Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Return of Doctor Mysterio written by Steven Moffat and directed by Ed Bazalgette

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor wanders into a superhero movie to see what help he can offer…

Indefinable: I think this title has never been more appropriate. Capaldi’s Doctor has shown more development (or alteration) than practically any other Doctor since Tom Baker progressed from a brooding alien to a madcap Uncle to a haunted spectre of death in the seventies. Capaldi’s first season saw the show take a daring approach, to make the Doctor as distant and as unlikable as Colin Baker was in the 80s. Some fans enjoyed the approach, making the Doctor much darker and less approachable and having to work to get close to him. I certainly did. However, it’s probable that the casual audience were less keen and the gradual softening of the 12th Doctor has been a work in progress ever since the beginning of series nine. I didn’t enjoy some of the obvious quirks that were foisted upon the character (whether they were at Capaldi’s insistence or not) such as the sonic shades and the electric guitar. In my own words, it came across as an old man having something of a midlife crisis. However it is clear that Capaldi has the ability to turn on quite a charm offensive in quite a beguiling way…and I think Moffat finally got the mix just about right in The Husbands of River Song last Christmas. The Doctor was light on his feet, snappy with a one liner, charmingly one step ahead and seemed to be having a whale of a time. Interestingly we didn’t need a companion gushing about the wonders of time travel to get across the delight of travelling through time and space. That feeling of an adventurer who is at peace with himself and his place in the universe is extended here and the Doctor quite charmingly steps into a superhero tale to hold the protagonists hand from childhood who to adulthood. The Doctor is happy to stand back and let another man’s story play out. I’ve heard criticism that the Doctor seems out of place and is side-lined but that is quite a deliberate move. He is the outsider in this environment and that offers a new perspective on the character, not somebody who is trying to hog the limelight and show off (stand up latter day 11th Doctor) but someone who gently pushes the story on by truly living up to his name; a teacher, a friend and a mentor. I thought it worked very well and the small inclusion of a timeywimeyness with the Doctor popping up throughout Grant’s life added some depth to their relationship. The Doctor has always enjoyed an appealing relationship with children so it came as no surprise to me that the opening scenes had a suffuse glow about them. What surprised me the most was the very un-Doctor Who cut to the high school and Grant as a teenager rising to the occasion at the sight of Lucy and the Doctor offering advice. Doctor Who doesn’t often dish out erection metaphors (although those sonic screwdrivers are getting bigger over time) and rather than coming across as something lurid it feels innocent and sweet. Some might say that it isn’t the job of the Doctor to interfere in the domestic lives of people but this story does a good job of balancing his usual role (saving the universe from irritating nasties) and letting him help bring two people together. Simon still says that Capaldi is not one of his favourites and it saddens me to think that that might be a popular opinion because he automatically adds a touch of class to any episode he appears in and is probably the strongest actor to take on the role since it returned in 2005. He does everything that is asked of him to a very high standard. This isn’t stirring material for the actor, it’s comforting, hug-your-loved-ones-its-Christmas material. I’d take this over his unbalanced reign of terror on Gallifrey in Hell Bent any day of the week. Who cares if we don’t know why the Doctor is hanging outside of the window and setting traps, let’s just accept that he’s in the middle of an adventure and at the start of another at the same time. It wasn’t a problem in Blink. There’s few Doctor’s that would make an authentic Santa substitute and even fewer that would find the idea so amusing. The Doctor sipping pop, his legs hanging through the railings and talking to Grant about his adolescence, made me chuckle. Is this really the same Doctor who stepped out of the TARDIS in Deep Breath? There’s somebody worse at love in the universe than the Doctor, apparently. Even the Doctor realises this is less about the usual alien takeover guff and deals with all that and gives Lucy and Grant time to realise their future is together. How he calls in UNIT and deactivates the villains gun so half-heartedly at the climax reveals just how bothered he is by this latest threat to the world. I love his madness in the spacecraft, deciding the most unpredictable thing he can do is set their plan into motion and hope that Grant is paying attention on Terra Firma and isn’t distracted by a pretty girl. Nardole is right, when this Doctor smiles it means something is quite amiss. The final shot of him blazing eyed and heading off into the universe tops off a glorious performance from Capaldi.

Baldy: I don’t object to Nardole, in fact I though Matt Lucas did a nice job in underplaying the character nicely throughout and proving to be a sweet observer of the action in this story. But that is rather my problem – I don’t get why he is here. He doesn’t add anything to the story, we know absolutely nothing about his background and he has turned up again with the barest explanation as to how he and the Doctor met again after Husbands. He’s an enigma. One that I am sure it will be worth exploring further down the line in season 10 but for right now I find him a bit of an anomaly. His ‘You are completely out of your mind!’ was delivered to perfection, though. And how he appeared from the wreckage of the spaceship, Mainwaring askew, was very funny.

Sparkling Dialogue: I’m not really a fan of the one liner, especially not the Moffat one liner which is often drowning in self-assurance and smugness. Something was different in Mysterio, I found myself chuckling along with the characters. It’s because much of the humour is character based and it isn’t forced, it’s gently unassuming.

 ‘You’re kind of wet’ ‘I prefer mild mannered’ That line made me laugh on both watches.
‘Mrs Lombard, there are some situations that are just too stupid to be allowed to continue.’
‘You’re jealous of you!’ ‘Technically she’s jealous of her!’
'I flooded downstairs with Pokemon.’

The Good:

·         I have heard complaints that the episode looks cheap, with specific mentions of the general cheapness of the show since they moved on from The Mill. It’s nonsense. No part of this episode looks as though expense has been spared, in fact I was quite in awe at times at just how visually spectacular the show has become. Whilst it lacked the flash bang wallop action set pieces of a superhero movie (and I would never expect anything like that from Doctor Who), it is astonishing just how well New York is realised despite the production team never setting foot there. There were a multitude of vertiginous shots of the New York skyline that made me feel a little giddy, especially that incredible pan up the Ariel and looking down on New York from above. It’s delirious.
·         I have to confess that I am not the biggest fan of superhero movies but weirdly that might have increased my enjoyment of Mysterio. The episode had nothing spectacular to live up to for me and I thought the approach of playing out what is effectively a different genre to anything Doctor Who has ever been before was quite novel. There were lots of cute touches that I liked; the introduction to the episode through the panel of a comic strip, the comic book wallpaper in the young Grant’s room, the Doctor points out the absurdity to many a superhero cliché including how ridiculous the double identity plot is and why the regular Joe’s who are infected with radiation don’t happen to puke and die, Lucy mistaking the baby monitor for a bat signal app, neither Simon nor I guessed that Grant would wind up being the nanny to Lucy’s baby…when if this story was to pay homage to Superman he had to be a part of her life somehow as a regular guy, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Grant dashing off to save people from burning buildings and emerging with the baby in the apartment a second later, the biggest cliché of all – the glasses – turn out to be a lovely device, allowing for several catch your breath moments and reversals when it looks like Grant is going to be bold and reveal his identity to Lucy. My favourite thing was how because this is a superhero movie we have been pre-conditioned to accept the impossible. The climax features a man holding a baby monitor and spaceship. Under any other circumstances we would be decrying that that is ridiculous and the single most embarrassing thing that has ever happened in Doctor Who. Because of his choice of homage, Moffat has bypassed any complaints you might make about the implausibility of the story. I thought that was delicious.
·         Grant being a superhero and a nanny. It’s cute, it riffs on gender identification and it means there are lots of lovely gags that make your heart sing with the baby. I had yearnings for Sarah Jane Smith with Lucy a busy reporter sniffing out her own story and discovering the Doctor along the way. When the Ghost whisks in and snatches Lucy away he’s dragging the audience away from the naff Doctor Who story and into the romance/superhero one. It’s that point where the narrative makes up its mind what it wants to focus on. Lucy is smart and observant and takes all the information she needs from the questions she asks. Very Sarah Jane Smith. Lucy putting Grant’s superhero costume on (his glasses) was just lovely.
·         I can’t decide whether Mr Huffle is a nice, quirky notion or an idea that quickly out stays its welcome. Either way, he’s responsible for the one sincerely emotional beat in the story that made me catch my breath. Lucy grabs him tight when the Doctor says he is okay at the climax and she tortured the toy to prove that she knows he is lying. It’s nicely set up and it reveals a depth to their relationship. I like how he pops up in shock when the Doctor informs Lucy of the aliens’ plan for worldwide colonisation too. I wonder if Mr Huffle has a more important role to play in this story than Nardole, he certainly made me feel more. He’s a part of the TARDIS crew now, let’s see what other surprises he can provide.

The Bad: The ridiculous throwaway reason that Grant is granted super powers. As played it makes logical sense that grant would think that the crystal is medicine but it’s still pretty naff – a gemstone that when ingested gives you everything that you want? It’s almost as fairy-tale as the Doctor existing just because Amy Pond says so. Brains with eyes? Was anybody else thinking Morphoton brains? There was absolutely nothing original about the nature of the invaders, their plot to scare the world and their desire to take over those in power. Aliens of London/World War Three played this out much better because despite the domestic element of Rose coming home and the comedy aliens (I still love the Slitheen) it was structured like a traditional Doctor Who adventure and it was focussed on it’s scenario. The alien invasion takeover is the Doctor Who aspect of Mysterio but it feels like it is intruding on the more personal story taking place between Lucy and Grant. It feels like an intruder, there because it has to be rather than because it needs to be. A threat was needed, one is conjured up but let’s not pretend that the banal nature of aliens taking over by popping their brains into human shells and dropping a spaceship on New York is anything special. Strangely enough it is the most Doctor Who-y moments where I felt creative fatigue from Moffat. The effect of the head tearing open is fantastically achieved but beyond that these aliens didn’t managed to distinguish themselves at all. I get the point of the split screen sequence, cutting the action up like a comic book but I don’t think it is particularly imaginatively realised or effective. It feels kind of half arsed, just there to add a (unsuccessful) visual quirk. Not even the cut to the baby adds any charm to the sequence.

The Shallow Bit: Justin Chatwin con glasses. Hot.

Result: This is less of a superhero movie and more a collection of the elements that make up a superhero movie. It’s also less of a Doctor Who episode but more a collection of elements that make up a Doctor Who episode. The two don’t mesh together entirely well and plot wise you’re looking at a bit of a car crash of a story with some underdeveloped ideas. What salvages the story and lifts it surprisingly high in places is the amount of heart on display, the fun kisses to the genre it is aping, the stylish visuals and the character work, which whilst never aspiring to anything substantial is warmly written and brought to the screen by the cast. In other words, the precise opposite of what Steven Moffat usually delivers, light on plot and ideas and heavy on character and sentimentality. I really enjoyed the love triangle between Lucy, Grant and the Ghost and the cute humour that arose from the situation. There really haven’t been scenes like this in Doctor Who before…because these scenes aren’t really Doctor Who. They’re the New Adventures of Superman, but I rather liked that show and the bizarre love triangle that played out (until they married off Lois and Clark, that was a disaster). Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield deliver charming performances and you’re rooting for them all the way, even if their eventual smooch is predictable. It’s the gentlest kind of romance, so chaste and innocent there’s only one hint of sexual tension but that’s why it’s so enjoyable for all the family to watch. You know, at Christmas. There were moments where the direction worked a doozy (the vibrant way New York is brought to life, the honesty of the intimate character moments) and there were times where it felt a little sloppy (the pointless split screen sequence, the Doctor on the live camera, the pedestrian nature of how the aliens were presented). I’ve seen better Christmas specials (The Christmas Invasion, The Snowmen, Last Christmas) and I’ve seen far worse (The Next Doctor, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, Time of the Doctor), this was a middling adventure but a kiss and a cuddle of a character tale. Against the odds, The Return of Doctor Mysterio was very enjoyable. It left me with a warm feeling in my stomach…although that might have been the Disaronno too: 7/10

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Absolute Power written and directed by Jamie Anderson

What's it about: Two thousand years ago, all civilisation on the planet Teymah was wiped out in an AELE – an Anomalous Extinction Level Event. Now, the galactic entrepreneur Lyam Yce hopes, at last, to learn the reason why the ancient Teymahrians went extinct – by funding a huge archaeological dig. While the Doctor probes a strange sphere found by Yce's diggers, his companion, former Bletchley Park cryptographer Constance Clarke, agrees to help translate symbols written in the lost ancient language of the Teymahrians. And soon, they'll learn that ancient Teymah's secrets were best left buried deep beneath its shifting sands...

Softer Six: Despite being over 900 years old he does still have his occasional childish moments and when a Brudvahkian yak wound up spitting on Constance he couldn't help but have a good giggle. The Doctor has been working on a mobile device that is an extension of the TARDIS' telepathic circuitry for centuries. It allows you to feel the empathy for another but he cannot recall why he built it now for love nor money, it was a few regenerations back. The Doctor and his companion arriving can go one of two ways; he's accused of being a stranger and suspected of whatever trouble is going on or he is mistaken for somebody else and 'expected.' I'm glad this is the latter because it avoids all the clichés of the more familiar former approach. It's precisely why Russell T. Davies invented the psychic paper, to avoid the predictability of the Doctor having the finger pointed at him as soon as he arrives. Listen to the Doctor and Constance listening to the Yce propaganda video, its a small but vital demonstration of their easy chemistry at this point in their travels. Apparently he has as acccute a sense of directional hearing as a bat with Sat Nav. Always been one for modesty, Sixie. He enjoys a little corporate hospitality every now and again. Colin Baker is always at his best when he gets to raise up on his moral high horse. The destruction of Teymahrian civilisation, how the Ninexie representative worked his way through one host after another and subsequently wiped out their race in doing so, appals him. Tens of millions of them destroyed to ensure the procreation of a scientifically advanced species. Can you imagine his anger?

Constant Companion: When she's angry with him it is most definitely Mrs Clarke. She's admits she doesn't know the Doctor all that well and they have only been travelling together for a little time. She's certainly not been with him long enough so the wonder of the universe is lost on her. She steps out of the TARDIS in awe, not simply declaring not a dreary old planet. There were enough eighties companions like that on the TV. An artefact with an undiscovered language, exactly the sort of thing that a cryptographer from the Second World War can get her teeth into. As a wartime gal, Mrs Clarke was used to cutbacks and finds the set on Teymah more than a little extravagant. I love that the Doctor speaks very highly of Mrs Clarke's abilities, professionally. She really should have paid more attention to that escapology course at Blecthley...but then she had no idea she was going to be roaming around the universe and having mad adventures. She cannot handle male attention and shies away from it dramatically. Maybe she doesn't know him that well but Constance has absolute faith that he will turn up and save her when she is in a spot. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'This is genocide on the most obscene and monstrous scale!'

Great Ideas: Emotional trauma is what claiming compensation is all about so it does surprise that that is taken to the nth degree in the future. Landing on the site of an AELE - an Anomalous Extinction Level Event - is a nice, juicy dramatic idea. You can bet your bottom dollar that we are going to find out by the end of the story. Doctor Who loves a mystery and this is one that is ready to be solved. When did any good come of poking around in mysterious spheres that are discovered on alien worlds? When will people learn to leave these sorts of things alone? I love how Anderson runs through some of the SF clichés when a character suggests what the sphere might be. There have been a fair few spheres in Doctor Who before and it's nice to see he is aware of that. After The Impossible Planet, Under the Lake and now Absolute Power I'm starting to wonder if the TARDIS wasn't fitted with a comprehensive list of languages of the universe to translate. Mind you, after all the planets that they have visited were the translation circuits have worked, this is just an aberration. An ancient God that derived his power from a special cylindrical object? You should never listen to rumour but sometimes it can't be helped. Electromitosis is the generation of electricity in order to reproduce. 3000 years ago a member of the Ninexie landed in a colonisation pod landed on Teymah. An attempted invasion and interstellar war led to led to a dramatic increase in immigration, spreading their reach into the universe. Their method of colonisation requires a certain level of technological sophistication and so he had to use the Teymahrians as hosts to advance their scientific development. Irresponsible but a sound survival instinct. The Genocide Squad sound like a terrifying prospect.

Audio Landscape: Shuttles landing and flying overhead, the Doctor working on a fizzing console in the TARDIS, the eerie atmosphere on Teymah, breaking into the sphere, power leaping from the sphere, a dust storm whipping up, a busy an bustling hospitality, the Doctor scribbling, a beeping bomb, a ship punching off into space, water rushing, laser fire,

Musical Cues: I immediately had the sense that the music was being composed by somebody different, it had a freshness and vibrancy to it that screamed of an original voice to Big Finish. That was a smart move on Jamie Anderson, to give his first main range adventure a unique style. The dramatic moments have a real sense of pace of the mystery of the planet that was abandoned is captured with haunting beauty. It's quite melodramatic in parts but to me that feels very traditionally Doctor Who. Too many of the main range scores have tried to feel like movie soundtracks in the last few years, forgetting that the show wasn't epically emotional all the time.

Isn't it Odd: A fellow reviewer sparked a moment of anger in me recently and it made me think about the whole nature of Doctor Who and what different people seek from it. His reviews are ones that I admire and follow religiously. We don't always agree but considering we are different people with different tastes that is only to be expected. His reviews are briefer than mine, more incisive, more decisive and generally far more intelligently written. However his sense of disbelief that somebody could look at the main range in the current state it is in and find it not only enjoyable, but exactly the sort of Doctor Who they seek out, was palpable. It stems from Big Finish rather smugly placing their positive reviews on their website to encourage others to buy them. As a marketing device, it's gold. These are word that have been written in praise of these stories and so to wave a flag towards them whilst trying to sell them is a smart move. However if you read all the review quotes that have been placed at the stop of all the stories you'll could possibly be under the impression that every one of them is an instant classic, with no quality variance whatsoever. My problem with the reviewers reaction to this is the incredulity that a cliché ridden nostalgia fuelled range might what somebody could hold up and champion. And why not? There's plenty about the main range that I am not satisfied with but I completely understand why somebody might listen to Order of the Daleks and think it ticks all the right boxes and tickles their fancies. It's horses for courses. We all like different things. I'm absolutely serious when I give The Chase and Time and the Rani 9/10 because they both give such pleasure. The series is the same, I didn't get a great deal of enjoyment overall from the Matt Smith era...but I'm finding the Capaldi era much more to my tastes. Interest is such relative thing, a personal thing. And that's what I've always promoted on this blog. My personal interest. I'm not speaking for fandom but my only personal reaction to the show. It's why I'm attacked occasionally with some scathing comments, because people have such different tastes to mine. My point is...let's enjoy what we enjoy (or not) and leave everybody else to their devices. Doctor Who is a personal love, and we all get different things from it. If am rewarded with innovation and intelligence there will be somebody else berating the fact that the story isn't Doctor Whoey enough for them. It's the name of the game. If you like the main range right now, good for you. It's fine to express personal dissatisfaction, but  questioning why others get enjoyment from something doesn't sit too well with me.

Florrie was played so sickly sweet that I had her pegged as being up to no good from the start. There's a little too much technobabble for me in the last episode.

Result: That was...really rather fun. I don't think there was one part of this story that wasn't a Doctor Who cliché of some sort or another; the mystery of an abandoned civilisation, a strange sphere found in the ruins, an unknown language, possession,  centuries old war having consequences on the present, genocidal revenge, a society unnaturally advanced. However how the story was presented, so pacy and dramatic, they all get a new lease of life. It's like Doctor Who tropes being stuffed into a firework, lighting the fuse and watching them explode in the sky in colourful patterns. I was carried along by the thrust of the story, the energy of the actors and Jamie Anderson's superb understanding of how to get the most drama out of any given situation. He really is quite a find this year. The regulars carry a lot of the story and I'm pleased to reveal that the sixth Doctor and Constance continue to impress. Baker and Raison work together very well, although I have to say I am excited for the shake up in the next release, simply for the amusing culture clash I think it will bring. The use of a fresh musician worked very well for me too. Music is very important to an audio adventure, sound is all they have to generate an atmosphere and Joe Kraemer is a fresh and original new talent to the range. I was carried lightly through the more traditional moments ideas thanks to Kraemer's exciting and mysterious score. If the main range was to bubble along popping out conventional stories, I would much rather it was something as snap crackle and pop as Absolute Power rather than some of the examples we have suffered in the past couple of years. Is this the sort of story that I think the main range should be using as a template for future adventures? Dramatically, yes. Do I want a little more innovation and originality in my Doctor Who? Yes too. Anderson clearly has a fine understanding of the show and of audio drama in general. I think he's going to write and direct an absolute classic at some point. Absolute Power isn't that. But it will colourfully kiss you all over with Doctor Whoness and when it's as effortlessly enjoyable as this it's best to just lie back and enjoy it. Take of that metaphor what you will: 7/10