Saturday, 30 June 2018

The Crowmarsh Experiment written by David Llewelyn and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: When attacked on an alien world, Leela falls unconscious… only to wake in another time, another place. She is in the Crowmarsh Institute on Earth, in London, in 1978, and everyone is calling her Doctor Marshall. They tell her the world she has known is but a fantasy, a delusion, and that this place is the one that is real. Surrounded by familiar faces on unfamiliar people, Leela knows what is true and what is false. But how long can she believe when everyone around her says it’s a dream? What’s really happening here?

Teeth and Curls: It just goes to show how personable Tom Baker makes the Doctor. Here he is playing a clinical Doctor who has no compunction in sticking a needle in Leela’s arm and interrogating her. Tom Baker refuses to hold back in these sequences, playing the part of the other Doctor with a stillness that I found quite unsettling. I think they could have pushed it even more and had him a downright unlikeable, even nasty character.

Noble Savage: For Leela, having her identity questioned is a disturbing revelation. After all the one thing she is sure of in an ever changing universe (thanks to travelling with the Doctor) is who she is, how she thinks and feels and acts. On a purely performance level it is wonderful to hear Louise Jameson being handed material as challenging as this and of course she is more than up to the test. I love that the ‘dream’ of the Doctor and Leela travelling in the TARDIS is described as farfetched. Leela talks factually about her parents rather than emotionally, but she has a positive opinion of them. She has children within the Crowmarsh setting, but she resists the idea strongly. Leela is playing along with what she believes to be a fantasy, and thinks the Doctor is cunning enough to play along too. She thinks it is all part of some important scheme. Leela can remember how it felt to lose Marshall and so it is a moment of cruelness when she is confronted with the children that she could have had with him. Because it made her happy to be held by her ‘child.’ Leela reaches a point where the idea of staying at Crowmarsh becomes more palatable than continuing travelling with the Doctor (a loving husband, children, a career). Leela questions whether she is dreaming at the climax or whether she was dreaming at Crowmarsh.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Look around you Leela! Which seems the more likely fiction; and alien world with flying robots or London on a rainy Monday afternoon?’
‘Somewhere in the universe your daughter is waiting for you to come home.’

Great Ideas: A ziggurat, a distress signal and airbourne robots screaming through the sky, The Crowmarsh Experiment certainly opens with a lot to say for itself. The Doctor and Doctor Leela are colleagues at Crowmarsh and together they are the architects of Project Cissifuss. A psychological experiment using a combination of hypnosis and drug therapy to project a dream into the test subjects mind. A dream so vivid that they remember it as an experience from real life and the dream spills over into their waking life into the real world. Imagine a weapon that instead of destroying cities could obliterate ideologies. A weapon that in just one night could disenchant every citizen living under a dictatorship. If the people dream of violence or war, change the dream. Read that back again, this is not the kind of concepts that I expect to be bandying around with the 4th Doctor on audio. How very refreshing to have such a bold and unusual idea at the story’s core. In reality, Leela is being harvested on an alien world, kept in a dream state whilst the planet gobbles her up.

Audio Landscape: Simple audio punctuation that doesn’t overwhelm the drama; a pen scratching on paper, a heart monitor, a tannoy system. I loved the sound effects for the characters being dissolved into pixels within the Crowmarsh setting, and the flying robots sound pretty cool too.

Isn’t It Odd: The only think I could think of when Marshall was introduced was ‘who the fuck is that?’ which gives you an idea of how disposable some of these 4DAs are. That he appeared in a previous story and had a connection to Leela had completely slipped my mind in a way that the more vivid of romances that have blossomed in Big Finish stories haven’t. Fortunately, we had Jameson’s pained performance to guide us through this scene and make it count. She’s really very good. Perhaps The Crowmarsh Experiment plays it’s hand a little too early, with the Doctor contacting Leela before the end of the last episode. It means we don’t really have enough time to buy into the delusion before we are informed it is an illusion. It’s not an insurmountable problem though, because this is still a very personal journey for Leela.

Standout Scene: The Doctor getting to talk with ‘the Doctor.’ Tom squared is boggling.

Result: Existential exploration is not something I expect from this range and the trial that Leela goes through is beautifully conceived and written and makes a mockery of previous comic book attempts at this sort of thing like The Evil One. This is an idea I have seen played around with on many shows from Deep Space Nine (Far Beyond the Stars) to Red Dwarf (Back to Reality) to Buffy (Normal Again) to The X-Files (Field Trip), the notion that the characters that we have been following are a fiction and their real identity are now revealed and explored. It’s often a highlight of the respective shows and it proves no different for the 4DAs, for which this is about as experimentational as they come. What a delight to be using words like that in a review for a Tom Baker story. It’s a story that relies on creative ideas and character interaction rather than a dependence on audio set pieces like a soundtrack of a televised story. In essence, this is what audio drama is about. And what a showcase for Louise Jameson, who is brilliant in even the most uneducated of scripts but really gets to sink her acting chops into something meaty and worthwhile here. I love that she chooses not to play any of this story hysterically but at a disquietingly still level, a woman trying to come to terms with some pretty shocking revelations. My only real criticism is that this could have been even more psychologically probing and disturbing, Leela could have been taken to some very dark places. But that doesn’t take away from how enjoyably unique this story proves to be. Something is happening with this range that I am not at all accustomed to, after my positive reaction to the previous four stories I am starting to develop a taste for the 4DAs and look forward to them. Perhaps this is because it is a range that has finally put the right people in the right places behind the scenes (John Dorney as script editor is a brilliant move, I can see him edging this range into a more innovative, less nostalgic direction) or perhaps it has been around for years now and flogged wistfulness for the 70s to death and is ready to emerge as a more mature, less predictable series of stories. Whatever the reason, The Crowmarsh Experiment (one or two niggles aside) sees a continuation of the upswing in quality and proves to be a striking instalment in its own right: 8/10

Thursday, 28 June 2018

The Sons of Kaldor written by Andrew Smith and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Finding themselves in a seemingly deserted spaceship on an alien world, the Doctor and Leela stumble into some familiar foes - the Voc robots from the planet Kaldor - and… something else. Something outside. Trying to get in. Reviving the robot’s Kaldoran commander from hibernation, the travellers discover that they’ve found themselves in the middle of a civil war. The ship was hunting the Sons of Kaldor, an armed resistance group working with alien mercenaries to initiate regime change on their homeworld. But now the Sons of Kaldor may have found them. The Doctor and Leela will have to pick a side. Or die.

Teeth and Curls: An unusually clinical Tom Baker for this story, which makes quite a refreshing change. It feels as though he stuck to the script absolutely for this story, and that there were few nutty innovations by the main man along the way. In Smith’s hands (he has form for writing Tom obviously given his debut script for the series) he’s scientific, not senseless, urgent, not indulgent. I love his ‘how very Luddite of you’ about the idea of rounding up the robots and getting rid of them. He doesn’t have to say anything else, the historical comment explains everything. Should that Doctor be used as an expository tool like this? When you only have two episodes and this much plot…maybe. But Tom has a way of making all this gobbledegook convincing and engaging.

Noble Savage: If you factor in her TV stories, comic strips, original novels, Big Finish 4DAs, Gallifrey and Jago & Litefoot then Leela has had a mammoth amount of stories to her name. So why don’t I get bored of her like I do of Ace who has had a similarly impressive wealth of stories. The answer is Louise Jameson, one of the most striking, thoughtful actresses to ever appear in Doctor Who who continually finds interesting things to say and do with the character. She’s invested in Leela one hundred percent, you only have to listen to her talk in the extras to realise the effort she is going to find new shades, subtleties and nuances to the character. And that’s a character who is ALREADY interesting because of her nature, and her contrast with the Doctor and the universe that she is exploring. Don’t get me wrong I’m pleased we are exploring the idea of a new companion for the 4th Doctor next season but Leela continues to enthral, and it is primarily down to Jameson’s skill as an actress. Leela will say ‘about half of one hour’ instead of ‘half an hour ago.’ Leela’s relationship with V9 is beautifully done, with Leela reacting very gently to the robot because of his mannerly way. It’s like two children talking like adults.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This can’t be all of you: Two Vocs, four Dums!’

Standout Performance: I would recognise Toby Hadoke’s voice anywhere! John Dorney provides a perfect balance of the emotionless and the childlike for SV9, a character that is up there with D84 as one of the best robots in the series. You can’t help but like him, and Dorney has a lot to do with that.

Great Ideas: Quite unexpectedly, the opening scenes are very to the point. The Doctor and Leela arrive on a dead spaceship and investigate immediately without any of the frivolities that usually plague the 4DAs. It makes for an immediately arresting opening. It feels as though Andrew Smith has refined the first part of a four-part Doctor Who story into ten minutes of urgent examination. The Voc robots have their memories wiped every two months in case they fall into the hands of the enemy. They have powered down and tried to make themselves undetectable to the outside world. The Sons of Kaldor are the enemy in this civil war. Three years ago they attempting a coup, but it failed. Then they regrouped and swelled their numbers and became a serious fighting force. Their aim is to topple the government and replace the leaders with members of the Founding Families, considered by some to be over privileged dictators. A stealth ship run by intelligence officers, fitted with camouflage technology, designed to burrow into the ground, wait and watch. Rebben Tace is the leader of the Sons of Kaldor, and claims to be from the bloodline of the Founding Families. One of the first decrees of the Second Republic was to abolish the robots, to round them up and destroy them. What would a thinking, learning robot do if it learnt that it’s kind was being culled? It would try and help others of its kind to survive.

Audio Landscape: It’s worth mentioning in a story like The Sons of Kaldor about how impressed I am with Big Finish’s ability to capture the sound effects of classic era Doctor Who stories and evoke them in your memory. It’s a particularly useful skill give the purchasers of Big Finish adventures are primarily old hats like me trying to capture out lost youth and the feeling those old stories gave us (or at least I’m assuming that is what their target audience is, especially with this range that seems to err on the side of nostalgia over innovation). I was struck by the ambiance of Robots of Death I got in the opening scenes with everything from the Voc voices to the door panels to the background noise of the Command Deck.

Result: A ruthlessly efficient Doctor Who story, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. There are some places in the dark recesses of the internet that will try and convince you that The Sons of Kaldor is a 10/10 Doctor Who classic, much like everything else that Big Finish produce. Don’t believe that kind of hype. But it is a refined piece of work, like Andrew Smith has looked at a four-part Doctor Who story and managed to trim all the fat, extract all the extraneous material not pertinent to the plot and produce a script that revels in it’s straight to the pointedness. I admire it for that because the 4DAs have an alarming ability to feel indulgent. The flip side is that lose a lot of the charm and humour that Doctor Who usually trades in for a much colder, clinical approach. Even the Doctor (perhaps unthinkable with Tom) is kept very tightly on a leash. The investigation of the setting, the discovery of the robots, the Commander in suspension, the Sons of Kaldor…the plot builds very naturally and it’s clear that Smith, one of the most concise narrative builders the series has ever known, is in full control of the piece as a whole. It’s almost a little too neat but I can’t say I didn’t get carried away with events. Episode two introduces a new perspective on the story, which keeps things fresh. By introducing the Ferelin it adds a new dimension to the Kaldor City/Robots of Death setting and much like New Earth it is an environment that was conjured originally with enough extra detail that an entire series could be set within it’s confines, and so a Doctor Who story has no trouble at all. I liked the sympathetic tone towards the robots too. Less Robots of Death, more Robots Avoiding Rest. Perhaps we could have done with a little more incident and a little less explanation, but with a plot that unfolds so much perhaps that was inevitable. If you’re a fan of Doctor Who it would be hard to actively dislike The Sons of Kaldor, even if you don’t like it’s quick about it pace and pressing tone. It’s cowboys and Indians in space with Voc robots thrown in for good measure, it recalls a Doctor Who classic and features the Doctor at his most apposite: 7/10

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The Doctor’s Wife written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Richard Clar

What’s it about: The Doctor gets to talk to the TARDIS for the first and last time…

Nutty Professor: Matt Smith’s signature episode. This is the eleventh Doctor at his absolute finest. The myriad of emotions and different tones Smith has to pitch his performance at is asking a lot of any actor and he steps up to the plate and pulls it off with absolute conviction. He’s going to get rid of the warning lights because they never stop bothering him. Another renegade Time Lord that the Doctor admired greatly as he was growing up was the Corsair who had the same tattoo in every regeneration, be it male or female. I did wonder if he/she would turn up at some point but I guess that ship has sailed now. The Doctor burns up TARDIS rooms Christopher H Bidmead style (bye bye swimming pool) in order to leave this universe, which is a little touch of Castrovalva. His chin is hilarious, apparently. When he realises that there could be lots and lots of Time Lords nearby his reaction is excited but cautious and that is perfectly understandable given the last time he rubbed shoulders with his own kind it was the Master and Rassilon, both with crazy plans of world/universal domination.. Amy confronts him about why he has a need to see his people again and he admits that he wants forgiveness but imagine the amount of explaining he would have to do if he ever met one (or go and read the EDA The Gallifrey Chronicles to see how it's done). It's so refreshing to see the Doctor’s throwaway admission that he is the last Time Lord finally have some terrifying consequences – maybe he will be a little more careful who he spills that out to in the future. He was given hope and had it snatched away in the worst possible way, by reminding him of the atrocity he committed to his people…goodness knows what that will do to him. The TARDIS was already a museum piece when the Doctor was young and when he first touched her he said she was the most beautiful thing he had ever known. When the TARDIS dematerialises in front of him he genuinely has no idea what to do and he smiles at that new feeling. Smith goes from confidence to wide eyed embarrassment when the TARDIS reveals his nickname for her. It's a very Steven Moffat nickname at that. Not reliable, runs around and brings home strays – the TARDIS has him pegged correctly and no mistake. Nephew is another Ood he failed to save. The Doctor goes from being devastatingly aggressive (‘Finish him off girl!’) to the weakest we have ever seen him, tears crawling down his face because he cannot bear to say goodbye to his Ship. For an old fanboy like me its too much to take and I fall to pieces every time I watch it. Has the word hello ever been so devastating? 

Scots Tart: At this stage Amy knows the Doctor better than anyone and she orders him not to get emotional because that is when he makes mistakes. Interesting that Amy’s worst fear is leaving Rory waiting for 2000 years again and hating her for it. Maybe she has learnt something from the previous season after all. Amy’s reaction to Rory’s corpse and the walls covered in graffiti damning her is horrific, she screams and clutches her stomach as though she is in pain. It's interesting to note that when Moffat isn't writing for Amy (although I am reliably informed that he may have rewritten a lot of this) that she is a far more likeable character. As proven here all you have to do is torture her horribly in order to give a damn about her. She'll never be one of my favourites but I have to admit this is a very responsible take on her character. Probably because the plot isn't all about her.  

Rory the Roman: I love Rory’s little Ood impression to Amy. Oh bless, Amy knows exactly why the Doctor has locked them in the TARDIS while naïve, trusting Rory is still looking for his jacket.
Lady TARDIS: I would never have thought that any single actress would be able to personify the TARDIS and it would be enough for the fans. Suranne Jones received huge plaudits for her performance in this episode and as far as I am concerned she is the TARDIS. She nailed it. One of the finest character to step from the New Series by a country mile - the female embodiment of the TARDIS and she is delightful, whimsical and slightly mad. She runs up to the Doctor declaring him her ‘thief’ and snogs the face off him before laughing her head off about it! The time travelling nature of the TARDIS has imbued Idris with visions of the future and she can see a moment when the word alive will be so sad because it will be over. Its hilarious how Idris gets all the technical explanations out of the way so the Doctor doesn’t have to…because she has heard him say it in the future…which he doesn’t actually say now! The TARDIS wanted to see the universe so she stole a Time Lord and ran away and the Doctor was the only one mad enough to give it a go. I don’t know if I have seen a more beautiful sight than Idris kissing the console with fire in her eyes. The TARDIS has archived all the old control rooms – she has about 30 now (and wouldn’t it be wonderful to skip through them all?). She always liked it when the Doctor called her old girl. A dazzling performance and a terrific character, giving full justice to the Ship that we have cherished all these years. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘And then we discovered it wasn’t the Robot King after all but the real one. Fortunately I was able to reattach the head.’ Ugh! I’m glad we weren’t present in that adventure!
‘Biting’s excellent! Its like kissing only there’s a winner!’
‘Where’s my thief?’
‘I’m a madman in a box without a box and I’m stuck down a plughole at the end of the universe on a stupid old junkyard!’
‘You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go!’ ‘No but I always took you where I needed to go!’ – that is probably my favourite moment in Doctor Who ever. It struck a chord with my far more than the tears at the end because it was perfect pay off to all of those wayward adventures in the TARDIS that ended up exactly where he was needed.
‘Oh my beautiful idiot. You have what you have always had. You’ve got me.’
‘She’s a woman and she’s the TARDIS!’ ‘Did you wish really hard?’
‘Fear me, I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords’ ‘Fear me, I’ve killed all of them.’ 

The Good Stuff: Immediately this feels like it is going to be something a bit different with the very creepy set up of Auntie and Uncle and their pet Ood helping Idris into a machine that is ‘really gonna hurt.’ The aesthetic of the story is especially fresh, gothic, gloomy, almost a little steampunk in places. I was very impressed with the art photography and wish more stories could have taken this approach. Atmosphere created through lighting and simple effects is something Doctor Who should capatilise on more often. The teaser scene in the TARDIS is wonderfully affirming for a series that has gone a little plot mad; the Doctor chasing the Time Lord communication box around the console room before declaring ‘I’ve got mail!’ The lighting when the TARDIS has its soul ripped out is very atmospheric – I wish they would turn the lights down more often in that wine lounge console room because it looks so much more moody. Amy's Choice was similarly effective in that regard. The storytelling in the teaser is crystal clear so we see a clear progression of the TARDIS being torn out and shoved into Idris. It's nice to be one step ahead of the Doctor for a change. The junkyard set with the phenomenally menacing rocket engines looming from above is a startling visual – you won't see anything like this on television apart from on Doctor Who. There’s a washing machine, deck chairs and a fish slice! Vintage stuff! Adrian Schiller (‘Sorry about the mad person’) and Elisabeth Berrington (‘Well we’re dying, my love’) deliver wonderfully skewed performances as Auntie and Uncle – they are as dolally as everybody else but with just a hint of sanity. How creepy is the voice of House? Brrr… I love the super spooky visual of the green cloud enveloping the shell of the TARDIS (and the beams of light streaming through the interior windows), the dark fantasy elements of the Moffat era hit the spot again. The moment the Doctor discovers the cupboard full of distress boxes I sank into the sofa with horror. The episode suddenly takes a much darker tone as we realise all of the Time Lords lured here have been killed. People made up of bits of long dead Time Lords is deliciously macabre. We finally get to move beyond the console room in the TARDIS. In the classic series it was a labyrinth of rooms but for some reason in the new series we are contained to one room (and a wardorbe room). Okay so we only venture out into corridors...but it is a start. You never know, this might tempt the creators to venture to the centre of the TARDIS at some point. I bet that would be the best episode ever (I'm naughty). The valley of half eaten TARDISes is the sort of genius concept that only comes around every now and again and it should be applauded for its mind bending awesomeness. The scenes of Amy and Rory being menaced through the TARDIS corridors could have felt remarkably cheap but thanks to some claustrophobic direction and lighting they are screaming with tension. Insane Rory is terrifying (Darvill refuses to hold back) and the wall of abusive scrawl might just be one of the most disturbing thing Doctor Who has ever presented us with. Amy grabbing the Ood tendrils - ugh ugh uggghhhh! It's wonderful to see the old Eccleston/Tennant control room and how spacious does it look? Cobbling together a functioning Possibly my favourite visual effect ever comes as the TARDIS pours out of Idris and dances around the Doctor dancing around the console room. It works so beautifully because it is both emotionally and visually stunning. 

The Bad Stuff: My one tiny complaint is that I would have told the scene where the lights go out in the corridor entirely from Amy’s point of view rather than switching back and forth from light and dark which blunts the mood a tiny bit.

The Shallow Bit: Suranne Jones is beautiful. Those eyes.

Result: You find me another show that can feature a living malevolent asteroid that tears the souls out of time ships and personifies them in female form so it can devour the remains. The Doctor’s Wife is unlike anything we have ever seen in Doctor Who before and it ticked every single box of what I think kicks ass in the series. Its dark, twisted, imaginative, funny, clever, emotional and satisfying. Another thing I love is that the episode looks lavishly expensive and yet it doesn’t pour its money into soulless set pieces but in where it counts; the glorious junkyard on an asteroid, the extra rooms in the TARDIS, the graveyard of TARDISes. Every line is gorgeous, the ideas are brilliant (that Neil Gaiman is a genius) and the music is suitably moody and emotive. This is the episode where the Doctor manages to build a working TARDIS out of hundreds of different models and he doesn’t care that it is impossible. This is the episode where Amy and Rory are menaced through the ships corridors by a disembodied voice that eats TARDISes. This is the episode where the Doctor gets to talk to his most faithful friend and tell her how much she means to him. It's something to be treasured forever: 10/10

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Lodger written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Catherine Morshead

This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who enters sitcom land...

Whacky Wanderer: Possibly Matt Smith's finest hour in his impressive first season as the Doctor, and certainly his cutest. My own dear mother was extremely resistant to Smith because she was so desperately in love with David Tennant (and who can blame her for that?) but come The Lodger she had finally been worn down by just how adorable this new incarnation of the Doctor is. One part Troughton, one part Tennant (his ruthlessness) and two parts Matt Smith's brilliantly quirky and intelligent self, the eleventh Doctor has well and truly flourished come the end of his first year. Matt Smith himself admits that his work in his first season was his finest, and that the writing was at its best then and who am I to argue with the main man? He is an ancient amateur and an absolute dream! I love how he doesn't have a clue about currency and turns up on Craig's doorstep with three grand in a paper bag telling him not to spend it all on sweeties. His gentle air kissing, continental style, is so sweet you just want to hug him. Don't call him the Rotneister. I like the suggestion that he has set up events in this story - very 7th Doctor. He learnt to cook in Paris. He looks a little hurt when he admits people never stop telling him he's weird, but then this is before the 11th Doctor went mainstream. Craig looks the Doctor up and down and assumes that he is gay. A common misconception, I'm sure. His singing in the shower is very reminiscent of the 3rd Doctor in Spearhead from Space. Seeing the Doctor in the buff is a real eye opener...he's even more of a skinny rake than I imagined. I love how he walks around totally unselfconsciously in the nude. The gentle bromance between the Doctor and Craig is lovely and there is a lot of subtle touching that makes it feel very convincing. The Doctor is the only person in the universe (aside from possibly Graham Norton) who would walk up to a bunch of solid looking footballers and start air kissing them. It is wonderful to see the Doctor enjoying himself so much in something as frivolous as football, Matt Smith was clearly having a ball (groan) and it is quite infectious. Like me he cannot bear wine and spits it back into his glass. Good man. I love the delicious visual of forcing Craig to drink from a teapot spout. Having worked in a call centre on the phones for over a year I was cheering when he blew raspberries at Craig's nastiest customer. This Doctor really is like me, he sits and has a conversation with the cat. Sometimes they are the only ones who understand. 

Surrogate Companions: Since Amy Pond contributes absolutely nothing to the story until the final scene lets instead focus on Craig and Sophie, the Doctor's one time companions for this story. I loved it when Sophie said 'It's just Craig', that feels so real because I think we all have friends who say that when they are comfortable with us. I also think we have all had a friend who has phoned up and ruined your plans with their latest drama. Who has ever had feelings so strong that the thought of telling the person that you love them makes you feel physically sick? The Doctor is the unwanted third person in this romance and let's be honest a lot of us have been that person too. Craig's jealousy of the Doctor feels so real, I think we would all feel that way if somebody crashed into our lives who was funnier, more confident and more talented than ourselves. Somebody who impresses all of your mates is never wanted. I am not the hugest fan of Amy Pond at this point and frankly I think I would have preferred to have had Craig and Sophie throughout this season as they are far more likeable. And more relatable. And funnier. And sexier. Okay, maybe not the last one. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Six billion people. Watching you two at work I'm starting to wonder where they came from.'
'Is that a lie?' 'Of course its a lie!'
'For Godsake kiss the girl!'
'That's a number to beat.' 

The Good Stuff: I love the echoes to Psycho with the nature of the threat up the stairs. It's a very simple menace but it works extremely well as a mystery and to provide some creepy atmosphere to a simple character tale. The spreading mould and electric flashes through the window causes your mind to reel at what on Earth is going on up there. I love the scrambler that makes you talk total gibberish. I think perhaps the Doctor has that on quite a lot - especially when he is played by Tom Baker and David Tennant. The footie scenes are utterly unrepresentative of Doctor Who they should be cherished for that fact alone but they are also gloriously uplifting to watch. Why can't the Doctor be seen enjoying something this frivolous more often (like Davison playing Cricket in Black Orchid). The weird contraption the Doctor builds out of bits and bobs is the modern day Time Flow Analogue from The Time Monster. It still looks like a work of desperate domestic application. In The Lodger the way the Doctor makes contact with Craig is to head butt him. It's really nasty and it amusingly makes me think of an alternative version of The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors where they go around, Bottom style, headbutting each other to pass information along. Peter Moffatt would not approve. How fabulously eerie is the Silence spaceship up the stairs? You can see when they were revealed next season why they wanted to return to that design. The love conquers all theme hadn't been battered to death by this point so the way that the two plots dovetail with something as simple as a kiss is rather lovely. By that point you are so desperate for Craig to make a move that it is a very satisfying moment. Amy is back come the conclusion (boo hiss) but at least the appetite whetting twist of her discovering the ring gets us going for the next instalment. 

The Bad Stuff: This is such a strong showing for Matt Smith's Doctor that I feel The Lodger is extremely poorly placed in the season - I would have put this much earlier at a point where we needed to get to know the Doctor in this much depth. Probably instead of Victory of the Daleks. I'd rather lose an episode altogether if it meant scrapping that one. With the Silurian two part, Van Gogh and The Lodger there are too many small scale character tales in a row and the season lacks the dramatic impetus of a really strong Davies season. Compare to series three (Human Nature, Blink, Utopia) and four (the Library two parter, Midnight, Turn Left...) at the same point in their respective seasons. There's more punch and momentum in those seasons that is lacking here. Who on Earth is that drunken old soak who shuffled past Craig's place? Would anybody in their right mind actually go up the creepiest set of stairs since Norman Bates house? Even if a little girl in pigtails was asking for help from the shadows I would give it a pass. Did Amy have to be so badly sidelined in this story? There is some really gooey squelchy kissing in Craig and Sophie's last scene. It's the worst kind of kissing, you know.

Result: Who ever thought Doctor Who could work as a blokey sitcom? The Lodger is basically a three way character drama between the Dcotor, Craig and Sophie but it's far cuter and more amiable than you could ever imagine. It's Matt Smith's sweetest performance in his first season and there is a lot of comic potential in the Doctor trying to fit in in suburban Britain. You wouldn't want to see this sort of thing too often but as an amusing one off it is a perfectly charming production, filmed with a delicate touch and featuring two warming performances from James Corden and Daisy Haggard. Is this the only Doctor Who episode to be inspired by a DWM comic strip? If so lets let Gareth Roberts plunder his own work more often, this is as feelgood as a night night of pizza/booze/telly with good friends: 8/10

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Iron Bright written by Chris Chapman and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: It's London, 1828, and the father-and-son team of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel are masterminding a dangerous project - the digging of the Thames Tunnel. There's just one problem... The Brunels' tunnel is haunted. Every night, a spectral blue lady walks the excavation. Now, the 22-year-old Isambard, eager to step out of his famous father's shadow, finds himself dealing with not only the supposed supernatural, but a second unexpected guest - a colourful trespasser who calls himself 'The Doctor'. Isambard would like to know a great deal more about this strange man and his mysterious blue box...

Softer Six: You might think characters talking to themselves would be a trap that Big Finish stories fall into quite often but it is rarely the case, the writers usually find imaginative ways for information to be relayed without having the characters sound as though they are directly telling the audience what is going on. Iron Bright begins with the sixth Doctor having something a monologue as he explores his surroundings and it sounds perfectly natural. If there was ever a Doctor who loved the sound of his voice and would vocalise his thoughts if he was alone, this is the one. He suggests there is a better way of resolving issues than rolling about in the muck (I give the prosecution the tussle with the mutant in Revelation of the Daleks as my evidence). One day he may audition for the circus, he’s certainly dressed for the part. There is a glorious moment when the Doctor realises that they are digging the Thames tunnel and he is congratulated, condescendingly, for knowing his own location. Often mistaken as a spy, it must be his face. He’s faced many hauntings before and as a man of learning he has been able to debunk them entirely. This Doctor is not used to facing laughing when he cries that everybody is in danger…but given how he looks I’m surprised he isn’t mistaken for a comedian more often. The sixth Doctor has a terrible habit of being swept away by the Thames (The Marian Conspiracy, Project Twilight, The Crimes of Thomas Brewster) and is warned that perhaps it is best for him to keep his mouth shut when it happens in the future. Perish the thought! The Doctor is asked if he was close to his father…to which a timely interruption stalls his response. He’s a man of nuts and bolts, a man of science and technology. He likes to think of himself as an honorary Earthling. What does the Doctor have in his pockets these days? Apple. Magnifying glass. British Rail timetable. Catapult. Ping-Pong ball. Another ping-pong ball. Yet another ping-pong ball… Compass, tooth brush, a key and a pair of ping pong bats. He’s from another world but he tries to avoid going back.

Historical Celebrity: Whilst the celebrity historical is something I associate with the New Series there is something of a precedent with the sixth Doctor on television and audio. He met George Stevenson on television and has worked his way through Darwin and Burke and Hare on audio. There’s something very natural about the bombastic sixth Doctor palling up with important figures from history. He waxes lyrical with such dexterity. Only his mother calls him Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His father casts a long shadow but the Doctor assures him that he will eclipse Marc one day. Isambard uses the clues to figure that there is something very different about the Doctor. Brunel sees a futuristic city and looks at it with nothing but awe.

Standout Performance: A stellar cast, which John Ainsworth has a solid habit of assembling. The Brunel’s are brought to life with real conviction and anchor the story with a familiar parental rivalry. MacCallum in particular brings a youthful exuberance to Isambard and the moment he sees into the TARDIS is a delight. A special mention to my friend Anthony Townsend who has a rich, deep voice that is perfect for audio. You always dread when somebody you turns up in something you critique but I needn’t have feared, he gives a committed, natural performance. Becky Wright as Flo sounds a lot like Lisa Greenwood’s Flip, which is odd given this is a Colin Baker story.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘London 1828! Chimney’s brimming with fire and soot! The Industrial Revolution is just getting underway.’
‘I imagine a world clad in iron, bathed in function. You could help me forge that world Doctor.’
‘Whatever is haunting you…you are digging straight towards it.’
I never thought I would hear the Doctor saying ‘you on top, obviously’ to a member of the fairer sex!
‘Destroy London!’

Great Ideas: The opening reminded me very strongly of Attack of the Cybermen and it is directed with similar dynamism; two workers underground bantering with each other and attacked by something in the dark. The sound effects used in this sequence were effective at generating a creepy tone (the female panting especially). Sticking to Doctor Who’s original remit, there is a glorious educational aspect to this historical and the method of digging a tunnel under the Thames is explained in some detail. Because the Doctor is so enthused by it, so was I. The TARDIS is described by Brunel as a machine that breathes, which is gorgeous. A ghost with a glitch? A Tribute is a collection of weaponised subatomic particles - a soldier existing on a micro AND macro level. So they can become solid when it suits them - or suits you, but they can move through anything. They are each a tribute to one who has died – an exact copy of that individual. A true lasting tribute, frozen in time. Over five hundred observation windows popped into existence on Luceat, windows that they can observe the Earth from. Windows between London and Luceat, tunnels that span between two worlds. And they have been used for tourism! We’ve seen time tourism before (The Last Resort, Hotel Historia) but this feels quite different. The toxins created by the Industrial Revolution, the chimneys belching out smoke, are insatiable and deadly to the people of Luceat. Hence they have had to cloak themselves in atmosphere bubbles in order to observe or they would die. Warriors are being made that are impervious to the stench of London to destroy the cause of the pollutants. They will be let loose on the city, thousands of them, to kick down every chimney, demolish every factory and furnace. Instead of transporting their test device from point A to point B, the scientists on Luceat managed to combine A and B into one single space. The sub-matter explosion tore through two cities. Not just Luceat, but through its parallel in another dimension. London and Luceat, twinned from that moment. Ever since, the windows have been acting as a vent – and now, they’re sucking in London’s pollution.

Audio Landscape: The attack of ghosts does sound remarkably similar to the Gelth, but it’s such a scary sound effect it doesn’t really matter. I love, love love the use of the Thames at the climax. It’s brilliantly dramatic.

Musical Cues: The use of the band of the Coldstream Guards at the climax to episode three was a great move.

Standout Scene: The moment that the Doctor and Brunel step out onto another world this story transforms into something quite different to what it had been. However, unlike The Curse of the Black Spot where the characters slip from a historical to a SF tale and it feels forced and unnatural, Chapman has already slipped in enough clues to make the transition an effortless one. He has such a command of the dialogue that he reveals the wonder of Brunel’s world opening up with real poetry. It’s a magnificent moment when he sees the potential of a world forged in iron. When episode three then begins from the point of view of the characters that have been infecting history, we’re seeing the story from an entirely new angle.

Result: ‘I cannot be part of a colonial invasion! You can’t look at somewhere new and think looks nice, I’ll take it!’ Chris Chapman scores another triumph. There’s pleasing elements of Mark of the Rani, Phantasmagoria and The Unquiet Dead to Iron Bright, but this story is written with greater substance than either of them. Chapman starts telling one kind of Doctor Who story and it feels as though this is going to be pretty predictable, if enjoyable, and then around the halfway mark he twists things entirely and it becomes something quite different. Think The Stones of Blood, but less jarring and more cohesive. The threat to the Earth (or rather London) is fascinating and original and it is happening because of something that we know is a problem on this planet (certainly Barry Letts had a lot to say about it) and the way the story winds educational history and science fiction is very cleverly done. Whilst it might be great for Chapman to take on another Doctor to see what he can do with them, he writes for the sixth Doctor extremely well. I defy anybody who loathed old Sixie on television to listen to this story and have the same opinion. And Colin Baker attacks these stories with such fervent vigour and skill, how could he be anything but my favourite audio Doctor even after all these years? In fact the entire cast is exceptional in Iron Bright, there isn’t a weak link and the performances are so energetic it’s effortless to be dragged along like a victim of the Thames. This is the sort story that Peter Capaldi should have enjoyed as his debut; unpretentious, smart, atmospheric and thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. Whilst this isn’t quite as spectacular as The Middle, Chapman’s full length debut, it’s still a remarkably smooth and pleasurable piece of work. A shout out for John Ainsworth’s superb direction, which made the entire experience an effortless listen: 8/10

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Journey’s End written by Russell T Davies and directed by Graeme Harper

What's it about: The literal interpretation of everything but the kitchen sink...

Mockney Dude (times two!): Much like the story itself the treatment of the Doctor here is full of good stuff and bad stuff which leaves me kind of ambivalent. I loved his cheeky little grin when Rose tells him that she came back for him and Davros’ assertion that even when powerless he is best contained. There is a breathtaking moment where Davros reveals he is a Time Lord who has butchered millions and we get to see flashbacks of all those that have died in his name. He keeps running and never looks back for fear of shame. That’s all really good, meaty stuff. And it's about time somebody held him to account for his dangerous lifestyle, because people do seem to get caught up and suffer in his wake. I just never thought it would be the most evil man in the universe to do it, which makes it even more impactful.  But all the stuff surrounding the second Doctor is a bit hit and miss for me. I personally think it is a perfectly workable and fun idea but it's another element in an already busy script and would work much better if played entirely for laughs in a comedy episode (as proven in the delightful moment between the Doctor and Doctor when he first shows up). When it comes to repeating the beach scenes and having to spell out about the war torn ninth Doctor and all the snogging…I thought I had wandered into a really odd soap. I know a lot of people feel that way a lot during the Davies era but I think it is balanced with the science fiction elements alot better elsewhere. In Journey's End it feels like the ending of the plot is throwaway and incomprehensible so the endless love story between the Doctor and Rose can be lavished with time and attention. Good idea, bad execution. It really tips the story into farcical melodrama and that’s a shame because there is a lot of good stuff elsewhere. David Tennant is at the top of his game here, at as point where the audience is completely in love with him but even he is only as good as the material he is given.

Tempestuous Temp: I love Donna with every fibre of my being and then a little bit more! This story demonstrates everything I adore about her character and Catherine Tate’s magnificent portrayal. In my top companion stakes Donna would probably only be beaten by Sarah. That’s how much I like her. The story makes such a big deal about the timelines converging on Donna that I'm glad Davies gave her a suitably unforgettable ending. She keeps stressing that she is a nobody, just a temp from Chiswick and in a quietly powerful moment the duplicate Doctor gets inside her head and reveals that it really isn’t a lie, that it is genuinely how she sees herself. She doesn’t believe she is anything special and she shouts at the universe because nobody is listening. Donna is screamingly funny as well, I love her squeaky voiced ‘You’re naked!’ and the chemistry between her and DonnaDoctor (‘Oi watch it Earth girl!’ ‘Oi!’ ‘OIII!’ ‘Stop it!’) is priceless. A shame that we didn’t get more of that since Tennant and Tate are unstoppable magic at this point. As magnificent as Midnight and Turn Left both were, it's sad that they should have been kept apart for two episodes of their one season run. I screamed at the telly when Donna was zapped by Davros…surely she wouldn’t get such a trivial end? Thank Goodness we didn’t get super clever Donna all the time since her smug technobabble is practically unintelligible. Donna making the Daleks go for a little tea dance is probably the sort of material that everybody feared when Catherine Tate joined the series full time so it's probably a good thing that Davies left this sort of farce for after the audience had completely fallen in love with her and could practically forgive anything. ‘The universe has been waiting for me!’ Donna tossing Sarah Jane away from Jack is laugh out loud funny. The climax kills me everytime, after the extreme melodrama of Rose going off with her boy toy Doctor I never expected such a gut punch straight after. She has a great big universe packed inside her tiny human brain and things suddenly turn dark when she admits ‘there can’t be’ a Time Lord/human metacrisis. It's painful to watch when Donna begs the Doctor not to take away her incredible experiences with him, this is Davies’ writing at its most powerful and cruel. Tate’s casual ‘Yeah, see ya’ is heartbreaking. Wilf swears she was a better person with the Doctor and I have to wonder if the Doctor was a better person because of Donna. Companions haven't had an ending this heartbreaking since Jamie and Zoe. It's during these moments where Journey's End really sings. Series four was a great run, but it was given an extra layer of magic by Donna Noble.

The Others: Well I wasn’t going to have a category for the entire menagerie of companions in this story or you would be reading this review until the cows come home. Everyone gets a nice little moment and this where they will be listed. Jack is exterminated again , which is probably the most hard hitting death of his many deaths because it takes him back to the first. In what other show would you write that kind of nonsense? Gita Kapoor makes her second appearance in Doctor Who (Dimensions in time being the first) and this time it catalogues her death. I wonder where Sanjay was. I really like that Martha has learnt from the Doctor to give the Daleks a choice to surrender before she scuppers their plans. Martha impresses Rose, a small but defining moment between the two characters who have never met before. Although why anybody would want to impress such a self centred mare is beyond me. Mickey is a joke these days, butch muscle and little else. A shame because Noel Clarke has a lot of cheeky personality that could be tapped. Nice ‘good to see you again’ moment between Sarah and Rose. No bitch fight this time. I miss Jack’s cheeky humour; he wants a foursome with the two tenth Doctors and DoctorDonna! Honestly, when did this show get so damn horny? Martha grinning at the audience is a lovely touch and one of my favourite moments of the story. Sarah screams with joy when she sees Luke again. Being a mother really is one of her defining characteristics these days. Who didn’t cry out with joy when K.9 appears? ‘Maybe there’s something else you could be doing?’ Jack says to Martha, which has never been followed up on. Hang on if this Doctor is infected with Noble personality does that mean Rose is kind of snogging Donna? Wilf’s tears are agonising to watch and he tells the Doctor that every night he will look up at the stars on Donna’s behalf and think of the Doctor. Bernard Cribbins breaks my heart a little too often for my liking, he's a dangerous man to be around if you're feeling delicate. The Doctor condemning Sylvia for her treatment of Donna is deliciously tense. I wish there could have been an episode where they could have had their differences out. I think it would have been explosive.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The last child of Gallifrey is powerless…’
‘They are the playthings of Davros now…’
‘I was wrong about your warriors, Doctor. They are pathetic.’
‘Don’t just stand there you skinny boys in suits…get to work!’
‘I was gonna be with you forever…’

The Good Stuff: The German Daleks are very cool. In fact the German sequences in general open out the question as to why we don't get more scenes in subtitles that allow the expression of other languages rather than turning every nation into English speakers. It's a pretty unique story in that respect. I love being able to see a fully-fledged Dalek Empire at its height with the budget to make it look as awesome as you would imagine. It's not the case of cutting to hundreds of Louis Marks models in ice tunnels or shoving cardboard cut outs in the back of scenes. Whilst I admire the attempts of the directors to swell the numbers of the Daleks with the resources they have, Journey's End is pure Hollywood and needed to look expensive in order to pull of its ambition. Donna in the exploding TARDIS is gripping, roundels detonating, fire raging and Ms Noble screaming in desperation. It's rare that the TARDIS is treated as a place of danger like this, its usually our sanctuary. Should Davros have been characterised as a pathetic little man, living in the basement as the Daleks' pet? It's interesting how powerful he seems despite that. If you're looking for innovation, Dalek Caan is your man. With his excitable, icky tentacles raging and his childish, angry temperament, we've never seen a Dalek quite like this before. When you think of the scale and immensity of the Reality Bomb it makes the mind boggle…27 planets in alignment creating z neutrino energy and compressing reality into nothing. As Davros’ parting gift to the universe it is pretty much perfect. Destroying everything that isn't something he created is pretty much everything he stands for. When Davros recognises Sarah I get a chill of nostalgia that almost makes all this madness worthwhile. One of my favourite scenes in NuWho is Julian Bleach's 'Detonate the Reality Bomb!' sequence. It's a beautifully paced sequence where Davies dialogue (always a strength) absolutely sparkles. How Bleach grabs his head as though Davros is experiencing too much pleasure at the thought of wiping every living creature that he is in pain is ultimate indication of madness. There's something rather satisfying about the Daleks being destroyed by one of their own kind with a conscience. Who would have thought it possible? I love the ‘guess which planet is left’ gag…would it ever have been anything other than Earth? It's nice that I can still be surprised by things I thought I knew everything about such as the six operators in the TARDIS.

The Bad Stuff: This was the most anticipated Doctor Who episode ever with the highest ever placing in the charts and it begins with the most crushingly disappointing cliffhanger resolution in the history of the show. It becomes a bit of a joke when Mickey and Jackie show up as gun toting gangsters. Whereas The Stolen Earth got the balance just about perfect, it feels at this point that there are too many extraneous characters at the party with nothing to do. Jackie has absolutely no characterisation beyond ‘Where’s Rose?’ That's a huge oversight because she was one of the defining characters in the series return to the screen in 2005. The Doctor pauses to tell all his companions that they were brilliant before stepping out to face the Daleks…oh fuck off and get out there! Its  Davies slapping all of his characters on the back for being amazing before things get nasty. I find it very odd that there should be a final devastation option where the entire Earth can be blown up if it looks like the planet will fall completely into alien hands. Why didn't they use it during the Dalek Invasion of Earth? Well, both of them. It suggests the death of hope, which goes against everything Doctor Who stands for. How could I go without mentioning the astonishing twee and scientifically ludicrous idea of the the TARDIS towing the Earth back to it's correct orbit. There's a reason this wasn't done during the Trial of a Time Lord season where the planet befell a similar fate of being dragged away and renamed...because it's a bit shit. Davies is generally at his worst when he is drowning in celebratory syrup like this and this kind of hero worship (the music swells to ridiculous 'we're all wonderful characters doing an amazing thing for the people of the Earth' proportions) just makes me want to vomit. Just have the characters behave honourably and do good things. Stop giving them such a spectacular round of applause. It's telling us that they are wonderful rather than showing us. There are more goodbyes in this episode than there was in The Return of the King. Davies cannot bear for his treasured companions to have an unhappy ending so the death that was promised isn't really delivered. Doomsday had an unforgettably dramatic ending and yet Rose’s end here is sickly and indigestible. Both were soapy but it's clear to see when you compare the two how far Doctor Who can push that. Doomsday went for pure character drama and it worked a treat, Journey's End throws in weird science fiction doppelgangers and it's all a bit tasteless and unbelievable.

The Shallow Bit: Jack looks as hot as ever and I have bad thoughts when he hugs Mickey. Is it my imagination or is Catherine Tate the best looking female companion in this story? Maybe she's just naturally radiant.

Result: I watched this episode with a non-fan and at the end she turned to me and asked, ‘What was that all about?’ Journey’s End finishes off (in my eyes) the most successful year of NuWho in chaotic style; it’s a noisy, busy, jumbled mess with the occasional brutally thoughtful moment thrown in. It looks fantastic throughout and Graeme Harper’s direction is as strong as usual but he is fighting a losing battle with a script that is overloaded with elements screaming for more attention and a number stomach turning moments of melodrama. Davros doesn’t get nearly enough screen time considering he is the most interesting thing here and that is a crying shame given how much effort everybody has put into making him as ghoulish as possible. The duplicate Doctor thread doesn’t work for me and Rose’s fate is like swallowing a bitter pill. Rose is a bit of an anchor in the series at this point that the show needs to move on from, especially when the elements that have been introduced since her first departure have been so successful. The final 15 minutes sum up this story well; some cringeworthy moments (towing the Earth back into it's correct position) and some treasurable moments (Sarah Jane's goodbye, Wilf's tears). Once all the noise and bluster is over we are handed one of the most achingly poignant companion departures ever, a scene that left me screaming at the screen at the injustice of it all. It's a brutal end to a gorgeous companion which almost makes up for a lot of the nonsense that came before: 6/10

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Mouthless Dead written by John Pritchard and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it About: The TARDIS arrives in 1920s England, the Doctor, Jamie, Ben and Polly finding themselves in a wintry dusk beside a railway line. The station nearby appears deserted, but there are figures watching from the shadows, all of them waiting for a dead man’s train...

Oh My Giddy Aunt: Human technology impresses him. There is an element of him playing about with very simple toys but he genuinely admires the intricacies of alien mechanisms. The Doctor mentions not having lost anybody in this war, which matches the sort of cryptic comments he used to make about his background in the first six years of the show.

Lovely Lashes: It might seem terribly sexist to leave Polly to chat away and empathise with the only other female character in the story but she’s such a personable young lady and has an ability to get close and help people that it can only be considered a strength of her character.

Able Seaman: Sailing is in the Jackson family line, and Ben is well aware of the dangers of the sea thanks to his father’s tales.

Young Scot: Jamie is still confused by the whole nature of the TARDIS and how it travels, it’s early days for him. His just as confused about trains, but he’s very willing to learn. He’s seen the kind of grief war leaves behind and when you march off to fight it’s impossible to think about how your loved ones will react if you didn’t come back. Jamie is taught about the Second World War, thus ticking the box of Doctor Who educating its audience. We were just on the tail end of that in the early Troughton days before the historicals were written off completely.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I saw it coming out of the tunnel. A massive iron beastie snorting smoke…’
‘As someone wise once pointed out…only the dead have seen the end of war.’

Great Ideas: A train strikes the TARDIS a glancing blow as it materialised and the Ship requires time to heal itself from the wound. I really like this idea, although it does contradict other times when the TARDIS has come under much greater assaults and come out beaming. But then the abilities and weaknesses of the craft have always been made up as they go along so this is entirely consistent. The stories of trains colliding with one another are told in the form of creepy horror tales. It shows just how dangerous a job it could be in the early days. How many people would have thought that the unknown soldier was their brother/husband/father? Standing as a symbol for all the men anonymously lost to conflict, it must have been an enticing symbol of what people had lost. How many people visited that monument and wondered ‘what if it is…?’ England has been ravaged by the worst war in its history and there are soldiers being mourned in every home. Minds are focused on the journey of the train bringing the unknown soldier home. On everything that he represents. The TARDIS is right there in the middle of all this with all those thought waves pouring in and it has given them some kind of substance. The TARDISes telepathic circuits were damaged when the train hit her, it took the memories that people had associated with war and projected them onto the creatures approaching. That’s why Jamie sees Redcoats but Ben sees a very different sort of walking dead army. They’ve coalesced into the real world, representing a universe of loss. Touching them will destroy your utterly, a blast of overwhelming grief. If the science is a little shaky (like Hitler was a little naughty), it is at least a reasonable technobabble excuse to capitalise on the emotional impact of the war. This story really does drive home the collective tragedy of all those lives lost.

Audio Landscape: Big Finish excels at this kind of unnerving horror. It’s very Sapphire and Steel in tone how it utilises unpredictable but recognisable sound effects to make your skin crawl. Bells sounding, breathing in the darkness, the hissing of a steam train.

Standout Scene: It was very Doctor Who to have a first episode that generated atmosphere and suspense rather than pushing the plot. The Mouthless Dead really goes for that approach to the point where the first episode is practically plotless but it is generating a sense of unease by talking about previous horror tales surrounding trains only serves to whet the appetite for the approaching horrors to come. So, when the train finally makes an appearance and the dead soldiers lumber out of the tunnel at the cliff-hanger it is a truly gripping moment.

Result: ‘Any man who fell can represent them all…’ An effective chiller, standout because so many Troughton tales ignore the fruits of exploring history. I really appreciate it when the companion chronicles take the second Doctor back in time (Resistance was another striking piece) and The Mouthless Dead doesn’t want to dash into a shallow action piece like so much of season four, it takes its time to build up an atmosphere of disquiet. Mind you, this is much more like a full cast audio than a regular companion chronicles, it lacks the intimacy that I associate with the range at its best featuring just one regular telling the tale. Instead the story confines itself to one location, which traps all four of the regulars and has more than a little touch of Assignment Two of Sapphire and Steel. Jamie and Ben both have their own tales of work in the forces, and Polly puts her charms to good use. Just a few years previously Doctor Who was all about educating its audience and so the use of the Unknown Soldier adds a little real historical colour and the line ‘any man who fell can represent them all’ from Polly really drives home what he meant to a lot of people. To add a dash of science fiction to the mix the TARDIS gets to display some intriguing regenerative qualities, which gives a good reason to strand the TARDIS crewmembers. I’d prefer Chapman to narrate more of these as he has slipped into these season four stories effortlessly, but you know you’re in for a skilful reading with Wills and Hines at the reins and all three performers give emotive performances that draw you in. My one serious complaint about this creepy adventure is that it shares the setting and tone of The End of the Line from the Sixth Doctor Last Adventure set and isn’t quite as in your face scary as that one. But if my only real downer is that one of best releases of recent years was superior, that still leaves The Mouthless Dead as a superior Companion Chronicle and one that I suggest you listen to in bed with the lights off before you shut your eyes. If the story gets a little bogged down in the mechanics of the plot in part two, it remembers to ground the story in personal moments. If there was one overriding thought that I took from this story it is that is better to remember the bravery and the heroic deeds of those who don’t make it back from combat, rather than dwell on the fact that they won’t be returning home. The Doctor’s suggestion that he would love to find out who the unknown soldier was would be missing the point. The best ‘classic’ range of Big Finish adventures hits with a striking tale: 8/10

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe written by Steven Moffat and directed by Farren Blackburn

This story in a nutshell: Lemonade on tap, presents to another world and a man following a star home to Christmas with his kids. It’s the Doctor Who Christmas Special! 

Mad Professor: If there was ever proof that Matt Smith went off the boil as the Doctor during his rein then you need look no further than this Christmas special that sees him handed a script that sees him reduced to a series of cute quirks rather than the complex character that he was handed in his first season. It’s such a dumbing down of the central role it is one of the few times where I would say that the Doctor is a little embarrassing to be around, and that is a very rare occurrence (The Underwater Menace, Nightmare of Eden, Mindwarp, Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol have their moments too). It’s the ultimate example of portraying him as a completely child friendly gimp, all hand waving, sonic madness and toothy grins. There’s no substance to his portrayal, no way of engaging with such a goofy sonofabitch. He’s wearing his impact suit backwards so gawp at the Doctor walking in a funny way all back to front because that would simply be hilarious. Note the sarcasm. Maybe the Doctor shouldn’t be companionless at Christmas because it rarely ends well for the quality of the story being told (The Next Doctor, The End of Time Part One, this abomination, Twice Upon a Time). The Doctor is then presented as the supreme fun time caretaker who skips about an old house pouring lemonade from taps, tearing doors of hinges and ripping off Narnia wardrobes with giant presents. Oh my, what happened to this character? It’s just a bit of fun, Joe, I hear you cry. Only this isn’t fun. This is Mary Poppins as told by a socially awkward, self-knowing geek. And in the most knowing winks at the audience Matt Smith grins at the camera and says ‘I know!’ as if he’s telling us THIS IS FUN! When the Doctor starts itemising the super fun things in kid’s rooms (‘The Magna Carta!’) I wanted to reach into the screen and strangle him with my bare hands just to shut him up. Should I ever want to do that? Even when he was trying to kill Peri I was kind of on the fence because she was so whiny. I’m so so so so fun! I’m the funnest fun Time Lord ever! Oh fuck off, Moffat. Also, the eleventh Doctor looks so tailored these days whereas he looked such a wonderful old scruff in his first year. Smith has gone Hollywood, Doctor Who style. What The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe tells us is that with Moffat at the reins, Matt Smith had shown us everything he could do with the Doctor at this point. There isn’t anything that we see here that he hasn’t done smarter/funnier/more commanding elsewhere. Another season of hand waving and he’ll be gone.

Dreadful Dialogue: I could put the majority of the script in this section but here are a few examples of the agonising self-parody…
‘Is it fairyland?’ ‘Fairyland! Oh grow up, Lily! Fairyland looks completely different!’ Don’t rise to it, Joe…
‘I have mother issues, sir. It’s all on file.’
‘Aliens made of wood! This was always going to happen, you know!’
‘What have I told you about opening your presents early?’ Really?
‘Mother Christmas!’
‘It’s Christmas Day, my love! Where else would you be?’
‘Humany wumany.’

The Good: I’m not sure if this belongs in the ‘bad’ section but the opening few seconds which depicts (another) attempted attack on the Earth by alien interlopers is by far the most interested I was in this story. Before long the Doctor is spat from the impressive looking spaceship and treading water in the atmosphere as he screams towards the Earth and goofing about on the streets at Christmas but for five seconds or so I got a Christmas Invasion type vibe about the story that looked as though we were going to get something much more gripping than we actually do. Never let your audience take a peek at a story that is much more sophisticated looking than the one you are actually going to show them. Amy and the water pistol ready to squirt carol singers. Worthy of the one point I gave this story.

The Bad: Doctor Who has a very bad grasp of understanding of how the vacuum of space works. Don’t get me wrong this is science fiction (emphasis on the fiction) but it is still quite a stretch to fundamentally change how the laws of science work. The effects of the Doctor dancing with the spacesuit are desperately unconvincing – you never had that trouble with Jon Pertwee in Frontier in Space! Is there anything more annoying than a child in a Steven Moffat show ran episode? Let’s take a look at the evidence; Angie and Artie (kill me now), George (wimpy), Mels (so smug), young Kazran (pure as the driven snow), young Danny Pink (insufferably cute), all the children from In the Forest of the Night (literally the most agonising cast of children every to be committed to film)…the only exception is Young Amelia who thanks to a engaging performance manages to actually warm the heart a little. Otherwise it is like the creche from hell and Cyril and Holly are no exception. They never manage to emerge from their roles as cute as a button kiddiewinks and as such I just want to gouge my eyes out with a rusty fork every time they are on screen. Whoever chose to put Cyril in this thick rimmed specs that give him the additional hindrance of looking completely gormless too deserves shooting. The scenes of Reg flying his damaged plane over the Channel lack any sense of danger whatsoever. Partly because we haven’t spent any time with this character and haven’t been given any reason to care about his death and partly because the scenes are filmed in a dreamy, fairy-tale kind of way that plagued the Matt Smith era and reduced some potentially gripping scenes to cartoonish nonsense. There’s no real drama surrounding Reg not coming home to his kids because it is presented in the most unimaginably twee was possible, with cute as a button one dimensional characters hanging around waiting for him at Christmas. Is this really the same writer who wrote stories as dark as The Empty Child and Heaven Sent? Remember when Moffat stated in The Girl in the Fireplace that you have to keep throwing in visual curveballs to keep the audience interested (some people might say that is the job of an engaging story but I digress)…well overscheduling his talents has clearly exhausted his imagination. Huge Christmas baubles! Living trees! Presents that are a gateway to another world! Just saying that characters have come from Androzani isn’t enough to impress me…it’s a throwaway reference to a far, far superior story (you know, when Doctor Who used to good) and the characters are so aesthetically different from anything in The Caves of Androzani that I can’t make the visual link anyway. Like so much of this story, it’s a misguided attempt to impress in the wrong way. The dialogue between the three characters from Androzani is like some terrible old sitcom version of Doctor Who where everybody talks in a hideously self-knowing way. Monsters that barely have any dialogue, child characters I don’t give a damn about and a bunch of trees that are under threat of acid rain…why should I give a damn about any of this? People said that the Cyber King from The Next Doctor was absurd…how about Madge getting into a piece of futuristic hardware and riding successfully through the forest? The ending is a loathsome metaphor for Mother Earth (Madge being able to save the day because she is a woman and has the strength of a mother’s love…or something) and a parody of the stars lighting the way for the Wise Men (Madge providing a star for her husband to follow to get home for Christmas for his children…or something). It’s a conclusion that uses sentiment as logic and abandons reason and intelligence. It’s an ending in a self-knowing Christmas special that knows it has to have a happy ending…and so it does just because. It’s the laziest ending to a Doctor Who story that I can remember. Everything’s alright…because it should be. Oh vomit.

Result: ‘This Christmas is going to be the best Christmas ever!’ You need to be careful when you scripting words like that. A fatigued writer, trying to out-Christmas his previous year and ending up dousing the series in syrup and producing one of the least effective scripts in the shows long history. Some people will give this episode a pass because it is a Christmas special (and you know, they’re never supposed to be very good…until they are like The Christmas Invasion and Last Christmas) but there is no point where Doctor Who should be this unengaging, this lethargic in its attempts to impress, this reduced to cliché and sentimentality and this lacking in incident, relatable characters and memorable moments. I know Russell T Davies hates this word when it comes to describing writers, but this script is just so lazy. None dimensional characters (I include the Doctor in that) trapped in a dreary alien landscape, monsters that fail to raise an eyebrow (even visually), and a score that beats you to death with how golly gosh fun this is all supposed to be. This is the story that reduces the grief of losing somebody to something chokingly twee, offbeat and repairable. Yeah, that’s a message you should be promoting at Christmas, Doctor Who. I lost count of how many times I wanted to kill myself during this rewatch and I recall falling asleep long before the credits when I first watched it…something that has never happened before or since. This could be held up as the cure for insomnia or the piece of television to be studied by those who are entering into the medium to warn them of how not to make a seasonal spectacular. I hate how horribly self-knowing the show was during this period too (‘we’ve gone through a dimensional portal little girl from the Second World War’), taking everything for granted and refusing to present anything as fresh and original. Oh wait, that’s because nothing here is fresh or original. It’s a hackneyed piece of old SF tat, the visual equivalent of watching paint atrophy over a millennium and about as creative as a lecture entitled the future of plumbing. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe has all the key ingredients of Christmas but it is being put together by somebody who fundamentally doesn’t quite know how to pull off the festivities. Imagine going to a family Christmas where everything is present and correct but it winds up being a funless bore. That’s this story. And to waste Claire Skinner, Alexander Armstrong, Arabella Weir and Bill Bailey in one story is nothing short of indecent. How Moffat recovered (and survived) from this obscenity I will never know: 1/10