Sunday, 9 December 2018

Warlock’s Cross written by Steve Lyons and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: It’s time the truth was told. About UNIT. About the Cybermen invasion. About the so-called ‘Doctor’. About what happened all those years ago, at Warlock’s Cross. About the man they keep locked up in a cage, in a secret prison… It’s time. Because UNIT scientific adviser Elizabeth Klein is going to help ensure the truth is brought to light. Today’s the day… that UNIT falls.

The Real McCoy:
He tries to namedrop Brigadier Bambera but nobody seems to know who she is. Klein describes him as UNITs greatest asset but he certainly hasn’t done anything at that point in the story to have earnt that reputation. I find the stories where McCoy goes solo often bring out the best in his performance, capitalising on his melancholic side. However, in a story full of odious grunts, to have the Doctor behaving in a moody and morally ambiguous way too means there is literally nobody to latch onto to like. Except Klein, and that just seems odd to me, that she should be more of an audience identification figure than the Doctor. Hopkins does ask a pertinent question about the Doctor. Given how many alien incursions he has thwarted and how many aliens he has personally killed, why should any visitor to this planet trust him? The last thing he ever wanted to be was a soldier but sometimes the threat to your life is so massive that you have to fight back. Klein admits that the Doctor uses people as pawns and sacrifices them if he has to. It’s said in such a matter of fact way that it doesn’t really make much of an impact. Klein thinks he just likes to be in control. Hopkins wonders what it will take to make this version of the Doctor ruffle his feathers and I almost wish he hadn’t because McCoy is at his least convincing when he plays at losing his temper. Whatever is being whispered in the Doctor’s head by Ship is nothing that anybody else needs to know, or hear. One man against an army, how do you beat those odds?

Nazi Scientist: I got the sense that this is in no way the character that Steve Lyons wrote for the Klein trilogy and that he wasn’t quite sure what to do with her, hence her being so sparingly used throughout. She certainly seems to have lost a lot of her bite that made her so attractive a character in the first place. Generally speaking I got the sense that the developments from Daleks Among Us were ignored (thank goodness) but what we were left was a neutered version of a character who used to keep me on my toes waiting to see what way she will jump next. Her relationship with the Doctor was always a fascinating one but it seems to have been replaced with something much less acerbic and more based on respect, no matter how much she criticises him at parts. I also felt that McCoy and Childs didn’t quite have the same acidic chemistry as before, and I’m not sure why, Maybe too much time has passed. Remember that terrific moment in Colditz (‘Built on how many corpses?’) where the Doctor angrily condemns Klein’s morality and way of life? There was nowhere near that level of fury here, but in a story that is built around paranoia and how these characters affect one another, there really should have been. Klein’s work is mostly in research these days because the 90’s is mostly quiet in terms of alien incursions on the Earth (hoho). Despite the fact that so much has happened in his life since they last met, the Doctor has no problems in remembering precisely who Daniel Hopkins is when he is placed in a cell next to him. She knows that it is Ship manipulating her but she also thinks there is some truth to the fact that the Doctor has changed her path in life. The Doctor says she has a remarkable brain.

Standout Performance: I found this to be the weakest of Blake Harrison’s performances because no real attempt to suggest the madness and loneliness that he would have felt being incarcerated by UNIT for a decade. Harrison plays the part with a detached, distant solemnity, which makes perfect sense but did not make for particularly riveting scenes. The idea of following this character’s story over three tales and to get close to a UNIT operative that was let down by the organisation in such a massive way was an interesting one. Imagine if it had been Benton or Yates? But Daniel proves a little uninteresting ultimately because it feels as though there was no real point to this journey, or that the three writers didn’t collaborate to ensure that it was a satisfying ride (which it has been so far) and conclusion. Daniel was perky and eager in The Helliax Rift and bitter and angry in Hour of the Cybermen, which both afforded Blake some decent acting opportunity. Here he’s just your standard Doctor Who nutter, without any of the emotional investment we might have given him. What does he want now? It’s been so long since it even mattered, he answered. And it’s a crying shame that he should wind up such a nebulous character.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The worst thing is how the world keeps turning without you…’ That’s a genuinely upsetting line that captures Daniel’s incarceration better than the rest of the script.

Great Ideas:
The Spa is a medical facility for the victims of close encounters (hence Klein can cause a distraction by name dropping a Krynoid infection). It is somewhere to house (hide) them whilst treatment is attempted. It reminds me of the Initiative from series four of Buffy, a place to dump all of their alien nasties and try and learn from them. Warlock’s Cross was never entirely abandoned. It was assumed that those studying an alien in the facility triggered off a biological defence. A thought powered ship, phasing between dimensions, the shock of its materialisation unleashing a deadly blast of psychic energy. A spaceship out of phase with our reality.

Isn’t it Odd: When you promise that tomorrow is the day the UNIT falls you better be damn well sure you can live up to that promise. I question whether UNIT should be painted in such an ugly light as it is here. Even those within have nothing especially complimentary to say about the organisation. Their treatment of those who fall in their care are abandoned. And the people running the joint are unlikeable. The Brigadier and his motley crew who aided the Doctor in his work during the 70s would be appalled. My question is what is the point of making UNIT quite this unpleasant if it isn’t to bring this era of the administration to an end and see a new one take flight? The alternative to UNIT is to approach alien visitors without soldiers and weapons? That seems a perfectly reasonable response on the surface but I can think several hundred alien visitors that would have taken over the planet by now had that been the greeting they had received. The paranoia that this story is trying to brew up would be better served if we understood these characters with more clarity. It feels like a bunch of separate people thrown together for the express purpose of having them turn on each other, which doesn’t feel at all natural. ‘I wouldn’t say anyone here is especially trustworthy’, says Hopkins and he has a very good point. As they were squabbling amongst themselves I found myself wondering why I should care if any of them make it out alive. I think we’re supposed to hate the Colonel for threatening to flatten the facility with bombs but given that was how the show chose to end every other story in the early 70s, with the Brig calling in the big boys and so it’s hardly something we can condemn Price for. Irritatingly there is a scene featuring a much younger Daniel and Blake doesn’t seem to have adjusted his performance at all. I would have expected him to have gone for a much chirpier, energetic turn as his younger, uncorrupted self. Daniel wants the human race to suffer so agonisingly that when the Cybermen return we are begging for conversion. He’s truly lost the plot at this point. Ultimately the Ship is no serious threat at all. It’s all talk. How the Doctor stops that threat is decidedly underwhelming. You can go to sleep now. It doesn’t feel like a climax at all. This particularly ugly brand of UNIT is allowed to continue on its merry way at the conclusion, Klein brushes off her fears about the Doctor and herself, Maxwell agrees to therapy and is suddenly convinced that UNIT might be a place for her after all. It feels like the laziest end for all of these characters imaginable. ‘It hasn’t been for nothing, has it?’ asks Klein. Ahem.

Standout Scene:
The third cliffhanger, where it looks like the Doctor is going to rewrite history, promises that the climax is going to be a memorable one.

Result: I expected this to be the strongest of the UNIT trilogy, not the weakest. The seventh Doctor and Klein heading into a dangerous and abandoned UNIT facility to discover what catastrophe occurred should is the sort of premises that most Big Finish audios dream of. What should have been a gripping, claustrophobic nightmare instead turns out to be a flaccid, paceless unpleasant mess of a tale featuring no characters that it was possible to get behind or cheer for. I’ve heard complaints that the first UNIT story in this trilogy, The Helliax Rift, lacked any agreeable characters. Well whoever made those complaints had better hold onto their hats for this ride as everybody from the return of Klein and Daniel Hopkins to the Doctor to the UNIT personnel and those who oppose them is written in the same flat, uncompromising and monotonous manner. I couldn’t give a damn about any of them. Instead of the oppressive ‘trapped with nowhere to hide’ atmosphere I was expecting, the lack of anything resembling pace meant our faceless characters walk around endlessly whilst a voice whispers at them in the shadows and they discuss a whole lot of nothing. I expect a great deal more from Steve Lyons, who has been providing knockout Big Finish scripts practically since they started making audios and from Jamie Anderson, who in turn has been one of the standout directors of the past couple of years and has barely set a foot wrong. I try to head into these listens with as few preconceptions as possible but with that writer/director combination I really couldn’t help but get my hopes up. This neutered, compromising, complimentary Klein is a far cry from the cold-hearted strategist that we started out with. She’s lost her bite and that is the greatest tragedy in a story that could have seen her undo all the damage of the previous trilogy she featured in and get back to the Nazi bitch we all know and love. As usual McCoy verges between brilliant and awful but the guy needs a script with a lot more life to it to excel in (last month’s The Quantum Possibility engine, for example). In the last episode he delivers every line as though he is on the verge of falling asleep. There is the odd brilliant line or a suggestion that the story might head in an interesting direction but for the most part this is a flat drama, not so much failing to get into orbit and more like failing to move from the launch pad at all. I genuinely thought this would be the best main range adventure of the year. Instead it ranks lower than the sole Matthew J. Elliot effort. This is the day that UNIT falls? Not even close: 4/10

Thursday, 6 December 2018

It Takes You Away written by Ed Hime and directed by Jamie Childs

This Story in a Nutshell: Mad as a box of frogs. Quite appropriate, really. 

Oh Brilliant: ‘I’ve lived longer, seen more, loved more and lost more…’ After watching this story if people are still complaining that Whittaker isn’t the Doctor in their eyes then I’m not sure what more this production team could possibly do to convince them. This has everything I want from the Doctor. She’s quirky (the woolly rebellion), witty (‘with a very low trip advisor rating’), curious, authoritative (leading the way to the mysterious cottage), smart (thinking her way through the entire episode), brave (jumping head first into the intersection between worlds), assertive (bartering with Ribbons), knowledgeable and forgiving. It’s a very giving script, and one that Whittaker seizes with both hands and runs with. The tale of the Solitract could have been just a massive info dump but instead Whittaker tells the story with such zeal and passion it becomes a vital scene. She has really has gotten into the habit of holding the sonic screwdriver in a defensive posture, hasn’t she? It’s like she’s brandishing a weapon. For once the Doctor is genuinely terrified because she has no idea what to expect in the Solitract plane. At one point during the climax somebody asks if the Doctor is completely mad. Of course she is. The Doctor is not unsympathetic to what Graham is going through at the climax but she understands that he needs an emotional slap to save him and the two realities that are collapsing. Calling his dead wife furniture with a pulse should do it. This is the story where the Doctor tries to describe the universe she is from to a form that cannot exist within it. Really big and incredibly beautiful. 

Graham: I’ve always said that Graham was the audience identification figure. Having an emergency cheese and pickle sandwich is exactly what I would do if I was a companion of the Doctor. The second it becomes clear that Grace will appear I knew I was in for a world of heartache the way only Bradley Walsh knows how to deliver. Looking at his dead wife, he sadly asks ‘don’t do this to me.’ He’s travelled the universe to try and move on and to cope with his grief, but what good is that when the sadness keeps catching up with him. The moment where she says it sounds like he is doing fine without her and he quietly admits that he is lost is one of the most poignant moments of the show. It’s a particularly cruel form for the Solitract to take and I really like how long Graham holds on in hope for, because this is the one thing he has wanted all season. It takes the Doctor to forcefully, almost unkindly snap him out of his dream of having her back at his side. He has to lose her again, but this time of his own choosing. Because when she dismisses Ryan’s fate Graham knows it cannot be Grace. This is not the sort of adventure that a companion can just skip back to the TARDIS and be on their merry way so I’m pleased to see how haunted Graham is in the character-focussed coda. I’m also pleased to see how Ryan has accepted him now as a member of his family.

Ryan: Much like last week, Ryan is paired up with the guest star if the week and it brings a different side out of him. He’s trying to be protective of Hanne but it’s almost impossible given how fiercely independent she is. He’s pretty forgiving given she attacks and knocks him out.

Yaz: It’s nice that somebody has remembered that Yaz used to be a policewoman and has had some training that might be useful.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Let her go or we’re all going to die.’

The Good: A word for the title music, that I am really starting to dig as reach the end of the first season. I love the way the music suddenly drops away in the first third and I’ve grown increasingly fond of the graphics too. It’s both a subtle and an urgent rendition of the Doctor Who theme, a unique piece for a unique era. I’m very aware that this series has been far more believably continental then usual, with some genuinely stunning location work throughout the entire year. Whilst Punjab still takes the medal for the most visually glorious episode of the season, It Takes You Away scores huge points in its early scenes for convincingly pulling off a Norwegian landscape. I love shots of the TARDIS in beautiful surroundings (remember the snowy hillock at the beginning of Revelation of the Daleks) and standing proud in the Norwegian forest with a beautiful fjord babbling in the distance is a memorable example. I’ve had some mainstream reviewers call the early scenes Nordic noir and there is definitely something in that. I’ve seen far to many horror films set out in the woods (although weirdly not Cabin in the Woods) and Childs emulates the disquieting suspense that runs through the early scenes of those types of films (before it gets bloody). There’s a fabulous shot through the boarded-up slats of the creepy old house that sees the Doctor and company approaching and a shadowy hand breaks into shot. Childs is telling a lot of this story through pictures, with gripping preciseness. I love the fact that the idea of a cabin out in the Norwegian should be almost fairy-tale like but instead this is a situation of terror and uncertainty. The script subverts the usual clich├ęs of a horror movie. Ryan pulls open a cupboard which I fully expected to be empty but instead he screams at the frightened blind girl hiding inside. The I was counting on Hanne to be the shrieking violet of the piece but instead she is one of the strongest characters of the year; a brutally honest, unforgiving, smart teenager who really doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She’s remarkably cold in places, and horrible to Ryan despite his attempts to help her and I loved the subversion of the usual sugary tweeness assault that struck when children turned up in the Moffat era. Hanne is a bit of a bit bitch but you kind of like her anyway because she’s having a really bad time of it. Another subversion, just when you think that you know where the episode is going with a ruddy great creature attacking from the woods Ryan discovers the speakers that are making the creatures growl. Who or what would want to trap a little girl in a cottage in the middle of nowhere? Gloomy, creepy tunnels dancing with smoke, a man who looks like he has had his face ripped open with dead rats in his belt, lamps that float in the air and taint everything with a bloody glow and moths that attack if they sense movement and strip the flesh from your skin and fly from your eye sockets. The scenes in the anti-zone are spooky and atmospheric and bolstered by a phenomenal performance from Kevin Eldon as Ribbons. He manages that unusual mixture of being ghoulish and fun (his vernacular is very creative). Just when you think you know where the episode might be going, we hop through another portal into another universe and Grace from the first episode of the season shows up! If a single soul said to me that they could have predicted where this episode would end up after the first five minutes I would call them a big fat liar. The Solitract is one of those huge ideas that Doctor Who plays about with from time to time. An energy that is incompatible with our universe and was banished to another so ours could form. When we’re talking about the sentient toxins from the building blocks of the universe you know you’re dealing with a writer that is willing to think big. Hanne standing up to both her mum (who isn’t real) and her dad (who is, but very sick) doesn’t deserve to be as triumphant as it is given we’ve only known her for one episode. But that is a consequence of genuinely good characterisation. The urgency in the scenes where the Solitract plane is collapsing is palpable. 

The Bad: Ribbons was such a terrific character that it is a shame to lose him after 10 minutes of screen time. Yaz is not wrong, keeping his daughter trapped and scared is a shocking bit of parenting, My one problem with the climax is that the Doctor is happy to leave Hanne with this man after the rather sick situation he put her in. 

Result: ‘And there’s me thinking the day had no more surprises left…’ One of the most genuinely baffling episodes of Doctor since Listen, or probably since Ghost Light. It Takes You Away refuses to play by any of the rules, switching tones, styles and narratives with gleeful abandon and yet somehow gelling into an unpredictable piece that remains touching, dramatic, suspenseful and satisfying. Jamie Childs has proven to be a hell of a find and he has to cerate three very different worlds in this story; the crisp suspense of the Nordic Noir sequences, the comic book horror of the anti-zone nightmare, and the dreamy brightness of the Solitract plane. The episode hops from one to the other without apology and it is simply a case of keeping up or getting off the ride. You should hold on tight though because it ultimately leads to a touching confrontation between the Doctor and Graham, a breakthrough for Ryan and that moment that everyone has been waiting for when Whittaker cements herself as the Doctor and blows a kiss to sentient universe. My favourite scenes were the in the middle sections, the Doctor and co exploring the anti-zone. It feels very classic Who but with a really nasty streak to it, especially with the inclusion of Ribbons and the flesh-eating moths. I just loved the aesthetic, it’s unlike anything else we’ve seen all year. That’s one thing series 11 has done extremely well, plonking the TARDIS down in visually distinctive and diverse places. Truly suggesting that this show can go anywhere. In contrast to the rest of this year however, which has very much gone down the road of telling a self-contained story with a particular feel to it, it Takes You Away takes massive joy in opening out the possibilities of Doctor Who again and having carte blanche to take you anywhere it likes. That freewheeling indulgence leads us to an insane sequence where the Doctor gets to talk to a sentient universe in the shape of a frog, a concept so out there you might think that Douglas Adams had gotten hold of the script from the afterlife. It’s beautifully scripted and performed and Doctor Who has dished up far more bizarre shit than a talking frog. I just accepted it for what it was, a playful expression of life. This doesn’t have the usual climactic momentum of a penultimate episode, proving that series 11 is really doing its own thing. I thought Chibnall would relent and have a one-part lead in to his finale but he’s truly a man of his word when he said that the season would entirely comprise of one-part stories. How can I possibly complain though when I walk away from an episode that intrigued, thrilled, boggled and touched me? It’s another memorable tale, and one where Whittaker truly gets to claim the series as her own. I thought it was quietly magnificent: 9/10