Star Trek: Into Darkness (Review)

Contains spoilers.
(I may be rushing this slightly; blame Shakespeare).

 

It’s time for the second installment of the rebooted Star Trek film series!  I’ve never been a major fan of Star Trek, residing on the Doctor Who side of the inter-nerd fan rivalry, though I’ve seen a couple of the original films (the first two, I think).  Brilliantly brought back to life in 2009 by J. J. Abrams, I highly enjoyed the first film.  Into Darkness mostly continues this trend, though it has its flaws.

I really liked the opening sequence.  This is a confident film to so casually open with the crew engaged in a deadly mission on a primitive planet to stop a volcano erupting.  It adds little to the overall plot, but I enjoyed the spectacle of this alien planet, Spock inside the volcano, and the Enterprise emerging from the sea.

The 2009 film has been both praised and criticised for the complexity of its plot, featuring time travel and alternative timelines.  I personally liked this style of storytelling, but I’m glad Into Darkness has gone for a more linear narrative this time, or the series would have been in danger of suffering from the same repetitive ‘timey-wimeyness’ as recent Doctor Who.  Instead the story is given a much smaller and intimate scale.  Where the first featured a genocidal maniac with an insatiable desire for revenge, here we’re dealing with John Harrison – revealed to be Khan – trying to save his race of advanced humans.  The threat is never larger than acts of terrorism or the crew of the Enterprise, which feels appropriate given the climate we live in today.  There is the looming possibility of war with the Klingons, but this plot thread is never given a great deal of attention and never feels particularly credible; the Klingons existed purely to serve as nonhuman cannon fodder for Kahn, which is questionable morals from the writers if nothing else.   Being new to Star Trek, I’d have liked to see more of the Klingons, who were rather wasted.

This is definitely one of those films with a structure which changes and adapts through the film as events progress, rather than having one arc stretch throughout it.  This isn’t a criticism by any means, and the plot only once or twice seemed to slow and lose its direction – at around the middle.  I’ve seen the film criticised as predictable, but there were bits which did genuinely shock me – such as Kirk’s death, which cleverly mirrored events in 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (a death behind a glass window, Spock and Kirk’s hand gesture and, of course, “KKKAHHAAAAANNNNN!!!!”) leaving me wondering whether his death would be final.  In the end it is reversed as part of the “Spock and Kirk saving each others’ lives” subplot which, while I enjoyed, felt a bit needlessly dragged out.  Into Darknessalso acts nicely as a transition from the introductions of the first film to the missions of exploration seen in the original television series.  Will the next film, if it’s made, be set during the course of these missions?

The characters continue to be brilliantly portrayed by the younger cast who, from what I’ve seen, are doing a remarkable job of bringing life to the originals.  Zachary Quinto, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg and Karl Urban do particularly good jobs as Spock, Checkov, Scottie and “Bones” McCoy.  I’m not entirely convinced by Chris Pine’s performance as Kirk, however.  He’s a good actor, but his youthful portrayal doesn’t seem to have the gravitas I feel Kirk should have at this point.  It worked for the first film, but here where he is captain I feel he should look a bit more experienced.  Among the best performances was undoubtedly Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, who brought such an incredible presence to the role.  His interactions with the other characters were among my favourite parts of the film.  Alice Eve was also good as Dr. Marcus – I can see why the film has been criticised for having an antiquated view of women, though I mostly disagree.  Sure, this particular character was a bit useless, but she was a scientist, not a soldier.  Uhura proves one of the most capable characters on the crew, in complete contrast!  We even saw Leonard Nimoy back as spock which, while serving as a nice return, really didn’t have a purpose.  We don’t need to be told that Khan is dangerous; Cumberbatch’s performance does that well enough on its own.

J. J. Abrams has reaffirmed his position as the King of science-fiction in his direction for this film.  Every location is brilliantly created, the futuristic cities feeling especially real and convincing.  The actions scenes are completely under his control – often in blockbusters action scenes can become messy and confusing, but in this film they were always easy to follow.   The scenes on the Enterprise where the gravity-system failed were thrillingly directed and left me on the edge of my seat until the characters had reached safety.

Overall, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a very commendable film and a worthy addition to the franchise.  I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as the first addition to the rebooted series, but it comes close.  It is at its heart a blockbuster which, try as it might, never quite escapes from the stereotypes of the genre, but does rise to become the best entertainment a blockbuster is capable of.  Essentially, a very solid film.

Final rating: 8.5/10

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Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Episode 13/14 for Doctor Who, series 7.  I must be honest, I am finding something slightly lacklustre about this series.  I don’t know whether its the fragmented nature – 5 episodes in 2012, Amy and Rory leaving suddenly, wait a few months, Christmas, wait another few months, and then it begins again – or whether it’s the lack of two-parter stories and cliffhangers which strongly defines the show, or whether I’m just getting older.  The overnight ratings have undeniably declined, however, to achieving consistently below an average of 5 million.  This isn’t bad for any show, but given Doctor Who’s record it’s not really that good either.  I was hoping Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver would reverse this trend.  His The Doctor’s Wife in 2011 is one of my favourite ever Doctor Who episodes, and I very much enjoyed Coraline, however upon reading American Gods I was left very cold.  So, was this to be like The Doctor’s Wife or American Gods for me?  Unfortunately, the latter.

Gaiman has stated that his ambition for this episode was to “make the Cybermen scary again”; in recent times we’ve seen them blown up at in an episode’s first five minutes and defeated by the power of love, so this was a noble ambition.  I really liked that first image of the Cyberman playing chess, controlled by Warwick Davis’ character [more on that later] – it brought to mind the famous automaton, The Turk, which was a clever touch.  I also really like the new design.  Gaiman in an interview for Doctor Who Magazine said he was trying hoping to replicate the hypothesis of the ‘uncanny valley’ – a theory that when monsters look and act like human beings but with something missing, it creates irrational terror within people – which these new faces do achieve more so than previously.  Their new abilities – moving quickly, the mobile hand, being able to upgrade continuously, also help make them scarier.  The concept of installing a ‘patch’ every time they meet an obstacle makes them appear undefeatable.  The ‘cyber-mites’ were also quite scary.  However, I don’t know whether it’s a result of newcomer Stephen Woolfenden’s direction or the writing, but… The concept of Cybermen being mechanical, converted human beings is lost.  They act like robots, which loses one of the factors which make Cybermen so terrifying.

Another reason I failed to find the Cybermen a credible threat was due to the episode being so, so rushed.  The first half – which I found worked better – wasn’t so bad.  The threat was built up and slowly established, the Cyber Planner introduced, and it all worked fairly well.  Then the plot began to accelerate, to swing this way and that way, and I began to feel all focus was lost.  The pacing would be slowed down for drawn-out sequences between the Doctor and the Cyber Planner fighting over his brain – sequences I did enjoy, particularly ‘inside the Doctor’s head’, which was a nice effect, but they brought the story grinding to a halt, meaning that when it returned to cyber-action the scenes were rushed for compensation.  This became unforgiveably bad towards the end.  The resolution is terrible.  Davis’ character (Porridge?  Really?) is revealed to be the Emperor in a painfully obvious and badly-written or rushed way, and we learn that he could have solved the problem immediately be saying ‘I am the Emperor’ or whatever and getting everyone beamed up.  I expected better.  The demands of telling a story in 45 minutes leave no time for the threat to build and necessitates a rushed resolution, making the Cybermen seem oh so easily defeated.

This seems a good place to have a little rant about Davis’ Emperor subplot.  Davis did the best he could with a terrible role and writing and actually, incredibly, managed to salvage some of it, but most of it fell flat.  Ignoring my distaste towards have a global Emperor with supreme powers which everyone laughs at “I could have you all executed!” “Oh, har har har, you tyrant you!”  The character didn’t seem all that fussed about taking up the position again.  If there had been more TIME to explain why he ran away, why he was so reluctant to take up his role as the Emperor again, then it might have worked, but I found during this scene even the dialogue was being edited together in such a snappy way that it didn’t work.  “Well, he is the Emperor – come on, it’s obvious” leaves no time at all for Clara’s reaction to register.  And that marriage proposal… Yuck!  Unnecessary, cringy, and wasted 20 seconds which could have gone towards healing other areas.

Moving to other characters, I don’t think I can do my usual “they were fantastic” in one paragraph.  Firstly, the Doctor.  I still think Matt Smith is performing excellently in the role, but he has been severely criticised for ‘hamming it up’ in this episode and, watching it again, I have to agree.  Just slightly too much shouting, an over-the-top inner struggle between The Doctor and the Cyber Planner.  I also thought the Doctor was rather irresponsible for leaving the children to stay on the planet once he was aware of a Cyber-threat.

Clara.  I have commented on previous episodes that I really like the realistic reactions she has to situations.  Not meaning that she can’t be a strong character, but it makes her courage feel like real courage when contrasted with her fear.  Not here.  The Doctor places her in charge and she consequently begins barking orders to the platoon of soldiers.  Cybermen breaking into the castle aiming to kill everyone?  No problem, Clara will yell orders completely unphased.  The two children she’s supposedly caring for become possessed by Cybermen?  Meh, could be worse.  Possessed soldiers advancing?  Oh, Clara knows how to use a gun upon picking it up and will shoot them, because that’s totally in character for young woman from contemporary London who has only recently joined The Doctor!  To be clear, this is a criticism of how she is written, not performed, as Jenna-Louise Coleman does what she’s asked to do well.  I am also getting rather tired of the Clara story – another reason why this series is lacking any momentum or focus.  There are more references to her being ‘the impossible girl’, but nothing develops.  Again.  Nothing has developed since The Bells of Saint Johnsix episodes ago.  It’s getting repetitive.

The children were written atrociously.  Angie was worse than Artie (why would you name your kids such similar names?) and her ‘gobby’ attitude got on my nerves.  Again, a criticism of the writing more than the acting.  Walking into a barracks and proclaiming “I’m BORED!” … “When someone asks you to rule a thousand galaxies, you don’t say no!” as if it’s an everyday occurrence for her.  Neither of them seem particularly phased by the events.  They also serve no purpose within the story.  They come under the control of the Cybermen, but even this is resolved quickly and leads to nowhere.  They generally just stand in the background and waste valuable time.  It’s a shame, because I was quite looking forward to seeing children travel in the TARDIS.

Nightmare in Silver was a great disappointment.  Neil Gaiman + Cybermen – it should have been better.  It was entertaining at times, which prevents it from being a complete failure, but upon analysis it doesn’t stand up.  I know this is just my opinion, and a lot of other people really liked the episode, but I didn’t react well to it.  I’m quite losing heart with this season.  Next week is the season finalé, but there would be no way of telling.  I was half hoping this episode might end on a cliffhanger like Closing Time before The Wedding of River Song, to at least give some publicity and build some expectation for the final episode, but no such luck.  I don’t have high hopes.

Final rating: 5/10

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Wow, series 7 of Doctor Who is going by fast!  Episode 12/14, now.  I really am starting to miss the two-parter episodes we have become accustomed to for the last 7 years.  It’s difficult to explain why, but I really think the series is suffering because of their absence; it’s like there’s no place to benchmark where we are on what’s happening, and instead there’s a random stream of sharp, rushed stories.  Generally good stories, sure, but… Hm.  I found out this morning that The Crimson Horror only got around 4.6 million overnight views which, while still promising over 6m views with the timeshift, is undeniably a decline.  I’ve never approved of head-writer Steven Moffat’s manic obsession for ratings, giving episodes, in his words, ‘slutty’ but irrelevant titles like Let’s Kill Hitler, or his admission that getting rid of two-parters is purely to increase views, rather than to increase the quality of the show.  So I suppose I’m gleaming some savage, “I told you so” pleasure in seeing this happen, though I dearly hope the show won’t lose too much popularity.

Rant aside, episode 12 by Mark Gatiss, The Crimson Horror, looked set to be an interesting but conventional addition to the series.  Gatiss is not known for his groundbreaking ambitionwhen writing scripts, but I should have learnt after Hide not to put an episode down as ‘dull’.  It’s directed by Saul Metzstein, who has proven his abilities by directing several well-made episodes of Doctor Who over the last year, including The Snowmen – so no worries there.  It also sees the return of the Doctor’s Victorian Gang, comprised of Silurian Madam Vastra, her wife Jenny and the Sontaran Strax, who are always entertaining.

I must admit, Gatiss surprised me with this one.  This has to be one of the scariest episodes I have watched in a long time.  So many terrors: the red, semi-frozen creaky people; people getting forcibly dipped into red goo; the grotesque ‘Mr Sweet’ attached to Mrs Gillyflower’s chest… The episode made my shudder so many times.  There’s an interesting contrast of horror and comedy which Doctor Who does so well, blown up to the extremes here.  For every moment of intense horror there’s a joke (“Horse!  You have failed in your mission!” … A satnav-boy called ‘Thomas Thomas’, etc) and it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the two hardly contrast at all.  One aspect of the tone which may have let the episode down slightly was its tendency to go over the top at times – Mrs Gillyflower’s pantomime performance: “DIE!! DIE!!!” for instance.  Not a huge detractor, but was a little distracting.  It was also interesting to see a return to “human on human” violence.  There was nothing very graphic, but having Ada batter her mother with her cane or Mrs Gillyflower firing at the Doctor twice with a revolver felt very odd.  Not wrong, but odd.  Humans being nasty to each other was a common feature of the ‘Classic Series’, but it’s mostly been replaced by ‘fantasy violence’ in the newer series.  Mark Gatiss has said that out of all the episodes he’s written, this feels the most “him”, and you can tell.

Some people have criticised the decision to spend roughly the first half the episode centered around Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax, but I don’t have a problem with it.  It was nice to see more of Jenny’s character, who has in the past been sidelined by her stranger friends.  Perhaps the Doctor and Clara got caught too easily in Mrs Gillyflower’s plans, but I like that he has a safety net of friends to help him out just in case.  The villain’s plot was a bit bizarre – wiping out humanity with an ancient parasite and then replacing them with biologically perfect “Adams and Eve.”  It’s a common idea in science fiction, but is written creatively.  I quite enjoyed hearing Mrs Gillyflower invent fascism 30 years early – even referring to a Golden Dawn.  And I liked the idea of the… Octogram, was it?  Having the corpses’ eyes recording images was a clever way to quickly advance the plot.  The setting in general works well, feeling the most authentic ‘Victorian episode’ we’ve had for a while.  I enjoyed hearing the grand variety of accents, from the Northerners who populated most of the episode, to Jenny’s London tones, Vastra’s Scots and Strax’s Welsh.  The plan was a bit easily defeated, which is kind of understandable when you consider that Mrs Gillyflower has simply become a mad old woman with an intelligent leach, though for all her earlier successes in planning I’d have thought the team might have found stopping her a bit more challenging once they had got going.  But these are really tiny niggles.

The mystery of Clara is continuing to be mentioned.  I do like the low-key way it gets brought up, although we’re getting very little development.  It’s hinted that the Doctor intended to take her to Victorian London to see how she reacts, which shows he is still unceasingly trying to figure out, but we’re not getting any more clues.  We don’t need more clues, but every time she gets brought up we’re getting the same “dunno who she is” response.  This is meant to infuriate the Doctor, so perhaps this irritation I’m feeling is also intentional?  Builds excitement for the finalé…

The characters were all very entertaining in The Crimson Horror.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman great as usual, and the trio of Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart were very entertaining.  I found some of Strax’s lines, although humorously performed, a bit repetitive, and I’m still waiting for an explanation regarding his lack of death.  Oh well.  Mother and daughter team Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling were performed well in their roles.  Rigg sold the part of the “nuts” Gillyflower, and Stirling’s performance brought such a rawness of suffering which added to the moments of horror.  I can’t recall the last time a character has convincingly suffered so much in the show.  Honourable mention goes to the man in the morgue, whose nonplussed response to Freaky Red Corpses verging on amusement made for many laughable moments.

As expected, Metzstein’s direction was highly skilled.  I was awed in the first seconds alone by that shot rising up above the terraces, revealing Victorian Yorkshire into view.  He’s created a tense, atmospheric episode that gave me many genuine scares.  And other little touches, like the slow pan-out to huge industrial noises, only to subvert the viewer’s expectations by revealing a trio of huge gramophones.  There were many lovely surreal touches, including the ‘Adams and Eves’ inside glasses attached to pumps.  Oh, and that flashback scene!  The colours went sepia tone, grains appeared and the audio became muffled.  Made absolutely no sense but I loved it as a storytelling device; it really set the scene.

All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable episode, and by far the best piece of writing I have ever seen Mark Gatiss produce.  I’m looking forward to seeing the team back in the season finalé, The Name of the Doctor.  And Cybermen next week, written by Neil Gaiman… Hopefully this series will go out with a bang.

Final rating: 8.5/10

Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

“Why do they only ever stay in the console room?”
“Where does Rose sleep?  That floor doesn’t look comfy.”
“I miss when they would spend episodes wandering around the TARDIS doing nothing.”
“THE CLOSET!  WE SAW THE CLOSET!”
“CORRIDORS!  WE SAW CORRIDORS”

-Thoughts of Doctor Who fans everywhere, 2005 – present.

When returning Doctor Who to television in 2005, Russell T. Davies was very clear about his vision for the purpose of the TARDIS: the adventure laid outside, the TARDIS merely acting to get the characters there.  He believed that wasting time with dialogue in dull settings, particularly within the new 45 minute format, would be dull for the viewer.  Since Steven Moffat became in charge of the show in 2010 there has been a slight change in this trend, with its ‘infinite corridors’ playing a role in Neil Gaiman’s 2011 episode, The Doctor’s Wife.  But now, for the first time, we’ve been promised out first adventure set almost entirely within the TARDIS’ doors!  It’s written by Stephen Thompson, who wrote the average The Curse of the Black Spot in 2011, as well as writing the also average The Blind Banker and the phenomenal The ReichenbacFall to BBC’s Sherlock.  So pretty mixed, as a writer.  It’s directed by newcomer Mat King.

The main criteria of whether this episode would succeed or not was always going to be in its portrayal of the TARDIS.  And, unfortunately, I think most fans are agreed that it was slightly underwhelming.  Oh, we saw depth – layers upon layers of corridors and rooms – which was certainly a refreshing throwback to episodes in the 60s and the 80s.  We saw a hint of an astronomy room, the swimming pool and a FULL SCENE within the library!  I may have mentioned it before, but in the multiple spin-offs and fan-fictions I’ve written in my time, being a mega Doctor Who nerd, the library has been included so many times.  To finally see it… Ah, there aren’t words.  We also got to finally see the Eye of Harmony, which turned out to be a star going supernova, transitioning into a black hole.  From what we know of Time Lord mechanics, particularly from the 1972-73 episode The Three Doctors, this makes a lot of sense and I appreciate having finally seen it.  The TARDIS’ “snarl trap” was also rather nice.  But… I don’t know.  Maybe we’ve been spoilt by the brilliant The Doctor’s Wife, but other than providing short-lived spectacle, there didn’t feel like there was a lot of substance behind what we saw.

Most of the episode’s problems, and where I should avoid trying to rip it to shreds utterly, is in the writing.  Principally, the plot.  What was the point of this story?  Okay, it begins well: the TARDIS is hauled in by dim scrap-hunters, and the TARDIS goes explodey-wodey.  Then Clara goes missing down one of the corridors, somehow.  The Doctor forces the crewmembers to help find her by threatening to blow up the TARDIS; dim crewmembers instead try to steal and break bits of the TARDIS off.  “What’s wrong, TARDIS?  Scared to fight me?” one of the crew members says, after seeing it has the power to manipulate matter and kill him.  Oh, the cringing… The whole ‘burned zombie’ thread makes absolutely no sense, was rushed and clearly only existed to add a threat to the meaningless story.  Why are they trying to kill themselves in the past?  It’s not only out of character, but it’s counterproductive.  Unless the timey-wimey stuff turns them into crazy zombies, or they’re trying to avoid the horrifying, painful existence they’re currently suffering.  Either explanation would suffice, but none is given.  Oh, and that ‘android’ subplot… Would anyone be that callous?  How can… Tricky, is it (?), survive having that massive rod shoved through his left arm/chest, i.e. the rough location of his heart?  They decide to “cut the metal” and next scene he’s half staggering, holding his chest half-heartedly.  There should be blood gushing!  He should be on the verge of death!  Okay, Doctor Who’s a family show – so in that case, don’t pin a character to a wall with a massive metal rod.  And then that final paradox… Having watched it twice, it still makes no sense.  Why does the Doctor remember but not Clara?  All that said, I did like the ‘echo TARDIS’ idea, and there were various other creative aspects of the script I enjoyed.

The entire structure of the story just felt pretty off, to be honest.  To completely subvert everything which has happened half way through with the Doctor saying, “it was a joke!” after their brother died – though you couldn’t tell from the amount they care – just throws the whole thing off.  The only actual trace of a plot occurs half way through, when the TARDIS core begins to overheat or something, so the Doctor puts everyone in danger by blindly going there to sort it out.  Or something.  And then it’s all resolved in rather a rush.  Hm.

One aspect of the writing I did like was the continued mystery regarding The Doctor’s name, and Clara’s identity.  Although Clara’s reaction upon seeing his name in The History of the Time War (“so that’s who…”) didn’t make a lot of sense, and makes it sound like something pretty simple like ‘Dave’, this plot arc is being developed well on the whole.  I have trepidations regarding the title of the season finale, The Name of the Doctor, considering this is a lose-lose situation for Moffat (he obviously can’t name the Doctor, but failure to do so will be breaking another promise).  The confrontation between the Doctor and Clara over her identity was also rather thrilling.

The acting from Matt Smith as the Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara was pretty good.  Nothing new there.  I’m continually impressed by the realism Coleman is bringing to the role, showing the appropriate reactions anyone would experience in Clara’s position.  It’s been commented that the three guest stars, playing the brothers – I forget their names – were poorly acted.  I don’t tend to notice this kind of thing, but there were some lines which even I could tell were a little butchered.  I think Tricksy was generally alright, but the other two’s hearts didn’t seem to be particularly into the performances.  Actually, that sums up the episode rather well as a whole.

I have also seen King’s direction criticised for making the TARDIS, particularly the corridors, appear bland or repetitive.  I didn’t pick up on that myself, thinking the episode to be rather well done overall.  He had a bit of a thing for bright, garish colours, but that is perhaps what you would expect within the deep core of the TARDIS.  There were some very scary moments, although these would sometimes be butchered by the poor tone and pacing.  That scene on the bridge with the zombies could have been terrifying if it were less rushed and actually made sense, whereas Tricky’s pierced heart is treated in far too much of a blasé manner.

Overall, it is with regret that I say that Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was a failure.  Sure, there were many enjoyable aspects to it which were worthy of praise, and it’s by no means a bad episode, it just… Isn’t as good as the hype would have suggested.  Perhaps the problem is the fundamental issue of showing the TARDIS as a hostile, dangerous place – and, in particular, not providing enough of an explanation for why that happened.  In The Doctor’s Wife it was clear and understandable that the TARDIS has been possessed by House, but here it’s like she’s just having a bad day.  I think this is an episode which would have been very difficult to do right.  I enjoyed it, but have a nagging feeling that I shouldn’t have done.

Final rating: 6/10

Doctor Who: Hide (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Doctor Who, series 7 continues!  We’re on episode 4 of 2013’s run, and episode 10 of series 7.  Hide, written by Neil Cross (who also wrote The Rings of Akhaten, two weeks ago) and directed by Jamie Payne, who has made his debut into the world of Doctor Who.  I have never been a great fan of ghost stories, particularly the sort where all the action is contained within one dull haunted house – which has been done so many times before – but it soon became clear this would would be quite different.

The actual ‘haunted house’ segments at the beginning were also better than I expected them to be.  The characters of Alec and Emma were more interesting than the ‘ghostbusters weirdos’ I expected, and there were some genuine frights.  The ghost in particular… Ah, that face.  Though I found the constant lightning distracting, perhaps for obvious reasons.  Hide, like last week’s Cold War, is a historical story, set in 1974 (the year Tom Baker became the Doctor, fact-fans!), though this wasn’t a very important element of the story.  It did mean a reliance on analogue photography, which gave us that great scene where the Doctor and Alec talked over developing photos.  It also made the use of candles for lighting more realistic, as this particular house may not have been inhabited for some time and therefore not had electricity installed.

The story really went up a notch (“top notch”, as the Doctor was keen on saying) when the Doctor and Clara took the TARDIS to the same location throughout history, to snap pictures of the changing ghost.  We saw the Earth at the beginning of its history, a prehistoric jungle populated with now-extinct life, the mansion in Victorian times and then the same spot at the ending of the world.  This gave the episode a much greater scope than I expected, and while scope does not always equal quality, it saved Hide from being the rehash of ghost ideas I had been expecting.  And then, the pocket universe!  Such a good idea, and incredibly well realised.  The trees, shrouded in fog and harbouring a monster, created a very creepy and claustrophobic atmosphere.  My only reservations with the plot is the theme of love, which seemed shoe-horned in at places.  I did like the ending, where the Doctor returned to the pocket universe to rescue the ‘Romeo’ creature and to reunite it with its mate, though it was rather rushed.  I know it would have completely ruined the tone and the flow of narrative, but I’d have quite liked to see two of these hideous creatures in the TARDIS!

Speaking of the TARDIS, it behaved quite oddly in this episode.  There is the continuing arc of the TARDIS’ hostility to Clara, but this verged on sarkyness at times, bizarrely.  When she addressed the TARDIS voice visual interface and it took the image of Clara herself, making that jibe about being someone Clara esteems – what was that about?  Also, it’s been commented that having a TARDIS voice interface thing, particularly when it shows bits of personality, ruins the tragic ending to The Doctor’s Wife where it was assumed the Doctor would never again be able to speak to it.  Just niggles, but still things which stuck out.

I am really enjoying the double act of the Doctor and Clara.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman just fit into the roles of Doctor and companion – staggeringly so, when you consider this was the first episode of Coleman’s to be filmed (Asylum of the Daleks aside).  Their ‘banter’ may be a bit wearisome at times, but it is also quite endearing.  They also have quite a balanced relationship; I do like Clara continuing to question the Doctor, this time wondering how he can see people as anything other than ghosts when he has the whole of time at his disposal, on top of Emma’s warning that he has ‘ice in his heart’.  This is definitely setting up for something in the finalé.  Another thing I love about Clara is that she reacts realistically.  She has seen the end of the world, and that grief, that confusion, it stays with her throughout the episode.  This is what Rose was like at the beginning of series 1 in 2005, before the character became ruined, and its very refreshing to see.  Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine were also great as Alec and Emma, playing the awkward couple-to-be realistically and with conviction.  I look forward to seeing Raine play Verity Lambert in An Adventure in Time and Space later this year.

The direction from newcomer Payne was also, generally, pretty good.  Doctor Who increasingly looks like a very expensive and well-produced show.  I’ve already mentioned the success in making this a highly atmospheric and creepy episode, and I’d also like to add that the effects in animating the creature in the forest was, well, ‘top notch’.  Some form of stop motion animation, perhaps?  This gave it a very disjointed, staggered movement, adding to the tension.

In conclusion, this was a highly enjoyable episode, one which I liked far better than I expected to.  This 2013 run of episodes, in my opinion, has been pretty consistent in quality.  I look forward to next week’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which promises to certainly be interesting!

Final rating: 8/10

Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

It’s strange to think that Doctor Who’s 9th episode of series 7, Cold War, is a historical episode set in the year 1983, considering that the original series of the show was actually nearing its end during that time.  30 years ago.  Feels too near to count as a historical, yet, it also feels a long time ago.  Mark Gatiss has returned to write his fifth story for the show, and has again tackled a companion’s first trip into the past – as he previously did with The Unquiet Dead (2005) for Rose and Victory of the Daleks (2010) for Amy.  Gatiss has a reputation for writing consistently decent episodes, but never anything special or that impressive, so I was curious to see how he would tackle this episode.  Returning to direct is Douglas MacKinnon, who has previously directed the The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (2008).

Firstly, I really love the concept of being trapped on a submarine with a deadly monster.  (In fact, I actually had a similar idea myself for a spin-off/fanfiction series I wrote a couple of years, though that was with a Dalek – so I feel slightly bitter towards Gatiss for stealing it!).  A sense of claustrophobia is successfully developed; when the TARDIS disappears; the submarine is stuck; there’s nowhere to run – it’s brilliant edge-of-the-seat viewing.  In many ways, this felt a very traditional episode.  Cold War has clearly taken notes from the 1960s’ ‘base under siege’ stories, and also has a lot of similarities with the 2005 episode Dalek.  Gatiss has been criticised for, again, writing a good episode but nothing revolutionary.  Which is fine, as long as we do get the more experimental pieces from time to time.  My only criticism of the writing was that the pacing felt a bit off, at times – almost as if the plot was being stretched out to fill the time slot (unusual for Doctor Who; generally the opposite is true), though for such a small-scale story, despite the global implications, this may have actually added to the tension.

I also enjoyed how the Cold War period was realised in this episode.  From the costumes the Soviet workers wore, the stars littering the submarine (even if historically inaccurate) and the stream of references to things like America and nuclear Armageddon, the setting immediately feels convincing – I particularly liked the line which went something like, “I know telling the truth might be a foreign concept to you, sir…”  Excellent dig at Communism, there.  One thing: the actual Russian soldiers didn’t feel entirely convincing.  The lines about “Oh, we’re speaking Russian” were a bit forced, and the crew felt more British than Russian.  Not sure how that could have been improved – the crew wouldn’t necessarily need to have had Russian accents, though that might have helped.

Of course, the true focus for Cold War was the return of an Ice Warrior, who were last featured in an episode as far back as 1974 in The Monster of Peladon.  After a 39 year hiatus they’re back and, unlike previous returns such as the Cybermen and the Silurians, have remained very loyal to the original designs.  The scales, the hissing voice – it’s all there!  I lament the loss of the clamp-like hands, but that’s a minor detail.  My first impression was how wonderfully well lit Skaldak, the Ice Warrior, was in every scene, particularly once he had crawled out of the suit.  Tiny flickers on the side of the screen as he ran down corridors were also very effective.  I wasn’t completely convinced by his final CGI appearance outside of the armour, however – the edges and proportions just didn’t feel that real.  But I appreciated seeing an Ice Warrior outside of his armour – a first for the show – nonetheless.  Gatiss did a good job of briefly explaining their history; in fact, he did a better job than most previous writers for them.  Though I don’t find the idea of a mighty Martian Empire existing 5,000 years ago all that realistic but, I suppose, who cares?

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman were perfect as the Doctor and Clara, as I have come to expect.  Coleman is very nicely fitting into the role, now, and Matt Smith still surprises me three years into the role.  Most of the crew members were well acted; David Warner as the 80s pop fan Professor Grisenko particularly stood out to me.

Overall, this was a very decent episode.  The Cold War submarine setting was used to its maximum potential, and the return of an Ice Warrior was by no means underwhelming.  Perhaps Cold War was a rehash of successful Doctor Who ideas, but they are successful precisely because they work.  This may not be remembered in the future as the greatest episode, but for now it has achieved its aims rather well.

Final rating: 7.5/10

Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I’m really enjoying reviewing a full (ish) season of Doctor Who – series 7/7b/33/3 being the first to air since I began the blog in November.  The second episode of the series’ 2013 run is written by newcomer to the series, Neil Cross, and directed by Farren Blackburn, who previously directed The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (one of my least favourite ever episodes).  So I was quite curious to see how this episode would do.

The story begins with a montage of the Doctor watching Clara’s life develop, from the meeting of her parents to her progression through childhood.  Despite head writer Steven Moffat’s claims that each episode in series 7 will be like an individual ‘movie in 45 minutes’, we do seem to be seeing the plot arc of Clara continuing to play a role.  This opening sequence has been described as creepy, or of ‘crossing a line’, but I didn’t have a problem with it.  The Doctor is intrigued by Clara, a girl who he has met three times and watched die twice.  Of course he’s going to want to explore her origins, and to see whether she had a normal upbringing.

The story proceeds to one of the moons of Akhaten, where the Doctor and Clara take a look at the beautiful rings around the enormous gas giant.  They then travel to a market populated entirely by aliens.  I’m struggling to remember the last time a TV story of Doctor Who was set on a world with no connections to the human race – perhaps even not since the 80s.  Consequently, then episode strikes a tone rarely seen in the post 2005 series.  The pace is also slowed due to the introduction of various aspects of this alien culture – which are extensive, and very well written.  So in that respect alone, this was a very enjoyable episode.  The plot consists of a parasitic creature within Akhaten, or perhaps was itself Akhaten – I didn’t quite understand that – which is kept asleep by the continued chanting of the inhabitants of the Rings.  However it awakes and the Doctor and Clara must use their memories of the past, and the infinite memories of the future, to defeat it – er – somehow.  This is a really interesting concept, although quite confusing and under explained at times.

There are also, unfortunately, quite a few plot holes which leapt out at me.  Why did the Doctor wander off in the market?  Why didn’t they take the TARDIS to the temple, rather than using the ‘space moped’?  And on that matter, how were they breathing in space?  Why did the God parasite wake up in the first place?  How did the Doctor keep his memories after feeding it to Akhaten?  When the gas giant vanishes, how do the rings stay in orbit?  Shouldn’t they fall into the Sun?  I mean, none of these questions really largely detracted from my enjoyment of the episode, but I did feel the script could have been tighter at places.  There were times when the plot felt rather protracted and drawn out, and the dialogue rather wordy.  Although I can forgive the Doctor’s incredible speech (“I’ve walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman!), even if this too falls foul of being overly wordy.

I’m probably sounding too negative.  This was, essentially, a great story.  Matt Smith, as ever, is utterly fantastic as the Doctor.  One of his best performances – though I say that every week.  He brings life to the character, a soul, an ageless wisdom and ancient tiredness all at once, through every expression and mannerism.  Jenna-Louise Coleman is continuing to impress as Clara, who is so far passing the test of not being irritating as well as acting a fairly developed and realistic character.  Child actor Emilia Jones also acted the role of Merry very well, bringing sincerity to the role of a scared child with a mountain of responsibilities placed upon her.

Despite my intense dislike of The Doctor, the Window and the Wardrobe, Farren Blackburn’s direction in this episode was close to flawless.  The use of music, composed by Murray Gold was wonderful, and I particularly enjoyed the choral ensemble from the various singers during many parts of the episode.  However, there were times when I felt the music was simply too bombastic and loud – a common criticism for Doctor Who – though this is a fault of editing and direction, rather than of the composers.  Though the script established it, the vibrancy of this alien world is mostly due to the skill in direction – even if most aliens do undeniably look like rubber suits, but this is unavoidable on their low budget.  The episode, on the whole, felt very expensive and polished indeed.  The cinematography at times, including the silhouettes of the Doctor facing down Akhaten, was truly inspired.

Overall, The Rings of Akhaten was a surprisingly entertaining episode.  Perhaps my enjoyment didn’t quite correlate with the quality of the episode and of the script, though this suggests something must have been done right.  I think, most importantly, this episode felt fresh and new.  Nothing like it has been seen in Doctor Who for quite some time – which, really, is all a Doctor Who episode needs to be a success.  It’s just fortunate that this success happened to be enjoyable.

Final rating: 8.5/10