Friday, 29 December 2017

Twice Upon a Time written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who holds off his regeneration in order to fill a Christmas Day slot in the schedule…

Indefinable: Peter Capaldi, the true survivor of the Steven Moffat. He’s survived Doctor Grumpy (‘Am I good man?’), Doctor Who Disco (‘Am I cool man?’) and Doctor Lecturer (‘Am I good Doctor?’), three completely different takes on the same character that might as well be different incarnations for all they have in common with one another. He’s survived sonic sunglasses, becoming the President of the Earth, electric guitars, moon eggs, irritating children, tedious found footage, and love conquers all again and again and again. He’s walked through this battlefield of madness, indulgence and continuity and walked out with his head held high. It’s no mean feat because some of the hoops that Capaldi has been asked to jump through would destroy other actors but he’s so determined to make a success of this role and is so talented himself that he has managed to hold onto his dignity and unearthed terrific nuggets of gold in an era that can, at best, be described as ‘diverting but uneven.’ And here in his final hour he is asked not to stretch his acting muscles at all (or certainly not in the way that he was during the few moments when he was really pushed out of his comfort zone: Heaven Sent, The Zygon Inversion) but to walk a line between embarrassment for the (misplaced) sexism of his former self, having to explain continuity points from three series back and mawkishly saying goodbye to all of his friends and finally letting go of himself in a speech so drained of meaning that I literally wanted to jump in the screen and give him a shove to bring forth Whittaker. The Doctor Falls was a much more impressive finale for the character and the actor, I genuinely feel sorry that he has to twiddle his thumbs for an hour to wait for the Time Lady to arrive. The moment when the twelfth Doctor puts sunglasses on the first in the TARDIS and says ‘I love it’ I realised it was time for Capaldi to go. He’s so far above this kind of material. This is the actor that Russell T Davies had shoot his wife and children in the climax of an alien invasion and now he is reduced to this kind of cheap frivolity. The one note of originality for him was his reaction to this not being an evil plan. The Doctor simply does not know what to do when there is no-one to fight.

Hmm: I want to give David Bradley a shake of the hand for attempting to take on such a brave part, one that was bound to be lambasted by Doctor Who fans no matter what direction he chose to take it. I’ve heard it all; he talks like a drunk robot, he clutches his lapels too much, he has no relevance to the story, he lacks that twinkle in the eye. Balderdash! Bradley isn’t playing William Hartnell playing the first Doctor this time, he is playing an interpretation of the character and I would say he has all the emphasis of the original incarnation – stern, twinkly, assured and full of bluff. For me, he was the major reason for sitting through the hour. The Doctor is very confused when his future self declares that the Earth is protected. He used to be a little subtler than that. And declares the inside of Capaldi’s TARDIS hideous, although to be fair that original model is the dream design. He looks quite haunted when the promise of a conversation with Susan fails to materialise. The twelfth Doctor giving the first Doctor the idea of a sonic screwdriver and just a few years before he creates one is cute. I like how the story points out how sharp the first Doctor is, just with his eyes and not with gadgets. He gets a disturbing peek into his personal future and cannot begin to imagine how he could get such a ridiculous reputation in the universe. I’m surprised he was happy to walk on into that busy, noisy, melodramatic future. I would have run away screaming. The first Doctor is afraid to regenerate, the sort of confession he wouldn’t usually admit to anybody. It’s something that has been questioned by critics but I think it is a perfectly valid response to a terrifying first in a lifetime regeneration that is about to occur. I adored the scene between him and Bill where they discuss why he left Gallifrey and the difference he can make in the universe. Not so much for the dialogue, but the stunning performances. Moffat needs to know how lucky he is having actors this talented speaking his retconning dialogue. 

Oh Brilliant: I’m trying to think how I felt during those little vignettes when each new Doctor was revealed before the credits rolled. I thought Tennant was a total goon, and he wound up being my favourite. I thought Matt Smith had great energy but looked bloody weird, and he wound up being my least favourite. I thought Capaldi was talking some real shite but had a playful score and Clara’s reaction was beautiful and promised great things, and he fulfilled his potential in some ways and missed the mark by a mile in others. Whitaker, the first female Doctor, is simply majestic from the outset. Her eyes give a performance of their own and then it’s straight into high energy action as the TARDIS decides no thank you very much. An intriguing development. What is my opinion of a female Doctor Who? Absolutely fucking fantastic. She’s a terrific actress and the series desperately needs this kick up the arse creatively. Whatever the standard of writing is, there is going to be a brand-new energy to the next series that is going to make it the first must watch season since series five. 

Sparkling Dialogue:

‘To be fair they cut out all the jokes.’
‘If I hear any more language like that from you, young lady, you’re in for a jolly good smacked bottom!’

The Good
· How to introduce David Bradley as the first Doctor without it seeming as though they are shitting all over continuity and shoehorning him into a story that technically should never have taken place? Create a mouth watering pre-titles sequence which lifts the most exciting moments of The Tenth Planet, gets fanboys creaming their knickers (myself included) and then seamlessly blend the old footage with freshly shot material. It’s a shame that they should have wasted Hartnell’s melding into Bradley on the trailer so as to spoil the surprise but in all honesty, it was the one thing about the trailer that truly got me excited for the episode. It’s an arresting opening, even if the recast Ben looks nothing like Michael Craze and the recast Polly is clearly wearing a dolly bird wig. I was more geared up for the special than ever a few seconds in…
· Capaldi’s hair deserves recognition of its own. He’s managed to out-bouffant both Barbara and Pertwee. It’s magnificent.
· One of the things I have noted about Rachel Talalay’s often spectacular direction for Doctor Who (for me the standout of the era) is that the production values step up a notch from their already very agreeable standards. Take a look at The Magician’s Apprentice or Heaven Sent again, this woman knows how to make the show veer towards cinematic. Oddly there were moments in Twice Upon a Time where the show literally seemed to be aping a sixties adventures with much of the story taking place either on the TARDIS or what is clearly a studio based alien planet. However, when the story reaches Ypres in 1914 Talalay really gets the chance to flaunt her stuff. It looks as authentic as I could imagine and there are some beautiful touches; the crow and the explosion that are caught mid-air when time freezes and the snow over the battlefield. Shooting through the clouds in an Ariel shot has become a signature move on Talalay’s part and it always looks impressive.
· The original console room is a beautifully recreated here as it was in Adventure in Space and Time and Hell Bent. It’s simply glorious, and I would make an argument for it being featured permanently if I didn’t already know it was too retro for a modern audience. All the scenes featured inside the first Doctor’s TARDIS simply made my heart sing. It even features the astral map.
· I rather liked the sets for the Villengard sequences, even if they clearly sets in a way that very few NuWho alien landscapes are. There is a nightmarish quality to them, especially with all those Dalek mutants scuttling about.
· Whereas The Empress of Mars felt like an opportunity for Mark Gatiss to exploit his friendship with Steven Moffat one last time with a thoroughly indulgent script, his star turn in this episode feels far less incestuous because the performance is so good. Maybe this role was written for Gatiss, but it plays to his strengths as an actor and it gives the piece real heart. Whilst it is another kiss to the past (and it isn’t as though Moffat hasn’t meddled with the Lethbridge-Stewart legacy enough, what with dragging him out of the grave and turning him into a Cyberman), his identity is one of the subtler elements of continuity and it is very believable that the Brigadier could spring from this lineage. Gatiss gives a thoughtful, credible turn at the eleventh hour playing a character in an uncommon situation.
· The two TARDISes side by side. The cutest thing ever.
· The 1914 Armistice is a moment in human history to be proud of and celebrated, a moment when men at war put down their arms and aside their differences and celebrated Christmas together. It’s refreshing to see Doctor Who shying away from it’s usual technique of explaining away important historical events through alien or Time Lord intervention. For once, the sentiment of the moment is worth celebrating alone. They could have just used footage from the Sainsburys advert.
· Unlike the Capaldi regeneration, the Bradley regeneration feels like the centrepiece of the finale. Talalay shoots this with absolute precision and the material feels as though it has been lifted from the original and colourised. Just beautifully done.
· It’s all an illusion build from memories but the few moments the Doctor, Bill and Nardole are together brought back the best of series 10. It was a strong reminder that there was a refreshing taste to Capaldi’s last season, the one where Moffat got the regulars right.
· Hurrah for the musical cues from The End of Time, Heaven Sent, The Husbands of River Song and Rose. The best of Murray Gold, shall we say. Was there any original music in this episode at all?

The Bad:
· Sharing his finale with the first Doctor robs the twelfth of the limelight in his finale. There, I said it. I might have mentioned it elsewhere in this review but Capaldi’s Doctor had a much better showing in The Doctor Falls (a story that seemed designed to push the actor and the character). This feels…anti-climactic. The focus is far more on what Bradley will do with a role five decades old than Capaldi going through the same old tired tricks.
· Two Doctors meeting smacks of a gimmick. Two Doctors meeting at the point where they are supposed to regenerate moves beyond gimmickry into wankery. And for an era that has redefined gimmickry and wankery for a whole new generation of Doctor Who fans this is perhaps the ultimate expression. It’s a clear sign of a show looking backwards, not forwards, a complaint I have levelled at the Capaldi era a little too often.
· Sexism was rife in the sixties, and An Adventure in Space and Time reflected that with painful honesty. However, thanks to the talents of Verity Lambert and William Hartnell that very rarely bled into the characterisation of the Doctor. Certainly not to the degree that is exhibited by Moffat’s script which seems to go all out to show how progressive the show is these days by highlighting how liberal minded the latest Doctor is. The irony being that Moffat who may just have featured the least appealing, most sexist interpretation of women in the shows entire run. I’ll let the smacked bottom line go by because it genuinely made me laugh out loud (and is lifted from a genuine Hartnell line) but all the wink wink nudge nudge the little women doing the dusting whilst I head off and have an adventure stuff is jarringly misplaced. It’s not even remotely accurate and the only defect in Bradley’s otherwise star turn. It did provide the one moment where I thought Bill pointing out her sexuality really felt like it belonged (unlike some gratuitous scenes in series 10), just to shock this chauvinistic Doctor. All this down the throat progressiveness. It’s enough to make me want to enlist Terrance Dicks and strap someone to the circular saw or the railway tracks and force them to scream.
· Why promise a visit from Susan and fail to deliver?
· Having Bill feature as a construct of her memories channelled through an avatar is either and pleasing chance to spend more time with Pearl Mackie (of course) or another ridiculous attempt for Moffat to duck out of his decision to kill off a character and bring them back for a last hurrah (also true). In this case he’s already used his get-out clause with drippy Heather so this is his back up get out clause. It’s a cute idea which leads to Capaldi having the chance to say ta ta to his old companions on his death march but ultimately it is gutting The World Enough and Time of its shocks and twists. Thank goodness Capaldi didn’t stick around any longer, or we might have had a third get out clause for Bill to appear again. Maybe this time as a ghost. Or a photo that comes to life. Or a building that remembers the people that walks through it’s halls and makes them flesh.
· The Two Doctors poking fun at each other’s foibles is basically a re-run of the last time Moffat did this in Day of the Doctor. Except not as funny or particularly necessary or very clever.
· Just saying ‘an error in the timeline’ isn’t an adequate explanation for the events of this story. It’s a lazy one.
· I wondered if we would see Rusty again after his ambiguous departure in Into the Dalek. It would have made more sense to have brought him back in series 8 though, not three years later when everybody had long forgotten about him or his reappearance was greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘is that still relevant?’ It feels like Moffat had to fill up his running time with something and so he searched the last three years for a thread that was left dangling and tidied it up. It’s a massive step up from Time of the Doctor though, I suppose, which had to grapple all of the threads that were knotted and gnarled and hanging from the Eleventh Doctor’s era and attempt to sew them into some kind of conclusive narrative. This at least is simple, even if it is a little ‘so what?’
· ‘I know we have this whole professor/student thing going on…’ – will you stop being so damn self-referential! This is dialogue that isn’t even trying to rise above mediocrity but posing as being clever. It’s coming from a writer that used to be at the top of his game on this show but is now exhausted of wit.
· Forgive my language but why does every Doctor have to go out with a speech more fucking indulgent and lengthy than the last? I begin to see the merit in gunning the Doctor down (ala The TV Movie) and letting him gurn his way into his next life.

Result: An episode that ushers in a huge breath of fresh air for stuffy stale old Doctor Who, 12 years into it’s revival. A story mired in continuity and sentiment featuring two old men who are literally hanging around to die with nobody to fight anymore…it’s not exactly what the dynamic television that the family audience wants to watch in 2017, is it? Despite the tone of those opening words, I had a relatively positive time with Twice Upon a Time but like Time and the Rani kicking off season 24, this is exactly what the show doesn’t need to be doing right now. By bringing in a new female Doctor and potentially cutting her off from the TARDIS, Chris Chibnall is taking a defibrillator to an ailing series and pumping some expectation of life back into it. What I really enjoyed about this adventure was that it was actually a little different to anything that had come before, like an old fashioned sideways adventure from the Hartnell era (appropriately). Time freezes around our characters and it allows them the chance to interact in a drama-free zone for 60 minutes. There are no monsters (although both Testimony and Rusty are presented as such until the truth is revealed), there’s relatively little conflict (except for the promise of a jolly good smacked bottom if that language persists) and the story doesn’t even begin to gain momentum because there is no story. It is a narrative pause between The Doctor Falls and Whittaker’s debut and there is nothing here that couldn’t have been omitted had Capaldi regenerated in the previous tale as was the original intention. Who ever knew that Steven ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ Moffat (whose previous regeneration story was Time of the Doctor, for goodness sakes!) could hang dialogue on such a dearth of incident? Ah yes, what were those positives I was talking about? A sparkling turn from David Bradley, an intriguing new concept in Testimony, terrific production values, a worthwhile peek at a proud moment of history, a waltz around Murray Gold’s repertoire as he bows out and a general air of amiability throughout, helped along by actors who are clearly enjoying working together. And as I said for a man who trades in convoluted plots, the relative lack of complication makes this ideal post-Christmas dinner food coma fare. Anyone who was expecting a race to finish line for Capaldi and a dynamic new take on regeneration look elsewhere. You’ve just had that. This is the 60-minute sneeze that came afterwards, albeit with a few nice tickles. Twice Upon a Time shouldn’t exist and it feels that way. I want to say that it was Capaldi’s finest hour but he isn’t doing anything new here, it’s Bradley this story exists for and it’s for his valiant efforts that I award it an above average score. He’s simply a delight to watch, as I imagined he would be. As for the regeneration; it’s ponderous and preachy and by the end I wanted Capaldi gone just so he would stop self-aggrandising. Whittaker immediately offers hope for a cheeky future and the last two minutes elevate this even further. Why the hell did the TARDIS spit her out? Twice Upon a Time; I wanted to love it but I’ll have to settle for liking it and even then mostly for the acting: 7/10

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Higher Price of Parking written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The planet Dashrah is a world of exceptional beauty. Historical ruins; colourful skies; swirling sunsets… Unsurprisingly, it’s a major tourist trap. So if you want to visit Dashrah, first you’ll have to visit Parking, the artificial planetoid that Galactic Heritage built next door. Parking, as its name implies, is a spaceship park. A huge spaceship park. A huge, enormous spaceship park. When the TARDIS materialises in Parking’s Northern Hemisphere, the Doctor, Ace and Mel envisage a quick teleport trip to the surface of Dashrah. But they’ve reckoned without the superzealous Wardens, and their robotic servitors… the sect of the Free Parkers, who wage war against the Wardens… the spontaneously combusting spaceships… and the terrifying secret that lies at the lowest of Parking’s lower levels.

The Real McCoy: One thing I appreciated a lot was Dorney’s handling of the regulars in this story, not so much their individual characterisation which is still troublesome given when this story is supposed to be set but rather the feeling that they have been travelling together for some time now and are working together as an effective unit. The first trilogy featuring ‘older Mel’ (what is it with these ‘older companion’ stories?) really felt as though the three characters were fighting against one another, rather than working together to form an effective team. Dorney rectifies that by simply letting them get on well, discuss things in a reasonable manner and working together to extradite themselves from tricky situations. If there’s one thing the Doctor hates it’s cheating, those time travellers who have their thumbs in the back of the book on the answers page rather than unearthing a mystery for its own sakes. I do have to keep pinching myself to remember that this run of stories is set post-Hex because there is relatively little in the way of characterisation of the Doctor and Ace to make it believable. When Ace pokes fun at the Doctor’s scheming ways I suddenly became aware that this isn’t set in early days of season 25. The Doctor is reluctant to empty capacious pockets, maybe McCoy was scared that his script would make an appearance.

Oh Wicked: Is Ace really advocating negotiation over a violent solution? I usually praise John Dorney to the high heavens for his superlative characterisation but in this instance I have to wonder if he has spent any great amount of time with the character in questions, which I know he would have because he is a Doctor Who fan. As such I have to assume this was either written with a knowing wink, which has been completely lost in translation by the director who has Sophie Aldred deliver this anti-violence agenda with absolute seriousness. ‘Your best chance, your only chance to survive this is to drop the weapons and talk!’ Ace ‘cor wicked Professor let’s blow it up with some nitro’ spouting rhetoric like that is just an insane contradiction.

Aieeeeeeee: ‘Of course we are’ says Mel with a sigh as they are arrested not long after setting foot on the planet. She’s come to expect nothing less when travelling with the Doctor. Who needs a sonic screwdriver when you have a Mel? If you like your Mel smart, capable and autonomous then you’ll love John Dorney’s handling of the character.

Standout Performance: Aside from the regulars, all the performances are a little arch to say the least. Another reason to stamp this with the Paradise Towers badge of honour. Ace might be bizarrely characterised, but I thought this was one of Sophie Aldred’s better performances in recent years. Praise where it is due. At least she was forced to shout hysterically throughout.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Animal Kind, your day is over.’

Great Ideas: With it’s emphasis on driving and a dramatic incident that sees two people scared for their lives, the opening scene took me back to Gridlock, and I could only hope that this story would be as effective and as emotive as the series three standout. Even the TARDIS is registered and given a receipt when parking on Dashrah. Being a major tourist attraction, Dashrah has a lot of visitors but also a very delicate eco system that requires preservation and the entire planet is looked after by the Galactic heritage: a sort of militarised, spacefaring National Trust (Mel and Glitz ran in to them at one point). If you want to visit you park your spaceship on a special planetoid called Parking, a large artificial one due to Dashrah’s popularity. Parking is broken down into three sets of people; the Wardens (Caretakers) holding the placer together with their bureaucracy, the Free Parkers (Kangs) who are opposed to the law of the land and the Natives (Rezzies) who have acclimatised to the setting and, well, gone native. Most of the interesting ideas pop up towards the end of the story with the sentient virus that is revolutionising the spaceships wishing to take control of the TARDIS and fill its data banks with her expanded mind. That’s a rather tasty notion, the TARDIS roaming the universe with a destructive virus, infecting systems throughout all time and space and causing a catastrophic AI revolution.

Isn’t it Odd: In the second episode a potted history is laid out but it is told with such laconic disinterest it was hard to get involved with the mythology. The Free Parkers are after a Free Parking, sometimes science fiction goes for the simplest possible approach and you have to bury your head in your hands. It is a common problem in science fiction I find that it is hard to involve yourself in the complications of an alien world when you find yourself distanced because you never quite believed in that world in the first place. Parking never truly comes alive because I found the characters lacking, usually they are a window in the way a world works but the examples we have here of the natives, the free parkers and the wardens never gave me that insight into Parking that would have allowed me to recognise that this was a living, breathing place. As a result, when terrorist attacks start to occur, I found myself shrugging rather than tensing up in fear and support for these people. Why should I care if these people are killed, they were never truly alive for me in the first place? ‘If we don’t help each other now, the spaceships will kill us all!’ is the line that sees the different factions on Parking start working together to bring down their common enemy. It’s copied and pasted from the last episode of Paradise Towers and Maddy’s ‘we’re very sorry and we won’t do it again’ speech.

I’m at a loss to figure out what isn’t clicking about these Seven/Ace/Mel adventures; it seems to be a mixture of the characterisation of the regulars and overall quality of the scripts and stories. We’ve had a crime caper that simply wasn’t much fun, a historical that traded it’s interesting setting for tenapenny science fiction, a revenge story that is weighed down with hideous twists, melodrama and crushing dialogue and now a Paradise Towers rip off that fails to ignite any real passion or adventure. What we need is either a really powerful character tale that will cement this team as one to watch or just a knockout story that utilises them all very effectively. At the moment we’ve had four less than impressive tales that makes giving a damn about further adventures with them very hard to be concerned about.

Standout Scene: The concept of a heavily armed ship turning on people is fairly chilling one, and starting a spaceship revolution on a planet filled with spaceships is just bizarre enough to work. I’m not sure about the mad nod to The Invisible Enemy, mind (‘The Age of the Spaceship is here!’) and I would have liked for this to have been the premise of the entire story rather than a bolted-on threat at the climax. There’s far more to the premise of an AI revolution than is explored here.

‘What could possibly be worth all this?’ ‘Revolution, Doctor…’ I’ve heard comments that this story has the tone and type of schizophrenic content of season 24, but really it only shares strong similarities with Paradise Towers. The rule bound, dangerous location, comprised of three factions of people, the mystery at the heart of the oddball setting and the inconsistent tone. Like Paradise Towers it is a story with a fun premise (in this case a planetoid that is built around the concept of a car park) and the story is reasonably well constructed but I fail to comprehend why a writer would go out of their way so much to ape a story to this degree. Maybe John Dorney was hoping that people would turn around at the end and say it’s ‘just like Paradise Towers, but better’ when instead the general impression seems to be it’s ‘just like Paradise Towers, warts and all.’ I think Ken Bentley has done a lot of good work for Big Finish but he’s definitely a director who rises to the occasion depending on the quality of the script. Since The Higher Price of Parking walks an awkward line between comedy and drama, the production follows suit and I was unsure half the time whether I was supposed to be taking the material seriously or laughing at the sheer bizarreness of it all. It’s an odd feeling, and a firmer director might have take the story in one direction or the other. Although an out and out zany production might have sat a little weirdly with the story’s ultimately serious message…and yet a deadly serious tone wouldn’t have sat well with the oddball concepts. Tonally it’s a tricky one to get right. The characters fail to come alive and I didn’t feel like the actors ever believed in the people they were playing and so go for the panto approach by default. John Dorney’s first foray into the main range was the superlative The Fourth Wall, a dazzling high concept tale that had thoughtful things to say and featured the Doctor at his finest. Anybody hoping that Parking would follow suit might be bitterly disappointed. This is quirky, passable fun but as disposable as that sounds. Stop stretching your finest writers across so many ranges Big Finish, this kind of throwaway nonsense is what happens when a writer has had their talent pulled in too many directions. An extra point for eleventh hour excitement as the spaceships come to life and the revolution begins: 5/10

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Behemoth written by Marc Platt and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Bath, 1756 – and a very dashing gentleman known only as the Doctor is newly arrived in town, accompanied by his lady friends Mrs Clarke and Mrs Ramon. He’s created a stir among the gentlefolk of Georgian high society – and a stir in the heart of merry widow Mrs Theodosia Middlemint, rumour has it. They are not the only strangers from abroad causing tongues to wag, however. The mysterious Lady Clara, come from Amsterdam in the company of the noble Captain Van Der Meer, has the whole of Bath agog. Who is she, really? What is she, really? But there’s something terrible beneath the veneer of Georgian gentility. As awful a horror as the Doctor has ever exposed, hidden inside Balsam’s Brassworks. Something that needs to be brought to light, for the sake of all humanity.

Softer Six: How wonderful that this mismatched team should be the most successful and anticipated of the Big Finish main range; a bombastic and colourful Time Lord, a stalwart and sensible WREN and a street wise cockney fresh from her wedding. There’s something extremely charming about the clash of personalities that is in play here, it’s a three-time culture clash that yields entertaining and engaging results. It’s nice to have Sixie at the top of the pecking order again after some time cruising the main range. He’s mistaken for Mrs Clarke’s footman with ideas above his station…and with a coat like a detonation in a woman’s wardrobe! He once danced a cotillion with Jane Austen, don’t you know. She was a very nifty mover. As you can see on the cover the Doctor has abandoned his hideous coat and is decked out in finery from the period. He manages to charm the local hob nobs and is quite graceful on the dance floor. A veritable parapet of invention, he performs a trick with a roast chicken that quite brings the house down. The Doctor takes hot chocolate with a lady, much like the first Doctor did with Cameca in The Aztecs. Since this is a similarly paced historical with dark undertones, it feels very apt. Life, even amongst friends can be a lonely business so he keeps busy to distract himself from that. He’s crestfallen because he can’t even enjoy one day off. Sarah being protected by the Doctor rather than owned by Balsam is a very important distinction, suddenly she is an individual seeking shelter rather than property running away. Can you imagine a Doctor more suited to damning the black slave trade? When he gets the chance to do so Colin Baker lets rip in the finest sixth Doctor defiance. I loved his shoulder shrugging reaction to Craven going overboard.

Constant Companion: Constance got married during wartime so it was in uniform with a bunch of wilting daffodils. Balsam calls her charming and thoughtful, which just about sums her up. She has enough of a modium of decorum not to want to get into a swimming bath with fully dressed people. Travel has opened her eyes. Constance’s father has land in Africa where he employs the local people, but as servants rather than slaves. She tries to convince Sarah that she is not property, that nobody belongs to anybody but themselves. She’s appalled that women are treated as property as much as the slaves. This is the second story on the trot where Constance has talked about leaving the Doctor. I hope she doesn’t too soon, they’ve touched upon something rather special here.

Flippin’ Heck: The Doctor despairs at Flip thinking that chlorine was invented. There’s a subtle gag that plays out where nobody can pronounce Flip’s foreign surname, much in keeping with the theme of the play. Flip’s affection towards Clara is palpable, underneath all those streets smarts she’s a big softy really. In reality the offer that Craven makes her to become the mistress of a plantation in Jamaica is a better life than anything Jared can offer her in her own time but she is true to herself and refuses to be seduced. Her reaction to his proposal is to kick him in the nuts and given the manner in which he has spoken to her and treated Clara, that is an understatement.

Standout Performance: Balsam is a truly loathsome character, brought to life with relish by Glyn Sweet.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘The owner said the lady had to pay the bill’ ‘Oh, Doctor’ That really made me chuckle.
‘England should be ashamed. You belong in the same pit as all the other Fascists and Nazis of the Universe - everything I’ve fought against. And one day your filthy trade will be swept away!’
‘Human beings traded for pots and pans and weapons. Surely one of this world’s worst abominations.’

Great Ideas: The way this story tackles racism is very well done because the first episode plays out very like your typical Doctor Who meets the gentry (think Black Orchid) with the colourful and pampered upper classes taking a shine to the Doctor. The subtly dark undertones of racism are there from the beginning, a dismissal, a threat. It’s laced into what would otherwise be a genteel tale, giving it much more depth. You can trust the clergy to get to the heart of the matter; those of black stock are just treated as chattel, a possession, something to be bought and sold. I loved the gag of Lady Clara being a rhino. In a delightful moment it appears that the Doctor and Mrs Middlemint are indulging in a bit of rumpy pumpy when in fact it is revealed they are only playing cards. Mrs Middlemint’s tragedy is that she is just as trapped as Sarah, and that she accepts her fate just as easily. It’s brought home in a scene where Flip tries to point out that things can be different and she refuses to listen. I would LOVE to see the Doctor and Flip pushing a rhino inside the TARDIS. How delightful.

Audio Landscape: A horse whinnying, carriage clipping along a path, birds chirruping, a pug barking, the Doctor jumping into a pool, applause, the growl of a rhino, a clucking chicken, bells ringing, a packed tavern, seagulls crying, the chink of chains.

Musical Cues: I’m noticing a pleasing trend with the music of late that the scores are less wallpapered action soundtracks but instead more appropriate, subtle affairs. This is the rarest of things, a pure historical, and the music truly steps up to make this an occasion.

Isn’t it Odd: There’s an eleventh-hour action sequence that only served to remind me just how atypical this adventure had been in that respect. Bravo.

Standout Scene:
There’s a glorious moment where Constance and Flip discuss how they feel about the Doctor going on a date. It’s everything I could have hoped for from this pair. There’s also a beautifully written scene set in the TARDIS where the slave trade is brought home to a very personal level by Sarah and condemned by the Doctor. He admits that he is powerless to stop it and that he is even part of the system that allows it to happen, purchasing hot chocolate earlier that day.

Result: ‘The slave trade is England’s dark heart…’ Time for something completely different and what a refreshing change of pace it turns out to be. The Behemoth is the rarest of things, a pure historical and one that is happy to build an atmosphere and let the characters take some of the weight rather than simply assaulting us with plot. Like The Waters of Amsterdam, Jamie Anderson is particularly adept at bringing these character driven tales to life and he does a masterful job here. The story felt unhurried but never slovenly, appropriately dramatic in parts and with plenty of scenes where the actors can prove their worth. Marc Platt throws a harsh light on the ugly truth of the slave trade, taking it as far as you can go in a Doctor Who story. I was impressed with how he handled the theme, the story kicking off light and breezy and get steadily more uncomfortable as we get closer to the characters who have been torn from their homes and treated as wretched property. I love the idea of a Doctor Who story that places it’s drama on the wellbeing of a rhinoceros and the tragedy of lovers torn apart by Western greed. On a purely superficial level it is very invigorating to hear some more exotic accents in a Doctor Who audio. I’m a big fan of Marc Platt’s work stretching right back to Ghost Light, through the original novels and finally celebrating his prolific audio stories. He’s a writer that has the occasional off day but when he is on form it is a synthesis of beautiful dialogue, strong characterisation and fantastic ideas. This is a step away from what I have come to expect from him, creative science fiction, and instead he has chosen to build a setting, a small group of characters and tackle a tricky but very worthy theme. Colour me impressed, it’s a combination that suits him very well. What’s more it’s a great showing for the Doctor, Flip and Constance. Anybody who was impressed with their merging in Quicksilver most certainly will not feel short changed. I can’t think of the last time I let a Big Finish tale play out quite so effortlessly: 9/10

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Maker of Demons by Matthew J. Elliot and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Decades ago, the mysterious time-travelling Doctor and his cheerful companion Mel became the toast of the planet Prosper, when they brokered a peace between the native Mogera and humans from the colony ship The Duke of Milan. But when the TARDIS at last returns to Prosper, the Doctor, Mel and their associate Ace find only a warzone. The burrowing Mogera have become brutal monsters, dominated by their terrifying leader Caliban – and it's all the Doctor's fault!

The Real McCoy: This is the kind of story that should fit the seventh Doctor like a glove. He’s the Doctor that is willing to make genocidal moves in order to tidy up the universe and he’s exactly the guy that needs a wakeup call every now and again. Instead of using this as a chance to examine the most dangerous of Doctors, Elliot turns this into a revenge story where the Doctor is treated as the enemy without ever digging deep as to why. As far as he is concerned he did a good turn, until he realises the true consequences of his actions. Instead of dealing with that, what is his best solution? To go back in time and punch himself on the nose! Whilst I’m sure he meant that facetiously, he needs to deal with his problems instead of wiping them away. Mel is the voice of good reason when the Doctor wants to go back and rewrite an entire century of history on this planet just because things didn’t go how he wanted. That’s playing God. The argument that the Doctor is only interested in saving the day rather than ensuring that a planet is left in capable hands and its future is secure is nonsensical because it goes against everything that we know the Doctor is about. If the villain of piece had constructed an argument around a portrayal of the Doctor we could buy into (or one he could himself) then this might have been a hard-hitting examination. Instead it feels like a slack motivation of the villain and a waste of the Doctor.

Oh Wicked:
Ace doesn’t enjoy stories when people don’t die and nothing explodes. I can’t see the point of Ace in these stories and certainly in this story where she is shunted off into her own pointless subplot that serves no purpose but to add to the running time. If it meant the pain of listening would be over sooner, I would have happily excised her completely. Seriously, this could have been set in season 24, which is probably where it belongs. She’s has enough of snorting with the Porcians.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel loves to stay around a celebrate and is willing to accept what she thinks he and the Doctor deserve, even if he would rather leave. It’s Mel who manages to unpuzzle this adventure, she’s the one who is taking note of the details and unmasks the villain. However, she has the right idea but the wrong person.

Standout Performance: Everybody is struggling with the dialogue in this adventure, especially Sylvester McCoy who is saddles with gems like ‘I’m being impatient being a patient!’

Terrible Dialogue:
‘And it seems I created those devils!’
‘You made them into monsters!’ ‘After you made us into monsters!’
‘There are seams in our territory but mining them are suicidally dangerous and we have a subterranean enemy…’ – every other line is of this ilk, exposition central.

Musical Cues: Nigel Fairs is a decent musician, I remember he scored some of the early companion chronicles and did a wonderful job. I even liked his lunge into melodrama recently when he provided the overdone (but appropriately sixties) music for Last of the Cybermen. This time, however, he is all over the place. At times I felt the Daleks were approaching as the music went all chorus of doom (but I guess we have Murray Gold to thank for that) and at other interludes something akin to a digeridoo was farting away in the background. Maybe Fairs was attempting to blind us to the stories faults.

Isn’t it Odd: When the opening speech contains the phrase ‘this day of days…’ I should have known I was in trouble. In fact just listen to the opening speech as a whole for a perfect lesson in how not to write science fiction, characters talking like cod Shakespearean characters and over emphasising every line. Even the comedy punchline before the credits fails. Gratuitous continuity references abound. So much so I thought Gary Russell might be using Matthew J. Elliot as a nickname; the plot of Underworld, Vardans, Dido, Polly, Tegan, Sharon, Dodo…is Elliot trying to remind us of the worst of Doctor Who? There’s an irritating tendency in these Mel and Ace stories to portray one as a complete goody two-shoes and the other as a teen space bitch and contrast the two. It lacks any subtlety. Mel is enthusing about how she wanted to cuddle an alien race to bits whilst Ace bangs on about explosions. I’d rather focus on the crueller side of Mel and the gentler side of Ace, that would be much more interesting. ‘It’s like some kind of armour plated ogre!’ – has Elliot ever written for audio before? I mean, I know he has but this is remarkably clumsy. And I fail to understand how Big Finish, who have been at this malarkey for 15 years now could let such blatantly awkward descriptive dialogue reach the final script. Russell T Davies said that he didn’t want to go down the route of having stories set on an alien world because it would be hard to connect with the events on a human level…he was probably referring to scenes like Ace and the mutant scrabbling around on the surface. It’s mind numbingly dull, overwritten and hackneyed (‘Humans all have funny names! I’m not even interested in whether or not you have a name!). I feel so sorry for Ewan Goddard, who has to try and convince as a mutation but winds up sounding like a dog chewing a caramel toffee. Seriously, go listen again. Slurp. Slurp. Plus, the voice of the actor and the (ahem) realisation of the creature on the cover don’t really marry up. Powered by Doctorium? A power source that has been named after the Doctor after his meddling in the first adventure. I bet Chris Boucher would listen to this and weep. Alonso being revealed as the villain of the piece is about as surprising as it would be if I wrote a Missing Adventure, squeezed it into season eight and made the Master the baddie behind it all.

Standout Scene: Go and listen to the end of episode two. Like right now. There have been some inept murder scenes in Doctor Who before (who could forget the Co-Pilot and his split trousers?) but this one must rank. ‘Oh hello, what are you doing back here? I’m afraid the kitchen’s closed…no wait…Mel get out of here…nooooooooo!’ Unbelievable.

Result: ‘Back off super furry animals!’ I think if I took off all my clothes and went to eat in a top-class restaurant I would feel less awkward than listening to this audio. A series of hideous SF clichés, served up with characters that talk in pure exposition, a plot that is explained rather than experienced, a noisy soundscape full of people shouting, continuity vomiting everywhere…it’s the sort of thing you would imagine a company producing if they were new to this medium. The idea of the Doctor revisiting a society that he has had an adventure in before and the consequences of said adventure and his involvement coming back to haunt him is a good one. It was a fresh approach when The Ark and Face of Evil played about with the notion. They took different approaches but they were both intelligent stories that used the idea to paint a picture of a society that has adapted to the Doctor’s interference. Evil in particular built an entire world around him. Demons adopts the approach without any of the intelligence. It’s so clumsily handled, it isn’t a story that staggers the revelations so we are engaged with the idea, it just dumps you in the middle of the scenario within 15 minutes and then becomes a run-around for remainder of the running time. The story is heavily influenced by The Tempest, but any serious comparison between the stories is like comparing the cuisine of the finest Michelin star restaurant and a Little Chef. If you’re going to ape Shakespeare, you need something a little more compelling than a bunch of slavering, slurping monsters and a Scooby Doo villain searching for a motive. Most Doctor Who stories you can find something nice to say. The music was pretty, or there was a decent idea thrown in the mix, or the soundscape brings the story alive. Maker of Demons is so lacking in positives I feel like I’m pointing a gun at a sick dog. Avoid this nonsense like the plague. I’m hoping for better in the second Seven/Ace/Mel trilogy: 2/10

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Fiesta of the Damned written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In search of "a taste of the real Spain", the TARDIS transports the Doctor, Ace and rejoined crewmember Mel not to sizzling Fuerteventura, or the golden sands of the Costa Brava – but to 1938, amid the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Having fallen in with a rag-tag column of Republican soldiers, the time and space travellers seek shelter from Franco's bombers in the walled town of Farissa – only to discover themselves besieged by dead men returned to life...

The Real McCoy: Surely the Doctor (especially this Doctor) isn’t so stupid that he can mistake the hum of an approaching bomber for somebody mowing their lawn? I suppose he does always try and be the optimist.

Oh Wicked: I never thought we’d hear Ace say ‘boom!’ again, given the reaction to her infamous scene in Battlefield. A self confessed adrenaline junkie, that's about as deep as this story wants to delve into its characters during all the running around.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel is diplomatic enough to swallow down the casual sexism of the period, but Ace isn’t so easily subdued. It’s a pleasing disparity between them, in Mel’s favour I would say because she comes across as the seasoned traveller. She remembers how it used to be with the Doctor, that history hurts. Ace attempts to mock Mel’s do-goodedness is to suggest that she orders a smoothie made out of spinach and tears.

Standout Performance: I particularly liked McCoy’s quiet contemplation on war. The first two episodes capture the strongest elements of his Doctor, a conflict-weary Time Lord who has learnt to play tough and whose actions weigh heavily on his mind. Who would have guessed that quiet brooding would have been McCoy’s (a man who is famous for his comedy) forte? Sophie Aldred doesn’t scream her head off throughout, because I thought a story set during wartime meant we were in for aural torture.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So the Republicans are the good guys?’ ‘In war there’s no such thing. They’ve both committed their share of atrocities.’
‘The rest of us just haven’t had the common sense to lie down and die yet.’

Great Ideas: The Club Type 40 holiday packages are…See the Universe and Run for your Life! I’m one of those people that chooses not to educate himself on history unless a show I am enjoying chooses to focus on a particular period. Once my interest is piqued, I then go the distance and learn everything I can. Doctor Who has been extremely useful to me in that respect. I went into this knowing next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War. The Doctor gives a handy potted history of the war in the first episode to anybody who is green (like me) and reveals that the Republicans are already wounded beyond repair and terrible losses are due until their surrender. It sounds like the perfect setting for a Hartnell historical, so it’s rather refreshing to step from the McCoy era. Apparently when it comes to history even the footnotes like Juan Romero are inspiring.

Audio Landscape: You have to wonder how an actor faces an audio challenge when the script says he has been ‘zombified’ without giving the character any dialogue. Low moaning, apparently. Mumbling voices, insects humming in the distance, bombs falling, masonry loose, someone screaming into a hole, flames crackling, walking on stones, a bell tolling, a squeaking door, Lynx’s screaming and scattering.

Isn’t it Odd: I think this series of adventures is serving more as a ‘what if Mel had stayed at the end of Dragonfire?’ than taking place years afterwards in the post Hex period of Big Finish. There’s simply no indication that Ace has changed at all in the intervening period and the stories feel like they belong on season 25. So, I guess in order to find some enjoyment in them I’m going to have to ignore what my ears are telling me and make up my own continuity (I can do that, it’s my show too). Otherwise this is another cynical marketing ploy on Big Finish’s part where they wanted to work with Slyv, Sophie and Bonnie just BECAUSE without any decent reason to do so. It’s certainly not to explore the characters, which I would have thought a given in the circumstances. So, let’s chalk this down to ‘what if…?’ It’s lucky there was an English reporter like Newman involved, who can explain the details of the conflict to Mel and Ace and thus, to us. I’m guessing the idea of The Walking Dead charging in on a Doctor Who historical set during the Spanish Civil War might have sounded like a good idea in theory (Horror on top of conflict) but the lengths the story goes to justify that these are zombies in science fiction terms renders them as scary as a church mouse. The story becomes mired in hideous fructuous, SF dialogue, a far cry from the sensitive portrayal of war in the first episode.

Standout Scene: The bombing in the first episode is spectacularly realistic. Massive credit to director Ken Bentley for making wonder if I should run for cover and hide.

Result: I thought the first episode was really rather good; dramatic, evocative and educational but that was ruined by the first cliff-hanger where the science fiction elements of the story collide with the historical ones and the recently smooth narrative veers off the rails. Even the dialogue, which has been informative and emotive suddenly lurches into awkwardness. Whether it’s Big Finish or the television series or the comic strip, nobody seems to trust to tell a pure historical when that would be the freshest approach any of those mediums could take. Instead aliens always barge in on the action and things become far less interesting. It’s a shame because the location is conjured up with real care and there were parts of Fiesta of the Damned where I could close my eyes and find myself back in Spain and truly see the action as it was unfolding. The music was a treat too, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from Jamie Robertson. The regulars, particularly Bonnie Langford, are given material that plays to their strengths too, which further compounds the unfortunate lacklustre nature of the narrative. There’s a distinct lack of character conflict that might have brought the story alive, this is one of those rare Doctor Who stories where everybody seems to get along…and it’s set during wartime! So, what you’re left with is a period of history that is potentially devastating to explore but with a story that fails to do so in favour of another bog-standard alien race. We’ll only visit the Spanish Civil War a few times in the lifetime of Doctor Who whereas we’ll be inundated with aliens until it expires. In this case, the wrong call was made. I guess the old adage is true; Doctor Who can survive anything except being boring. The fact that the production is so stellar (I can’t even fault Sophie Aldred) merely rubs salt in the wound. Trust that human history is riveting enough: 5/10

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Doctor Falls written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell:
Battered and bruised from his latest adventure, the 12th Doctor’s regeneration has begun…

Indefinable: Magnificent. Masterful. Unforgettable. Just three words you could point at Peter Capaldi’s performance in The Doctor Falls. Whilst Heaven Sent will always be his magnum opus in Doctor Who (after all how can you top the performance you give in an episode that is devoted entirely to you?), this will come an astonishing second place and pleasingly it is just before his departure. I thought this was going to be another action packed Cyberman blockbuster (understandably given the trailer) but instead it is a vehicle for the actors involved to really show what they are made of. When you are talking about actors of Capaldi’s stature, you’re in for some riveting television. What is especially eye-opening is the new shades to this incarnation that we see in the finale, proving that there is still a great deal of Capaldi to explore. I particularly loved his angry resignation towards the two Masters when he tries to convince them to stand at his side and fight a lost cause. Or the lovely moment when he doesn’t shout at the little girl for giving Bill a mirror that reflects the real horror of her situation, instead choosing to be kind and grandfatherly in that moment. The anger he displays at the climax where he is trying to hold back the regeneration is very different from a similar sort of scene that David Tennant faced in The End of Time. Tennant played his anger at having to regenerate like an arrogant, spoilt teenager who had bought in to his own myth. Capaldi’s Doctor refuses to regenerate (and it is really painfully put across) not because he thinks this guise is anything special but because he’s tired of all this constant change and wants a little consistency in his life. This is the first time it has been suggested that the Doctor is bored of regenerating and going through the whole cycle of change and adaptation. So, when Capaldi punches the ground and refuses the transition, you really feel the centuries weighing down on him. Perhaps he should lead a less stimulating life then. I like how the Doctor is battered in stages throughout the episode; beaten by the Masters, electrocuted by a Cyberman, shot twice and caught in an almighty explosion. It would be enough to bring a much younger Time Lord to his knees and force a new face upon them, let alone this weathered old bird. His impending regeneration in the face of such a hammering is quite understandable. 

Funky Chick: In plot terms, I think they dropped the ball on Bill slightly. But more on that later in the review. In emotional terms, she’s beautifully handled and Pearl Mackie gives her strongest performance in a season of already very strong performances. When she and Capaldi are together in this episode, it sings with quality acting, just like it has at the high points of series 10. Given they never showed the transition between Bill and the Cybermen in the last episode, I wondered if that would be skipped over in favour of focusing on the elements that were piling up in the plot. Colour me impressed then when some of the most affecting moments in The Doctor Falls feature Bill coming to terms with the fact that she has been filleted and squeezed into a ghoulish Cybersuit. Does the fact that Bill can hold on to her mind in the wake of conversion make any sense? Not really, but it would deny us the quietly haunting moments between her and the Doctor here and I did appreciate the mention that the conditioning would begin to seize her mind and take her over fully. This is her chance to emote, because her mind is slipping away. The Doctor tries to be extremely gentle with her whilst still being honest about her horrific situation and Bill responds as anybody would, angrily and wanting answers. The Doctor was in an impossible situation given the ship was in a black hole induced time distortion effect, he couldn’t reach her for ten years. Her fury feels real and justified, she feels as though she was abandoned to a terrible fate. How director Rachel Talalay intercuts Bill and the Cyberman she has become into the scene must have taken a lot of time to organise but the effect is startling. It means we get the chance to see Pearl Mackie emoting beautifully AND believe she has the visage of a ghostly Cyberman to boot. Whilst I think the Cybermen are reduced to stormtroopers elsewhere in this episode, in its treatment of Bill and how she handles the idea of conversion, connecting the idea emotionally and viscerally with the audience, I still think this is the most effective Cyberman story. Spare Parts dealt with a similar notion, getting the audience close to a family and stripping them of one and returning her as a Cyberman. However, I wasn’t half as invested in Yvonne as I was with Bill, naturally given we have had an entire season with this character and have gotten to know her and enjoy her company. 

Faithful Sidekick: I have a confession to make. I have rather fallen in love with Nardole in series 10. For me he has been a definite highlight. Was it because I had low expectations of this character and so how he has been expertly weaved into the series has surprised me? Not entirely, I think it has been down to Matt Lucas’s ability to play a consistent character (cute, blasé, useful) in all kinds of situations. Nardole hasn’t been explored like Bill has, I don’t think we have touched on his motives, his emotional wellbeing or what he would like to do beyond travelling with the Doctor. What he has been is a rock for the Doctor; somebody he can trust implicitly, someone whose knowledge and ability is far ranging and somebody who is committed to their mission to guard Missy. He’s been used for comic relief but it has mostly been underplayed and genuinely very funny. I don’t think Nardole can disappoint like Bill did in the Monks invasion two parter because expectations for him aren’t especially high. He’s in the rather fortunate position of being able to delight because I never expected anything particularly great from him. Moffat shows precisely how you can allow a character to exit with great dignity and strength without going to any crazy lengths like forcing him back into the 50s by the Weeping Angels or killing him and having him taken from his timestream at the point he died by the Time Lords. Nardole is given something precious to protect, just as he has done all season. He objects to the task but ultimately he has a big heart and he knows this community will suffer if he doesn’t look after. With compliant resignation he accepts his task, upset that he would be able to watch the Doctor’s back anymore. Who would have thought in Husbands that we would be treated to a scene as touching as the one here where the Doctor says goodbye to his loyal friend and Nardole has no words adequate enough to say back. It’s beautifully understated and moving because of it. That’s not before Nardole catches the eye of Hazran in what has to be one of the most moving mini romances I’ve seen on the show. The whole thing is played out with looks, gestures and only the slightest of advances. I really love how Nardole resists throughout and that never stop her making a bee line for him. The act of moving her cup to touch his I find really rather elegant, a very subtle way of showing that you’re interested. I hope they have a happy future together. 

The Two Masters: It’s wanky but like the Daleks and the Cybermen coming together in an epic battle, it’s also a great deal of fun. I can understand the criticism that neither of the Master’s get a great deal to do when it comes to the plot…but let’s be honest the plot never had a chance when these two shameless scene stealers were in the room together. Simm’s Master is looking very Delgado (black suit, beard), which is a look that I have heard Phil Collinson deride for its lack of subtlety but actually he looks far more the part here than he did during Tennant’s reign. He’s also sucked in the maniacal laughter and naughty schoolboy antics and as a result he is a much more menacing character. I’m not going criticise what Simm or Davies did with the character because I was rather fond of the juvenile schoolboy Master, railing against the universe and doing terrible things just to hurt people. He was a really nasty, giggly piece of work. But this is a brand-new approach with the character and it’s almost a shame we won’t get to see more of him because he’s a lot less pantomime. However, as good as Simm is in resurrecting the role and playing against Capaldi, the plaudits have to go Michelle Gomez who is something of a revelation in this story. I said in previous reviews that should Missy simply revert to form and turn back to villainy then the arc this season would be null and void, a bit like the hybrid last year. But Moffat doesn’t go down that route and it makes things much, much more interesting, Oh Missy gets to beat up the Doctor, to walk away from him when he begs for help, she’s witty and silly and irreverent and everything we have come to expect from her. However, the look of regret on her face when she follows the old Master and leaves the Doctor to his fate says everything you need to know about what is coming. The Doctor has made an impression on her, her time in confinement has forced her to come to terms with her horrific misdeeds and it is finally time for her to stop battling with her old friend and to stand with him. It’s been playing out over a whole season so it doesn’t feel like a rash decision or a betrayal of the character, but a natural progression. The fact that Moffat pays this arc of so stunningly and yet so subtly through a character choice makes it one of the most triumphant things he has achieved as showrunner. The fact that Missy doesn’t get to fulfil her character arc and help the Doctor (leading to his regeneration) is bitterly tragic and unfair. I cannot think of a more appropriate ending for the Master than the two of them stabbing each other in the back. Who else would be worthy of killing the Master than him/herself? It’s the highlight of the episode, exceptionally well played and refusing to devolve into anything mawkish or melodramatic. They murder each other and laugh at the irony and how perfect that end is for both of them. Missy has always been a highlight of the stories she has appeared in and Michelle Gomez has delivered a stunningly fresh take on the character. At the end of her time I think that she is the greatest innovation of the Capaldi era and I can certainly see myself revisiting his era just to watch her stories again. It goes without saying that the two Masters share incredible chemistry. I would have loved to have seen more of them together…always leave your audience wanting more. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I suppose what we’re really asking, my dear, is…’ ‘…any requests?’
‘People are always going to be afraid of me, aren’t they?’
‘It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. Just that. Just kind.’

The Good:
· There was something of a touch of Human Nature/The Family of Blood about The Doctor Falls with several scenes feeling as though they had jumped directly from one to the other. The sackcloth partially converted Cybermen tied to the stake like scarecrows and attacking the barn are extremely reminiscent. And the scenes of everybody in the barn preparing to defend against the Cybermen in screaming silence share a similar intensity to the attack on the school in the series three masterpiece. Talalay is simply too talented to copy somebody else’s work and gives these moments her own distinctive style and for once I don’t see the problem in one very good episode mirroring another very good episode. It doesn’t detract from this story (because these scenes work in context) and it reminds us of glories of Doctor Who’s past. Top marks for letting the rousing music bleed away when we are afforded the close up on the chillingly converted Cyberman.
· Moffat just loves opening with something spectacular (this time it is Bill as a Cyberman emerging from the crash shuttlecraft holding the bleeding Doctor) and then skipping back and revealing how we reached that point, doesn’t he? It’s a narrative hook he has done to death. It works here very well, and it’s his last ‘normal’ episode so it feels very fitting too. Another great musical sting too, that ghostly female scream as the Cyberman steps out of the mist. Very effective.
· Does anybody remember the series Bugs? A high octane, well budgeted 90s techno thriller series that veered from science fiction to drama alarmingly. At the beginning of series four they had to explain away the cliff-hanger to the previous year and in flashback the director chose an arresting, black and white noirish, which was extremely effective (and unusually stylised for that show). Talalay does the same thing here and it is just as powerful. I particularly like the cut to Nardole, looking back in horror at the mistreatment the Doctor is suffering at the hands of the Masters. We’ve never seen material quite like this in Doctor Who before, which makes it worth talking about. Cut to the nightmarish sweep over the hospital in an apocalyptic setting with wartime music warbling out of a gramophone and I was certain I was in for a good time with this episode, particularly in the hands of such a unique director.
· Hooray for the shuttlecraft that appears in a triumphant moment, looks just like it has stepped out of Star Trek and inside it features the best gag of the episode (‘The Doctor’s dead and he said he never liked you’).
· Bill looking in the mirror and seeing a Cyberman staring back is like the nasty alternative to the Doctor staring into the mirror in the first episode of Power of the Daleks. It’s filmed in a very similar way and is just as powerful.
· The Master touching up his eyeliner. Genius.
· In the face of the Doctor spitting out continuity references like an encyclopaedia of the shows greatest moments, he sends the Cybermen up in a bloody great explosion that almost finishes him off. The subsequent scenes of him lying in a scorched battlefield with a Bill falling to her knees in agony at the thought that he might be dead look and feel unlike anything we have ever seen in the series before. It should be frightfully melodramatic but it’s pitched perfectly, it’s an ugly wilderness, a beautiful score and Pearl Mackie delivers the sort of pain on her face that broke my heart. It’s another standout moment from the whole team executing this episode.
· The last scene was unexpected, despite possible rumours. I don’t think anybody thought they would have the chutzpah to pull it off. But no, here’s David Bradley, magnificent as ever, playing the first Doctor. The Christmas special promises to be a memorable one.

The Bad:
· Wank. Wank. Wank. Wank. This whole episode is basically a load of old wank. Albeit expertly written and directed. If you are going to forgo pioneering storytelling in favour of a story that features two Masters and the Cybermen then you better be damn well sure of what you are doing because just writing that sentence makes me shudder a bit. In an era that has spent a great deal of time exploring the past, this is the ultimate expression of that approach. The Doctor mis-quotes himself on more than one occasion. There are references back to The End of Time. Discussions of how the Doctor has regenerated. Two Masters at play. The Doctor blowing up Cybermen and throwing down continuity references to previous Cybermen stories like they are going out fashion. A potential regeneration on two occasions. And then the final appearance of you-know-who at the climax. This is ridiculously indulgent on the part of a fan boy who wants to fulfil all of his dreams whilst he is still in charge of this storytelling behemoth. I don’t think any of these elements are badly handled, I am a massive fan of Doctor Who and so I was smiling my way through most of them. I don’t even think a show with a history like Doctor Who needs to apologise should it occasionally choose to indulge in some self-love. However, I do think this is indicative of an era that has failed to add anything significantly ground-breaking to the Doctor Who ethos. It hasn’t forged its own way or developed its own identity. It has been so mired in the past that it has failed to push the show forwards. That could be why it has failed to capture the kind of audiences that the show used to. It could be why the show isn’t water cooler conversation anymore. It has spent too many seasons provoking the interest of fans that it has rather left the casual audience in the dark at how to have a relationship with Doctor Who. Looking back to series 5, 6 and 7, whilst I was less enamoured with the fairy-tale approach, there was far more novelty and invention in any one of those seasons (be it series five with it’s radical new take on the Doctor, series six which was practically serialised or series seven that introduced a companion as a mystery and changed the lineage of the Doctor’s in a pretty permanent kind of way). Aside from the odd episode (Listen, Dark Water, Heaven Sent and Extremis are the only four examples I can think of off the top of my head), the Capaldi era has played it safe and relied on the shows history to pull in the punters. The World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are superb episodes, brilliantly delivered pieces of drama. But they are fanwank of the highest order and there is no getting around that. The show NEEDS to push away from this self-obsession now, in order to survive.
· The Master’s plan is revealed at the end The World Enough and Time and the Doctor defeats him eight minutes into The Doctor Falls. Thank goodness there are two Masters in this story otherwise he would be pretty redundant from this point.
· How the episode skips over the whole ‘genesis of the Cybermen’ that was promised in the previous instalment is masterful (hoho)…by basically just ignoring it. In fact how this episode refuses to fit this story into established continuity with The Tenth Planet and Spare Parts, refuses to even elucidate on the how the Mondasians came to be on an exodus ship or give the scenario any kind of closure should be very irritating. There is something to be said about having interesting characters after all, they can distract from the weaknesses in the plot elsewhere.
· I had a disagreement with my other over whether the appearance of Heather at the climax to save Bill and the Doctor was a deus ex machina or not. I thought not, given she had been established in the season, and he thought so. We both agreed it was a complete cop out and another example of Moffat refusing to follow through on a promise to polish of a companion. Actually, he’s rather written himself into an impossible situation here – did anybody hate Bill enough to want to see her remain as a Cyberman for the rest of her days or possibly sacrifice herself by the end of this story to bring her pain to an end? Of course not. But that would have been the fitting conclusion given the direction previous episode undertook. On the other hand did anybody want a fairy-tale ending where a magical water sprite popped up out of nowhere, cured Bill of her woes and took her on a romantic exploration of the universe? It’s a trite and easy and frankly threatens to take away all the bravery of having her converted in the first place. I think my question is this…do you prefer Doctor Who to be a programme that takes risks by killing off its characters and suggests there is a human cost to these adventures or do you prefer it to be a series where no matter what horrors are suggested that there will always be a happy ending for the characters? You tell me.
· In a random moment, Bill mentions one more time that she’s gay. Just in case the series hasn’t established it enough yet. I would have loved to have heard those words spoken by a Cyberman.

The Shallow Bit: Given this is a Moffat script and that the Master is both male and female I think it was inevitable that they would wind up flirting with each other. Is the universe ready for that kind of self-gratification? Probably not, and at least it will give the shippers something to write about for the next couple of years. I’m glad we never actually saw them kissing, it would have given Blinovitch a raging erection before he blew a hole in this corner of the universe. It’s just on the right side of gross, and I’m pleased that it was the Simm Master who fancied a bit of me-time and that Gomez metaphorically slapped him down.

Result: ‘Without hope, without witness, without reward…’ Not at all what I was expecting and all the better for it. Moffat has previous form in promising a great deal and delivering a less than satisfying finale so how is it at the last hurdle he has produced such a surprising hit? Actually, let’s get the few reservations out of the way first because this episode deserves a great deal of praise heaped upon it. One thing I was expecting was for Bill’s condition to be reversed and it was, in the most agonisingly fairy-tale manner imaginable and a repetition of Clara’s departure just one series previously. As if it wasn’t bad enough the first time around. Also, I was a little unsatisfied with how irresolute everything was left, with Nardole being abandoned with no knowledge of how the Doctor and Bill wound up, Bill leaving the Doctor to his fate and the Doctor with no clue that Bill isn’t a Cyberman anymore. Life doesn’t always tidy things up, but in fiction it is much more satisfying if toys are put away in the box neatly. Built out of continuity this episode might be but Moffat finds some chilling things to say about both the Cybermen (particularly Bill’s nightmare at being turned into one) and the Masters (who depart the series in an unforgettable scene of celebratory slaughter). More importantly he has gotten the tone and the emotional content of this episode spot on, tightly focussing on the characters and giving the plot a rest. Series 10 has, on the whole, done a great job of delivering an engaging group of regulars (and I would include Missy in that line up) and so splitting the Doctor, Bill and Nardole up comes with real poignancy. Capaldi gets the chance to shine in a series of brilliant scenes (his quiet moments with Bill in the barn, begging the Masters to stay with him and help, his wonderful farewell to Nardole and his anger at the climax at the approach of another regeneration), Pearl Mackie acts her socks off and reminds us once again why she has made such an impact this year and Matt Lucas gets to the chance to be casually cool in the face of romance, a Cyberman attack and a daunting responsibility. They are the most unlikely trio, but they’ve emerged as the strongest set of regulars in the Moffat era thanks to some highly engaging performances. The trailer promised a lot of bangs and flashes and when they come it feels like they have been earned. In a smart move Moffat holds back the action to the last possible moment, recognising that the promise of action and the characters reaction to it is far more enthralling. I would have loved to have seen more of this in the previous six series, far less plot complexity, more riveting character work. Responsible for the execution of this episode is the one of the most accomplished directors Doctor Who has been lucky to secure and so much of what makes The Doctor Falls impact as much as it does is Rachel Talalay. As a pair, The World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are her greatest achievement; chilling, exciting, revelatory, poignant and tragic. Visually she brings something quite memorable to the show, it feels like every scene has been carefully considered to make a filmic impact. I cannot praise her highly enough. I recognise this is fanwank of the highest order but the look of the episode, the characters and how they interact, the impetus of great moments and genuine sentiment that rises to a powerful pitch make this a terrific finale. A huge round of applause for Steven Moffat at the eleventh hour: 9/10

Thursday, 29 June 2017

A Life of Crime written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Come to Ricosta! Tropical climate, untouched beaches, fabulous cuisine... and no extradition treaties. The perfect retirement planet for a certain type of 'business person' – such as Ms Melanie Bush, formerly the co-owner of the Iceworld emporium, now on the run from her former criminal associate's criminal associates... Some other former associates of Ms Bush are abroad in this space Costa del Crime, however. Not long ago, the time and space traveller known as the Doctor arrived here, alongside his sometimes-criminal associate, the reformed juvenile offender Ace. But now the Doctor's gone missing – and Melanie Bush is about to learn that on the planet Ricosta, the wages of sin... are death.

The Real McCoy: Nice try in attempting to convince that the Doctor has regenerated into Gloria but it would need to be executed with much more panache, both in terms of writing and direction, to be even halfway convincing. It’s a twist not worthy of a cliff-hanger, which Fitton denies it. Did they release part one for free with the hook of the possible regeneration to lure people in? Ginny Holder lacks any kind of personality, which would have made her the most subdued Doctor of all time. The Doctor thought that Mel wanted to travel with Glitz to see the wonders of the universe? Yeah, even McCoy can’t make that sound convincing. What could expose you to more wonders than the TARDIS? He also suggests that he thought that Mel might be a good influence on Glitz, rather than the other way around. Mel questions whether the Doctor is the imposter after all because he genuinely questioned whether she was doing the right thing or not.

Oh Wicked: The story felt quite fun until Ace showed up fifteen minutes in, all mouth and smugness. Am I wrong in suggesting that this story might have played out quite unusually (in a good way) without her? Sophie Aldred is shouting her head almost as soon as she ducks out the TARDIS. Subtlety has left the building. She’s accusatory to those in power (‘how much do the gangsters bung you to turn a blind eye?’), dismissive, insulting and wails like an insane banshee on heat. I’ve long given up on expecting new facets to her character (she’s appeared in more stories now across every media – TV, print, audio, comic – than any other companion) but to revert to this dreadfully childish and nauseating immaturity really grates on the nerves. We need the Doctor for the scenes where he reunites with Mel (that’s the point of the story, after all) but he could have easily have gone solo here and dispensed Ace infecting the story with its weakest moments. There’s talk of muzzling Ace in episode two, which would have been nice. Anything to shut her up. The story bothers to make the audience ten steps ahead of Ace when it comes to the fake regeneration, and she comes as being shockingly naive for it.

Aieeeeeeee: In contrast to Aldred, Bonnie Langford sounds as though she left the series last week but I guess that is the advantage of being slightly older when she played the role on television. I fail to comprehend whether this is supposed to be a seasoned Melanie who has picked up a few tricks from Glitz along the way or the wide-eyed screamer that we (ahem) enjoyed in season 24. So Bonnie plays the role somewhere in between and commits to neither. Mel was always in rather a lot of trouble when she travelled with the Doctor, so she should be accustomed to it. The Nosferatu has been impounded because they couldn’t pay the tax when they arrived at Ricosta. The idea of Mel wanting to leave with Glitz in the first place was suspect (it felt like a writer trying to ditch a character with no clue of how to do so) – she’s such a squeaky-clean Miss it felt completely out of character for her to go on the run with a bit of rough crook like Glitz. I thought maybe this trilogy would delve into her motive a little but that was asking a little much. The big twist in A Life of Crime is that Mel is still every bit the upstanding do gooder she ever was and that she has been cleaning up Glitz’s exploits as best she can. Really? Four episodes to learn that Mel has not developed one iota in her travels with an ardent conman? Mel literally states that things are black and white, right and wrong and that is how she sees things. That’s precisely how she was characterised on television and why she was so unsatisfying to watch. It isn’t, however, how she has been characterised on audio and with some of her better stories she has been afforded much more complex set of ideals. I do hope we’re not reverting to the ‘how utterly evil’ Melanie Bush of old. That would leave all the excellent work that Big Finish have done with her character since The Fires of Pompeii in the dust.

Great Ideas: A race that devoured the quantum possibilities of the soul, that’s an idea worth exploring beyond slavering aliens that simply want to eat people. It has a lot of potential to be explored in a dramatic way. These monsters just want to gobble up the Doctor because he has the most fascinating amount of latent futures.

Musical Cues: I appreciate that there are only a few ways on audio to make this have the same feel of a glitzy (no pun intended) heist movie and music is one of them but the moments when the hipster beat kicked in as criminal plans were made I wanted to blush to my toenails. Doctor Who is rarely this cheesy.

Isn’t it Odd: I can’t have been the only person to groan when I heard what the line-up for this trilogy was going to be, can I? Big Finish seems determined to play out every possibility, to fill in every gap of continuity and to return to what might have beens (such as here) with careless abandon to fill up their schedules. Dragonfire is hardly the dramatic zenith of Doctor Who and the Mel and Ace combination, while cute, hardly expressed enough chemistry to order up two trilogies worth of adventures with them. There has been so much material with Ace now I’ve given up all hope of trying to fit in where stories belong and the idea that Sophie Aldred still sounds like a teenager from the 80s is just absurd. When they grew the character up during the Hex years it was a sound move, but recently there seems to have been a resurgence in ‘The Rapture’ style Ace, a middle-aged woman going ‘oh Ace!’ and shouting a lot to pretend that she is an angst-ridden teenager. It’s more than a little embarrassing, frankly. That’s clearly what we’re going for here, capturing the feel of a fresh new Ace and an experienced Mel (although Dragonfire seemed to portray them the other way around) and I think Alan Barnes is hoping this sounds as though they stepped into the TARDIS together when they left Svartos. It’s a neat idea for a one off story, but to suggest there were a whole series of adventure with this trio when the series went out of its way to avoid that seems a little…wanky. But hey, it’s not down to me to suggest what Big Finish experiment with. I might disagree with the idea of something like the locum Doctors where it feels like a random generator has selected a Doctor and companion from different eras just to tell a story…but you can bet your last dollar that there will fans out there desperate for ANY new demand. And whilst there is a calling for new material, who cares about creative dignity? Besides, haven’t we done this already with Older Nyssa? And older Peri? As unconvincing as it is, surely the revelation that Gloria is the Doctor should have been the cliff-hanger rather than another unconvincing moment of jeopardy featuring McCoy gurning? Where is Glitz? Was Tony Selby not interested? The story always feels as if it is building up to a surprise appearance by everybody’s favourite crook that never happens. It leaves an unfinished taste in the mouth. The cliffhanger to episode two is the Doctor revealing that he is still in his old skin to his companions? That’s something we have been privy to throughout the episode! If you’re going to blow a kiss in the direction of another episode (in this case Turn Left) then make sure that the quality of your story is comparable, otherwise you run the risk of having egg on your face when you deal with the same ideas less effectively. There’s a dismal moment in the third episode where Mel and Ace are literally describing (for an audience that cannot see). ‘Look at all those ships! They’re huge! They’re blotting out the sky!’ ‘Tentacles! Covered in mouths! And they’re everywhere!’ ‘Those tentacles have wrecked the place and now they’re just hanging there…waiting!’ When the story boils down to Ace screaming ‘jump on this, barnacle features!’ whilst battling with giant tentacles, you know you’ve been taken for a ride. This far into Big Finish’s run I expect audio stories that present genuinely gripping scenarios like The Peterloo Massacre, not hideous audio action punctuated by cringeworthy acting and dialogue.

Standout Scene: The Speravores eat criminals, absorb their alternative realities at the quantum level. Every decision, the bigger the repercussions, the tastier the nectar. Some species have a collective consciousness, they have a collective digestive system. The sustenance that a multiverse of possibilities brings. Every wrong turn, every robbery, every crime, every moment of death, ever decisions good or bad. And it is delicious. And the scene where we experience this first hand is the best executed of the story.

Result: I went in with low expectations, and still managed to come out disappointed. Remember Grand Theft Cosmos, the witty, pacy heist story nestled in the third season of Eighth Doctor and Lucy adventures? That was how to tell this kind of sleight of hand, Ocean’s Eleven style romp, in an hour with plenty of twists and turns to fill it with surprises. A Life of Crime has similar pretentions but is twice as long as so it has to pad out the story with endless dialogue that forces the proceedings to a plod. It takes more than a (humiliatingly) hip musical score to convince this is an intergalactic caper. What this story really needs to sell that angle is energy and plenty of it. I felt as if I was being pulled in too many directions at times and that there was a lack of focus throughout; is this a story about the Doctor meeting up with an old friend, a regeneration tale, an alien attack action piece or a criminal operation in space? It’s all four and it doesn’t do any of them justice. The guest characters lacked sparkle, which is as much down to the performances as it is the writing with the star role of Gloria being a let-down, given the possibility of who she might be. I wish this had been a one-off story featuring just Mel following her exploits, they could have roped in Tony Selby as Glitz and gone to town on a giddy heist adventure. Most of episode one plays out just fine without the Doctor and Ace and I feel it could have continued very nicely in that vein. Saying that, I’m not certain if the universe is ready for The Melanie Bush Adventures. Episode three was my favourite because it spent a few moments to consider the reunion between the Doctor and Mel and we got to experience the digestion of a criminal by one of the Speravores, but ultimately that episode devolves into a horrible noisy mess. Top heavy with unconvincing elements and lacking pizazz, this is a criminal caper where the vault is empty: 4/10