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