still to be told on this world as long as the ideas have weight and the characterisation grips you from the outset. The Eleven is a superb Gallifrey based tale that completely restores my faith in setting further adventures here, which surely is a must given the appetite whetting upcoming War Doctor series and given the eighth Doctor's adventures are going to segue into the Time War. What we have here is Paul McGann fired up at the beginning of a brand new epic, paired with a companion that brings out the best in him and butting heads with a villain who dazzles with interest and is brought to life by an actor who imbues the part with serious menace. The Eleven is a man who is literally tearing himself apart from inside, whose hate and rage comes from an insane psychological instability of eleven voices talking all at once. He's an astonishing character and manages to wreck havoc on Gallifrey in a relatively small time. Let loose in the universe, the Doctor is on his tail and now the chase is on with have our ongoing narrative for all four stories. I guess that is the only complaint I can make about The Eleven, is that by it's very nature of being a 16-part story this instalment is all set up with no hint of a satisfying conclusion in sight. The story just sort of ends. It's a piece of the puzzle but a what a stellar piece it is, gripping throughout and featuring extremely vivid performances: 9/10

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Before the Flood written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O'Hara

This story in a nutshell: The first time I cannot decide on a rating...

Indefinable: 'That's the thing about knowing you are going to die. You've got nothing to lose...' The Doctor looks haunted at the mention of the Minister of War as though he had some hand in his machinations. A story for a rainy day perhaps. The whole 'the Doctor has to die' aspect might have some weight to it if we hadn't dealt with it in The End of Time, series six, The Name of the Doctor...frankly if there was a portent that said the Doctor has to live it would be more of a novelty. He considers this regeneration a bit of clerical error anyway. The Doctor ghost is absolutely terrifying in certain shots, it's how you can look straight down his eye sockets into the black emptiness inside. 'I'll come back for you, I swear...' the Doctor promises Clara which is a huge step up from last season where he walked out of adventures when the shit hit the fan and left her to her fate. Is it true that the Doctor would let the 'little people' on the hit list die and not get involved but step into action when it is his companions turn to meet the Reaper? That's a bold accusation and I think there is some weight to it.

Impossible Girl: Clara made me sit up and pay attention at one point in this episode and she hasn't done that since Dark Water. It does feel to me as if her story was tied in series eight and that ultimately Last Christmas might have been the best jumping off point for her. When Clara gets sick of the Doctor's blasé attitude to his death and calls him on it, demanding that he doesn't just accept the inevitable and leave her stranded. There was a little arrogance in that mix and plenty of anger, I'd love to see more of that. After this moment she slips comfortably back into the bland companion role which is a shame because I would have loved to have seen another confrontation in the TARDIS between the two of them like the fireworks at the climax of Kill the Moon. Remember that whole 'the TARDIS doesn't like Clara' thread that was dropped last year? There's an intriguing moment when the Doctor states that he is going to save Clara and nobody is going to stop him and almost as if she is responding to his desire the TARDIS cloister bell tolls and he is prevented from leaving by the Ship. She is at least smart enough to figure out why certain people aren't being pursued by the ghosts and is willing to send them out so they can communicate with the Doctor, even if she might be wrong and they could wind up dead. Does travelling with the Doctor change you? She thinks she has been taught to do what has to be done. Does that mean it makes you less humane?

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Except now you're going to do something about it. Because now it's getting closer to you.'
'Even a ghastly future is better than no future at all.'

The Good:
* A rock version of the current theme revs my engine much more than the usual version. Can't we keep it?
* My favourite aspect of Before the Flood is the location that Whithouse chooses for the past sequences, an unwelcoming slice of Stalin's Russia mocked up in a Scottish town. We've never seen a place quite like it in the show before and it comes replete with facades of a high street, shadowy warehouses for the Doctor to confront the monster of the piece, a damn to topple and a great frothy torrent to burst forth and O'Hara directs these sequences precisely and the texturing of the film is grainy and colourless, making it as inhospitable as it an possibly be. That's three episodes in a row now where I have been thrilled by the settings. I hope the season can keep this up. As soon as you see the Dam you know precisely where this story is going to end up.
* Sneaking in a curse in sign. Genius.
* Amongst all the waffle there are some gloriously scary moments. The practically edible Lunn being surrounded by ghosts and trying to keep his nerve made me shudder and Cass being pursued by a ghost scraping an axe along the floor and not being able to hear it must rank as one of the most suspenseful moments in the revived series of Doctor Who. Capaldi's ghosts remains a nightmarish creation.
* The most predictable moment of all time comes when the Doctor emerges from the cryo-pod but that doesn't stop it being a triumphant moment all the same.
* We're in a period of television now where special effects truly live up to their name and the set piece of the Dam wall cracking and the frothing torrent of water consuming the area and giving the Fisher King a good reason to sweat is spectacular. I never thought Doctor Who would command visuals like this and I'm really pleased that it does.
* I said out loud that I was hoping that Cass would smack Lunn around the face when he professed his undying love to her...but the hopeless romantic in me caved when they ended up lip locking. Even if I was a little jealous of Cass.

The Bad:

* People are talking about the Doctor breaking the fourth wall as if it has never been done before, like this is some kind of revolutionary concept that Toby Whithouse has invented to irritate them during the pre-credits sequence of Before the Flood (it's so clever clever smug I detect the hand of Steven Moffat in there somewhere). I don't object to a character taking a hammer to the TV screen and smashing through into the audiences personal space, it's a staple of shows I think are constructed out of sheer genius like Community (when it is at it's best) and Spaced. What bugged me was how it sits so uncomfortably between the end of the last episode and the beginning of this one. It disrupts the flow of the two parter by it's anomalous nature and whilst it does tenuously link in with the story that plays out, I wouldn't be at all surprised if people tuned in after Under the Lake and wondered if they had missed a week somehow. Or expected a drama about the fate of Beethoven. Or something. Capaldi plays it well and I got chills when he looked directly at me but the scene as a whole is as jarring and out of place as the last time the Doctor picked up an electric guitar. Plus do we really need a bootstrap paradox explained in such minute detail, don't we trust the audience these days to work out the intricacies of a plot?
* Prentis is a comedy character played so broadly after all the portents of doom and spectres of deaths that the sudden injection of comedy wrenches for a few minutes. He's pretty annoying too, so I was rather happy when he bought the farm. The Tivoli are something of a one joke wonder, that worked in The God Complex because David Walliams was so good at bringing out those cowardly qualities but the joke feels a little stretched here.
* The Fisher King isn't dead. Why is he in a hearse? The creature is impressive in close up but looks decidedly cumbersome and wobblesome in long shot. The director tries his damndest to make this hulking great creature the stuff of nightmares but once it is on the move in daylight he can't hide its deficiencies. He reminded me a little of the Dragon from Dragonfire. And what do we find out about the Fisher King beyond the fact that he is an invading, uncaring sonofabitch? In sharp contrast to Davros, who was treated to some substantial characterisation in the opening two part story, this villain is of substandard stock. He's a badass, that's about it.
* O'Donnell's death was touching in it's after-effects on Cass but the scene itself felt underplayed. Like two actors that have done this sort of thing too many times. And the Doctor stands behind with his hands clasped together as though he is amused by the whole thing. It's a very strange scene that should have been devastating. Plus wouldn't O'Donnell's ghost have always been there...if it happened in the past? It wouldn't just turn up at that part of the narrative where she dies in the past? Oh my God I've gone boss eyed with paradoxes.
* As much as I liked the setting as it was presented, I was a little underwhelmed by the method of how the Dan collapsed and the consequences of that. This could have been the opportunity for a huge personal drama for the Doctor, to have to flood an entire town in order to stop the Fisher King. A Pompeii style weight on his back. Capaldi would have gone to town with the agonising consequences. The fact that it was just an explosive and the only person that was wiped out was the monster of the week made me feel a little short-changed in the drama department. It was all too easy. Everyone got off lightly, except the Fisher King. I know that this episode has to tie up with the previous episode and leave the setting exactly how the Doctor found it when he landed in Under the Lake but would it really have been so hard to mention causalities when the Dam burst to make the cost of it more personal?
* A hologram? Simon and I both screamed 'oh fuck off!' at the TV at the same time. I desperately didn't want the ghost Doctor to be a cheat and that is exactly what it turned out to be. It guts the end of the previous episodes, which featured one of the strongest cliff-hangers in years and it means the nuts and bolts of this episode were set up entirely by the Doctor gutting this episode of much of it's drama. I'm reminded of the seventh Doctor, setting up his own adventures and everything just playing out on cue. When it is over you realise that none of it was improvised, it was all strategised. The smart element is supposedly the paradox itself, when did the Doctor choose to help himself out by sending the hologram in?
* The ghosts were electromagnetic pulses? Huh? UNIT will sweep in and take them away and eventually they will fade away anyway? Hmm...

Result: Too much blabber, not enough bollocks. A portent of the Doctor's death that leads to a discussion of him accepting the inevitable...haven't we been here before? Wouldn't it have been more dramatic to have made Clara the ghost given this episode was released around the time of the news that Jenna Coleman is leaving the show? I can sit and watch Peter Capaldi agonise over the fate of the Doctor until I petrify but if it turns out that the Doctor was the architect of this personal quandary in the first place it leaves the emotional core of the episode hollow. The sin that this episode commits is that it becomes more about the mechanics of the plot than the emotions of the characters within it. That means the plot has to be intricate and smart, not over explanatory, swindling and centred around a concept that cannot deliver a satisfactory conclusion. The bootstrap paradox by it's very nature leaves us questioning when the solution of this plot was set in motion. Aside from one death that is mildly affecting, everybody walks away from this episode unscathed and the plot ties itself up a little too tidily. My main reaction was after all the budding potential of Under the Lake was 'is that it?' And that's a shame because there are plenty of peripheral elements that do work within Before the Flood. The guest cast acquit themselves beautifully (although they are given less time to impress this week), the faux-Russian setting is original and visually stunning, the impact of the destruction of the Dam can be felt through the screen it is delivered with such drama and Capaldi once again proves that he has the nuts to be the finest Doctor since the show returned. And the ghosts continue to be a gloriously frightening prospect, even if their presence is never adequately explained. But it's all for nought if the they are hung on a narrative that sags and boughs and refuses to hold those elements aloft. This could have been a rule breaker but instead it refuses to take any real risks. Like the Davros two parter, this could easily be a gripping one hour show and with some tinkering with the latter half be a much more mesmerizing experience. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have this story told with too much time rather than too little but the length is still not quite right. As a whole, it's okay but I was expecting a lot more. As an individual episode, Before the Flood scores points for atmosphere and individual moments but concludes this story in a limp fashion: I honestly cannot choose between 5/10 or 6/10 so you can make up your mind for me...

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Under the Lake written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O'Hara

This story in a nutshell: We've seen it all before, but quite stylish nonetheless...

Indefinable: I can't quite get enough of this Doctor. It's not exactly the way he is written (which is pretty well most of the time) but more how Capaldi chooses to interpret the material. He's magnetic, even in adventures as stereotypical as this. Or perhaps especially in adventures as stereotypical as this because he adds a whole new layer to a story that has been told before. The way he strokes the TARDIS and asks what is wrong with her gave me flashbacks to so many other moments with previous Doctor's. At moments like that you can genuinely believe they are the same man. I laughed out loud at the Doctor's arrogance in attempting to communicate with O'Donnell without the help of her translator only to walk away with egg on his face. He's such a tool sometimes. Capaldi has the perfect face to gnash his teeth and declare that there are ghosts on the base...let's be honest his face is frightening enough to put the willies up kids if lit dramatically enough. Clara giving him little cards that prompt him to be nice is a pleasing reminder of the grumpy bastard he was last year and tugged at my mouth. He flies around the Drum, spectral and alien and loving every second of this supernatural investigation. He's electrifyingly good.

Impossible Girl: I thought this was where we would be at the beginning of the season with the Doctor and Clara going off on adventures in the TARDIS without all this yo-yoing back to Earth every week. It's what I have been asking for ever seen she first stepped into the TARDIS. And it's still not clicking for me. With her leaving soon it feels like too little, too late and especially with Clara being so meta and self aware of her role all the time. Stop banging on about looking for adventures and just have one already. This season I have barely seen her break a sweat. I always go back to my default companion in these situations, Elisabeth Sladen's divine Sarah Jane Smith. She would absolutely rock in this adventure, standing up to the Doctor's spikiness, sympathetic towards the crew and most importantly she would be absolutely terrified of the ghosts without me losing an ounce of respect for the character. Clara is just too confident in her abilities (without having much ability) to be believable or even that likable. I want a companion who is a little less faux emancipated and a little more real next time. Somebody made a fascinating comment recently about Moffat having real difficulty bringing women to life with any great success but having a lot more luck with his male characters. They are allowed to be more flawed, more emotional and (paradoxically) weaker which makes them much stronger overall and easier to buy into. I'm hoping for a male companion next time around.

The Good:
* Some locations manage to excite just by their very nature and I love the idea of setting a story on a Sea Base. Mind you we all know how that worked out last time, don't we? So I guess Moffat knows exactly what kind of pitfalls to ignore. I guess Lake Base would be more accurate but that doesn't sound half as exciting. A creepy flooded village and an apparently abandoned base. It's ripe for the Doctor to turn up and investigate. We've seen disaster movie Who before but that doesn't stop the water breaking into the Drum any less exciting. It comes at just the right point as well, leading up to the cliffhanger and when the episode has started to get a little too chatty for it's own good.
* Not to criticise the performances that have laced the previous four seasons but this is finest assembled guest cast for the series since the last outstanding stab at a base under siege story, The Waters of Mars. There's something about the formula that brings the best out of the guest cast, the claustrophobia hangs around their necks and allows for them to truly show their true colours. It's certainly the first time in an age where the collective guest cast has left an impression on me. I had Pritchard down as the villain of the piece, given his attempts to claim everything as his own. It genuinely surprised me when he was the first one for the chop. O'Donnell is sweet in the same way Shona was in Last Christmas; spunky, lively and ready for anything. You can tell there is a little love between some of these characters thanks to some subtle work done by the actors, I hope it is explored in more depth in episode two.
* Let's stand back for a moment and bask in the joy of having a disabled character making such an impression on the story and for sign language and the very nature of deafness to be part of the fabric of the plot itself. For Doctor Who this is a genuine innovation.
* Ghosts have never put the willies up me because I have never really bought into the idea of them existing in the first place, despite seeing some horror movies that have tried painfully hard to scare the shit out of me with the idea. My mother is a firm believer and I was surrounded by people in my childhood who not only believed in the notion of the afterlife but would form circles and try and contact people on the other side. So the idea of spirits is one that has been with me and part of my life for a long time. Doctor Who's stab at ghost stories in the past have been right up my street, offering up supposed manifestations of the dead and then giving a rational explanation for their appearance. Time travellers from the future. Time travellers trapped in the past. A woman caught in a moment in time. Doctor Who often enjoys de-bunking myths and offering a creative explanation as t how they came about in the first place...which makes this quite a novel experience when the ghosts in Under the Lake turn out to be the real McCoy. Visually they are rather creepy with their dark staring eyes, penchant or picking up solid weapons and attacking and pursuing people through the empty corridors of the Drum. I just hope there is a really explanation for their manifestation in the next episode otherwise the show is simply putting out there that peoples spirits can turn malevolent, substantial and be directed for the hell of it. Although it has to be said that the ghosts were properly scary at points and it is worth their inclusion for that reason alone. The black penetrating eyes, silent words and their ability to turn up unexpectedly and menace you makes them one of the better examples of spectral phenomena I have seen in fantasy for a while.
* I am still completely in love with that version TARDIS console room. If they dare to change it I might just go all Ian Levine and smash my telly.
* What a cliffhanger, what a clever notion. We've never really seen this sort of thing done before which makes it quite exciting. The Doctor spending one episode in a single location and then heading back in time to before it became that way and potentially making it happen. This appears to be a portent of his death, which might have excited me more had the idea not been flogged to death in series six. But the moment itself is chilling and the image of Capaldi floating through the murky water with black, soulless eyes is burnt into my memory. Please, please, please don't let this be a cheat.

The Bad:
* Self conscious dialogue. I'm beyond weary of it now. Half the time it feels like the regulars know that they are taking part in a Doctor Who adventure and feel the need to comment on it all the time. The Doctor's 'I want to kiss it to death' is a particularly gruelling example. For those of you who think I am a Russell T. Davies apologist I admit it sprung into life with a vengeance during his era (all that 'I'm the Doctor from Gallifrey and I can save the entire universe whilst sipping a cup of tea' nonsense) but with clever clever Moffat behind the wheel this post-modern madness has been taken to the next level. I'm not entirely what the scene in the TARDIS between the Doctor and Clara was all about, I think it was supposed to show some signs of development but it's meaning was lost on me. Except for the fact that it was entirely self-conscious again.
* I'm one of those irritating people who cannot help himself but compare what is being brought out now to what has gone before. It's an annoying quirk of my reviews but if I have seen the show deliver the same thing before but better, I will comment on it. The untranslatable alien writing was very reminiscent of The Impossible Planet but not quite as effective because it has been done before. First time out it felt mysterious and compelling, this was just another cog in the plot. Death at a push of a button with the killer and the victim with glass between them was much more chilling in the series two adventure as well. A base flooding with water? The Waters of Mars. Ghosts that turn out to be more than just supernatural phenomena? Army of Ghosts. The Doctor and his companion on either side of a porthole with him promising to return for her? 42. I'm not saying these things are handled badly here (far from it, the direction is excellent) but Whithouse has assembled much of his story from material seen elsewhere in the new series.
* Forgive me because I have just banged on about how the show can be a little too literal in the discussion of its genre but isn't the distress call that this creature sends out far too complex for it's own good. Creating ghosts who mouth words that require experts of the cryptic crossword to interpret seems a little convoluted when he could just have them say 'co-ordinates blah blah blah, come fine me' or just 'Fisher King in trouble, send help.' Frankly I wouldn't be at all surprised if nobody ever came after the Fisher King because his distress signal was far too florid for it's own good. 'What ever happened to that great hulking monster The Fisher King?' 'God knows...but we received a sting of godawful poetry from that sector a few weeks later...something about an arrow and a church. We never went looking, probably a bunch of talentless playwrights in trouble.' Mind you of course without the cry for help being quite this puzzling (essentially the ghosts and the exposition around them) this episode would be about ten minutes long. Is this the only episode that relies on the monster being a bit flamboyant in his SOS to give it substance?

The Shallow Bit: Lunn with the enormous eyebrows and lickable skin.

Result: Derivative, but pacy and full of mysteries and realised within an inch of it's life. Whilst I was watching Under the Lake I was fully aware that we had seen all of this done before (the recipe is basically every base under siege story ever told with extra lashings of The Impossible Planet, The Waters of Mars and Cold War) but that didn't stop me enjoying what was essentially a firm meat and potatoes slice of Doctor Who that doesn't really put a foot wrong in its realisation. Simon made me realise something whilst we were watching together - this is essentially an extremely long winded way of putting across a piece of information that could have been dealt with in the pre-titles sequence (that the ghosts are a distress call for whatever is trapped on the sea bed) but the extra time allows us to build up some atmosphere, get to know the crew, let Capaldi do his thing and enjoy some spooky moments. Us Doctor Who fans like nothing more than a lot of exciting running around, a few mysteries and a good, creepy cliffhanger. What Under the Lake has in spades is a great deal of potential to wind up being a hugely satisfying two part story, all the elements are in place for the second episode to deliver a massive punch. More than ever since the show returned to our screens in 2005 the show is being made for it's fans, which is why you can hear the cry of delight from that quarter whilst the viewing figures from the abandoning audience at large are at an all time low. Whithouse's strongest? Let's wait until next weeks episode to determine that (the trailer looks awesome, it reminded me of the outstanding Doctor Who novel City of the Dead in some ways) but at the moment it sits way above The Vampires of Venice and but below School Reunion (which still makes me cry), The God Complex (which is one of my favourites from series six) and A Town Called Mercy (despite its reputation I still love it). What all these episodes prove is that Whithouse is an extremely versatile writer within the Doctor Who format and is foremost in my mind as a possibility for showrunner. His understanding of nuts and bolts Doctor Who with a little extra spice in Under the Lake is another notch on his belt: 7/10

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Dalek Empire 4 The Fearless: Part 2 written and directed by Nick Briggs

What's it about: The Earth Alliance is on the brink of victory in the Kedru System. But at what cost? Meanwhile, deep within the Dalek Empire, Susan Mendes prepares for her latest mission…

Agnes Landen: No great surprises that Landen has some kind of plan that she isn't letting the Fearless in on. She knows precisely what Kade is going through, she knows he needs a direction and a reason to fight on and she says all the right things to try and get him back on track.

Kade: Landen has learnt enough about Kade to understand that if he was dead, there would be evidence of the struggle to be found. He's absolutely about the mission unless it comes to his family and then emotions creep in and cloud his judgement, as they would with any man. It might be manipulative but it works. Kade is the best Spacer they have, Landen needs him to fulfil a dangerous mission that might lead to the ultimate victory against the Daleks. No pressure.

Angel of Mercy: How nice to hear Sarah Mowat again after so many years. Susan Mendez is a character that is burnt into my consciousness because she was the pioneer protagonist at the heart of this spin off right from the beginning. Susan understands the Daleks better than anyone because she has been at the heart of their Empire and formed a relationship with their most emotionally manipulative representative. She knows that all the Daleks need from humanity is for them to work and they will go to any lengths to ensure that they fulfil that task, even mercy. Hope means nothing to the Daleks but it they see that the possibility of hope makes humanity work harder then they let them have hope. By saving lives and giving them hope, Susan Mendez has made the Dalek slave force devastatingly efficient. The biggest question on her lips is if she has genuinely made a difference. Asking somebody whose life was affected for the better because of her influence is perhaps not the best approach for an honest answer. It's such an ambiguous question because she has made such a difference to so many peoples lives, can there ever be a true consensus?

Standout Performance: It's Noel Clarke again in what is turning out to be a showpiece for him as an actor. Anybody who has any doubt should give this a listen because it pushes him into some very raw places emotionally and he delivers a beautiful performance. Dalek Empire is willing to torture it's characters horribly and the result is some of the most powerful acting that Big Finish has to offer. 

Great Ideas: I love it when the Daleks are on the run and shit scared - it doesn't happen very often and remains a novelty as such. They remain defiant to the end of course, confident in their right to conquer all even as their shells are being blasted off. Taking a Dalek alive is worth it's weight in gold, it could be taken apart to see if they could access it's database or tortured for tactical information. I honestly didn't think Briggs would play his hand with Kade's family quite this early, I thought that would come further down the line and that it would be at Landen's hands. Briggs has been a clever bastard, he's allowed us to get inside Kade's head and understand his motivations and so snatching away his family in such a violent way is just about the most torturous thing he could do to the character. And the most interesting because there is no telling what he will do next. It also brings home the cost of the Dalek attacks in a very personal way. Briggs can report Dalek attacks and millions of casualties until he is blue in the face but until it is channelled through the eyes of people we care about and who are affected by it it wont truly hit home. This does, devastatingly.

Audio Landscape: If Jamie Robertson is on board to handle the sound design you know that you are in very good hands and yet he has a lot to live up to since the soundscapes for Dalek Empire are some of the finest that Big Finish has to offer. He's more than up to the task, check out the opening action sequence that plants you right in the thick of it with explosions, ships being attacked and Daleks being wiped out. It's coherent, exciting and totally immersive. Very impressive. Neutronic missiles, alarms, the hull of a Dalek saucer creaking, the Daleks saucer attack is astonishingly dramatic, water crashing onto the waves.

Isn't it Odd: Ollander has been included as an insight into the psychological damage that the Daleks can do to somebody that has had their entire life torn apart by the creatures. Technically she should be the most fascinating character but she is a little too wet and weird for my tastes. I found her a little annoying.

Result: Dalek Empire doesn't play by the same rules as Doctor Who. It can make it's protagonists suffer abominably and allow it's antagonists to triumph whilst still having space for a crack of hope to shine through. It can kill off people who really don't deserve it. And it can pull the rug out from under you in a spectacular fashion, leaving you slack jawed at the sheer audacity of it's sadism. In many ways it resembles Blake's 7 more than Doctor Who. The death of Kade's family wasn't entirely unexpected but the moment itself is still a punch in the gut and exquisitely realised by Nick Briggs. It's the dramatic highpoint of the episode and it proves that the final series of this incredible spin off is going to continue to play by it's own rules. Whilst it is nice to have Susan Mendes back in action, it is when she turns up that the story gets a little unfocused and lacks a little bit of interest. We're covering the same ground as previous series and nothing new is added, at least not yet. The two plotlines, Kade's and Susan's, dovetail neatly in the final few minutes and promises exciting things for future episodes. The mission to kill the Angel of Mercy has begun. I would like to hear more of Kade and Landen's relationship, their scene during his recovery shows Briggs's writing at its finest. He loves to pen a huge epic but some of his best work comes when he strips away all the battles and explosions and focuses on people. More of that please: 7/10

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Dalek Empire 4: The Fearless Part 1 written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The Daleks are conquering our galaxy. Nothing can stop them. But Commander Agnes Landen has an idea. On the outer planet Talis Minor, Salus Kade is struggling to keep his colony alive. The last thing he needs is a war to fight.

Agnes Landen: Agnes Landen strikes me as somebody with a firm vision and that nothing will stop her from achieving that. Whilst the Fearless can be compared to the Daleks, if you squint Agnes can be compared to Davros. The creator of the machine that enslaves the prisoner inside, a woman with a dream to cause mass destruction from inside a metal shell. She might be warmly spoken but I think that just makes her all the more insidious. The way she spots Kade out of all of his people as the right man for the suit, how she dismisses the rest of his people and sets her sights on him is extremely calculated. She is willing to flatter and faun to him, to call him a hero, if it will get him inside the suit. She lost children to the Daleks, something that she brushes off but I'm sure adds to her hatred of the creatures.

Salus Kade: His grandparents starved to death, his dad died in orbit...with no help whatsoever from the Earth Empire. They have clung onto to survival and the idea of abandoning his roots and fighting for humanity disgusts him. He feels like he has let his people down and an anger boils in him sometimes, he'll do anything to knock the bad guys down and cause some serious hurt to expunge his own. A precarious position for a soldier to be in. It's very possible that the Daleks would never have found Kade's world if the Earth Alliance hadn't shown up and started waving the flag and looking for recruits. With Kade you need to find out what he wants and channel him in the right direction. Having a family complicates things for him, I wonder how long it will be before they become a luxury that he is no longer allowed to indulge in. He comes back because he has something to live for.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We need more soldiers to fight the Dalek War. It's too much of a luxury to ask politely.'

Standout Performance: The performance by Noel Clarke astonished me because of its raw intensity and his ability to switch from that to such warmth. Clearly I have underestimated him as an actor, or perhaps his appearances as Mickey Smith did not allow for him to stretch himself the way they should have. There were many gorgeous moments for Mickey throughout his run as we got to cheer for the underdog who found his voice and eventually became much more than the physical and emotional coward he was in Rose...but this material proves that Clarke had a lot more to give than perhaps Davies was prepared to push him. Briggs does and it is all to his credit because he drives an extraordinary performance out of them. Perhaps this was Clarke's chance to prove to dissenters that he is much more than just Mickey the Idiot. Maureen O'Brien excels too but that is less of a shock, she's always committed on audio. She's playing the warm Auntie at this point but I think she's yet to show her teeth.

Great Ideas: The Daleks advanced and all Earth defences crumbled, star system after star system fell. The Earth Empire is becoming part of the Dalek Empire. Outmanoeuvred by their tactics and outgunned by their fleets. The situation, as it often is in the Dalek Empire series, is bleak. The difference between this Dalek conquest of humanity and previous stabs is that they have taken a psychological approach rather than a just having at humanity with an iron fist. Give them enough hope to think that they might make it through this, allow for small pockets of resistance, give the people a mouthpiece to express their desires. These are all subtle, sneaky ways of preventing any actual rebellion. To fight back the human race needs a massive advantage. They have to be fought on their own terms, fire with fire. The Daleks are locked away in battle armour and the natural response is for humanity to do the same. The battle armour that has been invented means that the human race is only one step away from becoming Daleks themselves. Frightened, paranoid, terrifyingly armed and emotional and locked away inside a shell that both protects them from their enemy and prevents them from reaching out to the world. Terrifying. The quest is on to find those exceptional people at the peak of physical and mental fitness that can fill these suits and take the battle to the enemy. A regiment of Spacers to inspire and lead the battle for victory: The Fearless. There comes a point where the Daleks and the Fearless are interchangeable, if you haven't ever seen a Dalek there is a good chance that when you see these hulking death machines stomping across the surface of your world that it could be the Daleks. First the Earth Alliance will ask you to join their cause and if you resist they change their tactics and take you instead. Surely that is a form of enslavement, the Fearless behaving just like the Daleks.

Audio Landscape: Huddled crowd, whispered voices, a cheer of joy, Daleks chanting in unison, marching, a rolling, crashing sea, a biting wind on a planets surface, the Fearless suits stomping across a room, alarms, ships ascending, mass exterminations, firing weapons.

Musical Cues: Remember when Big Finish wasn't a vast engine of ranges but driven by the simplicity of the main range and a few scant spin offs. That is what the original series of Dalek Empire was born into. The Fearless comes along years later and has a whole wealth of tasty ranges to compete with but one thing that doesn't change at all is Nick Briggs' distinctive music for the series. Melodramatic, exciting and memorable, the same stings are in place that links this to the previous years and the energy of the piece is lifted exponentially by the score. There really isn't music quite like it anywhere else.

Result: 'The Fearless, my arse!' There is something about the action in Dalek Empire that transcends it's audio roots and becomes totally immersive. For Nick Briggs it is clearly a labour of love, even four season in. He has stumbled on a winning formula of juxtaposing the epic (the Dalek Empire sweeping across the galaxy and taking apart the Earth Alliance) and the intimate (telling the story through a few beautifully observed characters making the grand sweep of the story a personal one) and filling the episodes with thrilling action that puts you right into the heat of battle. Astonishingly The Fearless doesn't come with the weight of three seasons of Dalek Empire behind it but forges onwards as an independent piece one which listeners can pick up as an individual season in its own right. The seeds of a great series are laid here with one engaging concept at the heart of it (trapping humanity inside machinery, fighting the Daleks like Daleks) and two vivid characters in Kade and Agnes. This lacks the instant psychological sting of the Susan Mendez/Dalek Supreme scenes but I can see how things could develop in that direction between this soldier and the woman who has a vision to defeat the Daleks for good. Dalek Empire manages to carve a vision of the future that feels real and it does so by presenting itself with such confidence. The Fearless is no different. Focus on the military in the future gave this a feel of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and the more optimistic approach to the storytelling marks this out from the first three series. More please: 8/10