Archive for June, 2010

The Urban Spaceman

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010


The end is in sight.  The grand two-part finale of the most anticipated series since 2005 is just around the corner, but before we get the Moff’s kitchen sink thrown at us we must first sit patiently through the curtain raiser.

Episode 11, or sometimes 10, is traditionally experimental (to varying degrees of success), with deliberately humble production values and the reduced participation of one or both of the Leads.  It used to be known as the ‘Doctor-less episode’, but in the case of The Lodger, the very reverse is true.  More than any other episode to date, this is ‘The Doctor Show’; to the extent that this week’s ‘alien menace is very much sidelined by what would normally be the ‘B’ plot – the ‘human’ interest story.  Gloriously centre-stage is the Doctor trying to live as ‘an ordinary bloke’ until he can be reunited with the two significant others in his life (both making as much noise as each other during Amy’s brief but loud scenes in the runaway TARDIS).

This is a rich seam which Gareth Roberts exploits well for its comedic value, bringing back the soccer stardom and electric toothbrush/sonic screwdriver confusion of his original comic strip.  The episode itself is a refreshingly fun take on the Human Nature/Family of Blood scenario, making an episode-long gag of the Doctor’s attempts to be human. It’s a strong enough idea to have supported entire series in the past, from My Favourite Martian to Mork and Mindy and beyond, and very few tricks are missed here.    I really should stop making comparisons with David Tennant, but the tenth Doctor, who fell in love at least three times and even became homo sapiens briefly, was by far the most human, whereas Matt Smith is very much continuing the legacy of Tom Baker, who felt duty-bound to constantly surprise the audience with the Doctor’s alien-ness. The Lodger is a tour-de-force for Matt Smith and his unpredictable, increasingly delightful performance.

The eleventh Doctor completely misses the minutiae of human society: air-kissing everyone he meets and un-self-consciously regurgitating wine (disgustingness is a recent trait, apparently) but he sees straight to the heart of the larger, more important issues.  The Doctor immediately understands Craig’s relationship dilemma, when to let a difficult customer go and even how to inspire Sophie to follow her dream.  Perhaps if Rusty was still holding the reigns he’d find a way to create another spin-off series – ‘Matt about the House’, anyone?

But being Doctor Who there is also an alien threat to be dealt with, lurking at the top of Craig’s stairs. Passers-by anxiously climbing towards that flickering, buzzing room is a nightmarish image, reminiscent of a carnivorous plant luring insects into its lethal clutches, but its power becomes a little diminished after the third or fourth repetition.  This time the menace is of the non-adversarial kind, a mechanism blindly carrying out its programming in the way that Moffat often employs in his stories.  Visually, it’s nice to see echoes of the TV Movie, and given Amy’s ‘contribution’ to this story it’s appropriate that another scene featuring lots of sparks and shouting should also take place on a set which looks like a TARDIS.

The Lodger is ultimately a warm, happy and extremely funny episode (wouldn’t The Three Doctors have been so much more amusing if the eleventh’s method of psychically imparting information had been used back then?  I don’t doubt Troughton and Pertwee would have risen magnificently to the occasion).  This script is a Godsend for Matt Smith and he seems to know it, pitching every nuance, line and gesture perfectly.  And he can even talk to cats – the Doctor rocks, indeed!

Garnished with nods to the past reaching as far back as The Time Monster (I’ll resist making a list, but do have to mention ‘Jubilee Pizzas’) and topped with the third ‘past Doctors roll call’ this year, The Lodger is an extremely satisfying entrée to savour before the colossal main course and dessert arriving next. 


Troubled Dutch

Sunday, June 27th, 2010


The path to the ‘celebrity historical’ in Doctor Who is paved with good intentions. We’ve had one attempt this series already with Victory‘s Winston Churchill, the man who among other things helped popularise the term ‘black dog’ . Richard Curtis’ Vincent and the Doctor is a different breed however, being distanced somewhat from pure entertainment and unlike its predecessor striving for that difficult stool between didactic and emotive. It’s a Richard Curtis story – your mileage may vary.

It is also the story of Vincent van Gogh, a man perversely celebrated as much for his torments as his triumphs. Who knows how he would have reacted to becoming a poster boy for mental illness, and is that a question worth asking? It’s important to have these figures with us, to acknowledge the place such stigmatic afflictions had in their lives and how they lived with them. It’s a challenging notion to make a story about them though, particularly one for Doctor Who which despite our protestations does not usually strive to challenge. For myself I’m torn with this episode, certainly not viewing it as coldly as Neil Perryman’s withering critique on Behind the Sofa, but I do think in places it over-reaches itself, which isn’t to say these stories shouldn’t be attempted, but that perhaps the series isn’t yet as robust as it could be to sustain them without, well, a giant invisible CG chicken in tow. So it’s a brave thing to have done, and for the most part it works. It certainly looks beautiful.

Beauty alone is not enough however, and so I must also acknowledge the performances. Tony Curran’s version of the painter certainly looks the part, inhabiting the screen as befits a character afforded his own name in titles ahead of the Doctor. Having not seen Lust for Life and only shades of Andy Serkis’ portrayal of van Gogh in Simon Schama’s History of Art, I have to confess some ignorance into the man behind the masterpeices, but Who‘s historical figures usually tend toward the vague sketch or broad brushstroke themselves. This is not a revelatory biography, unless you somehow believe the presence of the Krafayis to be a genuine ingredient in the master’s last days. Given the series’ track record the best we can hope for is something sympathetic and believable – two ticks there. Having Bill Nighy hammer home the context of van Gogh’s work in the history of Western art certainly helps shift that uncomfortable didacticism, and for what it’s worth I’m rather tickled by the Doctor revealing that he’s more of a Gainsborough fan – another subtle distancing from the Time Lord’s more emotive predecessor, perhaps?

In the end though, a better class of story for this series, and despite my misgivings above one with a pretty sound emotional core, strengthened by insisting that history run its course, and wisely panning away from Vincent’s inevitable and necessary demise. Wellington’s first TV script for Doctor Who is ultimately worthy for surprising with its choice of topic and sensitivity of its approach to an equally troubled and gifted man.


It’s About Time!

Friday, June 18th, 2010

linkseffectlogoAt long last, Freakytrigger’s Popular series chronicling the UK’s number one singles of the past fifty or so years reaches An Important Cultural Signifier For Our Generation.

Speaking of Weeping…

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

postcardlogoOK so just was at the Bafta screening of The Pandorica Opens… Brilliant.

But priceless moment as Ian Levine (sitting in the row in front of me) went on a 5 minute rant about the ratings at the Q&A afterwards…

Seeing Steven Moffat’s head sliding into his hands as the rant went on and on was a sight to behold.

Fast Return – May 2010 (and a little bit of June)

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

horsereturnHello! And isn’t it all getting exciting! Enthusiasm races around Zeus Blog Terraces like a bad case of wind as we hurtle through the netherdays of last month to bring you the usual flim-flam and pith. To whit:

Big Finish’s continued exploration of past possibilities. As Colin Baker’s Lost Stories wind to a close and the Hartnell/Toughton collection draws near, further casting for the Seventh Doctor ‘Lost Season’ is underway. And who’s this for Brig? Why, Battlefield‘s Angela ‘Bam-Bam-Bambera’ Bruce. Marvellous! This is a great nod to McCoy’s television tenure and adds a welcome latter days/New Adventures kick to Andrew Cartmel’s story-set in a way that having Nick Courtney or looking around for a newer Brig replacement simply couldn’t have achieved. Plus it’s audio, and it’s sad to note that if Bambera were to turn up on the telly now many new DW fans would likely only see her as a cheap Magambo substitute. Shame.

Elsewhere in Big Finish rumourland there’s the persisting vibe of Big Tom putting in an appearance in 2011, which is rather lovely, particularly as we’ve still got another Magrs-tastic multi-part BBC Audio for the Fourth Doctor to come later this year and to tide us over. Oh, and the latest Vortex magazine hints at BF doing a Sontaran story at long last. Seriously, how long has this taken? They’d better have Chris Ryan on speed-dial!

Michael Moorcock doing a DW novel? MICHAEL MOORCOCK

And it’s another hooray to the latest comeback boyo in Torchwood. Yes! Just when things were looking bleak post-CofE Stateside for the franchise, it seems that the team (well, Jack and Gwen) will be back in business, sans van, sans Hub, sans pterodactyl and coffee maker of course. Avec Amerkins though, possibly. Rusty maintains it’ll still be very ‘Welsh’. Sounds intriguing!

Talk of magazine rumblings. Torchwood Magazine folding – well, we weren’t buying it, so we can’t complain too loudly, plus there’s still a comic to come in its stead. But more dark mutterings on the subject of comics with the last tenth Doctor DWM reprint collection The Crimson Hand apparently cancelled, with possibly no further titles after that. Now that’s worrying.

Okay, it might be better news for previously-ailing Doctor Who Adventures who, if the Lead Adventure Forum are to be believed, are tapping into that tricky middle-aged-men-with-a-hobby market and their ‘free’ gift of models of the new humpitty Daleks on the cover of issue 170. Oh, if only they could be found here! Apparently the new Dalek design is so outlandish the usually rather rum cover giveaway toys are not only a pretty good likeness (fanta orange plastic and all), but they’re also now to scale with the 28mm models popping up all over!

The frankly titled Lennon Naked, starring the above and confirmed for the 23rd on the Beeb and likely screengrab-oriented websites mere hours later. Just sayin’.

And if it’s pretty pictures you’re in the mood for after that, then head straight over to Guanolad’s Domain, where another of TSV‘s former acolytes has sourced some great visual nods in the recent Vincent and the Doctor. Nice work, G!

Riling Occupants of Inner-planetary Crust

Monday, June 14th, 2010

hungrylogo(spoilers follow below the fold)


The Girl in Question

Monday, June 14th, 2010


What a find in Simon Nye! Assuredly not a Sci-Fi writer, but this is a series that is apparently and doggedly resisting the urge to give in to such impulses. Nye’s sitcom output (usually aided by Martin Clunes, he of another gifted face for failure) is the stuff of Amy’s Choice – regret, missed opportunity, middle-aged angst, the fear of anonymity and mediocrity. It’s no wonder that the Doctor, the apparent enemy of these things, is tapping his foot impatiently as soon as he arrives in Upper Leadworth to find a pregnant companion ‘settled’ (and how that word hangs with contextual meaning).  A far cry from gun-toting Rose Tyler or Dorothy McShane who could “just run and run”.

So Amy is to be the focus of this story. An interesting observation from my domestic viewpoint really because on our viewing my beloved and I both confessed to finding the character a little bewildering and distracting because of Ms Killan’s continued resemblance to a family member. Eek. Meanwhile my missus kept tabs on Amy’s pregnancy continuity (“her belly’s shifted down again” “She shouldn’t be eating raw batter!”) Neither of these are likely the stuff Moffat and Nye wished their audience to wrestle with, yet as things go it is a pretty good story for Amy, particularly upon Rory’s ‘death’ and inside the TARDIS against the Dream Lord and his rather splendid lounge lizard routine (nb: if he’s the Doctor’s Id does this particular projection speak of unspoken desire or outright denial? Maybe that’s what the end of Flesh and Stone was supposed to telegraph?)

Bringing out the alter ego is Toby Jones, surely known (if at all) to this generation’s younger viewers as the voice of Dobby the House Elf. Short and vaguely crumpled in stature Jones has a wonderful face, reminiscent of a middle-aged James Bolam – at times soft, toylike and vulnerable, but with drooping eyes that can narrow and a sour, down-turned mouth conveying spite and jealousy, those self-same negative egoisms ideal for fuelling his persona. His projection of the Dream Lord in voice is condescending, yet a step short of sneering, but most definitely mocking without resorting to pantomime. He’s an excellent choice for a role that in less talented hands (and in the hands of a less-talented writer) could have sunk to the level of Bad Joker or two-bit trickster. He’s better because of the subtlety and, again, what’s not said between him and the Doctor. Terrific eye acting from him and Smith sells the character, especially the Doctor’s last look out the van’s passenger window before Amy makes that rather mind-boggling choice.

And mind-boggling it is, coming from a pregnant woman intent on self-destruction. All for Rory? True, the last couple of episodes have been invaluable at fleshing out his personality – I really like the guy, even if his ponytail – was it ever going to convince anyone that this would be a credible future let alone reality? And yet we’ve seen the plonker side of Amy’s beloved before – his tiny torch in Vampires of Venice (such a cruel innuendo, Mr Whithouse!) and the obvious near-miss of his profession as nurse rather than doctor. His ‘death’ commits the small crime of being rather too rushed to be as monumental as it ought to be to the narrative – I suspect poor direction, but as I noted earlier, Gillan’s reaction saves it.

This is a story that relies on a strong directional hand. I’m not sure Catherine Morshead carries it off completely – she’s no Adam Smith, but it’s a tough assignment striving for verisimilitude in two fictitious, dream-like locations. The freezing TARDIS is a wonderful visual, especially so for the now quite metallic interior, and its exterior recalls The Web of Fear‘s smothering silk cocoon, and I was sad to see that we’re unlikely to return to Upper Leadworth, whose monsters continue to be of the Sarah Jane type, as in The Eleventh Hour. Perhaps small towns get the alien threats they deserve? As monsters go they’re actually less threatening than the Afternoon Tea of the Nearly-Dead shambling behind zimmer frames and walking sticks (“amble for your lives!!”), but as Big Finish’s recent Stockbridge trilogy shows, sometimes the series’ big monsters are best left out of Who‘s little villages.

There’s a fair bit to speak of yet, but I’m drifting. In short, I’ve not laughed with an episode quite so much since Smith’s debut. Lovely to revel in the bad taste of granny bashing (it’s NOT “un-PC” if the politically correct thing to do is not hit people. That’s just common sense!) and the final twists were rather well concealed, and I like that too. Lest we invoke the dreaded ‘V’ word, I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by discussing the Sixth Doctor’s ultimate foe in the same sentence as the Dream Lord – they really are separate ideas, separate entities. I dare say they are seprate aspects, and that the ‘darker side’ of the Doctor; meddling, sinister and playful, a tormentor, is a necessary step removed from the avaricious demon who is simply after his past lives and past life’s future.

Is Jones’ character worth a return visit? In very measured doses, perhaps. And yes, let’s definitely have more from Simon Nye.


A long way to take a Rory

Friday, June 11th, 2010


Enjoyable Romp ™, anyone?

The previous adventure was a harrowing one for both the Doctor and Amy, as well as the audience, and so a light run-around in 16th century Venice, with added Rory for comedy relief would seem like just the ticket.  The pre-credits sequence is possibly the funniest ever, showing that after 900 years the Doctor may never quite ‘get’ humans, an aspect which Matt Smith is using beautifully in his portrayal.

Taking Rory and Amy to Venice as a pre-wedding gift is a commendable gesture and it does ultimately repair the couple’s relationship, in unexpected ways. Personally, I’m uneasy with the concept of the Doctor as a galactic gooseberry, and the fact that even though Rory appears to be the most ineffectual of all TARDIS boys, he also seems least likely to fall into line.  Even the irrepressible Jack quickly learned his place in the space of one story.  But we all know that the essence of good drama is conflict, so I suppose I’ll just have to accept ‘Mickey 2’ and see how this plot strand plays out.  Perhaps I’m suffering Rory-resistance for the same reason that most of us disliked Adric – he seems a little too familiar for comfort.

As a life-long Hammer horror fan I loved the various nods to this genre – the vampire girls are wonderful, particularly in the ‘Jonathon Ross Show clip’ – but I do wonder if  revealing them to actually be ‘terileptils for the digital age’ really added anything.  It seems uncomfortably akin to the late and unlamented Van Helsing – only able to present Dracula as a ‘proper threat’ by transforming him into a CGI demon.  Taking a wider view, I don’t suppose debutantes with fangs would really cut it for younger viewers wanting their ‘monster fix’, and at least alien crustacean/fish appear at home in a Venetian canal?

Rosanna Calvierri is perfectly played by Helen McCrory, bringing the memorable RTD villainesses of the past to mind.  At the same time, she also manages to be a sympathetic character – one city in exchange for the continued survival of a race does seem perfectly understandable from a certain point of view.

There’s plenty to enjoy here, but nothing especially deep – at times it’s difficult to really care about the various predicaments the characters find themselves in.  Venice is going to get really wet?  Hardly a reality bomb.  The Doctor strolls through this one as if he’s untouchable – the climactic outcome of his first confrontation with the villains is the Time Lord being shown the door. Even Rory manages to fend off a skilled sword attack with a broom handle.

Perhaps it’s churlish to make criticisms like this when the story is so much fun, and so beautiful to look at (thanks to Trogir for being more like Venice than the real thing).  I suspect there may be angst ahead for our heroes so we should maybe try what most declined to do with Planet of the Dead – join in the spirit of fun and laughter while the option still exists for Amy and ‘her boys’.


Don’t Fear the Weeper

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Following on from my previous review you might think that The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone would be an even greater recipe for disaster, containing as it does some of the same requisite elements of Victory of the Daleks – an old enemy, familiar faces (River Song rather than Winston Churchill this time), continuity with other stories – two in this case, and a likely set-up for future events. This two-parter doesn’t though, and while there may be more than one reason for this (the relative ‘newness’ of the returning characters, for example), I think the main credit must go to the creator of these parts and scriptwriter for this story, Steven Moffat. You have to admire his chutzpah too – claiming the new series first two-parter slot for such big hitters when past examples have proved so disappointing. He even has ‘Time’ in the title of one story!

As such, Victory‘s problem may well have been time – precious little for the number of balls it had to juggle. Angels/Flesh has the stretching space to fit those in, and it has to be said, its baubles are that much shinier for their newness and unfamiliarity. We know so little about River Song, and trust Moffat less to reveal much more about her. The Weeping Angels are another lesser-known commodity. There’s enough in those two to adequately tell a story in its own right, but Moffat adds more intriguing conceits – a distress call across time, an army of priests hunting for an angel, Amy’s closest brush with death to date, and of course the accursed Crack which undermines the story in episode two and claims the plot for itself.

Visually it’s a stunner, with Eleventh Hour‘s Adam Smith returning and proving to be an impressive find for the new series; not since Midnight has dread looked so beautiful. The initial cave sequence with a dispirited and edgy band of soldiers and a mobile HQ within a large cavern recalled for me not so much Aliens as George Romero’s Day of the Dead, similarly doom-laden, also carrying with it the additional threat to its heroes that their nominal adversaries have evolved. Amy’s sleep-gritty eye will have had a legion of younger viewers panicking as they rubbed their waking faces the following day, for sure, but here the in-built frights are less those of childhood and more of the deep-rooted ones. Silent, dark forests, deep pits and caves. Indeed, the latter is positively Proppian as the Doctor goes, not exiting said cave until he is well clear of the forest in the spaceship inside the caverns. It’s not just a cave of course, it’s a grotto, filled (naturally) with grotesques, malformed, corrupted and dying Angels. It’s been observed that their on-screen movement and breaking of Blink‘s rules (particulary their being able to look at each other and not suffer the quantum death their shielding hands guard against) are a cheat and diminish their menace. I’d argue that we do at least recover more than we lost – I’m not mad on their being able to talk so soon after similar scenes in River Song’s earlier story, but it’s an irresistable insidght into their personas. These Angels are no longer scavengers but evil and cruel killers, so the stakes are sufficiently raised.

And so to the return of River Song. Alex Kingston’s performance here is pointedly different from her introductory two-header. It’s the same character, but this time she’s more arch, more self-confident, with a swagger (is that the right word?) to her walk and demeanour that teases the audience as much as it does the Doctor. Much of this is down to Alex Kingston’s updated femme fatale take on the character, which some have singled out for straying a little too close to camp, but if there was ever a time for Song to be singing it’s now. She’s a woman with the Doctor’s future in her hands, seemingly, but protected by the Doctor’s knowledge of hers. Nevertheless that self same self-assuredness and the deliberately provocative scene -sharing can only recall Moffat’s first episodes for new Who. River Song is Captain Jack Harkness, for the time being at least. And just look at how Amy is drawn to her as much as Rose was to Jack, each a potential rival for the Doctor.

Curious elements remain – is it a continuity error that the Doctor loses his jacket mid-forest and reappears in it to comfort a dying Amy, or evidence of temporal chicanery? That’s a fantastic performance by Smith here, by the way – who’d have thought he’d nail the Doctor so instantly in his his first story? Adding to River’s back story with more mystery was pretty much a given – the tease about her crime surely shouldn’t be that obvious, even if speculation on it in another story review has scared me off the NZDWFC Message Board for a month at least. And what of the church – an interesting detail, or is this an area the show’s new foreman will dare to venture into?

Very good stuff indeed.


The Emperor’s New Clothes

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

After the Doctor and the companion, so the Enemy.

Since 2005 sharing the main spot with the Master for end of season spectaculars, it’s difficult to summon enthusiasm for the return of the Daleks – they’ve simply been used too often, and for progressively higher stakes. The new series, which reintroduced them with a single spartan and emotionally-driven episode, has since strip-mined them, pinching their modus operandi from the Cybermen, then them off against the silver stompers, combining Dalek DNA with that of humans making monstrous hybrids and finally when other avenues were exhausted and all other higher aspects of the traditional hierarchy were expended, bringing back Davros and having them try to destroy ‘reality’. So played out were they in 2009 that their sole appearance was a solitary individual in a flashback to a previous story. And now they’re back, claiming Victory no less. But victory over what?

Victory of the Daleks is the result of two things – one is the shopping list approach to storytelling evident in the RTD era and apparent now in the Moffat age (the Daleks, a historical figure, set-up for a future return), and the other the new series’ drive to reinvent. Three episodes in we’ve had a new Doctor and companion, new TARDIS and now it’s the turn of the most enduring baddie. Those elements in themselves amount to a lot for a routine or runaround one-parter – in the hands of series nostalgiameister Mark Gatiss the dilution of story amid beats and motifs becomes all the more obvious. Having said that, although I feel I recognise the author’s hand in Victory of the Daleks, there’s a big part of me that finds his influence on the story isn’t that apparent. Because beyond these set pieces and beats, I can’t bring myself to admit I can actually see a story.

Victory is frustrating to me, especially so for its obviousness. The disparate ‘big’ elements hang together so loosely: Churchill and the Blitz? Why? After an opener set pointedly in a Sleepy English Town followed by a story set in England (sorry, the UK) in Space with its own serious thing for bakelite retro design, who of all people would think a cosy sing-along-a-war-time version of the Battle of Britain and novelty Winston means pushing things forward? It makes me uncomfortable to follow the story’s implication that the Doctor’s arrival at that point in time was deliberately set up by the Daleks due to his ‘Britishness’ and affection for/speed dial to that country’s historical figures, because it speaks to much of the occasional laziness of the series and its lip service to its audience. The new series’ history has too easily adopted a de facto British history as its canon (Pompeii is moot), and it’s become boring. So too are the aforementioned story elements which, when they do hang together, do so in an extremely linear way: the Daleks set up a presence on Eng- sorry, Earth to lure the Doctor, they do so by gifting their technology to Churchill’s war effort by the genius and presumably highly sophisticated means of robo-boffin with a soul Bracewell (what, just leaving some easily understood plans lying around Whitehall was too far-fetched?), which allows the Doctor and friends to use Bracewell against his creators and hey presto – spitfires in space. Even the Daleks’ trick to force their enemy’s hand – leaving all the lights on in London, is dreadful. Is the story set in the days before blackout curtains?

Time for some positives. Those spitfires looked brilliant, as did the Dalek saucer interior – who’d have guessed a tobacco  factory could double so well for a home to innumerable devices of death? In fact, the design element I would say is one of the few concessions to the story, outside of the ever-reliable Bill Patterson. The new Daleks? I’m not so sure. The colours are certainly bold (does their reflecting a new hierarchy mean that a simple paint-job is all a Dalek needs to better itself?), but the side view is lamentable. The Universe’s deadliest creations have always had the hump, but it appears this time they’ve taken it literally. Performance-wise things are variable too – Patterson, as I said, is on form with a routine role (for Who!), and Matt Smith does his best with an overcrowded HQ in both settings. Ian MacNeice is capable of much better then his caricature role asks, although I must admit that against the earlier nominations – Robert Hardy and Albert Finney, he’s probably the best fit, and a straighter performance might not have worked amid everything else on show. Karen Gillan comes across here as cocksure and flippant – some way from Billie Piper’s Dalek introduction, but Amy’s ignorance of the Daleks is a promising element; another revision, or a significant character crack?

In the end it’s a Pyrrhic Victory – a lightweight idea stretched to story length, but lacking meat. This would be fine as a later-season overture like, say, Utopia, but for story three it does too little, and seemingly too early to matter.