Thursday, 31 December 2015

Only the Monstrous: The Innocent written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

Tempted Back: It's been a while I know! To be honest I haven't felt much like writing Big Finish reviews lately...not only because I have been spectacularly busy getting married and preparing for my trip to Colombia...but because I attended a convention recently where a former Big Finish employer recognised me and went out of his way to make me feel uncomfortable, making jibes about the nastier side of fandom and hack blogs (whilst looking directly at me in the audience). I heard him discussing the blog in the foyer in a negative light - fair enough. It's not to everybody's tastes. It's something that I am used to. You cannot please everybody all the time and I have had some pretty damning things thrown at me, both by people who create these stories and those who enjoy them. I've developed a pretty thick skin. But after the convention I thought to myself what is the point of this if you are just annoying the creators of this stuff? And for a while I thought I would just pause, enjoy the crazy things that were going on in life and then come back to it later. But I have really missed reviewing the Big Finish stuff and I have come to the conclusion that this is just my opinion and been contacted by enough people in the last month to realise that there people out there who genuinely seek it out. So my thick skin is back in place, my honesty is locked in place and I'm ready to go. I can understand somebody reacting against a negative review or two, privately. Publicly it seems quite sly. I wont be attending conventions again but I will continue doing what I enjoy. I haven't written this to make a point of a contributor to Big Finish but simply to explain why I have been absent for so long. Hack blog it may be, but it's my hack blog and it gives me great pleasure to continue to enjoy (or not) Big Finish stories.

What's it about: As the Daleks mass their time fleet for a final assault on Gallifrey, something ancient is waiting for them at Omega One. And a sacrifice must be made. Arch-manipulator and Time Lord strategist, Cardinal Ollistra receives shock news of the Doctor’s death. Meanwhile, on the planet Keska, a parochial war has returned to plague a peaceful civilisation after decades of tranquillity. But how can such a war have any connection with the great Time War which, at any one moment in the whole of eternity, could threaten to tear the universe apart? If only the Doctor were still alive.

Damaged: What a coup for Big Finish. I mean the New Series licence is one hell of a coup anyway and will probably see the company in business for many years to come (I imagine the revenue from these box sets will soar). To book a name like John Hurt and to be able to continue to explore his backstory after his single appearance in the TV series - when this was advertised I thought 'they've got it made.' He's a actor of rare gravitas and status and a huge figure in the cult world, I can imagine there are all kinds of crowds that would want to seek this set out. No pressure, Nick. Topping that with the revelation that the Doctor is dead is the next best thing and it provides a decent gasp before the title music - although I already sussed that they were talking about the eighth Doctor taking his life in Night of the Doctor. He's a dangerous man, that's clear from the outset. He states that he is ready to die because he has seen too much of the War already but it is not made clear if that is really the case or just his tag line to clear the Time Lords out so he can do a better job of saving the day. Dangerous but still likeable, Hurt's Doctor might have seen some terrible things but he hasn't committed his ultimate atrocity yet. He's still redeemable. The universe would be a far more dangerous place without him. The Doctor is paranoid that the War is following him everywhere to the point where he is genuinely surprised to land somewhere that hasn't been touched by the fighting. It's worrying that this Doctor comes armed with so much knowledge of warfare tactics, he can reel them off without batting an eyelid. He's clearly seen a great deal of conflict. What he lacks is the humanity to spare peoples feelings, he simply states what is happening without a care for the populace he might be terrifying. 'It's standard genocidal procedure...' The Doctor will help on Keska because he wasn't forced, a rarity these days. He doesn't state his name anymore, perhaps because he doesn't think he deserves it. But when he is done on Keska he is reminded that he is a good man, something he has forgotten. The only reward he wants for his assistance is peace and quiet and no mention of his name. The Doctor thinks his part in this conflict is to do the unthinkable to bring it to a conclusion. What he has forgotten is that he always used to do that anyway but by ingenious means that saved as many lives as possible. Now the War has escalated he doesn't factor in the lives, just the consequences. He describes himself as a monster. I don't know what he has done...but he is being too harsh on himself. Monsters don't feel remorse. You want to see a monster then check out Capaldi in The Girl Who Died - playing God and justifying it to himself.

Standout Performance: I want to wax lyrical about John Hurt whose performance it goes without saying is exceptional but the performer I want to focus on is Jacqueline Pearce. The ultimate pulp villainess, Pearce brings a wonderful presence to every story that she takes part in. Servalan both terrified and turned on the audience in equal measure and Chesseneye was cut from the same cloth in the delightful dual Doctor epic The Two Doctors and she chewed the scenery with gorgeous abandon in The Fearmonger for Big Finish. I'm pleased to see an actress of such abundance secure such a pivotal role in what is possibly the most important range that Big Finish are bringing out now. Her gravelly tones give me chills.  

Sparkling Dialogue: 'What is war if not the embodiment of hypocrisy?'

Great Ideas: Opening on the final assault on Gallifrey is quite a bold statement to make right at the beginning of this range but if you are trying to get peoples attention then I guess this is the way to do it. It certainly doesn't get much bigger than this. The Time Lords haven't beaten the Daleks by any means but they did have a breathing space in which to lick their wounds and try and fight back. They use compassion as a weapon, utilising the people from the planets that are caught up in this war as a shield against further attacks. Let's give them some credit, when it comes to psychological warfare they are the masters.

Audio Landscape: If you're going to hand an epic soundscape like this to anybody then Howard Carter is probably the first name I would pull out of a hat. He's proven himself time and again both with intimate stories and ones with massive scope and he really doesn't disappoint. Dalek fleet screaming into view, Daleks screaming in unison, a Dalek succumbing the pressures and time contraction of the Time Destructor, birds flying and singing, the TARDIS hissing with steam, trickling water, alarms going off, mass extermination blasts, the Doctor's twinkly headaches, lapping waves.

Musical Cues: Ooh I like the theme tune, another Howard Carter thumbs up. Bombastic, dramatic, a little bit scary...just like the War Doctor. It has the music hall feel of the TV Movie and the energy of Murray Gold's original theme so it bridges the gap between them nicely.

Isn't it Odd: After the initial scenes were in place setting up the major players in this box set the story moves to the planet Keska and things get a lot more predictable. It is a standard Doctor Who story of a man turning up on a world in conflict and chipping in to help them. I was tapping my foot waiting for the moment when Keska was linked to the Time War, it was inevitable given that is precisely where this story is leading. To pretend otherwise was practically pointless but Briggs has a go anyway. I might not have mentioned Bennus in this review...there is a reason for that. She isn't a particularly memorable character. Beth Chalmers, again? They are going to have to start using a voice synthesizer soon to disguise the fact that she turns up in everything. Reliable she might be but surely there are an awful lot of actors who would enjoy audio work that haven't had the opportunity because she is being invited back every other day. She's played a companion for goodness sakes. You cannot expose the actress so publicly and then expect fans of this stuff to not recognise her in every other story.  I'm not entirely sure what happened on the boat between Rejoice (bizarre name) and the Doctor on the boat. But having a paddy doesn't make you a monster.

Standout Scene: If you are going to use the ultimate Doctor Who weapon against the Daleks then you could do no better than to seek out the Time Destructor from The Daleks' Masterplan. You can keep your Reality Bombs and Plague Planets, this is still the most awe-inspiringly devastating piece of hardware the show has ever produced.

Result: 'I'm steeped in the blood of it all...' Opening stories usually fall into two categories and both of them can be made to work very well; the stories that set up the rest of the set and the stories that work as individual narratives in their own right. The Innocent is very much the former but it covers a lot of ground in its hour and introduces a lot of elements that have a great deal of potential. The Innocent was a safe way of launching the series by introducing the War Doctor in a traditional Doctor Who adventure on an alien world where he steps in and saves the day...wasn't the whole point of this series that we got away from that sort of thing and explored the War to end all Wars? Well I guess there is still time for that and the sole purpose of this introductory tale is to push the War Doctor to the fore and show us what he is made of. Actually he's rather sweet, albeit with a cold edge. Those reviewers who have found that a disappointment should go an watch The Day of the Doctor again. He was rather sweet with a cold edge in that too so this is entirely consistent with what we have seen. If there is a fault with the expectations of this character it is Steven Moffat's for suggesting the War Doctor was some kind of terrible monster in The Name of the Doctor and then failing to deliver on that promise in Day. John Hurt has a voice that was made for audio and I shut my eyes and drank in his lines, as unsophisticated as they were at times. Jacqueline Pearce doesn't get a major slice of the action here but listening to her rant on is divinity itself. I can't wait until she steps out of the limelight. I had fears that this would be a carbon copy of Dalek Empire (which perhaps wouldn't be a bad thing given it is still Briggs' greatest achievement) but despite some attempts at world building (or should that be War building) this lacked the cold tone, the sprawling narrative and the morally ambiguous characters of the popular series. I think this is going to turn out to be something very special indeed, certainly with Hurt on board with that voice that drips like honey it is always going to be worth a listen. The Innocent would blow your mind away but it does what it needs to do, it has a fine soundscape and the performances are gorgeous: 6/10

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Ranking series seven in order...

1) The Day of the Doctor - The anniversary special that somehow lived up to the hype!

2) A Town Called Mercy - Sorely underrated, this looks great and sounds wonderful

3) The Snowmen - A Moffat penned fairytale that really works and doesn't oversell the family stuff

4) Hide - Almost toppled by an over goofy Doctor, this is smart and freaky

5) The Rings of Akhaten - You might think I'm crazy but I really like it

6) The Angels Take Manhattan - A little too clunky but with a touching ending

7) The Crimson Horror - Sweetly macarcbre...with a really terrible ending

8) The Name of the Doctor - Some moments of magic but a retarded script that asks far more than it answers

9) Dinosaurs on a Spaceship - Disposable fun, nice to see 11 show some teeth

10) Asylum of the Daleks - Stylishly put together but a hideous Rory/Amy plot tacked on

11) The Bells of St John - Recycling old ideas, Moffat fatigue starts to set in

12) Cold War - Clara is a non-entity in this wet but tedious thriller. Needs humour and character

13) Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS - How can something this promising turn out so...

14) Time of the Doctor - Possibly the worst regeneration for any Doctor, attempting lots, achieving very little

15) Nightmare in Silver - 'I hate you! Put me down!' Spare me the pain...

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Ranking series eight in order...

1) Flatline - Astonishingly innovative, restoring my faith in NuWho in 45 minutes...

2) Last Christmas - One of the best xmas specials, clever, thoughtful, funny and frightening

3) Dark Water - Bleak but mature and with surprisingly vivid characterisation

4) Listen - Beguilingly ambitious and unforgivingly vague, I love it

5) Kill the Moon - Crazy ideas, scary moments and terrific production values

6) Mummy on the Orient Express - A disappointing ending spoils a stylish and scary romp

7) Into the Dalek - This one has gone up in my estimation (cheers Jack)

8) Time Heist - Brainless but full of style, this is popcorn entertainment at its best

9) Death in Heaven - Inspired moments intersped with retarded moments - Moffat in a nutshell

10) Robot of Sherwood - Fun until the science fiction elements spoil things

11) Deep Breath - A really dodgy (and boring) first half makes way for a darker second half

12) The Caretaker - Irritatingly unfunny, the soap elements just don't work in this episode

13) In the Forest of the Night - It's trying to be different and unfortunately that is why it fails

Monday, 28 December 2015

Ranking series nine in order...

1) Heaven Sent - Startlingly adult and innovative, an astonishing episode

2) The Witches Familiar - Using the past as a weapon, this is a daring game of deception

3) The Zygon Inversion - Flawed, but with some shockingly good moments

4) The Girl Who Died - Sunny, funny and thoughtful

5) Face the Raven - Different, which series nine needs a lot more of

6) The Magician's Apprentice - Ignore the rock star nonsense, focus on Missy

7) Under the Lake - Traditional but told really confidently

8) The Zygon Invasion - Ambitious in places, cowardly in others

9) Before the Flood - A massively disappointing conclusion to an enjoyable set up

10) Hell Bent - Fanwank of the highest order

11) The Woman Who Lived - A woeful misstep, it isn't funny or dramatic

12) Sleep No More - Quite simply one of the most boring things ever

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Fragments written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jonathan Fox Bassett

This story in a nutshell: How did I join Torchwood? I'm glad you asked...

Hunky Hero: 'I don't exist, and for a man with my charisma that is quite an achievement.' I love how the rest of the team walk around the warehouse quite slyly whilst Jack cannot resist melodramatically turning each corner with his gun poised, like a child playing cowboys and Indians. This guy just cannot resist making a show of himself. The caption 1392 deaths earlier for Jack's flashback brings a smile to my face every time. Only on Torchwood. Waking up with a bottle in his stomach is a quick and dramatic shorthand for the kind of life (or rather death) that Jack has had to suffer over the years. It is surprising that he isn't more psychologically unstable given the number of undignified and brutal murders he has been forced to endure. It explains a lot about how he seizes each day as it comes and behaves so radically over the top. When you cease to fear death, the rules of life change. Jack was convinced that if he lived through the 20th Century and met up with the Doctor again then everything would be put right. His curse of immortality would be put to rest. Jack cuts quite the figure in his grey cloak and bushy sideburns, working for Torchwood post Tooth and Claw. I'm so pleased that this important segment of Jack's life is sketched in, it fills in so many of the gaps between The Parting of the Ways and Everything Changes (or if you are only including Doctor Who - Utopia). Jack is the only member of Torchwood to survive long term but that is only because he cannot die. Otherwise the life expectancy of it's staff is not hopeful. What is fascinating about the sequence where Alex murders the Torchwood team (the one assembled before the one we currently know and love) on New Years Eve is that he might have a point that they were mercy killings. In the next year Jack would lose Owen, Tosh and Ianto. Who is to say that if he slipped them a pill it wouldn't be a more humane way to go?

Dangerous Doctor: You'll never see Owen so warmly or loosely played by Burn Gorman as you do in the scenes before he joined Torchwood. He was deliriously happy with his life, engaged to be married and loving his work. He's a completely different person. The fact that it is his first experience of Torchwood that tears down his picturesque existence and shits all over it goes a long way to explain his severe attitude problem, why he goes to such extreme lengths to feel things and the huge chip of bitterness on his shoulder. It must eat him inside to be working for the organisation that fail to save his sweetheart. This is the most essential element of this episode for me as I have always seen a great deal of potential in Owen (mostly because Gorman is such a fine actor) but was irritated at how he was so often characterised in a way that made me want to push him away. He was, frankly, quite the shit in season one with very little let up. I thought it was just because he was seduced by the lifestyle and that he was a weak man but Fragments reveals that he was a victim of circumstance and that there is a genuinely nice person locked away inside all that resentment. This is sterling repair work and allows you to see his journey in a whole new light. It also makes sense of how he has been softened this year. It's not Owen finding the love, it is remembering who he used to be. Gorman's performance after Owen's fiancĂ© dies is fantastic, Chibnall is asking him to convey a breakdown (shock, grief, angry acceptance) in about 2 minutes worth of material and he is more than up to the task. Suddenly that anger towards Jack in the finale of season one makes a lot of good sense whereas at the time it felt unnecessary and reactionary. In context, it is perfectly natural.

Shy Geek: At first Fragments looks as though it is only going to tell us that Tosh is really clever. Big whoop, we know that already. However the purpose of the sequence where she infiltrates the Ministry of Defence is to reveal that she was convinced into working for Torchwood. A splinter group threaten her mother to harm her mother if she doesn't put her skills to good use and UNIT walk in on that operation, capturing what they think to be a terrorist. The shot of Tosh alone in a barren cell with big brothers eye looking down on her exposes the bleakest moment in her life. Toshiko is essentially blackmailed into joining Jack's team, given the unenviable task of helping with the hunt for alien technology or being made an example of by UNIT. It is a good thing that she ultimately learns to love her work because it was never the path she would have chosen. I've always said that Tosh works best when she is portrayed as a victim (it works to Mori's strengths as an actress too, pulling at the heartstrings) and her tale proves that she has always been the underdog, the one who is pushed around and mistreated. What a life. Jack sees something in Tosh and thinks he can bring her out of her shell. She's certainly more confident as a part of Torchwood than she was in her life before. It isn't an entirely altruistic act (after all he wants her skills) but the fact that he sees potential in her is very sweet and step in the right direction for her.

The Butler: Astonishingly Chibnall somehow manages to provide some kind of context to explain away his abysmal Cyberwoman episode. Colour me impressed. It doesn't mean that the season on turkey is any better as a result (because it is still one of the most retarded piece of television I have ever seen) but it does at least explain why Ianto joined Torchwood Cardiff in the first place was to be able to move his partially converted girlfriend in and perhaps get her some help. He goes to some extreme lengths to get Jack's attention, everything but sucking him off to arouse his interest. Ianto is so desperate to infiltrate Torchwood he is willing to offer any service; coffee boy, guard dog, prostitute...he's even willing to work without pay. Gareth David-Lloyd has come on in leaps and bounds in season two, from the most invisible member of the ensemble to the most adored. That's down to some nifty repair work by the writers and an increasingly confident and comedic portrayal by David-Lloyd.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'By the way... love the coat.'

The Good: What a phenomenal teaser that takes the ultimate Torchwood image of the team turning up in their SUV and snazzy clothes to take charge of a situation and punctures it by setting of several high explosives and bringing them all down in one blow. The shot of the warehouse windows exploding outwards is very impressive and it is a dramatic kick start into an episode packed full of vital character vignettes that reveals how each of the team first joined Torchwood. The debris that has fallen on the team in the warehouse looks genuinely dangerous and the characters reactions to be confined and injured feel very real (especially Tosh's claustrophobic screams). That it is vital to making this episode work, we have to feel that this could be their last day on planet Earth in order for the story of how they were recruited into Torchwood to really impact. The Blowfish character in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang didn't do much for me, driving about Cardiff in his sports car and insanely overplayed by Paul Kasey (mind you I'm not sure if you can underplay an alien Blowfish). Here the character is put in context and his history with Jack is revealed. It honestly makes all the difference. We also get to meet the young fortune reader who turned up in Dead Man Walking, giving her presence in the season additional depth. Jack's story skips wonderfully from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth. How many shows can do that and not batter an eyelid. We never quite learn who these dead members of Torchwood are...but I would love to find out more. That melodramatic mission statement is given its foundation as Alex commits suicide and asks Jack to give Torchwood Three a purpose. The episode is structured so that we see how the Torchwood team before our set of regulars were slaughtered so it can move on to showing how each new member was conscripted. In Tosh's story it is astonishing to see the darker side of UNIT, the methods they use to co-erce people into helping them is a far cry from their cuddly public image. I wouldn't mind seeing a little more of the sinister underbelly of the organisation. Cutting from Tosh being told her work with Torchwood will be dangerous to her trapped under a pile of rubble screaming is superbly done, Chibnall bridging the gap between the vignettes and the framing narrative with dramatic flair. Jack and Ianto bringing down the Pterodactyl in the warehouse is one of my favourite Torchwood set pieces; silly, exciting and horny.  I don't think I have ever experienced such an extended gasp of breath as I did when I first saw that eye watering shot of Owen staring up at a shard of glass that is threatening to fall and slice him in two. He's never coming back from that. How gruesome is the idea of the brain leech that poisons those it comes into contact with and causing the carrier to suffer amnesia? Just one of a large number of stunning ideas in Fragments. The fact that the explosions are the work of John Hart from the beginning of the season brings the whole year to a cohesive whole and promises a reunion in the near future. It's an tantalising note to leave the episode on because it also promises a reunion between Jack and his brother, the back story of which has been seeded earlier in the season. This season of Torchwood feels so much better plotted than the last. Plus more James Marsters is always a bonus.

The Bad: It's a small niggle but if Jack had been waiting to catch up with the Doctor throughout the 20th Century and has all the resources of Torchwood at his disposal (who are also looking for their enemy) then wouldn't he have caught up with him during his exile? Continuity be damned. There was an actor in Army of Ghosts that was the spit of Gareth David-Lloyd. What a shame it wasn't him because that would have been a wonderful link between the two shows.

The Shallow Bit: Hands on hips, flirtatious and unafraid of their sexuality, the ladies of Torchwood in the Victorian era are clearly infected with the same lack of sexual inhibitions as the current lot. Perhaps there is something in the water. It strikes me that everybody that has ever worked for this organisation is bisexual. That isn't a criticism, just an observation made because there is a relative dearth of bisexuals on television and so it really stands out.

Result: My favourite episode of the first two seasons, bar none. It astonishes me that it has taken this long for this episode to be told and that is because the first season was far too obsessed with Gwen and her journey with Torchwood to worry too much about how the others were brought into the fold. That is rectified brilliantly here. If this had been the first episode it would have salvaged so much of the first season, it shows all the characters at their best and explains an awful lot about why they are how they are. Something I was completely in the dark about in the debut year as they behaved so appallingly. As we hop from story to story the tone and genre shifts with absolute confidence; thrilling, silly, funny, heartbreaking, claustrophobic, dramatic...this is what the show should have been all along. Better late than never. What I love most about Fragments is that it fills in so many gaps in continuity and so many vital nuggets of information about the regulars that it provides an incredible amount of context to the first and second seasons of the show, effectively answering a lot of the criticisms of the series with some very satisfying answers. Some of my strongest grievances about the show are addressed; Jack's melodrama, the Pterodactyl, Cyberwoman, Owen's bastard behaviour...Chibnall has taken a look at what hasn't worked in the first two seasons and sought to give it an explanation. The fact that it does this just as the status quo is about to be shaken up irrevocably is perfect timing, leaving the first two years of the show as a cohesive story in its own right. Fragments manages to tell stunning individual vignettes and a gripping framing narrative and ends on a whopper of a cliff-hanger that left me begging for more. What a turn around for the show: 10/10

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Lost in Time written by Rupert Laight and directed by Joss Agnew

This story in a nutshell: Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani all travel back to separate time periods…sent by a strange man and his talking parrot!

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: By this stage of series four we are used to Sarah Jane just hanging with Clyde and Rani now Luke has started university. This trio make a great team and it feels like Sarah Jane is the Doctor role with two great companions more than ever. Sarah doesn’t like being tricked into investigating things and has a lot of questions about this mission but alas she doesn’t get the chance to air them as she is whisked back in time. At least she is a dab hand at this time travel lark! She has learnt the hard way as a journalist that just becauseeverybody says so it doesn’t make it true. Teaming up Sarah Jane with Emily is wonderful because she is almost a proto-Sarah in the making with one or two things to learn about the Supernatural. Its one time when the hugs at the end of a story actually brought tears to my eyes (usually it’s the one point where I want to hide away and cringe) – Sarah telling Emily that her mother would be very proud of her sees the character at her maternal best.

Journalist in Training: Like the TARDIS it would seem that the Captain sends you where you need to be rather than where you want to be and Rani realises instantly with some horror that she has arrived on the ninth day of the Nine Day Queen. She blags that she is a lady’s maid sent from the Taj Mahal and enjoys a warm and yet frank friendship with the young Queen. Married at a young age, frightened for her safety and with politicians vying for her position on the throne to be taken away, Mary needs a friend more than ever. She speaks to Mary as a person rather than a Queen which is refreshing although when she asks Rani if she is married she is told to shut up! There is someone she spends a lot of time with who occupies her thoughts but Rani wouldn’t call him a gentleman though. Rani shows great strength of character by staying strong for Jane and helping her through her last night on Earth and it is a brave and potentially suicidal decision to delay returning back to the present whilst the Queen still needs a friend. Of the three of them Rani made a real difference by offering comfort to a distressed child facing death and I think that is rather wonderful.

Graphic Artist: In what could have been an embarrassing message to the kiddos but turns out to be an impassioned moment of triumph, Clyde spits at the Nazi’s that they underestimate their enemy through blind stupid prejudice. Clyde saying very proudly that he is British and they will crush the prejudice of the Nazi’s is a beautiful message to whoever is watching.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why did it end so quickly?’ ‘Because I guess that’s where it ended for those children…’
‘All I hope is that I will be remembered even though I was Queen just nine days.’
Tell me again I am not forgotten’ ‘I promise you. Not by your people. Not by history and never by me.’
‘I’d love to stay and chat but…well duty calls!’

The Good: The opening shot of pulling away the newspaper clipping to show the identical building from the snapshot is subtle but impressive. An old curiosity shop run by a mysterious tea drinking, fez wearing man and his talking parrot (called Captain) who has the power to send you back in time…there is nothing in that sentence that I don’t love. Its great how the whole business of time travel is skipped over in about ten seconds because we accept that this guy is an alien and he doesn’t give Sarah Jane and option. He just whisks them off and they are forced to complete his mission. Chronosteel is a metal forged in the time vortex with the power to reshape destiny and three points are lodged at different points in the Earth’s history and need to be recovered – it’s a quick, imaginative and fun explanation for the story’s time travelling antics. I love the time window effect, its like shattered pieces of glass converging to make a mirror which consumes our three heroes. Trying to guess where in history they have each ended up as a great guessing for the first five minutes and all three periods have been very well chosen with something educational and affecting about each of them. Shooting through the reeds and across to the open spaces of the beach, the director makes great use of the beach location (I live by the sea and love a beach location). I have to commend the show again on its bravery to include racial references (nowhere else on CBBC will you find such dialogue) and Rani is treated suspiciously as a foreigner and Clyde referred to as a ‘Negro’ by the Nazis. This is vital material, teaching kids that casual racism is unacceptable. With Emily’s mother passing away fuelling her passion for ghosts to be real, Lady Jane’s imminent death as Mary’s army enters London and Clyde a black kid in the hands of the Nazis, each of the narratives keeps you emotionally invested them as well as entertained. Sarah Jane explains about old houses containing echoes of the past trapped with the fabric of the building…but how brilliant is an echo of the future and the devastating deaths of two children stretching back through time and haunting the manor. There are three child performances in this story that deserve a great deal of kudos for their quality – Amber Beattie brings a great deal of authority and calm acceptance to the Nine Day Queen, Gwentyh Keyworth is gorgeously haughty and curious as the proto-Sarah Jane Emily Morris and Richard Wisker is full of cockney charm and energy as the London evacuee George. Its three understated, terrific performances which if they had chosen lesser performers would have sunk the show. As with the early years of Doctor Who it would appear that the historicals in the Sarah Jane Adventures have a very real sense of danger to them too, a far cry from the supernatural horrors they usually face. Clyde is held at gunpoint by Nazis, Sarah Jane investigates the truly grisly haunting of two children that literally play with fire and Lady Jane Grey almost dies by the blade of a knife. The awful look on Lady Jane’s face when she realises even her choice is to die as a martyr to the Protestants or quietly executed by the Catholics is very dramatic. Obviously they did not have the budget to show the Catholic army securing the Tower of London but that actually turns out to be to the benefit of the show because the real drama is taking place in Lady Jane’s bedchamber, trapped, alone and about to face her death. The Chronosteel is worked into the three plots to give them all a satisfying twist in established history – Lady Jane’s death at the hands of a trusted maid stabbed in her bed, a Nazi fleet preparing to invade once British radar has been blocked and a simply key in a door that locks the children in and condemns them to the flames. Wow, I can’t believe they were allowed to get away with showing Ben and Katie playing with matches and then the flames reaching up around them. Connecting Emily’s grief with the grief of the two kids losing their life is a very gratifying way to save them from their fate. In one final clever twist comes when Emily tries to hold on to Sarah Jane as she doesn’t want to lose her like she lost her mother sending her back to the future without the Chronosteel. Cue her granddaughter stepping in a century later to offer the final piece and stopping the world being sucked into the time vortex. There is even a wonderful coda where we get to hear exactly how Emily and George’s lives progressed and if that doesn’t leave a smile on your face, nothing will.

SJA Series Four: I make no secret of the fact that in 2010 I found the Sarah Jane Adventures the superior show to Doctor Who. Matt Smith’s first year was beset with problems from a slack story arc (the five episode run up to the finale was a stutter rather than a sprint), I didn’t get in with Karen Gillan’s Amy at all and there were a number of very weak episodes from The Beast Below to the pretty dismal Silurian two parter. Whereas in comparison (and despite the fact it was half the length) there was such a sense of focus and drive in SJA that year, the productions were extremely impressive for a show with a miniscule budget (in place far more expensive looking that Doctor Who that year) and the quality of the stories was at an all time high with three of the adventures (The Nightmare Man, Death of the Doctor and Lost in Time) being my favourites of the series but there are no bad episodes. It really does feel with Doctor Who out of the way and Children of Earth finished that Russell T Davies has poured all of his energy into making this show smarter, funnier, glossier and better than ever.

The Shallow Bit: Rani in her period dress will make your heart melt – she is simplybeautiful.

Result: The ultimate time travel show with three equally engaging, interesting and vivid time periods brought to life for Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani to explore. With its myriad of locations it feels like an expensive production and the introduction of the curio man and the Captain sees SJA notch up another great element of its own mythology. I was very impressed by how mature the storytelling was with the dangers in all three time zones being very real, violent threats and the way the narratives weave around each other, feeding momentum and building in excitement and interest is very skilfully handled by Rupert Laight and director Joss Agnew. Elisabeth Sladen, Anjili Mohindra and Daniel Anthony deserve much kudos too for they have gelled into a very charismatic team and they each head off an exciting plotline. Lost in Time is beautifully written and made and is another top of the range story for series four: 10/10

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Heaven Sent written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

An instant classic and the best thing that Steven Moffat has written in simply ages, far surpassing even Listen and Dark Water last season. I have been critical of series nine to date for not being bold enough to follow through on it's promises. That for the most part it has been one could have been episode after another (check out my review of Sleep No More for further explanation). Heaven Sent is not only brave, it practically redefines what an episode of Doctor Who can be and Steven Moffat achieves that by smashing through the boundaries and changing the shape of the series into something entirely unique. Just for one astonishing episode. The presentation, the horror, the strength of performance, the poetry in the writing, the surprises...everything about this episode is adult in a way that NuWho rarely dares to be. Where's the smugness, the self referencing clever cleverness, the self-satisfied one liners, the foolish humour and dearth of characterisation that has come to characterise the Moffat era? Are you telling me this is how good it could have been since he took over? It's one of those stories like The Waters of Mars that could take place at a particular point in the Doctor's timeline, which makes even it's placing entirely unique. The Doctor has lost his best friend and is trapped in his own personal hell. It's a terrifying labyrinth inside a puzzle box where he is stalked by a dark wraith that seeks not his fear but his honesty. Peter Capaldi gives a career defining performance in what is practically a one man show and he riveted me to my seat for almost an hour. I don't even remember breathing. It's a bold move to show the Doctor this afraid and this menaced by his personal demons since he is our constant companion in this show and he is the one that the kiddies latch onto for comfort. Goodness knows what they made of this existential nightmare...I can imagine they were either sitting there in a cold sweat or yawning throughout. Funnily enough this is one of those stories that I probably wont revisit too often. Like Genesis of the Daleks, The Caves of Androzani and Midnight it has a fatalistic tone that could leave you reaching out for a razor to slit your wrists. I tend to stick the more entertaining stories on when I am in the mood for a Doctor Who (the discs of The Romans, The Stones of Blood, The Two Doctors and The Unicorn and the Wasp are almost worn out because of their exhaustive viewings) and this will be one to savour once every couple of years to remind myself of how good Doctor Who can be when it pulls out all the stops. I was genuinely terrified in parts, beguiled in others, mystified and simply dazzled by the baroque imagery throughout. Heaven Sent ends with a humdinger of a cliffhanger too. I said to Simon that I was expecting something massive to come out of this nightmarish episode and Moffat has chosen precisely the right moment to spring the Doctor's homecoming on us. Simply breathtaking: 10/10

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Hell Bent written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor has returned home and it's business as usual...

Indefinable: The saving grace of the series at the moment, Peter Capaldi is the shining beacon of quality that the show simply cannot topple. Although it is trying hard. Hell Bent is salvaged by the quality of its performances, Capaldi in particular really believes in the dodgy material he is being asked to sell and as a result it is at least half possible to buy into. He spends the first fifteen minutes of Hell Bent in silence (when words are often this incarnations weapon of choice) which is quietly unnerving and at least injects a level of unpredictability to the scenes that otherwise fail to ignite in any fashion. Whilst the acting is superb, I really don't buy into the characterisation that I am seeing here. The Doctor is suddenly a modern day rock hero on his planet who can turn the head of the army and stage a coup without uttering a word? He is willing to murder somebody in cold blood to prove a point? He's willing to break all the laws of time in order to save one life and risk the end of the universe that he has spent so long trying to protect...just so he doesn't have to be lonely? He's characterised as somebody unhinged, perhaps unsurprising in the wake of Heaven Sent but in a way that shows the character out of control and lacking any sound judgement. This is not the sort of Doctor I would want to travel in the TARDIS with. Irrational and overly emotional and dangerously out of control. Looking at his character as a whole, series nine has done some pretty loopy and unfortunate things with Capaldi's Doctor. Where series eight felt as though it had a plan for him and his relationship with Clara, this season has bent the character out of shape in very strange ways. To a point where even an actor of Capaldi's calibre has trouble convincing. His rant in the TARDIS about defying the fate of Clara at the expense of the was an especially troublesome moment for the actor because it felt like even he didn't believe what he was saying. We're supposed to buy into the fact that the Doctor can stage a coup on the strength of the fact that he won the Time War and saved the planet. I can buy into that. But I need a little more convincing than one line to cover how an entire planet can change it's allegiance on a sixpence. One line. Sheesh. You cannot make sweeping reforms like that and cover it with one line. It's all part of Moffat's (and Davies' before him) plan to immortalise the character, to mythologize him. But it's elevating him without context. I don't need you to keep telling me how amazing the Doctor is. I already know it. His 'Get of my planet' is one the worst lines since 'Clara, I'm not your boyfriend' and for exactly the same reason. It should never have been said. Arrogant prick. He's so unhinged by the climax that he is scaring the life out of even Clara. She is frightened at the lengths he might go to to protect her and she has to make steps to intervene. The sooner he moves on from all this, he better.

Impossible Girl: Clara is the perfect example of the law of diminishing returns. This is her fourth exit from the show (Kill the Moon, Death in Heaven, Face the Raven and Hell Bent) and with each successive attempt to prise his hands from her apron strings Moffat loses conviction more and more. She has become his Rose, a character he simply cannot say goodbye to and one that becomes more tedious as a result. I thought we had made a definitive farewell to the character when she looked the raven in the eye but I should have known better and despite the get out cause that she will ultimately return to that scene and meet her maker the show has effectively ducked out of its one brave decision in series nine and left her character available for possible return visits. Is two and a half seasons of this non-entity not enough? I better not tell you the sort of language I was wielding when Clara walked free of her death and wound up on Gallifrey. I'm the biggest cynic when it comes to Moffat's death-free universe but even I was convinced after Clara's mile long speech in Face the Raven that Moffat had finally decided to let somebody go. The reset here renders the previous episode pointless - the whole point of that Face the Raven was put her out of the way and now that has been unpicked what was he point of it? The Doctor loves Clara so much that he is willing to bring the universe to the brink of calamity? Is that something the show is really saying? Then he's even more dangerous than I suspected because she's really not worth it. Because it ditches any kind of epic narrative in favour of more Clara love I'm guessing that your reaction to Hell Bent entirely rests on your opinion of his latest companion. I'm sick to death of her so wasting a potentially riveting homecoming in favour of setting Clara free in the universe again is particularly tedious. Clara is a character that is drowning in the shows history - she was there at the moment when the Doctor left Gallifrey, she was there at pivotal moments throughout all of his lives, she was there when he saved Gallifrey from the Time War and she was there when he finally managed to set foot on his home planet again. She's almost like an anchor, preventing the show from setting sail into a creative furtive future. The only thing that salvages the fact that Clara returns for yet an even weaker conclusion is Jenna Coleman's sincere performance. For two and a half seasons she has fought against Clara's insipid characterisation. I don't think she succeeded but I lover a trier and she has at least managed to develop a fine rapport with Capaldi. They've just milked it for too long now.

Dreadful Dialogue: 'On pain of death no-one take a selfie!'
'Was I supposed to understand any of that?'
'Get out of that TARDIS and face me boy!' - what the hell was that line all about? Since when did the Sisterhood of Karn start threatening the Doctor?
'The universe is over - it doesn't have a say anymore! As of this moment I'm answerable to no-one!'

The Good:

* There was an episode of Stargate Atlantis where the station was under siege and the camera appeared to be swinging around the exterior of the station in a dizzying, vertiginous fashion. It was quite an effect given that the city was rendered entirely in CGI. Heaven Sent achieves a similar effect on Gallifrey, offering us a guided tour of the citadel in a way that we have never experienced before. It's spectacular and visually arresting. But it reminds me of films like The Phantom Menace, the money being spent on how it looks to paper over the artistic faults. The scenes in the Council chamber are pure Phantom Menace. That's not a compliment.
* Moffat's obsession with America continues. And why not? Doctor Who doesn't have to remained tied to England all the time. Although given the many hops to the land of the free of late it is perhaps paying lip service to a continent that is far more receptive to Doctor Who than this one at the current time. It makes for a more interesting visual than the show landing in London again but there are plenty of places that Doctor Who hasn't gone still. At the moment it feels anchored between two geographical settings.
* The one turn of the plot that I really enjoyed (because I was hoodwinked) was the assumption I had that Clara was the one that had lost her memory, rather than the Doctor.
* A regeneration from a white man to a black woman. It's Moffat pushing buttons but he must have gotten such a vehement reaction from some quarters that it had to be worth it. Although the way to counter sexism in Doctor Who is not to reverse it onto men with lines like 'Dear God how do you cope with all that ego?'
A few character beats that rang true: Clara's reaction to the Doctor suffering four and a half billion years, Clara accepting that her time is up, the notion of the Doctor running away from his people again,
* The original TARDIS is beautifully recreated and looks wonderful on screen. I think that might be enough for some people to rate this as 10/10 on it's own. But it's another kiss to the past in an episode that is full of kisses to the past. It's the best one, it fills me with the same warmth as a close hug and warm porridge but it's indulgent all the same. What's interesting is how this console works so vividly in  2015...they could have returned to the original from 2005 and it would have worked.
* My favourite scene in the entire piece took me by surprise. A moment of poetry at the end of time with Ashildr, the girl who lived. Maisie Williams looking radiant and giving the sort of confident performance that I am used to her in Game of Thrones. Acting-wise, this is her strongest moment in the season. Gorgeously lit and with some thoughtful things to say, this is a little ocean of calm in a world of crassness.
* Despite the fact that I have been complaining about the electric guitar all season I have to say the Clara piece that the Doctor plays in the diner at the end of the episodes really touched me. It was the most impressive thing about that scene. Don't say I'm not changeable.

The Bad:

* I remember Russell T Davies discussing how he insisted on anchoring Doctor Who in reality, to ensure that the show kept one foot in the real world show that the audience had something that they could buy into. That they could relate to. He didn't want lots of stories set on dull planets that failed to connect to people. That's probably why he got rid of Gallifrey in the first place. And what a sound creative decision that was in my eyes. Gallifrey has only ever really worked in one story for me (The Deadly Assassin) and in that story it was perversely playing against type to produce another Hinchcliffe/Holmes horror/thriller pastiche. Otherwise it is simply a terrifically boring stock SF planet full of pompous characters spouting stilted dialogue involving a horrific amount of technobabble. Heaven Sent happily picks up that mantle and reminds us of why Gallifrey is such a tedious place to visit. Not even Capaldi's unnerving silence can reduce these scenes to anything above stock SF blandness. Simon turned to me halfway through the episode whilst the Doctor and Clara were poking around in the guts of the planet and talking nothing but continuity and technoshite and declared he had no idea what was going on, that he had no interest in what was going on and that he failed to see how anyone that was not a Doctor Who geek could be getting any enjoyment out of this. I can see his point. Setting up the return of Gallifrey was a massive deal, getting the Doctor back to his planet was a huge struggle...and this is the result? It tarnishes the era of the 12th Doctor in a spectacularly disappointing way. I wish this had been Moffat's swansong and in some ways I wish it had been Capaldi's too because I think it would have pushed the showrunner into making some more savvy creative choices with the Doctor's homeworld. Why wouldn't you re-imagine Gallifrey in your own image? Why would you stick with the same palette as The Invasion of Time? This could have been a savage, war torn land turned to madness...but instead it's vanilla Gallifrey restored to it's factory settings. I would have loved to have gone down into the bowels of the planet and seen obscene experiments being performed on all the races of the universe, the lengths that the Time Lords went to to try and defeat the Daleks. Something truly horrific and immoral that would question the Doctor's loyalty to his world.
* This is so laden with continuity, both from the past and the shows recent history, that it could be written by the love child of Gary Russell, David A. McIntee and Craig Hinton. It's obsessed with the shows history in a way that is detrimental to it's creative present. Why would Foxes Don't Stop Me Now be playing in an American Diner cum TARDIS? Because they thought it was cute. Why would the Doctor play Clara's theme on his electric guitar? Because they thought it would be cute. Both are utterly self indulgent and turn up in the first scene and tell you everything you need to know about the episode ahead. The Matrix, Rassilon, the Sisterhood of Karn, the Doctor returning to the scene of his near defeat in The Day of the Doctor, whistling the Doctor's theme (at least that was a fine innovation, very memorable and highlighting the western tone), the Chancellery Guard, the Matrix, the confession dial, Clara's death, a Dalek, Cyberman and Weeping Angel, Shobogans, 'four knocks', the original TARDIS console, Missy/the Master. Hilariously one fan on Gallifrey Base staunchly refused to admit that this episode did not pay lip service to the fans. Are you having a laugh. There's probably more I haven't mentioned. I'm saying there isn't a place for continuity, I'm just saying it shouldn't damage your chance of understanding if you aren't a fan. Series nine with Daleks, Davros, base under siege stories, Zygons and Time Lords has been obsessed with the past. Stop it.
* Donald Sumpter is a great actor. Like Maisie Williams his work on Game of Thrones was extraordinary. In a role that is both underwritten and overwritten (which is some feat), Sumpter is at sea trying to bring any kind of gravitas to Rassilon. He resorts to growling and chewing the scenery and the result is one of the least effective guest turns since the show returned in 2005. Timothy Dalton was vivid and terrifying in The End of Time, Sumpter follows that with a deflated performance.
* Why are the Sisterhood of Karn in this? What narrative purpose do they serve? Why are the Gallifreyan Outsiders all wearing normal clothes now? Why are the Time Lords hated? It's not like anybody even remembers them anymore.
* The Hybrid has to be the most half arsed arc that the series has ever kicked up. Again Moffat is trying to tie his storylines into the misty dawn of Doctor Who history to give it some kind of status but the fact that this awe inspiring Hybrid has never been mentioned before rather gives the impression that it has been made up on the fly and slotted in unconvincingly. Again Moffat promises a huge revelation and what transpires barely makes any sense. Is the Doctor the hybrid? Are the Doctor and Clara the hybrid? Is Ashildr? Do you really care? Is it relevant in any way? Does it have anything to do with the Time Lords and the Daleks? Was it all overblown pomp? Of course it was. It felt like the show was trying to cash in on the popularity of the Doctor/Donna concept. And failing. And that's not the only concept stolen from Journey's End.
* I hate how easy this episode is on the Doctor. Steven Moffat is trying so hard to maintain the status quo from Face the Raven (the death of a companion) and save his favourite creation (Clara) that he contrives a situation that allows both characters to walk away Scot free whilst pretending that the show has still done something brave. Clara is still going to die, she is existing in between her penultimate and last heartbeat but for all intents and purposes her adventures are going to go on and on in that moment for as long as the viewer (or Moffat) wants them to. I have been saying all year that the show has been afraid to make tough choices and this is probably the worst example, it's the most blatant example of chickenshitedness for many, many an episode. A bold show would murder off a character and move on. Doctor Who arranges a way for her to survive because people just don't die on this show anymore. And the whole idea of the Doctor not remembering Clara strikes me as a way of trying to capture the melancholy and unfairness of his situation with Donna in Journey's End...and it even chicken shits out of that by having the Doctor remember certain details about their adventures. Moffat could have been truly brave (like Davies) and erased their entire time together (but this time in the Doctor's mind) but instead he maintains the status quo in as neat a way as possible. I suppose at least it means the show can move on from her character now, once and for all. But I would have loved for the show to go for the gut with a knife, instead of waving it at the audience and then putting it away and letting everything continue as normal. Essentially this episode exists to complicatedly give Steven Moffat the chance to take the easy option. Thanks for that.
* I do like a happy ending. I do. But the Clara floating off in an American diner for adventures with Ashildr is her least compelling exit of the four. It's certainly the most idiotic. And it means Clara could come back again.

The Shallow Bit: Clara as the waitress. Phew. If she had to go out here, at least she looks wonderful.

Result: There were times during the shows hiatus in the wilderness years where it was being used as the product of wish fulfilment, turning it into really bad fan fiction and much of Hell Bent reeks of that kind of fannish discharge. Half Gallifrey porn, half shippers paradise and almost entirely wank. The build up to Hell Bent was extraordinary. It felt the show was going to say something huge about Gallifrey and it's future but ultimately all it had to say was the Doctor loves Clara and the show lacks guts. Which is not what I was expecting. What irritated my no end is that it takes the potential of Steven Moffat's personal finest achievement in his own era (The Day of the Doctor) and throws it away, it wastes the return of Gallifrey which should have been a spectacular event in favour of more obsession with the least interesting companion to have stepped out of NuWho. Clara has become Moffat's Rose, an unfortunate anchor in the series that he cannot toss away. There are moments of poetry in Hell Bent, some wonderful lines and the acting is first rate but so much of the episode is overblown, drawn out, clever clever and incomprehensible. I have no idea where it leaves the casual viewer because we're playing lip service to the fans again, the show having a very similar feel to the mid-eighties. What it desperately needs is a shot of originality and innovation. Doctor Who is leaning so heavily on the past now that it can only make tentative steps forward. It's in danger of disappearing up it's own arse crack completely. Heaven Sent proved the sort of rich furrow the show can plough once Clara was out of the way but as soon as she's back we're drowning in continuity again. Now she has moved on perhaps we can take a few risks and try some new things again. What's next then? Oh, River Song. Sincere performances (for the most part) are what salvage a few scenes but for me this was the weakest of the Steven Moffat finales because it exists for the show to lack balls in a season where the show has lacked balls: 3/10